Tyler Cowen has only had coffee twice in his life. He only drinks tea if someone gives it to him. They don’t touch alcohol. “Alcohol is bad for everyone.”
Instead Cowen’s drug of choice is knowledge. He’s not just a drunk – he’s a dealer, a king. Through his blogs, podcasts and books, he spreads great ideas and long-form trivia. He is one of the most interesting economists. He wins the markets with great sales. 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 enjoys them, and because he believes that culture creates markets (and vice versa). “People should collect information about music, finance, books. So I try to show them how I do this.”
A professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia, Cowen has become a cult figure among elites with a penchant for self-promotion. At Marginal Revolution, a blog he co-founded in 2003, he highlights recent research, saying, why the US gender pay gap stopped narrowing (leave policies) and how long Roman emperors lasted before they were executed. Devoted readers include author Malcolm Gladwell and, Cowen is told, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. But they want more. He has launched an online university, made up of free finance modules.
“My goal is to be the person who has done the most in teaching economics around the world, clearly,” he tells me. When I ask him who would be his competitors for this title, he starts to mention Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes.
Cowen’s model of economics is practical. Last year he and Daniel Gross, an entrepreneur, published a book, Skill, about how to hire creative people. Some organizations avoid informal interviews, worried that they are biased against candidates. Cowen celebrates such free-flowing interviews, especially when the interviewer is asking about things they really care about.
They often enjoy being controversial. When we meet in London, the consensus is that Britain’s economy could not be worse. He doesn’t agree. “I see the south of England – London, Cambridge, Oxford – as one of the best parts of the world, one of the few places where you can be born and do a new idea. You see and [Oxford Covid-19] vaccines, you see with DeepMind [Google’s AI unit founded in London]. This corner of England: it has already passed Singapore-on-Thames. You have left Singapore in the dust!”
Doesn’t Britain need animal spirits? “That’s true, maybe. I wish the attitude of working hard and having more money was there [seen as] inexplicably good. But nowhere will it be like America. The clothes here are very strong. London is the best city in the world. “
This is typical of Cowen: he is quick to categorize people, places and cultures. Some would say, for example, that big cities have better Asian cuisine these days. “That is not true! Even though there is a lot of Asian food in Paris, you can’t just stumble upon it.”
He has an insatiable love of generalization. “People think this, they are afraid to say it. Why don’t you just say what you think?” He considers himself “introverted. My natural tendency is to just tell you what I think.”
They want to push the economy beyond educational channels. He hasn’t written a talk show since 2017. “I’ve done a lot,” he says. “A lot of [economics] it is very narrow. I have tried to deal with real world issues and express the uncertainty that I feel and feel. I think this resonates with a lot of people. “
Cowen, 60, didn’t always want to know. He grew up in New Jersey with no interest in exotic foods or travel. Then, in her early 20s, she began traveling to New York, with its concerts, crowds and bookstores.
He had his first financial paper accepted by a journal at the age of 19, and was a trained professor at 27. But it was blogging that allowed him to find his audience. “The modern Internet has changed my life.”
Cowen’s superpower is reading. He considers himself to be incredibly literate. “If it’s a non-fiction book where I know something about it, I can read five books a night.” He starts reading shortly after 7 o’clock, and eats dinner early, around 5 o’clock in the afternoon, finding it helps him to work well in the evening. (Although he likes different cities, he lives in rural Virginia, mostly for tax reasons.)
His list of the best books of 2022 included 36 titles, including his own Skill, with the shameless statement: “These were the best books!” However, he is open to non-readers: “Perhaps books are more. Travels are less. Among intelligent educated people, books can be more.”
Hyperlexia is often associated with autism, but Cowen doesn’t have the social problems often felt by autistic people. By nature, he is friendly and direct, his answers are often vague.
Conversation, like reading, is the way they gather information. But even that is not enough. “If you’d only read it, you’d be an idiot.” It writes that “it forces you to decide what you think about something. If you write something every day, no matter how long it is, it will add up a little. It’s the people who go days without writing that have productivity issues.
Since 2003, Cowen has written every day — “Sunday, birthday, Christmas, whatever.” On Christmas Day, he blogged about China’s zero-Covid policy. At Thanksgiving, he asked why more coins weren’t worth more than a dollar.
What is Cowen’s overall belief? He tries to see problems “out of mind”. This makes him optimistic about human progress, not unlike psychologist Steven Pinker. He calls himself a libertarian, and has joined the foundation of billionaire capitalist Peter Thiel. He has also defended traditional libertarianism against libertarianism, saying that the latter, by creating distrust of elites, could accelerate the “Brazilianification of the United States”. “I don’t know if I’m prioritizing the problem, but I’m focusing on the situation and how it’s going.”
He welcomes technological change, but favors institutional continuity, even as US politics seems fractured. “My main point is, if your GDP per capita is 30-40 percent higher than most of your peers, maybe don’t change. I’ve always been against Trump. [but] I don’t think Trump will ever win, or even get re-elected. But it seems to me that the system works. And we’ve had a lot of changes lately, not all good, but not gridlock at all. “
What does Cowen’s openness mean to him? He supported the tax cuts of former UK Prime Minister Liz Truss, which led to her dismissal: “I thought the market overreacted.” In March 2022, he interviewed Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of the FTX crypto platform, and declared him “very good”.
(That interview featured Cowen asking: “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 bughouse chess, a variation of the game. “He was good. He was better at bughouse than chess. That’s the most important concept in understanding FTX. You have four people and two boards. If I take your piece from this board, I pass it to my partner, and my partner can knock down the piece instead of moving. You can be in this difficult situation, suddenly your partner gives you a queen. That’s why there is no enough paper in bughouse chess. Things just come to save you. You play desperately and take big risks. If people play bughouse, that’s their real mentality.”
Cowen is a talent scout. Asked Bankman-Fried, would they hire him? “If I had given him money as a VC, I don’t know if I would have hired him. One thing Daniel Gross and I say Skill The bottom line is: Effort is a very difficult quality to judge and easy to fake.”
On the spot
What gift do you give most often? Compact discs, maybe. But the real thing is information: you tell someone about something. And then it’s just money, right?
Can more wealth make you happier? No. [But] it may be that when I am 84 I will be in a better old place, and that will make me very happy.
For blocking behavior: The left is more resolved than the right. [In universities] The women of the center to the left of the democrats are a group that can be eliminated. Right-handed men are safe.
Cowen remains bullish on crypto. “Crypto is a really new concept. And people shouldn’t just throw it away.”
Most of the time, they see interference as non-threatening. “YouTube is the most important educational vehicle in the world,” but famous universities and big countries “continue to do well”. Humans have also weathered AI disruption, he says, though he challenges economists to try to predict what will happen next. “We can’t predict business trends, we can’t predict the impact of new technologies. Surely that should slow us down a bit?”
They plan to focus less on text and more on conversational features, to adapt to a world where readers spend time with chatbots. “If they make a better GPT [chatbot] which imitated me, I would be very happy. It would make some version of me immortal. I am 60 years old, and I have a job and other sources of income, so not everyone is in this position.”
Cowen’s optimism is limited. “The chances of a nuclear war every year, I’m more optimistic than most people. But if you run enough years, it will happen. How many years do you have to run before the chances get too high? My guess was 700-800 years. You can argue about the number, but it’s not the years. million. I don’t think it would kill all the people, but it would destroy what we consider civilization.”
However, the prospect does not seem to bother him. “If we have good institutions, make good decisions, we can change.” Meanwhile, there are talented people to be found, interesting ideas to master. He leaves our interview, no doubt rummaging through London bookshops and filling his life with as much knowledge as he can muster.