kottke.org posts about Tyler Cowen
The annual NY Times feature is out: the Year in Ideas for 2010. A particular favorite is the ten-year retrospective by Tyler Cowen:
The editors asked Tyler Cowen, the economist who helps run the blog Marginal Revolution, to read the previous nine Ideas issues and send us his thoughts on which entries, with the benefit of hindsight, struck him as noteworthy. Do any ideas from this year’s issue look promising? “I recall reading the 2001 issue when it came out,” he says. “And I was hardly bowled over with excitement by thoughts of ‘Populist Editing.’ Now I use Wikipedia almost every day. The 2001 issue noted that, in its selection of items, ‘frivolous ideas are given the same prominence as weighty ones’; that is easiest to do when we still don’t know which are which.”
Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen picks some of his favorite books of the year. Cowen has never steered me wrong with a book recommendation (even in recommending his own books). Of the most interest to me this year are Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (which I’ve seen rave reviews for all over the place) and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.
Tyler Cowen takes a crack at defining American conservatism.
Fiscal conservatism is part and parcel of conservatism per se. A state wrecked by debt is a state due to perish or fall into decay. This is a lesson from history. States must “save up their powder” for true crises and it is a kind of narcissistic arrogation to think that the personal failures of particular individuals — often those with weak values — meet this standard.
Cowen did the same for progressivism a few weeks ago.
Progressive policies offer more scope for individualism and some kinds of freedom. Greater security gives people a greater chance to develop themselves as individuals in important spheres of life, not just money-making and risk protection and winning relative status games.
As Tyler Cowen seemingly reads every new book published in English each year (and I’m not even sure about the “seemingly”), a rave review from him directs my finger from its holster to Amazon’s 1-Click trigger. This week Cowen is on about The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham. From the review:
What can I say? I have to count this tome as one of the best history books I have read, ever.
Having just finished, coincidentially, Cowen’s Create Your Own Economy (more on that soon), I *am* looking for another book to read.
Of Wrestling with Moses, the story of how Jane Jacobs took on Robert Moses and his plans for two Manhattan freeways, Tyler Cowen says:
The parts of this book about Jacobs are splendid. The parts about Moses are good, though they were more familiar to me. I believe there has otherwise never been much biographical material on Jacobs’s life.
The New York Times has a lengthy excerpt from the book that recalls Jacobs’ arrival in NYC.
Writing about the city remained her passion. She often went up to the rooftop of her apartment building and watched the garbage trucks as they made their way through the city streets, picking the sidewalks clean. She would think, “What a complicated great place this is, and all these pieces of it that make it work.” The more she investigated and explored neighborhoods, infrastructure, and business districts for her stories, the more she began to see the city as a living, breathing thing — complex, wondrous, and self-perpetuating.
In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Tyler Cowen argues that society in general and academia in particular is prejudiced with respect to people with autism and that autism in the academy can be an advantage.
Autism is often described as a disease or a plague, but when it comes to the American college or university, autism is often a competitive advantage rather than a problem to be solved. One reason American academe is so strong is because it mobilizes the strengths and talents of people on the autistic spectrum so effectively. In spite of some of the harmful rhetoric, the on-the-ground reality is that autistics have been very good for colleges, and colleges have been very good for autistics.
Errol Morris’ discussion of Robert McNamara’s legacy nails why McNamara was such a compelling figure.
His refusal to come out against the Vietnam War, particularly as it continued after he left the Defense Department, has angered many. There’s ample evidence that he felt the war was wrong. Why did he remain silent until the 1990s, when “In Retrospect” was published? That is something that people will probably never forgive him for. But he had an implacable sense of rectitude about what was permissible and what was not. In his mind, he probably remained secretary of defense until the day he died.
One angry person once said to me: “Loyalty to the president? What about his loyalty to the American people?” Fair enough. But our government isn’t set up that way. He was not an elected official, he said repeatedly. He served at the pleasure of the president.
Morris was also interviewed about McNamara on Here and Now. (thx, patricio)
Tyler Cowen also has a short appreciation of McNamara’s efforts with the World Bank.
McNamara also had a huge influence on the economics profession, most of all through his 13-year presidency at the World Bank. He focused the Bank on poverty reduction, he brought Communist China into the Bank, he introduced the practice of five-year lending plans, he significantly increased the Bank’s budget, he grew staff from 1600 to 5700, he favored sector-specific research, he raised money from OPEC, he strongly encouraged “scientific project evaluation,” and he started a largely successful program to combat “river blindness”; the latter may have been his life’s achievement.
Tyler Cowen previews a portion of his upcoming book, Create Your Own Economy, for Fast Company.
More and more, “production” — that word my fellow economists have worked over for generations — has become interior to the human mind rather than set on a factory floor. A tweet may not look like much, but its value lies in the mental dimension. You use Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and other Web services to construct a complex meld of stories, images, and feelings in your mind. No single bit seems weighty on its own, but the resulting blend is rich in joy, emotion, and suspense. This is a new form of drama, and it plays out inside us — with technological assistance — rather than on a public stage.
