When Reporting an Economics Article at Burning Man, Be Prepared for Things to Get Weird

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Paul Romer and I idled in a rental car for three hours under the desert sun, waiting to get into Burning Man. The story I was working on kept offering up such moments: a captive audience — in increasingly screwball situations — with a Nobel Prize-winning economist.

Mr. Romer and I went to Burning Man last month because he believes that the raucous event in Nevada, in which tens of thousands of people gather every year to build a temporary festival city on bare desert, can teach us something about urbanization. And we went because I wanted to talk to him about that while we were, well, at Burning Man.

Despite Mr. Romer’s enthusiastic, yearslong endorsement of the event as a model for cities of the future, he had never actually been before. Neither had I. So I suggested we go together.

I interviewed him as we sat there in the car, in the most joyous traffic jam I’ve ever been in. People kept getting out of the R.V.s and U-Hauls around us to strut in their Burning Man best: sequins, Speedos, cowboy boots. Mr. Romer and I watched and talked about poverty in other parts of the world and about political norms that seemed to be crumbling.

We ended up spending a total of six days together before and during the event. I interviewed him while we rode mountain bikes across the desert in the dark, the light from a hundred neon art projects competing with the stars overhead. I interviewed him in a four-seater airplane, as a pilot in an open Hawaiian shirt banked hard over the city, an intricate geometric sight below us.

I interviewed him as a series of total strangers we met on the street hugged us, including one topless woman in a camp of fire performers. The next morning, Mr. Romer was still thinking about the encounter, as the possibility struck him that nudity might be empowering to women at Burning Man.

“I was thinking you could do a survey design where you survey all the naked women, and find out their politics, and their views on women’s rights,” he suggested to me. He never once broke character: the wonky economist.

I also interviewed him while we sat at lunch one afternoon, eating grilled cheese sandwiches with Grover Norquist. Mr. Norquist, the anti-tax crusader from Washington, has been going to Burning Man for several years and happened to be staying in the same camp as Mr. Romer, hosted by some of Burning Man’s founders. Mr. Romer had come to believe that Burning Man was a symbol of the essential role of government. Mr. Norquist sees the opposite: a libertarian utopia with few rules.

“You can do what you want to do,” Mr. Norquist explained to us, as newbies. “Some people don’t want to wear clothes, other people wear interesting clothes. It’s open to whatever you want to do with it, and it’s not in your face. If you want to go to the orgy dome, you can go to the orgy dome. But you don’t have to go to the orgy dome.”

(Mr. Romer and I did not go to the orgy dome.)

Everything that happens at Burning Man is made more absurd by the surreal environment. The playa dust gets into your eyelashes and under your nails. At times, Mr. Romer and I wore heavy-duty respirators to get through the afternoon dust storms.

His accommodations weren’t as minimalist as mine. He was given an air-conditioned trailer with a bed and a bathroom in it. I camped in a two-person backpacking tent out in the city. Each night when I crawled back into my tent, everything in it — sleeping bag, pillow, toiletry kit — was covered in a new layer of playa dust.

I imagine I would have done Burning Man differently (later bedtimes, more dancing, less sobriety) if I weren’t a journalist with a notebook and a looming deadline. But I suspect that Mr. Romer experienced something close to his own ideal Burn, gathering new data he’ll use to advocate his vision of urbanization.

On our last morning there, we drove through the city’s red-light district, past the orgy dome, and out to a bluff that overlooks the playa and offers spectacular views of the city at sunrise. This was clearly the macroeconomist’s preferred perspective — to see the city from a distance, with all its patterns apparent. But he was a good sport about my efforts to nudge us right into the middle of it.


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