My Comic-Con epiphany: Economics doesn’t really have superstars. Even if Adam Smith himself showed up at the American Economic Association meetings, he wouldn’t have thousands of economists fall on their knees in awe. But that’s basically what happened at Comic-Con when Neil Gaiman held some public Q&A.

To put it more analytically, imagine graphing the distribution of status at Comic-Con versus the AEAs. Put density on the x-axis, and status on the y-axis, and center the densities around the x=0. (Like this).

At Comic-Con, the status distribution is a steep pyramid. At the bottom are the fans, many of whom have given up on the quest for real-world success altogether. At the top, you have Neil Gaiman, Joss Whedon, the cast of Battlestar Galactica, Summer Glau, Matt Groening, and so on – fabulously rich, famous, and beloved. It’s almost impossible to imagine the two groups socializing on equal terms.

At the AEAs, in contrast, the status distribution is much stouter. At the bottom, you’ve got Ph.D. students from low-ranked programs. At the top, you’ve got Clark and Nobel prize-winners like Paul Krugman, Steve Levitt, Gary Becker, and Daniel Kahneman. And though the grad student may feel uncomfortable walking right up to these luminaries, it’s do-able. The cynic might observe that Krugman has to be nice to the grad student – one day he may be a professor who picks textbooks for 800 students. There’s something to this, but the deeper social reality is that the Krugmans accept even grad student as peers – at least within “an order of magnitude.”

Which convention is more fun? Comic-Con, hands down. The fanboys rejoice in the reflected glory of their idols. Envy is the furthest thing from their minds; they revere Gaiman as their rightful king. At the AEAs, in contrast, you’ll see a lot of bored faces – and there’s much evidence of envy. Though the economists at the top of the pyramid are, all things considered, quite gracious, that doesn’t save them from resentment.

What’s the lesson? Hierarchy breeds happiness? Maybe, but my experience at GenCon, the world’s biggest gaming convention, suggests otherwise.

GenCon is almost as egalitarian as the AEAs, but attendees seem to have even more fun than they do at Comic-Con. At least that’s how things look to me. Why? As happiness researchers would expect, the folks at GenCon have more fun because they are participants, not just spectators. They go, for the most part, to play games, not observe celebrities – and therefore enjoy a strong sense of “flow” throughout.

When I think about all the bored faces at the AEAs, it’s hard not to wonder if economists have something to learn from the fans of comics and gaming. Even I don’t want to turn the AEAs into a circus, but I would like to see a little more enthusiasm. Any suggestions?