Tyler Cowen on how to keep your job. Click through to see which of the following is most effective:
1. Make your boss aware of all your recent accomplishments at work.
2. Butter up your boss with compliments.
3. Tell your boss you’d be willing to accept a pay cut to keep your job.
I don’t think he’s talked about it on his site yet, but Tyler Cowen has a new book coming out called Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World.
As economist Tyler Cowen boldly shows in Create Your Own Economy, the way we think now is changing more rapidly than it has in a very long time. Not since the Industrial Revolution has a man-made creation — in this case, the World Wide Web — so greatly influenced the way our minds work and our human potential. Cowen argues brilliantly that we are breaking down cultural information into ever-smaller tidbits, ordering and reordering them in our minds (and our computers) to meet our own specific needs.
Create Your Own Economy explains why the coming world of Web 3.0 is good for us; why social networking sites such as Facebook are so necessary; what’s so great about “Tweeting” and texting; how education will get better; and why politics, literature, and philosophy will become richer. This is a revolutionary guide to life in the new world.
I never properly reviewed Cowen’s last book (sorry!), but I found it as enlightening and entertaining as Marginal Revolution is. (via david archer)
Somehow I missed this a few weeks ago on Marginal Revolution: Do influential people develop more conventional opinions?
1. People “sell out” to become more influential.
2. As people become more influential, they are less interested in offending their new status quo-oriented friends.
3. As people become more influential, their opinion of the status quo rises, because they see it rewarding them and thus meritorious.
Tyler Cowen has updated his Ethnic Dining Guide for the Washington DC area. Even if you don’t live in DC, the general remarks section is good advice to keep in mind when dining out.
The better ethnic restaurants tend to have many of their kind in a given geographic area. Single restaurant representations of a cuisine tend to disappoint. Competition increases quality and lowers prices. The presence of many restaurants of a kind in an area creates a pool of educated consumers, trained workers and chefs, and ingredient supplies - all manifestations of increasing returns to scale.
Cowen also wants against ordering ingredients-intensive dishes because of inferior American ingredients.
Avoid dishes that are “ingredients-intensive.” Raw ingredients in America - vegetables, butter, bread, meats, etc. - are below world standards. Even most underdeveloped countries have better raw ingredients than we do, at least if you have a U.S. income to spend there, and often even if one doesn’t. Ordering the plain steak in Latin America may be a great idea, but it is usually a mistake in Northern Virginia. Opt for dishes with sauces and complex mixes of ingredients. Go for dishes that are “composition-intensive.”
The first line of Tyler Cowen’s review of Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book:
The book is getting snarky reviews but if it were by an unknown, rather than by the famous Malcolm Gladwell, many people would be saying how interesting it is.
Bing! I can identify with the fatigue one can get after reading too much of the same sort of thing from an author (even a favorite author), but dismissing a book because of who writes it rather than what’s written is small-minded and incurious.
Tyler Cowen on why blogs should cover some topics randomly.
But with Google and Wikipedia you must choose the topic. A good blog writer can randomize the topic for you, much like a good DJ controls the sequence of the music. Sometimes you might trust us more than you trust other aggregators, but we can’t count on that and arguably the other aggregators improve at a rate faster than we do.
The economics posts on Marginal Revolution are often less interesting to me than the supposedly off-topic posts.
Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen occasionally asks his readers to suggest topics for him to write about. Stump the polymath, as it were. I posted a suggestion that I’d been wondering about recently:
Is taking a photo or video of an event for later viewing worth it, even if it means more or less missing the event in realtime? What’s better, a lifetime of mediated viewing of my son’s first steps or a one-time in-person viewing?
and he answered it today:
If you take photos you will remember the event more vividly, if only because you have to stop and notice it. The fact that your memories will in part be “false” or constructed is besides the point; they’ll probably be false anyway. In other words, there’s no such thing as the “one-time in-person viewing,” it is all mediated viewing, one way or the other. Daniel Gilbert’s book on memory is the key source here.
I take a lot less photos than I used to — even though cameras are easier to use and carry around than ever — and prefer to experience the moment rather than fiddle with the camera. But that seems to swim against tide these days…camera irises seemingly outnumber real ones at photo-worthy events and places.
Economist blogger Tyler Cowen lists his anti-American attitudes. Among them:
1. The number of Americans in prison remains an underreported scandal, as well as the conditions they face.
7. The American culture of individual freedom is closely linked to the prevalence of mental illness and gun-based violence in this country. We can’t seem to get only the brighter side of non-conformity.
Tyler Cowen has a short review of Peter Moskos’ book, Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore’s Eastern District.
This is one of the two or three best conceptual analyses of “cops and robbers” I have read. It is mandatory reading for all fans of The Wire and recommended for everyone else.
Tyler Cowen on invisible competition and how it differs from competing with those around you.
Let’s look at individuals. Human beings evolved in small groups and hunter-gatherer societies, in which virtually all competition was face to face. That is the environment most of us are biologically and emotionally geared to succeed in, and it explains why our adrenalin surges when a rival wins the boss’s favor or flirts with our special someone. But in the new arena, with its faceless and anonymous competitors, those who are driven to action mostly by adrenalin will not fare well. If that’s what they need to get things done, they will become too passive and others will overtake them.
