It’s the ultimate sport for the numbers nerd.
Finley Edwards, an assistant economics professor at Colby College in Waterville, is one of about 200 colleagues who field teams in a fantasy league of superstar economists.
As in fantasy football or baseball leagues, the players are real. But in this league, instead of building a team around a player like Tom Brady and using the Patriots quarterback’s game stats, Edwards dreams of adding the University of Chicago’s 1992 Nobel Prize winner, a champion in the exotic field of microeconomic analysis as it applies to human behavior and interaction.
“I’d love to get my hands on Gary Becker, but he doesn’t come cheap,” Edwards said.
Edwards is an outspoken supporter and player of the Research Papers in Economics fantasy league, in which teams are composed of living economists who have been ranked in the top 10 percent by the research division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, which compiles a monthly list. Each 30-person fantasy team has 20 active players and 10 sitting on the bench.
Edwards was featured in a recent article by the online publication Business Insider when one of his fantasy team’s star players, Nobel Prize-winning labor economist Dale T. Mortensen, died this month at the age of 74.
The story caught the attention of National Public Radio’s comedy quiz show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!,” which mentioned Edwards and his new pastime in a quiz question during Saturday’s broadcast.
“They described fantasy economics as ‘fantasy football with even less sex appeal,’ which was pretty funny,” he said.
The fantasy economics league was formed last year by Christian Zimmerman, an economist and assistant vice president in the research department of the Federal Reserve Bank.
Zimmerman said the idea began as an April Fools’ Day posting on his blog.
“On April 1, I posted a blog saying, ‘Hey, we’re now a fantasy league,’ ” he said. “It was meant as a joke, but people really liked it, and then I made it.”
The St. Louis Fed maintains a database of academic papers written by the nation’s top economists. Economists who submit papers to the online database must be registered with the Fed website.
The research division tracks information about the authors, including how many papers they have written, how many times their work has been cited by others, and the colleges or universities with which they are affiliated.
The Fed has used that information for years to rank individual economists and economics departments at major learning institutions, Zimmerman said, so it didn’t take much more work to create a fantasy league program with the data.
“I made it basically over a weekend,” he said.
According to the league’s website, ideas.repec.org/fantasy.html, each team starts out with 25 economists chosen, partly at random and partly based on ranking, by a computer algorithm that Zimmerman wrote. The idea is for everyone in the league to start out with a fairly comparable team.
From there, each team is given 100 units of a virtual currency called “utils,” with which to buy more players.
Teams can sell players to earn additional utils. Direct trades are not allowed, and participants in the league – most of whom are economists – aren’t allowed to buy or sell themselves.
Rankings for each player are based on 31 criteria that include the number of research papers authored or co-authored, the number of times an economist’s work has been cited by others, and the reputation of the college or university with which the player is affiliated.
Top-ranked players include Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman of Princeton University (No. 45) and outgoing Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke (No. 33).
The top-ranked player in the entire league is now Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, winner of the 2005 John Bates Clark Medal, which is awarded annually to a U.S. economist younger than 40 who is judged to have “made a significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge.”
University of Chicago economist Becker, Edwards’ most sought-after player, is ranked No. 18.
Overall, Edwards said, his team isn’t doing very well. “It’s in the 70th percentile,” he said, in perfect economist-speak.
No money or prizes are awarded in fantasy economics, Edwards said, and winners are only temporary, since there is no defined “season.” The game just continues on forever.
So why play?
Edwards said the real fun is that fantasy economics provides a way for economists to validate their admiration for certain colleagues and root for their future success.
“It’s a way for me to kind of figuratively put my money where my mouth is,” he said.
In Edwards’ opinion, up-and-comers who are likely to increase in both value and ranking include 2013 John Bates Clark Medal winner Raj Chetty and incoming Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen.
“I think she’s going to have a higher rank as Fed chair than she did as a member of the Board of Governors,” he said.
J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at: