CUTTING ROOM: Why Harvard loves a recession; celebrity cult that went too far; Cornish pasties at the heart of Europe; funny, I've heard that joke before ... Evan Davis at large

CUTTING ROOM: Why Harvard loves a recession; celebrity cult that went too far; Cornish pasties at the heart of Europe; funny, I've heard that joke before ... Evan Davis at large - I've just spent a useful day at Harvard Business School, talking to staff a

by EVAN DAVIS, economics editor of the BBC
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I've just spent a useful day at Harvard Business School, talking to staff and students about corporate scandals for a Radio 4 programme. As a group, they are more articulate than any other you could encounter.

Indeed, interviewing HBS people is enough to make radio producers weep, as every answer is delivered with as much precision as a well-organised PowerPoint presentation. That's great for clarity, but it's a pain to edit answers that start: 'Three points here. First: blah blah blah ...', if you want to broadcast only number two on the list.

I discovered something else interesting about the business school: it's a counter-cyclical business. I'm told the slow economy has sent applications up by about 15%. Potential students decide to study during the busts to prepare themselves for the next boom. It's a rare example of rational consumer behaviour that would please academic economists.

In the same vein, Baruch Lev, the charismatic accountancy professor at New York University, told my producer that accountancy has suddenly become sexy in the aftermath of recent scandals. He has even been described as the Britney Spears of the accounting world. So at least Enron has managed to bury the suppressed lumberjack image bestowed on the noble profession by Monty Python.

While in the States, we paid a fleeting visit to Fortune magazine, to talk to a journalist who had written one of the first sceptical articles about Enron.

As I was leaving the office, I noticed a few crusty covers of Fortune from the 1930s framed on the wall. I made the observation that none of them featured a picture of a company chief executive. Today, American business magazine covers almost always have a portrait shot of a celebrity CEO. It's as though business has become like sport or showbiz and is viewed through the prism of personality, as if that is now the only perspective we understand. I'm sure the personality cult went way too far during the boom, particularly in the US, as business leaders began to believe in their own infallibility. (I was relieved to find that the past few editions of MT mostly do not have a businessman on the front.)

One thing for which we journalists are reproached is referring to Europe as though Britain were not a part of it, by saying for example: 'In Europe, they really know how to make a decent cappuccino' or 'in Europe, they really know how to fudge their government accounts to avoid meeting the stability and growth pact' ... the kinds of phrases that get pedants worked up, even though everyone knows exactly what we mean.

Well, I'm pleased to report back from a trip to Italy that we Brits are not unique in this habit - the Italians do the same. Our usage doesn't necessarily reflect an isolationist tendency; it's just an easy shorthand.

From the perspective of other countries, of course, Britain is a part of Europe. So if one was on holiday in Tuscany one might hear phrases like 'in Europe, they really know how to make a decent Cornish pasty', or 'in Europe, the trains are terrible and never run on time'. We live in a diverse and interesting continent.

The internet turned out to be disappointing in its failure to meet our absurd expectations, and now I have a new black mark to hold against it.

Such is the speed at which information is transmitted via e-mail, it's almost impossible to find a joke to tell friends that has not already whipped across their desktop at least half a dozen times.

I once tried to amuse a large crowd of Americans with a gag I had been sent, only to discover later that someone had told it to the same group the day before. They all laughed when I reached the punchline, which I think was more a reflection of their manners than the way I'd told it.

But the horrifying truth is that, from now on, any joke we want to tell a large group will have to be created for the occasion - unless we could start a trend of recycling second-hand jokes that have not had an outing for some time.

It's all getting perilously close to the old story of the joke club, where members simply say a number and the audience laugh, automatically knowing which joke the number refers to. A new member joins and raises a huge guffaw with the number 113. 'Why did they laugh at that so much?' he says. 'Because they hadn't heard it before' comes the reply. (Of course, this joke itself is recycled from about 20 years ago.)

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