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Tyler Cowan has only had coffee twice in his life. He only drinks tea if someone offers it. He doesn’t touch alcohol. “Alcohol is bad for everyone’s productivity.”

Instead, Cowen’s drug of choice is information. She’s not just a junkie, she’s a dealer, a queen. Through his blogs, podcasts, and books, he shares big thoughts and trivia. He is one of the most eclectic economists. He protects markets and big business. He claims that artificial intelligence, starting with chatbots like ChatGPT, is going to change the world. But he also writes about restaurants, movies, and books because he enjoys them, and because he believes that culture shapes markets (and vice versa). “People should gather more information about music, economics, books. So I try to show them how I do it.”

Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University in Virginia, has become a cult figure among the self-improvement-seeking hyper-intellectual elite. On the Marginal Revolution blog, which he founded in 2003, he highlights the latest research on things like why the US gender wage gap has stopped narrowing (family leave policies) and how long Roman emperors lived before they were killed. Devoted readers include author Malcolm Gladwell and, Cowen says, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. But he wants more. He has launched an online university consisting of free economics modules.

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

Cowen’s brand of economics is practical. Last year, he and entrepreneur Daniel Gross published a book. Talent, about how to hire creative individuals. Some organizations shy away from unstructured interviews out of concern that they discriminate against candidates. Cowen mentions free-flowing interviews like this, especially if the interviewer asks about things they’re really interested in.

He often delights in being the opposite. When we meet in London, the consensus is that Britain’s economy can’t be much worse. He does not 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 birth and implement a new idea. Do you see it? [Oxford Covid-19] vaccine, you see that with DeepMind [Google’s AI unit founded in London]. This corner of England. it has already crossed the Singapore-Thames. You have left Singapore in the dust.”

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

This is characteristic of Cowen. quickly classify people, places and cultures. Others would say, for example, that every major city has good Asian food these days. “It is not true: Although there’s a lot of good Asian food in Paris, you can’t just stumble upon it.”

He has an unfashionable love of generalization. “People still think this, they’re just afraid to say it. Why not just say what you think?” He considers himself more “psychologically integrated”. My natural inclination is to just tell you what I think.”

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

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

He had his first economics papers accepted by journals at age 19, and by age 27 was a professor. But it was the blog that allowed him to find his audience. “The modern Internet has completely changed my life.”

Cowen’s superpower reads: He considers himself hyperlexic, having an amazing reading ability. “If it’s a non-fiction book where I know something about it, I can read maybe five books in one night.” He starts reading shortly after 7 a.m. and eats an early dinner at 5 p.m., finding it helps him work better in the evening. (Although he likes the diversity of cities, he lives in suburban Virginia, partly because of the tax rate.)

His list of the best books of 2022 included 36 titles, including his own Talent“These were the best books.” However, it is open to non-readers. “Maybe books are overrated. Travel is underrated. Books can be a bit overrated among intelligent, educated people.’

Hyperlexia is often associated with autism, but Cowen does not have the social difficulties that autistics often experience. In person, he is engaging and direct, his answers often helpfully blunt.

Conversation, like reading, is a way of gathering information. But neither is enough. “If you only read, you can remain an idiot.” It’s the kind of writing that “makes you decide what you think about something. If you write something every day, no matter how long, that’s pretty much it. It’s people who go many days without writing that have productivity problems.”

Since 2003, Cowen has been writing daily. “Sunday, birthday, Christmas, whatever.” On Christmas Day, he blogged about China’s zero Covid policy. At Thanksgiving, he asked why more currencies weren’t worth more than the dollar.

What is Cowen’s general belief? He tries to consider the problems “weakened by emotions”. This leads him to an optimism about human progress not unlike the psychologist Steven Pinker. He calls himself a moderate libertarian and has partnered with billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s foundation. He also defended classical liberalism against the populist right, arguing that the latter, by instilling distrust of elites, could accelerate the “Brazilianization of the United States.” “I don’t know if I am centrist in issues, but I am centrist in sentiments and approaches.”

He is enthusiastic about technological change but favors institutional continuity, even if US politics looks broken. “My basic intuition is that if your GDP per capita is 30-40 percent higher than most of your peer countries, it probably shouldn’t change. I’ve always been against Trump [but] I don’t think Trump will win again, or even win the nomination again. But it seems to me that the system is working. And we’ve had a lot of political changes recently, not all of them good, but it’s not a dead end at all.”

What does Cowen’s open-mindedness bring him? He supported former British Prime Minister Liz Truss’s tax cuts, which led to her ouster; In March 2022, he interviewed Sam Bankman-Fried, founder of the now-defunct crypto platform FTX, and declared him “excellent”.

(That interview featured Cowen’s shotgun question: “I think the best french 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 baghus chess, a variation of the game. “He was good. He was better at playing than at chess. It is a very important concept to understand FTX. You have four people and two boards. If I take your piece on this 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 balance in balance chess. Things come out of nowhere to save you. You play desperate and take big risks. If people play bughouse, that’s their basic mindset.”

Cowen is talented. After interviewing Bankman-Fried, would he hire her? “I would finance him as a VC, I don’t know if I would hire him as an employee. Daniel Gross and I say one thing Talent Conscientiousness is the hardest trait to judge and the easiest to fake.”

In place

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

Will more wealth make you happier? No [But] maybe when I’m 84 I’d be in a better nursing home and that would make me happier.

About cancellation culture. The left is deleted more than the right. [In universities] moderate-to-left Democratic women are the demographic group most likely to be repealed. Right-handed men are relatively safe.

Cowen remains bullish on crypto. “Crypto is a really new idea. And people just shouldn’t spill on it.”

In general, he sees disruption as dangerous. “YouTube is the most important educational medium in the world,” but prestigious universities and large governments “will continue to do well.” Humans will also weather AI disruption, he says, though he challenges economists to try to predict the consequences more accurately. “We cannot predict business cycles, we cannot predict the impact of new technologies. It must humble us a bit, no doubt.”

He plans to focus less on writing and more on speaking, adapting to a world where readers spend time with chatbots. “If only they built a really good GPT [chatbot] that imitated me, I would be really happy. It would make some of my hypothesis immortal. I’m 60 years old, I have tenure and other sources of income, so not everyone is in that position.”

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

Still, the prospect doesn’t faze him. “If we have better institutions, better decisions, we can make a difference.” For now, there are talented people to discover, interesting ideas to dazzle. He leaves our interview, no doubt, to empty London’s bookshops and fill his life with as much information as he can possibly see fit.


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