About 40 to 60 percent of the economists around my campus–the Naval Postgraduate School–get together for a brown-bag lunch around a table once a month and just talk about whatever is on our minds. We’re an eclectic bunch. There are Keynesians, non-Keynesian, one who I think is an Austrian, and monetarists. There are various degrees of belief in the group in using free markets to solve problems. No one seems to believe in maximum price ceilings although I’m not sure about what some think about a price floor on wages. The topics jump around a lot, which I like–anything from submitting papers to particular journals to any of a number of economic policy issues. A few weeks ago, we were discussing government-to-government foreign aid. Some people were advocating it; most were skeptical or outright against.

I had an idea. I told everyone that, from the tenor of the discussion, it seemed clear to me that virtually everyone in the room (there were about 9 of us) cared about poor people in poor countries. I asked them to imagine that they had the order of magnitude of wealth that Bill Gates has–at least $10 billion. How, I asked, would they use some part of that wealth to help those people? They could specify the amounts, the organizations, and the causes. I asked them not to talk to each other and to take a few minutes to write things down. Then each person took a turn laying out his/her causes/expenditures.

They let me pick up their lists and everyone gave me permission to report his/her list without attribution to particular people. I found the exercise fascinating. It confirmed one of my prior views about what people would say and surprised me in two other ways that, given that I was an economist among economists, should not have surprised me.

So I invite you to engage in the same exercise and report your results here in the comments. But to make it really work, don’t just write down something quickly. Take at least a few minutes to think.

Tomorrow I’ll share the list my economist colleagues came up with.