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A Conversation with Tyler
This week, I had Tyler Cowen on the CSPI podcast. We started by talking about his new book with Daniel Gross called Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World. Then we move on to a wide variety of topics, including “State Capacity Libertarianism,” how optimistic to be about different parts of the world, and different kinds of courage people do or don’t have.
I find that Tyler has a unique way of speaking that is similar to the way he writes. On a remarkable range of topics, he makes statements that are short and to the point but dense with insight. Whether in a podcast interview or life, he seems know there is a lot of ground to cover and no time to waste, but somehow brevity doesn’t come at the expense of clarity of thought or effectiveness in communication.
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Another one of Tyler’s traits that came out in this conversation is his detached skepticism regarding fashionable intellectual trends. For example, I’d taken it for granted that social media has made elite culture more pessimistic and angry, but his answer when I asked about the topic made me reconsider my view.
Email as a Pop Quiz
Richard: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the podcast. I’m here today with Tyler Cowen, a guest who needs no introduction. Tyler, how are you doing today?
Tyler: I am fine. How are you?
Richard: I’m doing excellent. We’re here to talk about your book, Talent, along with Daniel Gross. First thing I wanted to ask you about was I saw in the book that one of the things that you said was an indicator of talent was how quickly people answer emails. Now, this is something that I noticed too. I’ve noticed that when I reach out to people, the people who tended to… Generally more successful people or people that I found to be competent later on tend to answer their emails quickly.
The way I always thought about it, and your book made me reflect on it a little bit more, is that an email is like a pop quiz in today’s world. It’s how much are you thinking about and how much do you care about the thing you’re working on in life, right? You can ask people how much do you care about your job, how passionate you are. But are you really checking your phone all the time? If somebody comes to you with an idea or some kind of opportunity, do you jump on it or do you sit on it for 24, 48 hours? Is that how you see this, as sort of a pop quiz going through life, or do you think there’s something else going on with the email thing?
Tyler: I think there are several factors. One is that it’s an indicator of the other person’s assessment of goodness of match. They might think they’re totally above you, or maybe you’re totally above them, or you’re not going to get along, and they answer your email two days later. They might be fine as a talent, but they’re still signalling you probably shouldn’t work with them. People who are online a lot, people in journalism, public intellectuals, a lot of academics, I think it’s an excellent measure of talent, but I would stress the point there are some sectors where talent and speed of email response might be negatively correlated.
Say someone is a brain surgeon, and they spend seven hours doing their most important operations. It could well be if they’re always answering emails very promptly, it just means there’s never a demand for them as brain surgeons, and you ought to be a little wary. So, I don’t think it’s a universal regularity, but it’s a pressing question to think about, the person’s speed of response.
Richard: Well, in our world though… I mean a brain surgeon, yes. I think you don’t want your brain surgeon checking his email in the middle of work, or always being on the phone. But in our world where we’re always in front of screens, I think it’s probably a much better indicator, don’t you think?
Tyler: I agree. But I think there’s a lot of jobs like brain surgeon in some way where the boss may not even let the person be online. Say someone is a chemist and in the lab all the time. Now, I don’t know enough about chemists to judge this, but it wouldn’t shock me if the correlation was negative between quality of chemist and speed of email response, that maybe what they should be doing is giving directions in the laboratory rather than reading something online.
Richard: I guess there’s a distinction between people whose work involves manipulating symbols on computers and writing things, and then people who are… It’s like a hands-on versus working with your brain dichotomy of where you would emphasize the email issue, right?
Is IQ Overrated?
Richard: Another thing in your book that I thought was interesting was your discussion of intelligence. Now, you seem to think it’s, I think, a bit overrated. I mean, maybe you think it’s underrated compared to, say, I don’t know, the politically correct way of talking about it. But I think you think it’s overrated compared to most people who actually focus on IQ and intelligence. Is that an accurate assessment of your view?
Tyler: I would say that. I think it’s overrated by people who end up reading the book and overrated by other smart people. I would say rather obviously it’s underrated by society in general, right?
