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Conversations with Tyler

Author: Mercatus Center at George Mason University

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Tyler Cowen engages today’s deepest thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between. New conversations every other Wednesday. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
109 Episodes
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For Annie Duke, the poker table is a perfect laboratory to study human decision-making — including her own. “It really exposes you to the way that you’re thinking,” she says, “how hard it is to avoid decision traps, even when you’re perfectly well aware that those decision traps exist. And how easy it is for like your mind to slip into those traps.” She’s spent a lot of time studying human cognition at the poker table and off it — her best-known academic article is about psycholinguistics and her forthcoming book is titled How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices. Annie joined Tyler to explore how payoffs aren’t always monetary, the benefits and costs of probabilistic thinking, the “magical thinking” behind why people buy fire insurance but usually don’t get prenups, the psychology behind betting on shark migrations, how her most famous linguistics paper took on Steven Pinker, how public policy would change if only the top 500 poker players voted, why she wasn’t surprised to lose Celebrity Apprentice to Joan Rivers, whether Trump has a tell, the number one trait of top poker players, and more. Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu Follow Annie on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Newsletter
Long before becoming a legal scholar focused on police reform, Rachel Harmon studied engineering at MIT and graduate philosophy at LSE. “You could call it a random walk,” she says, “or you could say that I’m really interested in the structure of things.” But despite her experience and training, even she can’t identify a single point of leverage that can radically reform the complicated system of policing in America. “We have been struggling with balancing the harms and benefits of policing since we started contemporary departments, so I don’t think that we’re going to suddenly fix this by flipping one lever.” She joined Tyler to discuss the best ideas for improving policing, including why good data on policing is so hard to come by, why body cams are not a panacea, the benefits and costs of consolidating police departments, why more female cops won’t necessarily reduce the use of force, how federal programs can sometimes misfire, where changing police selection criteria would and wouldn’t help, whether some policing could be replaced by social workers, the sobering frequency of sexual assaults by police, how a national accreditation system might improve police conduct, what reformers can learn from Camden and elsewhere, and more. They close by discussing the future of law schools, what she learned clerking under Guido Calabresi and Stephen Breyer, why she’s drawn to kickboxing and triathlons, and what two things she looks for in a young legal scholar. Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Newsletter
Ashley Mears is a former fashion model turned academic sociologist, and her book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit  is one of Tyler’s favorites of the year. The book, the result of eighteen months of field research, describes how young women exchange “bodily capital” for free drinks and access to glamorous events, boosting the status of the big-spending men they accompany.   Ashley joined Tyler to discuss her book and experience as a model, including the economics of bottle service, which kinds of men seek the club experience (and which can’t get in), why Tyler is right to be suspicious of restaurants filled with beautiful women, why club music is so loud, the surprising reason party girls don’t want to be paid, what it’s like to be scouted, why fashion models don’t smile, the truths contained in Zoolander, how her own beauty and glamour have influenced her academic career, how Barbara Ehrenreich inspired her work, her unique tip for staying focused while writing, and more.   Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos   Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu   Follow Tyler on Twitter   Facebook   Newsletter
Paul Romer makes his second appearance to discuss the failings of economics, how his mass testing plan for COVID-19 would work, what aspects of epidemiology concern him, how the FDA is slowing a better response, his ideas for reopening schools and Major League Baseball, where he agrees with Weyl’s test plan, why charter cities need a new name, what went wrong with Honduras, the development trajectory for sub-Saharan Africa, how he’d reform the World Bank, the underrated benefits of a culture of science, his heartening takeaway about human nature from his experience at Burning Man, and more.   Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos   Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu   Follow Paul on Twitter   Follow Tyler on Twitter   Facebook   Newsletter
Adam Tooze is best known for his highly-regarded books on the economic history of Nazi Germany, the remaking of the global economic and political order starting in World War I, and his account of how the economic effects of the 2008 financial crisis rippled across the globe for a decade to follow. Recently, he’s become an influential voice on Twitter documenting the pandemic-induced strain on the world’s financial systems. Adam joined Tyler to discuss the historically unusual decision to have a high-cost lockdown during a pandemic, why he believes in a swoosh-shaped recovery, portents of financial crises in China and the West, which emerging economies are currently most at risk, what Keynes got wrong about the Treaty of Versailles, why the Weimar Republic failed, whether Hitler was a Keynesian, the political and economic prospects of various EU members, his trick to writing a lot, how Twitter encourages him to read more, what he taught executives at BP, his advice for visiting Germany, and more. Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu Follow Adam on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Newsletter
