Tyler Cowen: “Economists cannot predict the effects of new technologies. Surely that should humble us a bit?

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Tyler Cowen: “Economists cannot predict the effects of new technologies. Surely that should humble us a bit?
Tyler Cowen: “Economists cannot predict the effects of new technologies. Surely that should humble us a bit?


Tyler Cowan has only had coffee twice in his life. Drinks tea only if someone offers it to him. It does not touch alcohol. “Alcohol is bad for everyone’s performance.”

Instead, Cowen’s favorite drug is information. He’s not just a junkie – he’s a peddler, a kingpin. Through his blogs, podcasts, and books, he spreads big thoughts and trivia. He is among the most eclectic economists. He protects markets and big business. He insists that artificial intelligence, starting with chatbots like ChatGPT, is about to change the world. But he also writes about restaurants, movies, and books—because he likes them, and because he believes that culture shapes markets (and vice versa). “People need to collect more information about music, economics, books. So I try to show them how I do it.

A professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia, Cowen has become a cult figure among the hyper-intellectual self-improvement elite. At Marginal Revolution, the blog he co-founded in 2003, he highlights the latest research on, say, why the U.S. gender pay gap has stopped narrowing (family leave policies) and how long the Roman emperors before they were killed. Devoted readers include author Malcolm Gladwell and, Cowen said, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. But he wants more. He launched an online university made up of free economics modules.

“My personal ambition is to be the person who has done the most to teach the world economy, broadly interpreted,” he tells me. When I ask who his competitors are for that title, he starts with the names of Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes.

Cowen’s brand of economics is practical. Last year, he and Daniel Gross, an entrepreneur, published a book, talent, on how to hire creatives. Some organizations avoid unstructured interviews, worried that they discriminate against applicants. Cowen celebrates such free-flowing interviews, especially if the interviewer asks about things they really care about.

He often enjoys being controversial. When we meet in London, the consensus is that Britain’s economy can’t be much worse. He doesn’t agree. “I look at the south of England – London, Cambridge, Oxford – as one of the most wonderful parts of the world, one of the few places where you can really give birth and execute a new idea. You see it with [Oxford Covid-19] vaccine, you see it with DeepMind [Google’s AI unit founded in London]. This corner of England: has already passed Singapore on the Thames. You have left Singapore in the dust!”

Isn’t Britain short of animal spirits? “That’s true, in part. I wish the ethic of working hard and having lots of money [seen as] more unequivocally positive. But not everywhere will be like in America. The power suits here are so strong. London is literally the best city in the world.

It’s quintessential Cowan: a quick ranking of people, places and cultures. Others would say, for example, that all major cities today have good Asian food. “That’s not true! Although there is a lot of good Asian food in Paris, you can’t just stumble across it.

He has an unfashionable love of generalizations. “People think these things anyway, they’re just afraid to say them. Why don’t you just say what you think?” He sees himself as more ‘psychologically integrated’. My natural inclination is to just tell you what I think.

He wants to push economics beyond academic methods. He has not written peer-reviewed articles since 2017. “I’ve done a lot,” he says. “A lot [economics] is too narrow. I tried to deal with real-world issues and express uncertainty when and where I felt it. I think that resonates with a large number of people.

Cowen, 60, wasn’t always curious. He grew up in New Jersey with little interest in exotic food or travel. Then, in his late teens, he began traveling to New York, with its concerts, crowds, and used bookstores.

His first papers on economics were accepted by journals at 19, and by 27 he was a professor. But it was blogging that allowed him to find his audience. “The modern internet has totally changed my life.”

Cowen’s superpower is reading. He sees himself as a hyperlexic, possessing the ability to read prodigiously. “If it’s a non-fiction book that I know something about, I could read maybe five books a night.” He starts reading a little after 7 a.m. and eats an early dinner, around 5 p.m., finding that it helps him work more good evening. (Although he likes the variety of cities, he lives in the Virginia suburbs, partly because of the tax rate.)

His Best Books of 2022 lists included 36 titles, including his own talent, with the shameless caveat: “Those were the best books!” Yet he is open to non-readers: “Maybe books are overrated. Travel is underrated. Among smart educated people, books are perhaps a bit overrated.

