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Conversations with Tyler
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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.
101 Episodes
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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Newsletter
Want to support future conversations? Visit 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: Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Newsletter
Want to support future conversations? Visit 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: Follow Jeff on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter Facebook Email
Want to support future conversations? Visit 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: 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
Over the past year Mark Zuckerberg has held a series of interviews themed around technology and society. This conversation with Tyler and Patrick is the last in that series, and covers why they think the study of progress is so important, including how it could affect biomedical research, the founding of new universities and foundations, building things fast, housing and healthcare affordability, the next four years of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and more. Follow Mark on Facebook Follow Patrick on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter More CWT goodness: Facebook Twitter Instagram Email
How do you survive seven years in solitary confinement? The gift of literacy is what saved Shaka Senghor. Reading, journaling, academic study, and writing books was a way to structure and survive an inhumane, mentally toxic environment. And after 19 years in total behind bars, he was finally able to apply that gift and create employment for himself as a writer and organizational leader upon rejoining society. Shaka joined Tyler to discuss his book Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, what it was like to return to society not knowing the difference between the internet and a Word document, entrepreneurialism and humor in prison, the unexpected challenges formerly incarcerated people face upon release, his ideas for helping Detroit, what he connects with in Eastern philosophy, how he’s celebrating the upcoming anniversary of his tenth year of freedom, and more. Follow Shaka on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter More CWT goodness: Facebook Twitter Instagram Email
Three years after her first appearance, Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop joins Tyler to celebrate the release of her latest cookbook and talk all things food and China. This time the conversation was held over a special homestyle meal at Mama Chang, the newest restaurant from Chef Peter and Lisa Chang. Together with their daughter Lydia Chang, Fuchsia selected a menu to share with Tyler and a group of friends from the DC food scene. Each dish inspired new avenues for discussion, including the trendiness of ‘Chinese’ cauliflower, why hot pot is overrated, what Western food China has recently perfected, first experiences with Sichuan peppercorns, whether ma la will take over the world, why Michelin inspectors underrate Chinese cuisine, what to serve a Westerner for a Chinese dessert, and much more. Joining Tyler, Fuchsia, and Lydia around the table were Chef Pichet Ong, Chef Seng Luangrath, David Hagedorn, Stefanie Gans, Rivka Friedman, Natasha Cowen, and Yana Chernyak. Special thanks to Peter, Lisa, Lydia and all the staff at Mama Chang for the wonderful meal. Follow Fuchsia on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter More CWT goodness: Facebook Twitter Instagram Email
To Ted Gioia, music is a form of cloud storage for preserving human culture. And the real cultural conflict, he insists, is not between “high brow” and “low brow” music, but between the innovative and the formulaic. Imitation and repetition deaden musical culture—and he should know, since he listens to 3 hours of new music per day and over 1,000 newly released recordings in a year. His latest book covers the evolution of music from its origins in hunter-gatherer societies, to ancient Greece, to jazz, to its role in modern-day political protests such as those in Hong Kong. He joined Tyler to discuss the history and industry of music, including the reasons AI will never create the perfect songs, the strange relationship between outbreaks of disease and innovation, how the shift from record companies to Silicon Valley transformed incentive structures within the industry–and why that’s cause for concern, the vocal polyphony of Pygmy music, Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize, why input is underrated, his advice to aspiring music writers, the unsung female innovators of music history, how the Blues anticipated the sexual revolution, what Rene Girard’s mimetic theory can tell us about noisy restaurants, the reason he calls Sinatra the “Derrida of pop singing,” how to cultivate an excellent music taste, and why he loves Side B of Abbey Road. Follow Ted on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter More CWT goodness: Facebook Twitter Instagram Email
The one concept most valuable for understanding the news today might be Henry Farrell’s theory of weaponized interdependence. Whether it’s China’s influence over the NBA, the US ban of Huawei, or whether social media should be regulated on a global scale, Henry Farrell has played a key role articulating how global economic networks can enable state coercion. Tyler and Henry discuss these issues and more, including what a big tech breakup would mean for security and privacy, why political economics suggests Facebook’s Oversight Board won’t work, what Italy might reveal about China’s future, his family connection to Joyce, his undying affection for My Bloody Valentine, why Philip K. Dick would have reveled in QAnon, why Twitter seems left-wing, and being a first generation academic blogger. Follow Henry on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter More CWT goodness: Facebook Twitter Instagram Email
Ben Westhoff has written some of Tyler’s favorite books on everything from dive bars to the evolution of American rap music to how fentanyl is driving the opioid epidemic. So how does he get it done? Not from the outside in, by finding exotic experiences as he originally thought. Instead he found that it comes from the inside out: eating right, exercising, getting sleep, and journaling. Do those things, Ben says, and you’ll be in a much better position to notice the good stories happening all around you. He joined Tyler to discuss those many stories, including the proliferation of synthetic drugs, China’s role in the crisis, the merits of legalization versus decriminalization, why St. Louis is underrated, New Jersey hip-hop, how CDs changed rap, what’s different about Dr. Dre, whether the entourage is efficient, the social utility of dive bars, and more. Follow Tyler on Twitter More CWT goodness: Facebook Twitter Instagram Email
Markets, Alain Bertaud likes to say, are like gravity: they exist everywhere. But while urban planners are quite good at taking gravity into account, they tend to ignore market forces entirely in their designs, resulting in city development that too often fails to address the needs of their residents. Following the release of his recent book, Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities, Alain joined Tyler in New York City for a discussion of the politics affecting urban centers, his advice to Robert Moses, whether the YIMBY movement can win, why he loves messy cities, what he got wrong about Shenzhen, why the Moscow subway is so wonderful, whether cities can move, favorite movies about cities, the region of the world most likely to start a charter city, how to reform the World Bank, his top three NYC planning reforms, why Central Park is the perfect size, and more. Transcript and links Follow Tyler on Twitter More CWT goodness: Facebook Twitter Instagram Email
A former war correspondent and UN ambassador, Samantha Power has had her share of tough assignments. But writing a memoir about it all is also a daunting prospect. The format itself is a challenge: how do you convince the reader you’re worth spending time with? How do you paint a relatable portrait without oversharing and losing your dignity? For Samantha the answer was settling upon a purpose for her memoir and ruthlessly cutting out everything not in service of that. Tyler and Samantha discuss that purpose and more, including what she learned as an Irish immigrant, the personality traits of good diplomats (and war correspondents), relations with China, why democracy is so rare in the Middle East, the truth about Richard Holbrooke, what factors mitigate against humanitarian intervention, her favorite memoir, how to get NATO members to spend more on defense, and whether baseball games are too long. Transcript and links Follow Samantha on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter More CWT goodness: Facebook Twitter Instagram Email
Comments (12)

Matt Bowen

a great thinker, thoughtful, intelligent

Feb 22nd

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

The Science and Technology Show

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

The Science and Technology Show


Apr 24th

The Science and Technology Show


Apr 5th

Ali Salem


Mar 1st


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

Joseph Davila

Como que Tyler tiene la sangre de atole. :D

Aug 30th


audio quality: terrible! please record it professionally.

Aug 16th

zac wallace

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

Mar 2nd
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