To me, the most interesting challenge is maintaining motivation in the absence of visible competition. How do you win a race you might not even know you’re running?
Tyler Cowen has taken a look at a lot of this year’s “best of” lists and has some meta-recommendations for you.
This wasn’t meant to be Tyler Cowen day on kottke.org, but you need to check out this concise barnburner of an article written by Cowen for the Washington Post on the cost of the war in Iraq. Taking the form of a letter to President Bush, the article explores the opportunity costs of the war and then offers the real reason why the war has been disastrous:
In fact, Mr. President, your initial pro-war arguments offer the best path toward understanding why the conflict has been such a disaster for U.S. interests and global security.
Following your lead, Iraq hawks argued that, in a post-9/11 world, we needed to take out rogue regimes lest they give nuclear or biological weapons to al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups. But each time the United States tries to do so and fails to restore order, it incurs a high — albeit unseen — opportunity cost in the future. Falling short makes it harder to take out, threaten or pressure a dangerous regime next time around.
Foreign governments, of course, drew the obvious lesson from our debacle — and from our choice of target. The United States invaded hapless Iraq, not nuclear-armed North Korea. To the real rogues, the fall of Baghdad was proof positive that it’s more important than ever to acquire nuclear weapons — and if the last superpower is bogged down in Iraq while its foes slink toward getting the bomb, so much the better. Iran, among others, has taken this lesson to heart. The ironic legacy of the war to end all proliferation will be more proliferation.
As a refreshing mint, check out the length of the y-axis on this graph comparing the cost of the war and the amount spent by the US govt on energy R&D. (thx, ivan)
Update: Noam Chomsky, in an August 2002 interview:
The planned invasion will strike another blow at the structure of international law and treaties that has been laboriously constructed over the years, in an effort to reduce the use of violence in the world, which has had such horrifying consequences. Apart from other consequences, an invasion is likely to encourage other countries to develop WMD, including a successor Iraqi government, and to lower the barriers against resort to force by others to achieve their objectives, including Russia, India, and China.
Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution loves his iPhone and “can no longer imagine not having one” but has yet to make a phone call with it.
Psychology Today talks with psychologist Robert Epstein about his book, The Case Against Adolescence:
In every mammalian species, immediately upon reaching puberty, animals function as adults, often having offspring. We call our offspring “children” well past puberty. The trend started a hundred years ago and now extends childhood well into the 20s. The age at which Americans reach adulthood is increasing — 30 is the new 20 — and most Americans now believe a person isn’t an adult until age 26.
The whole culture collaborates in artificially extending childhood, primarily through the school system and restrictions on labor. The two systems evolved together in the late 19th-century; the advocates of compulsory-education laws also pushed for child-labor laws, restricting the ways young people could work, in part to protect them from the abuses of the new factories. The juvenile justice system came into being at the same time. All of these systems isolate teens from adults, often in problematic ways.
Epstein says the infantilization of adolescents creates a lot of conflict and isolation on both sides of the divide. Over at Marginal Revolution, economist Tyler Cowen adds:
The problem, of course, is that a contemporary wise and moderate 33 year old is looking to climb the career ladder, find a mate, or raise his babies. He doesn’t have a great desire to educate unruly fifteen year olds and indeed he can insulate himself from them almost completely. He doesn’t need a teenager to carry his net on the elephant hunt. Efficient capitalist production and rising wage rates lead to an increased sorting by age and the moral education of teens takes a hit.
You can read the first chapter of the book at The Radical Academy.
Update: Bryan writes to recommend Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood, saying that “Postman argues that the idea of childhood is a cultural phenomena that comes and goes through the ages”. (thx, bryan)
“Travel is the starting point of learning social science.” — Tyler Cowen
Blogging makes us more oriented toward an intellectual bottom line, more interested in the directly empirical, more tolerant of human differences, more analytical in the course of daily life, more interested in people who are interesting, and less patient with Continental philosophy.
Manhattan, the greenest of cities? Not so fast says Tyler Cowen: “Praising Manhattan is a bit like looking only at the roof of a car and concluding it doesn’t burn much gas. […] Think of Manhattan as a place which outsources its pollution, simply because land there is so valuable.”
Tyler Cowen takes a closer look at the recent “600,000 deaths in Iraq” claim. “We all know that the political world judges Iraq by the absolute badness of what is going on (which means Bush critics find a higher number to fit their priors), but that is an incorrect standard. We should judge the marginal product of U.S. action, relative to what else could have happened. In that latter and more accurate notion of a cost-benefit test, U.S. actions probably appear worst when deaths are rising over time, and hitting very high levels in the future.”
Good review of Philip Tetlock’s new book about expert predicitons, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? “Human beings who spend their lives studying the state of the world, in other words, are poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys, who would have distributed their picks evenly over the three choices.” Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen calls Tetlock’s book “one of the (few) must-read social science books of 2005”.