Hyperlexia is often associated with autism, but Cowen doesn’t have the social difficulties that people with autism often experience. In person, he is engaging and direct, his answers often helpfully frank.

Talking, like reading, is a way he gathers information. But neither is enough. “If you only read, you might be an idiot.” This is writing that “forces you to decide what you think about something. If you get something written every day, no matter what the length, it adds up quite a bit. People who go many days without writing have productivity problems.”

Since 2003, Cowen has written every day — “Sunday, birthday, Christmas, whatever.” At Christmas he blogged about China’s zero-Covid policies. At Thanksgiving, he asked why more currencies weren’t worth more than the dollar.

What is Cowen’s general credo? He seeks to address issues “drained from emotion.” This leads him to an optimism about human progress not unlike that of the psychologist Steven Pinker. He calls himself a moderate libertarian and cooperates with the foundation of billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel. He also defends classical liberalism against the populist right, arguing that the latter, by fueling distrust of elites, could accelerate the “Brazilization of the United States.” “I don’t know if I’m a centrist on the issues, but I’m a centrist on the sentiment and the approach.”

He is excited about technological change, but prefers institutional continuity, even if US politics seems fractured. “My basic intuition is that if your GDP per capita is 30-40 percent higher than most of your comparable nations, it’s probably not going to change. I’ve always been against Trump [but] I don’t think Trump will win again or even get the nomination again. But it seems to me that the system works. And we’ve had a lot of policy changes recently, not all good, but it’s not gridlock at all.”

What does Cowen’s open-mindedness do for him? He supported the tax cuts of former British Prime Minister Liz Truss that led to her removal from office: “I thought the market overreacted.” In March 2022, he interviewed Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of the now-defunct crypto platform FTX, and declared it “excellent”.

(This interview featured Cowen’s messy question: “I think the best fries in the world are in southern Argentina, in Patagonia. Where do you think they are?”)

Cowen first met Bankman-Fried a decade ago. They played chess in a bug house, a variation of the game. “He was good. He was better at bug than chess. This is a very important concept in understanding FTX. You have four people and two boards. If I take your piece on that board, I pass it to my partner and my partner can throw the piece down instead of making a move. You may find yourself in this desperate situation, suddenly your partner gives you a queen. So there is no score in chess with bugs. Things come out of nowhere to save you. You play desperate and take a lot of risk. If people play bughouse, that’s their basic mentality.”

Cowan is a talent scout. After interviewing Bankman-Fried, would he hire him? “I would fund it as a VC, I don’t know if I would hire it as an employee. Daniel Gross and I say one thing talent f: Conscientiousness is the hardest trait to judge and the easiest to fake.

In place

What gift do you give most often? CDs maybe. But the real present is information: you are telling someone about something. And then only money, right?

Will more wealth make you happier? No. [But] it is possible that when I am 84 I will be in a better nursing home and that will make me happier.

When canceling culture: The left wing cancels more than the right. [In universities] moderate-left Democratic women are the demographic most likely to be repealed. Right-handed men are relatively safe.

Cowen remains hopeful for crypto. “Crypto is a really new idea. And people shouldn’t just give up on it.

Overall, he sees the disruption as non-threatening. “YouTube is the most important educational tool in the world,” but prestigious universities and large public “will continue to do well.” Humans will also go through the AI ​​disruption, he says, though he challenges economists to try to predict the consequences more precisely. “We can’t predict business cycles, we can’t predict the effects of new technologies. Surely that should humble us a little?”

He plans to focus less on writing and more on speaking to adapt to a world where readers spend their time with chatbots. “If they’ve built a really good GPT [chatbot] who imitated me, I will be truly happy. It would make some version of me immortal. I am 60 and have a job and other sources of income so not everyone is in this position.

There are limits to Cowen’s optimism. “The possibility of nuclear war in any given year is more optimistic than most people. But if you just run enough years, it will happen. How many years do you have to run before the chance gets pretty high? My guess was 700-800 years. You can argue about the number, but it’s not millions of years. I don’t think it will kill all people, but it will destroy what we think of as civilization.

However, the prospect doesn’t seem to bother him. “If we have better institutions, make better decisions, we can make a difference.” For now, there are talented people to discover, interesting ideas to curate. He leaves our interview, no doubt, to empty the bookshops of London and fill his life with as much information as possible.


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