Richard: It’s underrated. I mean, the fact that IQ is not considered something you can talk about in polite company would indicate that if it matters at all, and it does clearly matter, then it’s probably underrated. The way I look at the intelligence question is I’ve always thought about it as something that, if you have it, can help solve all other problems. I was pretty bad with social skills most of my life. Because I was intelligent, I could reflect. I could read books. I could understand sort of where my problems came from, and then I could work on them. I’ve always thought intelligence would work like that. It helps with every other potential problem. So potentially, it’s not just that you could figure out how to do something in a moment. If you find two workers equal, one has a higher IQ, I would suspect the one with the higher IQ has a higher ceiling on what they can accomplish. Do you think that’s right?
Tyler: Maybe higher, but not as higher as people think. Here’s what I do observe. If you take a class of people smart enough to, say, get a PhD or be an economist, or be a reasonably competent programmer, above that level of smarts, smarts and achievement do not seem closely correlated to me much at all. Not negatively. I still think it would be vaguely positive, but just not very much. Now, you have to be smart enough, say, to get a degree in math or do whatever it is you’re doing. But past that point, I would look at other features of the person’s talent.
Richard: I think that’s right. I mean, would you say that... I guess it depends on what you’re doing, right? Because there is a bare minimum here, but there’s also a sense of... The CEO study from Sweden is very interesting, right? Didn’t they have like a standard deviation higher IQ than the average?
Tyler: In the 83rd percentile at the median. Which is smart, but not really that impressive, right?
Richard: What year was the study from? Do you remember? [note: the study is from 2015]
Tyler: I don’t remember, but it’s recent. Now, before I did all the work for this book, I would’ve thought, well, the Swedish CEO, he’ll be at the 96th percentile of intelligence. I think that’s what I would’ve guessed as being the case, so not 83rd. That to me is a revision. It’s why I think a lot of smart people overrate IQ, because I used to overrate IQ. There are many smart people, I’ve had to talk them down out of rating IQ, but there’s never one that I’ve had to talk into it, I would say.
Richard: I think that this result would not replicate in the United States. Why I think it would not replicate in the United States is because pedigree is important. We care where people went to college, and the colleges themselves are selecting based on standardized tests, right? I think if you just took the average SAT of, say, Fortune 500 CEOs, I would bet you can estimate an IQ of, I think, it would be over the 83rd percentile or whatever it was.
I don’t know what the Swedish system is like. I don’t know if they care as much about degrees. I don’t know if their degrees themselves are based as much on standardized tests, but do you feel that we’ve artificially created a world where maybe IQ matters more? Or maybe it’s a good filtering mechanism, maybe we should have that system? Do you have the feeling that I do that that wouldn’t probably replicate in the US?
Tyler: I’m not sure the United States would be so different. Not everyone who goes to our top schools is so brilliant either, right?
Richard: That’s true. But if you look at the average SAT for Harvard or something, it would indicate well into the 90th percentile. Most Ivy League schools would indicate that. If you take SAT as a proxy for IQ, you would get... I don’t know if this is the... Maybe I just don’t know enough about the backgrounds of CEOS…
Tyler: There’s a lot of CEOs who didn’t go to Ivy League schools. They’re from the Midwest. They went to a good but not great undergraduate institution, and they’re worth $350 million. Never went to Harvard Yard. So I’m not sure. I’d love to see the study.
Richard: I think I’m assuming from... I’ve looked at politicians, for example. I’ve looked at senators. Even then, you might get a standard deviation over the mean. A lot of them went to law school. But I’ll admit, I don’t know as much about the backgrounds of CEOs. Maybe it would…
Tyler: I think senators are quite smart, but in the House of Representatives, I don’t think it would be very impressive. I’ve met plenty of them.
Richard: I think that’s right. I think it’s part of it. Do you ever think about our system, because it’s so... You have these House races, right? You have the Senate, and you get two from each state, and you get... There’s a brain drain from these areas. Do you think it’s something having to do with our system? Because I’ve been thinking a lot about just exactly that issue, that a lot of... I don’t know them probably as personal as you, but I’ve found a lot of politicians to be unimpressive. I know there are some systems where the party puts a list, and then people pick from the list. Well, ours is more regionally distributed, so not all our politicians are going to be from the high-powered brain areas of the country. Do you think that’s something unique to America, or do you think politicians in general are maybe not that impressive?