Glen Weyl is an economist, researcher, and founder of RadicalXChange. He recently co-authored a paper that sets forth an ambitious strategy to respond to the crisis and mitigate long-term damage to the economy through a regime of testing, tracing, and supported isolation. In his estimation the benefit-cost ratio is ten to one, with costs equal to about one month of continued freeze in place. Tyler invited Glen to discuss the plan, including how it’d overcome obstacles to scaling up testing and tracing, what other countries got right and wrong in their responses, the unusual reason why he’s bothered by price gouging on PPE supplies, where his plan differs with Paul Romer’s, and more. They also discuss academia’s responsibility to inform public discourse, how he’d apply his ideas on mechanism design to reform tenure and admissions, his unique intellectual journey from socialism to libertarianism and beyond, the common element that attracts him to both the movie Memento and Don McLean’s “American Pie,” what talent he looks for in young economists, the struggle to straddle the divide between academia and politics, the benefits and drawbacks of rollerblading to class, and more. Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu Follow Glen on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Newsletter
Accuracy is only one of the things we want from forecasters, says Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. People also look to forecasters for ideological assurance, entertainment, and to minimize regret–such as that caused by not taking a global pandemic seriously enough. The best forecasters aren’t just intelligent, but fox-like integrative thinkers capable of navigating values that are conflicting or in tension. He joined Tyler to discuss whether the world as a whole is becoming harder to predict, whether Goldman Sachs traders can beat forecasters, what inferences we can draw from analyzing the speech of politicians, the importance of interdisciplinary teams, the qualities he looks for in leaders, the reasons he’s skeptical machine learning will outcompete his research team, the year he thinks the ascent of the West became inevitable, how research on counterfactuals can be applied to modern debates, why people with second cultures tend to make better forecasters, how to become more fox-like, and more. Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu Follow Philip on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Newsletter
When Tyler requested an interview with novelist Emily St. John Mandel, he didn’t expect that reality would have in some ways become an eerie mirror of her latest books. And Emily didn’t expect that it’d be boosting sales: “Why would anybody in their right mind want to read Station Eleven during a pandemic?” she wondered to Tyler. Her reaction was pure bafflement until she found herself renting Contagion and thought about why. “There’s just such a longing in times of uncertainty to see how it ends.” Narratives, especially familiar ones, soothe us. It’s fitting then that her latest book has been suggested as “the perfect novel for your survival bunker.” She joined Tyler to discuss The Glass Hotel, including why more white-collar criminals don’t flee before arrest, the Post Secret postcard that haunts her most, the best places to hide from the Russian mob, the Canadian equivalent of the “Florida Man”, whether trophy wives are happy, how to slow down time, why she disagrees with Kafka on reading, the safest place to be during a global pandemic, how to get away with faking your own death, how A Canticle for Leibowitz influenced her writing, the permeability of moral borders, what surprised her about experiencing a real pandemic, how her background in contemporary dance makes her a better writer, adapting The Glass Hotel for a miniseries, her contrarian take on Frozen II, and more. Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu Follow Emily on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Newsletter
For Ross Douthat, decadence isn’t necessarily a moral judgement, but a technical label for a state that societies tend to enter—and one that is perhaps much more normal than the dynamism Americans have come to take for granted. In his new book, he outlines the cultural, economic, political, and demographic trends that threaten to leave us to wallow in a state of civilizational stagnation for years to come, and fuel further discontent and derangement with it. On his second appearance on Conversations with Tyler, Ross joined Tyler to discuss why he sees Kanye as a force for anti-decadence, the innovative antiquarianism of the late Sir Roger Scruton, the mediocrity of modern architecture, why it’s no coincidence that Michel Houellebecq comes from France, his predictions for the future trajectory of American decadence – and what could throw us off of it, the question of men’s role in modernity, why he feels Christianity must embrace a kind of futurist optimism, what he sees as the influence of the “Thielian ethos” on conservatism, the plausibility of ghosts and alien UFOs, and more. Note: This conversation was recorded on February 25, 2020. Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu Follow Ross on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Newsletter
Tyler and Russ Roberts joined forces for a special livestreamed conversation on COVID-19, including how both are adjusting to social isolation, private versus public responses to the pandemic, the challenge of reforming scrambled organization capital, the implications for Trump’s reelection, appropriate fiscal and monetary responses, bailouts, innovation prizes, and more. Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu Follow Russ on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Newsletter
