BPR Interviews: Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen is a distinguished professor of economics at George Mason University and noted polymath. He blogs with Alex Tabarrok on Marginal Revolution and interviews on his podcast, Conversations With Tyler, where he is renowned for his eccentric, abrupt, and fast-paced style of interview. Cowen recently launched Emergent Ventures, an initiative which seeks to give grants and fellowships to people with ideas to meaningfully improve society.

Nick: Meritocracy has come under fire recently from a number of critiques. Some are arguing that false meritocracy is bad, but some seem to be arguing that meritocracy is, in fact, a bad system. Do you think these debates matter? Do you think we should follow them and care about them?

Tyler: I think the debates matter. But, I haven’t yet read a really good critique of meritocracy. There’s plenty you can say against it. But, as with Churchill on democracy, it seems that all of the other systems are worse. I would stress the point that no meritocracy is ever quite presented as such, that in all social systems there are cushions and pillows for people’s egos and a true meritocracy where everyone knew their exact worth would, in fact, be psychologically intolerable. But, we’re also incapable of producing that. So it’s really about trying to have a system that actually rewards merit while not forcing people to quite face up to the fact so explicitly. And, it seems to me we have not gone too far with meritocracy, properly understood.

Nick: You once called yourself “a sort of historicist.” Should we be more historicist in our thinking?

Tyler: Well, who’s the we? Economists should be. People as a whole? That’s harder to say. I think ordinary humans are about properly historicist. They say look at the history of the United States. They see it has had some pretty strong features and they do they respond to that and they respect it. So, probably the world as a whole does not need to be more historicist.

Nick: Let’s do a few questions about travel. Let’s say a young person, perhaps 20, has never traveled before but budgets some money to do so. They want to learn about the world and do something intellectually stimulating. How should they think about planning their trip?

Tyler: If they haven’t been anywhere, I would say start with continental Europe. It’s different enough. You’ll learn important history, many different sites to see. You don’t have to travel that far. Affordability varies but it is mostly not outrageously expensive these days. So, central to western Europe. Just hit the main spots.

Nick: You recently went to Pakistan. Who should go to Pakistan?

Tyler: Everyone who’s already been to India and wants to see the other member of the family. It’s certainly safe enough to go and the food is excellent. It’s for people who are experienced travelers but there’s a lot of rewarding things there, super friendly people. Pretty small country, about the size of Texas.

Nick: Do you think the value of travelling has gone up or down in the last 20 years?

Tyler: Again, it depends for whom. It’s easier to do with the Internet. So, I think that means it’s gone up for most people. And its ability to give you, like, synthetic knowledge has already always been high. But, synthetic knowledge is probably worth more as more tasks are automated. So what synthetic or what’s creative, travel is a big input into that. That means its value has gone up.

Nick: You recently launched a charitable project called Emergent Ventures. How should we judge in 10 years if Emergent Ventures was a success?

Tyler: If you have to ask, it wasn’t a success. So, my hope is there are people who went through the program that you’ve heard of.

Nick: There might be students reading this who would consider applying for an Emergent Ventures grant. What kind of student would be a good fit?

Tyler: Anyone with a creative idea that doesn’t fit into the usual categories or boxes. It could even be a very small grant or a travel grant, just something that will boost the entire trajectory of your future or career onto a higher slope or higher plane.

Nick: You often describe your role in Emergent Ventures as searching for talent. What’s an underrated signifier of talent?

Tyler: I think IQ is probably overrated. Conscientiousness is hard to measure. Early on, I would say stamina, the ability to just stick with things and be sturdy and keep on at it. And, that’s hard to spot, but you want to look for stamina in people.

Nick: You recently announced a special group of grants to study the nature of progress. In an interview with Vox, you suggested that a belief in progress was the most dangerous idea in human history. Though perhaps you were being facetious, you are now a champion of “progress studies.” How should we think about and study progress in a way that remains cognizant of the dangers that a belief in progress can unleash?

Tyler: I was teasing Vox because when they use the word progress they mean progressive and that’s what I wanted to poke at. I didn’t mean to say that say, wanting to study the causes of the Industrial Revolution, was a terrible thing and that’s more what progress studies is about. So just the view that academic research should care much more about processes of growth and transformation.

Nick: But do you still take some mind to a certain dark side of progress? Sort of an “enlightenment gone awry” idea?

Tyler: There’s a dark side to everything. But again, you want to study that too. How do we, next time around, get less of the dark side, more of the bright side? You know, displacing native Americans for example, that would be a big part of the dark side of American “progress.”