Tyler: I really think it depends on the country. I mean, Singapore, they’re quite impressive, right? The Nordic countries, I think, they’re generally pretty smart, but I would make this point about senators. It’s just a really fun job since it’s not that much responsibility. So people who are very talented and could do a lot of different things, they might be attracted to being senators just because the reward is so high. And that may be one reason why they’re relatively smart.
Richard: You’re right. It might not... You do get a lot of carpetbagging too. I guess that goes against what I was saying. A lot of people go to Harvard or Yale. They move to a certain place, and then they get elected.
State Capacity Libertarianism
Richard: You bring up Singapore. I have a theory, and I wanted to maybe write this out, but I guess I’ll run it by you first about the state capacity libertarian idea.
Richard: It was something that, I think, when you first wrote about it, I think in early 2020 or 2021 was it? I was a bit enamored with it. I always thought there were some clear benefits to something like the Singapore model. But then I saw the Western response to covid. The fact that our state was so incompetent, I think, made some of these restrictions less arduous than they would’ve been. For example, some people would say you’re requiring masks, you’re accepting cloth masks, at least make it N95. I’m like, no, the N95 is a terrible device. I like the fact that I can have a fake mask, and at least comply with it. In that case, I was happy that the state wasn’t that good. I guess one thing, I think, I thought about this state capacity libertarianism is… I think when you combine two things in a movement, and one is politically popular and is the path of least resistance, and one is unpopular, you get the thing that’s easier to enact, and you don’t get the other things. I think with state capacity libertarianism, I think you would probably get, if not state capacity, at least something that looks like state capacity.
Let’s say there was a movement that just said, we’re going to be the state capacity libertarian caucus in Congress. I think what they would do is they would find allies to do all the stuff that expands state power, find few allies who would want to do libertarian things that reduce the power of government and regulations, and you’d end up just getting a more intrusive government. Do you think about the public choice of that, and how it would work out?
Tyler: Well, I don’t feel responsible for the defects of those imaginary people. I would say, I think US state capacity is higher than people now think. I’m very glad we had Operation Warp Speed. That was one of the highlights of our state capacity. And the gains to that were much higher than whatever losses we might have suffered from, say, different mask regulations having been too strict or would have been far too strict had state capacity been higher, or however you want to create that counterfactual. It’s just incredible that we had vaccines so quickly in Operation Warp Speed. That’s the main lesson. You give our state capacity there A to A+. It could have even been quicker, of course. The whole world has benefited. It saved millions of lives. To me, that’s the main lesson. I agree we might piss some of those gains away on other margins. I don’t doubt that. But I want state capacity and libertarian in there. So if you only apply one, of course I’m unhappy.
Richard: I’ve seen people bring up Operation Warp Speed as a success of our state capacity, but I think of the alternative. Operation Warp Speed, couldn’t it have been just seen as government does all these horrible things, like it puts up too many barriers to drug production, and just Operation Warp Speed, besides putting in the orders, it was just basically getting out of the way? It was cutting its own red tape, right? So why not just…
Tyler: Paying upfront had a big effect on incentives. My colleague, Alex [Tabarrok], worked literally for Operation Warp Speed. You could speak to him. He could address it in more detail. But the people who’ve been involved who are not in general just a big bunch of government-lovers typically think it was quite effective.
Richard: Let’s just say you have a state capacity libertarian solution versus just a libertarian solution. The libertarian solution would’ve said, for example, no FDA at all. No FDA doing anything. Sell whatever you want and make whatever profit you want. I think the order, the fact that the government... It was a second-best option. The fact the government said, we’ll commit to all these pre-orders. I think if you let people just pay for whatever they wanted… Because government, I think, also negotiated to make sure that they wouldn’t profit too much off of the vaccines.