Who can you ask about the Great American Songbook, the finer Jell-O flavors, and peculiar languages like Saramaccan all while expecting the same kind of fast, thoughtful, and energetic response? Listeners of Lexicon Valley might hazard a guess: John McWhorter. A prominent academic linguist, he’s also highly regarded for his podcast and popular writings across countless books and articles where often displays a deep knowledge in topics beyond his academic training. John joined Tyler to discuss why he thinks that colloquial Indonesian should be the world's universal language, the barbaric circumstances that gave rise to Creole languages, the reason Mandarin won't overtake English as the lingua franca, how the Vikings shaped modern English, the racial politics of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, the decline of American regional accents, why Shakespeare needs an English translation, Harold Arlen vs. Andrew Lloyd Webber, whether reparations for African-Americans is a good idea, how living in Jackson Heights shapes his worldview, what he learned from his mother and father, why good linguistics students enjoy both Russian and Chinese, and more. Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu Follow John on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Newsletter
Why is Garett Jones willing to write books about risky topics like the case for reducing democratic accountability? Is it the iconoclastic Mason econ culture? Supportive colleagues like Tyler? Those help, but what ultimately gives Garett peace of mind is that he’ll never have to go hungry because he has a broad and deep knowledge of econometric tools. It’s a skillset he recommends to all research economists precisely so they can take bigger risks in their careers—or at least be well-prepared to shape policy in an unelected position at a central bank.  Garett joined Tyler to discuss his book 10% Less Democracy, including why America shouldn’t be run by bondholders, what single reform would most effectively achieve more limited democracy, how markets shape cognitive skills, the three important P’s of the repeated prisoner’s dilemma, why French cuisine is still underrated, Buchanan vs. Tullock, Larry David vs. Seinfeld, the biggest mistake in Twitter macroeconomics, the biggest challenges facing the Mormon church, what studying to be a sommelier taught him about economics, the Garett Jones vision of America, and more. Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu Follow Garett on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Newsletter
To Tim Harford, mistakes are fascinating. “We often only understand how something works when it breaks,” he says, explaining why there’s such an emphasis on errors throughout his work. They also tend to make great stories, which can stoke the curiosity necessary to change minds. A former persuasive speaking champion, he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire “for services to improving economic understanding,” which he’s achieved through appearances on the BBC, columns for the Financial Times, several TED Talks and books, and now his latest podcast series Cautionary Tales.  Tim joined Tyler to discuss the role of popular economics in a politicized world, the puzzling polarization behind Brexit, why good feedback is necessary (and rare), the limits of fact-checking, the “tremendously British” encouragement he received from Prince Charles, playing poker with Steve Levitt, messiness in music, the underrated aspect of formal debate, whether introverts are better at public speaking, the three things he can’t live without, and more. Note: This conversation was recorded in November 2019 and thus took place before the UK’s general election in December, which secured Boris Johnson a Conservative majority and ensured the passage of his Brexit deal in January 2020. Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu Follow Tim on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Newsletter
In his new book, Ezra Klein argues that polarization in America has become centered on partisan political identities, which has subsumed virtually every form of identity, be it where we live, what team we root for, the church we attend, or any other. This stacked form of polarization thus carries much more weight and is activated by a wider range of conflicts than before. But is polarization really such a pressing concern? If it’s all merged into one form of identity politics then aren’t we just polarizing more efficiently? Over what percentage of GDP are we more polarized today versus in the past?    Tyler posed these questions to Ezra and more, including thoughts on Silicon Valley’s intellectual culture, his disagreement with Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, the limits of telecommuting, how becoming a father made him less conservative, his post-kid production function, why Manhattan is overrated, the “cosmic embarrassment” of California’s governance, why he loved Marriage Story, the future of the BBC and PBS, what he learned in Pakistan, and more. In DC on Feb 17? Register for our next live show with John McWhorter here. Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu Follow Ezra on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Newsletter
When Reid Hoffman creates a handle for some new network or system, his usual choice is “Quixotic.” At an early age, his love of tabletop games inspired him to think of life as a heroic journey, where people come together in order to accomplish lofty things. This framing also prompted him to consider the rules and systems that guide society—and how you might improve them by identifying key points of leverage.  At first, he thought he’d become an academic and work with ideas as one of those Archimedean levers. But he ended up focusing on technology instead, helping to build PayPal, LinkedIn, and now many other ventures as an investor at Greylock Partners. But he still thinks ideas are important and tries to employ a “full toolset” when trying to shift systems. Reid joined Tyler to talk about all these leverage points and more, including the Silicon Valley cultural meme he most disagrees with, how Wittgenstein influenced the design of LinkedIn, mystical atheism, what it was like being on Firing Line, why he’s never said anything outrageous, how he and Peter Thiel interpret The Tempest differently, the most misunderstood thing about friendship, how to improve talent certification, what’s needed from science fiction, and his three new ideas for board games. In DC on Feb 17? Register for our next live show with John McWhorter here. Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu Follow Reid on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Newsletter