Nick:  Let’s do a few questions about aesthetics. You’re an economist with a famous appreciation for the Arts. How should a young person, perhaps one studying the social or hard sciences, who is interested in art but hasn’t been able to connect with it before, begin to cultivate their appreciation for art?

Tyler: As with most other things, find a mentor, find mini-mentors, people who can help you, people you can talk to about whatever it is you’re consuming. Don’t start with books or the Internet. Start with other people.

Nick: There’s a fairly common theory, one not just put forward by cultural pessimists, that contemporary art has, in some sense, lost its way, perhaps stemming from a shift away from traditional aesthetic theory. David Brooks made an argument to this effect after T Magazine put out a list of works and defined the contemporary age since 1970. Many people had the experience of going to a modern art museum and not being sure what they’re supposed to be looking at. Do you think something has gone deeply wrong in parts the art world? Do you have any sympathy for this view?

Tyler: Well, with respect to the David Brooks column, I would say the New York Times went wrong for what it chose for its list. I think contemporary art is pretty amazing in this country and in others. I worry that the visual arts have lost some cultural centrality, but they’re highly diverse and there’s plenty of representational work, and now is a great time to be a buyer, collector, consumer, viewer, gallery visitor, whatever it is you want to do. I think it’s all alive and well.

Nick: You’ve said that Hollywood is in a historic low point in creativity. Is the story behind this economic or cultural?

Tyler: I think it’s both. The economic story is in part that some people are aging and in part it is that people are shifting to TV. Some of it is the market is more globalized, more Asian, and more Chinese, which disfavors dialogue and comedy and favors a lot of CGI and big explosions. And then in cities, rising rents have pushed a lot of theaters to less important places. So, on a given week, there might not be anything interesting coming out or if there is, it’s from another country. To me, this is sad.

Nick: How does the state of critics and tastemakers compare now to earlier times? Is it better or worse?

Tyler: It depends on the area. For the most part, it’s better because the Internet is an outlet for so many smart people to have a voice. And, Google is pretty good at getting you to the reviews you want to read.

Nick: What contemporary novelists would you recommend? Are there any essential contemporary novelists?

Tyler: Essential for whom? My two favorites are Elena Ferrante, the four volume Neapolitan Quadrology and Knausgard’s My Struggle, volumes 1 or 2. Those, to me, stand up with the greatest novels of the 21st century. So that’s where I would send people.

Nick: What do you think of Houellebecq?

Tyler: I think Submission is a brilliant book. One of the best in the last few decades. The others are good, but I don’t love them in the same way. But, mostly I’m a fan.

Nick: Have you read his new book [Serotonin]?

Tyler: No. I’ve read the first 20 pages in German and it struck me as derivative. I’ll go back and read it in English which I read more quickly than German. So, they always come out in German before English. I read Submission in German and really enjoyed that and stuck with it. But this new one, I’m like, eh, I’ll wait for the English.

Nick: Godard or Bergman.

Tyler: Both, but Bergman if I have to pick.

Nick: Solaris or 2001?

Tyler: Again, both. But 2001 if I have to pick.

Nick: Which is a better work progress studies?

Tyler: Of those two movies? Well they’re both pretty grim. I think 2001 perhaps, but the idea that it’s external intervention is dispiriting and that to make progress you have to give up everything you hold dear. I find that unsettling. I hope it’s not true.

Nick: So you see 2001 as ultimately saying that we rely on something outside of humanity for progress?

Tyler: That’s right, and it will make us not human.

Nick: Philip Glass or John Cage?

Tyler: Big fan of both. I guess I listen to Glass more often but the best Cage has become very underrated. People make fun of what Cage did and, you know, the silent piece and all that. But there’s something to it.

Nick: What’s the best movie you’ve seen this year?

Tyler: I was thinking that the other day and there’s not an obvious answer. I really enjoyed the one with Godzilla up against Ghidorah. It wasn’t the best movie but I looked forward to it and I was glued to my seat the whole time. So, that’s my facetious answer for the day.

Nick: You’re also a food reviewer. The philosopher Sir Roger Scruton argues that food is a less relevant object of aesthetic judgment than art, people, or nature, if it can be one at all. Do you agree?

Tyler: I don’t know what those words mean. I mean, most people care about food more and great food is fun and it’s a social device and it’s bonding and it’s something to talk about and it transmits knowledge of history, science, culture. It’s a kind of capstone to a memorable journey. Is it art? Is that culture? Who cares. I’m all for it. Bring it on.

Nick: You once told me that you tried coffee for the first time in Ethiopia, thought it was delicious, and decided never to have it again. Would you recommend taking this approach to aesthetic experiences more generally?