I think if you could have said, make anything you want, charge whatever you want, it could potentially have been better. I guess the question is even in this case where state capacity libertarianism looks good, would perhaps just plain old libertarianism still have been the better solution? What’s good about Operation Warp Speed is the libertarian stuff, and then the state capacity stuff is second best stuff that a non-libertarian government wouldn’t allow to happen.
Tyler: I have more sympathies for the libertarian solution than most people would. But I think in this case, it’s not time consistent. So one issue is simply how do you deal with legal liability? Now the FDA process, for all of its flaws, does give manufacturers the ability to bring the thing to market in a way consistent with corporate law and their other fiduciary responsibilities. So no FDA means everything is fair game in the court system. That is much worse even than the FDA. It’s a bigger constraint. But also, government won’t let them keep the prices high.
Governments confiscate resources ex post. We know that, so you need to reward them upfront, even if in principle you think the higher price would be a better incentive. I would also point out that when there’s an externality through contagion, you don’t want the price of a vaccine to be very high.
Geography, Instability, and Creativity
Tyler: By the way, forgive my throat clearing. It’s having come back from India, and still suffering from air pollution there, speaking of externalities, but I’m fine.
Richard: [laughs] Well, we’re glad. Do they have you quarantine or take tests or anything at this point?
Tyler: No, nothing. And I didn’t get covid there. I had great fun. I was there over two weeks, went to an Emergent Ventures India meetup event. Went all around, saw the Sikh Golden Temple. Now I’m back home. No problems other than the air pollution.
Richard: When I went to the Emergent Ventures Conference, I met some people from India. I saw recently you wrote that it has probably the highest numbers of people of untapped potential in the world. I’ve noticed a lot of people who read my things are of Indian descent, or there are a few from India from Twitter. I’ve met people, like I said, at the Emergent Ventures conference. India is one of the giants of the world. The other is China.
How do you think about the differences between India and China here? I don’t think I met anyone from China at the Emergent Ventures Conference. I’ve never met anyone from China who reads my articles. I’ve met a lot of people from India. Is it just a language thing? Is it language plus the system? Are there cultural population differences, and sort of openness to outsiders? Why does India seem to have a presence in our world while China really doesn’t?
Tyler: I think it’s language plus culture. If you ask who are the two most influential economists of the last 20 years? Now, you could debate that. But if someone said it’s Raj Chetty and then Abhijit Banerjee for RCTs, that’s a totally plausible answer, right? They’re both ethnically Indian. If someone asks you who’s going to run for president in the next election, I wouldn’t bet that it’s Harris versus Nikki Haley, but it’s a totally plausible thing that could happen. They’re both Indian origin, in Harris’ case, only half, but still. China has nothing like that, the list of Indian CEOs.
America is a country that home breeds a lot of great CEOs. We’re not like some lame-ass country that doesn’t have a CEO and we’ve got to import them all. Indians have done remarkably well, so there’s something more synthetic, I think, about India culturally that allows them to slot into a bunch of roles. If you look, say, at biomedicine, I think you will find Chinese are often doing as well as Indians. It’s more of a, maybe narrow isn’t the word, but more of a directly applied internally consistent, doesn’t connect to the outside world very much, sort of endeavor. Like the drug works or it doesn’t. But the more synthetic the task, politics, CEO, economist, I think, for cultural reasons, you’ll find Indians are more prominent.
Richard: The Nikki Haley, Kamala Harris example is interesting, because these are both American, I’m pretty sure Nikki Haley was American born. I know Kamala Harris was.
Richard: You have a lot of native-born Chinese, and you just see massive underrepresentation in politics. You have these people from China not being represented in that world. You also have people from Chinese and East Asian descent generally unrepresented at the highest levels of our politics, especially for their socioeconomic status, so there’s something very, very interesting there. Do you think…
Tyler: Chinese are doing well. If you look at the teams US sends to the math…
Richard: Oh yes.
Tyler: I’m not sure they’re all Chinese, but just visually, you have the sense there’s a high proportion of Chinese on those teams.