This bonus episode features audio from the Holberg Debate in Bergen, Norway between Tyler and Slavoj Žižek held on December 7, 2019. They discuss the reasons Slavoj (still) considers himself a Communist, why he calls The Handmaid’s Tale “nostalgia for the present,” what he likes about Greta Thunberg, what Marx got right about the commodification of beliefs, his concerns about ecology and surveillance in communist states like China today, the reasons academia should maintain its ‘useless character,’ his beginnings as a Heideggerian, why he is distrustful of liberal optimism, the “Fukuyama dilemma” we face, the importance of “empty manners,” and more. Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Newsletter
Want to support future conversations? Visit conversationswithtyler.com/donate. Long before Abhijit Banerjee won the 2019 economics Nobel with Michael Kremer and Esther Duflo, he was a fellow graduate student at Harvard with Tyler. For Tyler, Abhijit is one of the brightest economic minds he’s ever met, and “a brilliant theorist who decided the future was with empirical work.” But according to Abhijit, theory and practice go hand in hand: the real benefit of a randomized control trial isn’t getting unbiased estimates, he says, but in testing hypotheses borne out of theory. Abhijit joined Tyler to discuss his unique approach to economics, including thoughts on premature deindustrialization, the intrinsic weakness of any charter city, where the best classical Indian music is being made today, why he prefers making Indian sweets to French sweets, the influence of English intellectual life in India, the history behind Bengali leftism, the best Indian regional cuisine, why experimental economics is underrated, the reforms he’d make to traditional graduate economics training, how his mother’s passion inspires his research, how many consumer loyalty programs he’s joined, and more. Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Newsletter
Want to support future conversations? Visit conversationswithtyler.com/donate. For this special retrospective episode, producer Jeff Holmes sat down with Tyler to discuss the past year in conversations and more, including who was most challenging guest to prep for, the most popular—and the most underrated—conversation, a test of Tyler’s knowledge called “Name That Production Function,” listener questions from Twitter, how Tyler has boosted his productivity in the past year, and whether his book and movie picks from 2009 still hold up.   Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu Follow Jeff on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Email
Want to support future conversations? Visit conversationswithtyler.com/donate. Esther Duflo’s advice to students? Spend time in the field. “It's only through this exposure that you can learn how wrong most of your intuitions are and preconceptions are,” she explains. For Duflo, it was time spent in the Soviet Union on the brink of collapse. While there she saw how Jeff Sachs used the tools of economics to advise policymakers on matters of crucial importance. To her it seemed like the best job in the world—and she began to pursue it in earnest. Now it is she who is advising governments on how best to reduce poverty, having co-founded one of the leading policy research centers in the world. That work, together with that of frequent collaborators Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer, has now been honored with the Nobel Prize.  She joined Tyler to discuss that work, including how coaching increases the effectiveness of cash transfers, why she cautions against falling in love with growth rates, what France gets right about child-rearing, the management philosophy behind her success building J-PAL, how she briefly became the face of an anti-Soviet revolution, the under-looked reasons behind the decline of geographic mobility in the United States, what rock climbing can teach us about being a good empirical economist, her daily musical move from Bach to Bob Dylan, and more.  Follow us on Twitter and IG: @cowenconvos Email: cowenconvos@mercatus.gmu.edu Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Twitter Instagram Email
What determines the economic, social, and political trajectories of nations? Why were settlers in colonies like Jamestown and Australia able to escape the extractive systems desired by their British masters, while colonial subjects in Barbados and Jamaica were not? In his latest book, Daron Acemoglu elevates the power of institutions over theories centering on human capital, culture, or geography. Institutions help strike the balance of power in the constant struggle between state and society, creating a ‘narrow corridor’ through which liberty and prosperity is achieved. Daron joined Tyler for a conversation about drivers of economic growth, the economic causes and effects of democratization, how Germanic tribes introduced “bottom-up politics” to the Roman empire, the institutional reasons that China’s state capacity and control has increased with its wealth, his predictions for the future of liberty in his birth country of Turkey, the biggest challenges currently facing the Middle East, what we can learn from the example of Lagos, why publishing in the “top five” is overrated, tips on motivating graduate students, and more. Follow Daron on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter More CWT goodness: Facebook Twitter Instagram Email
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Comments (14)