Tyler: If you can get to the very best at the beginning, maybe, but I think that’s very hard to do. It’s believed coffee comes from Ethiopia and I was in a rural Ethiopian village with hand ground beans and there was a coffee ritual ceremony and it seemed phenomenally good to me, better than anything like I smell in Starbucks. I thought, “That’s enough. I don’t need this addiction.” People wake up in the mornings; they have headaches. Why do I want that?

Nick: You’ve asked a number of recent guests on your podcast about clothes. Why have clothes been on your mind?

Tyler: Because I have never thought about them before. It’s something we take for granted. So, people speculate about technical progress but how often do they ask, “Well, how will clothes get better?” People talk about food a lot but clothes are as with us as food is. We’re hardly ever naked. We should think about clothes more.

Nick: You recently had a very interesting discussion with Alain Bertaud, and it made me wonder, should the YIMBY movement talk more about beauty?

Tyler: Yes, I think the YIMBY people are losing the beauty battle. They are portrayed as the forces of ugliness and sprawl and bad architecture and they need to counter that somewhat. So, in a place like San Francisco, some of the resistance YIMBY is partially justified. It’s a beautiful city and you don’t want to knock it all down. There needs to be some kind of counter to that. Maybe just better selective preservation.

Nick: But, we can talk about beauty at density, right? Or, do you think there’s a tradeoff between density and beauty?

Tyler: There can be beauty at density but I feel in America, as we know it now, as we would rebuild major parts of San Francisco (which I would favor nonetheless), it would result in an uglier city. I wouldn’t want to pave the whole thing over to have it all look like Seoul, South Korea.

Nick: Let’s talk about your second most recent book, Stubborn Attachments, which is essentially a statement of your moral and political philosophy. In the book, you argue that growth is good because a wealthier society is better off and is better able to realize a more pluralistic set of values than a poorer society. If it turned out that the wealthiest members of society were able to capture all the gains from growth, would your argument cease to be correct?

Tyler: That’s correct. It would cease to be correct if that were true. Fortunately, it’s not true. So, I might be happier than Bill Gates.

Nick: I found Appendix B of the book a bit difficult where you discuss Derek Parfit’s repugnant conclusion and animal welfare. You talk about how human flourishing is, in your metaphor, a Crusonia plant, in that it is self-perpetuating and can grow indefinitely. In the appendix, you argue that we can’t directly compare it to other Crusonia plants like the Crusonia plant of Parfit’s repugnant conclusion or of the welfare of animals. But if we’re not able to aggregate utilities and compare between metaphorical Crusonia Plants, why even be utilitarian at all?

Tyler: Well I’m not a utilitarian per say. I would say I’m a consequentialist but there’s a relativistic element to my consequentialism. So questions like, “How many happy plants are worth the life of one baby?” — Maybe there can never be enough. But, I suspect the question just isn’t well-defined. How many dogs should die rather than one human being? I don’t even know what the units are. So, I think the utilitarian part of consequentialism only makes sense within frameworks where there’s enough commonality to compare wellbeing.

Nick: The possibility of existential risks looms behind the logic of Stubborn Attachments. You’ve said before that you think that artificial general intelligence is either not possible or, at least, is not an existential risk. What’s everyone getting wrong about artificial general intelligence?

Tyler: If I go to Spotify or Netflix, they don’t even recommend stuff I want to hear or see. Right now, A.I. is a bit better than a glorified cash register, but it seems to me quite far from being a potentially destructive force. The real danger to me is evil humans operating machines including A.I., and them inflicting the harm. So the idea that the machines are going to take the initiative just seems very distant. And, if there’s that much destructive power, I’m way more worried about the humans who have a much worse track record.

Nick: Let’s play the game made famous by your podcast, Overrated/Underrated. I’ll throw out a topic and you tell me whether it is overrated or underrated. Feel free to pass. First question: Civility.

Tyler: It depends where. On Twitter, civility is underrated. I would say we’re at the point where civility is underrated more generally in American society.

Nick: For-profit prisons?

Tyler: They’re not that different from other prisons. So, there’s a small minority of people who get hysterical about them and they underrate them. But the world as a whole, I think, views it as not that big an issue and that’s probably correctly rating it.

Nick: Veganism?

Tyler: Well, vegans overrate it, right. Other people underrate it. So, eating meat raised in factory farms is, for the most part, wrong and in so far as vegans don’t do that, there’s something admirable about it. But still, everyone clears the field of the mice and the actual marginal increment of moral superiority earned by vegans is much smaller than they think. So they overrate their own activity.

Nick: Opioids?