Jonathan Petherbridge

You didn't ask about racism and police? Would have been good to hear some discussion on Roland Fryer's paper.

Jun 17th
Reply

Michael

Consistently high quality conversations, keep them coming! Keep strong during the quarantine!

Apr 27th
Reply

Matt Bowen

a great thinker, thoughtful, intelligent

Feb 22nd
Reply

Gary Haase

First time I've heard Zuckerberg asking the questions rather than being grilled. Patrick Collison is an interesting. Big questions being raised.

Nov 27th
Reply (1)

Nimit Kathuria

Raghuram Rajan's twitter handle link is wrong.

May 18th
Reply

gg

He said the number one killer was malaria when deciding to find the theoretical cure over cancer, alluding to saving more lifes when cancer kills roughly 9 million more people worldwide per year.

Apr 24th
Reply

gg

awesome

Apr 24th
Reply

gg

great

Apr 5th
Reply

Ali Salem

good

Mar 1st
Reply

NLuc

great talk. I would love to hear more about right-wing political correctness and why is a bigger problem. I didn't see any links in the show notes. ideas?

Sep 5th
Reply

Joseph Davila

Como que Tyler tiene la sangre de atole. :D

Aug 30th
Reply

Gabo

audio quality: terrible! please record it professionally.

Aug 16th
Reply

zac wallace

great discussion. glad to be introduced to another interesting guy whose book will get lost on my growing reading list

Mar 2nd
Reply
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