Tyler: That’s a wide class of stuff. It still seems to me there are far too many people who are allowed to die in pain and opioids have now moved to being underrated, that we need a better set of institutions that will fix the pain without having so many addictions and deaths. Over time, it seems we learn how to use drugs better, like the cocaine problems of the 80s and 90s are not nearly as severe as they were then and generations kind of go through drugs and burnout and lessons are learned. I think we’ll iterate and, at really pretty high cost, get there with opioids.

Nick: The food, olives?

Tyler: They’re very good for you; they taste good. You can get pretty good ones at Whole Foods. A lot of people don’t eat them because they have a strong taste, so they’re underrated.

Nick: The 1619 project?

Tyler: Of The New York Times? It seemed to be quite off in its economic history. It came under serious criticism in some Medium essays and on Twitter. It was a politicized attempt to turn everything into a race issue and it was mostly bad. There ought to be a better higher quality way of expressing both appreciation for the African-American heritage here and concern for the very dark side of the history that enslaved people and brutalized them. And, that was not it. That was a mistake.

Nick: Contrarians?

Tyler: Again, it depends by whom. I don’t even know what a contrarian is anymore. It used to be there was a conventional wisdom and you would be contrarian to it. Now it’s almost like that’s the thing you do. I guess that makes it overrated.

Nick: The Catholic Church?

Tyler: It’s become underrated. Religiosity in the United States is declining. Bad politics are replacing it. Christianity and religion in general in America has become underrated.

Nick: The efficient market hypothesis?

Tyler: It’s underrated by most people. There’s way too much trading volume. People think they can beat the market. There’s a lot of fraud which goes on selling trading services to people. You don’t want everyone to believe in it because then it would cease to be true. Someone needs to search for the truth, but at the margin more people should know that it’s mostly true.

Nick: Accelerationism?

Tyler: You mean the notion that you make things worse so that they will end up getting better? Bad idea. You know, Philip Tetlock has shown the future is very hard to predict and you’re causing harm. And, if you have some complicated theory about how it’s all going to be backlash in your favor, my goodness, I start to get very worried and I think it’s usually a great irresponsibility.

Nick: GMU economics?

Tyler: Well, maybe we overrate it, but it’s still underrated by the rest of the world. It’s one of the most interesting places to be. A lot of people know that, but they don’t all. So people who have visited come away with a great appreciation for it. People from a distance still underrate it.

Nick: Cyberpunk as an aesthetic?

Tyler: It was wonderful but it’s been done and now it’s, I wouldn’t say tired. But, I don’t know, a little bit exhausted. Neuromancer was a long time ago. It’s a little bit overrated. We’re still milking it. It’s OK.

Nick: Cyberpunk as a political goal?

Tyler: I don’t even know what that means. It’s attitude, and posturing, and mood affiliation. It’s like, “What is it you actually want us to do.” And, people who promote, like political cyberpunk, they often have these weird, unjustified ideas about net neutrality: “If that neutrality ends the world will perish.” Net Neutrality ended. It hasn’t made it a damn bit of difference for anything, really. So, I usually think that people are not willing to defend arguments on their own merits and they want to sneak in presuppositions through the backdoor.

Nick: The Ivy League?

Tyler:  Again, underrated for what? I think it is probably somewhat overrated. If you’re a smart person and you don’t go to the Ivy League you can still be a huge success and there’s nothing special about those schools. They’re not always so great.

Nick:  A few final questions: You often remark that the most important thinkers of the future will be religious thinkers? Is this true even in secularizing Western countries?

Tyler: Especially in secularizing Western countries, right. People have religious categories embedded in their minds, in some ways. Current environmentalism is a kind of religion. I don’t mean that as a negative. It’s, in large part, a true religion. But that’s how people think, in terms of sin and redemption and deliverance in Christian societies. The categories may differ in other cultures. So, religion in a sense has evolved to be that which resonates with us and is sticky. So of course important thinkers will be religious thinkers.

Nick: Would you recommend a few religious thinkers that people should follow?

Tyler: Start with reading the Bible, if you haven’t already. I believe it was religious thinkers who wrote those books.

Nick: Is death bad, in the sense that Eliezer Yudkowksy or Peter Thiel think that it is?

Tyler: I don’t think death is as bad as they think death is. I think there’s something about accepting one’s limits that is a positive side of death. I think Silicon Valley should appreciate that better than it does and I think the chance that even our grandchildren will live forever, or even to age 300, is very, very, very small.

Nick: Finally, you’ve often said that most political disputes are really disputes about who gets status. Nominate a few things or people to which we should give more status?

Tyler: Everyone. Everyone pretty much deserves more status (not Hitler, not mass murderers) but most things are underappreciated and they’re criticized and praise motivates people and helps them have a sense of fitting in and to go around and appreciate and express your appreciation for what you really value, that’s one of the best things you can do with your life.

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