Richard: Yes. From looking at them, you can’t tell the US and the Chinese teams apart on these math Olympiads. They look the same. I think, they’re pretty much all Chinese. Maybe there might be a Korean or two in there. They can do math. I mean, I don’t think anyone is doubting [laughs] that the Chinese could do math and engineering, but there’s something about creativity, leadership, CEO, just being entrepreneurial with ideas that is... Maybe wordcel versus shape rotators here is the apt description.
Tyler: I’m not sure that’s it, though. I mean, I’m never happy with that distinction. It seems to me raw startup entrepreneurship is not exactly India’s cultural strength. But again, this idea of synthetic forms of knowledge, where you need many different skills and the ability to combine them. CEOs and politics seems to be where they excel. And if you think of Banerjee or Chetty in economics, they’re both very synthetic thinkers. They bring together a lot of different kinds of insights. They’ve mastered different sorts of techniques or ways of doing economics. I don’t know if any of it comes from Hinduism. I fully recognize, by no means, that not all Indians are Hindu, but it’s a strong background cultural influence in all of India. And it is a very synthetic way theologically of thinking about the world.
Richard: Synthetic, I mean, that’s an interesting word. How do you differentiate that between, say, creativity, say, some people are more... Creativity involves what, taking a bunch of sources and making... Not going down some clear path, but taking a bunch of sources, and trying to make something new?
Tyler: Creativity obviously can be synthetic, but there’s a lot of forms of creativity that are relatively small number of dimensions. You just have some brilliant insight about, oh, this is the new thing to do in a heavy metal tune, and you do it. India seems to have this historical record of being very good at incorporating other cultures without losing being Indian. In a globalized world, that’s a much more important strength than it would’ve been 30 or 40 years ago. It seems to me it’s helped India and Indians a great deal. Indians do well in Canada. At least the cities have become highly synthetic environments, right? A lot of other cultures coming together, you’re dealing with different influences, problems coming at you all the time, if you, say, live in Toronto. And again, that’s not what Toronto was like 40 years ago.
Richard: Right. That’s interesting. I listened to you, I think you were talking to Russ Roberts, where you talked about Germany, and Germany punching under its weight. Do you see Europe on the decline? I mean, my impression is you’re optimistic about the US, optimistic about India. I don’t know how you feel about China’s... I think you’re pessimistic about their role in the world, but I don’t know if you’re bullish or bearish on their potential to keep growing. I get the sense that you’re more pessimistic on Europe. Is that right?
Tyler: Well, I would disaggregate Europe. So England to me, South England is its own thing, but I’m very optimistic there. I’m very optimistic about Ireland, which now is more likely to be called Europe, because it’s in the EU, but I don’t actually think of it as like the continent. But they have the English language, a great time zone. I think wonderful things will happen there. Paris and Rome and Switzerland, I’m very optimistic about. I think, they will be amongst the world’s best places more or less indefinitely, attract the relevant talent from their home countries. Tourists will love those places for totally justifiable reasons. They won’t just be museum pieces either. But that said, Europe as a whole, I think, will grow a percentage point or percentage point and a quarter a year. That’s okay. They’ll still have remarkable human capital and cultural heritage, but I’m not excited about how most of the continent will do. I don’t know if that makes me pessimistic though. That’s what we’ve all expected, right?
Richard: Yeah. Well, I mean, Europe will…
Tyler: It’s great how good the best places on the continent already are and are going to be.
Richard: I mean, I think that’s... For somebody who wants to see dynamism and progress, to say Paris and Rome will be great tourist attractions and the people there will maintain their standards of living, it’s optimistic from one point of view. It won’t be the worst thing in the world to be born in Paris or Rome. At the same time…
Tyler: When I go to Paris, I have great conversations every day, insofar as I want to. So it’s not just, oh, look at the Eiffel Tower. Monet was a great painter way back when. They’re dynamic places, and they’re intellectually alive. I mean, Houellebecq, where is he from? I don’t know where he was born, but he’s really coming out of Paris as a milieu…
Richard: Yeah. For the US, I think the mood, I mean, maybe this is just being on Twitter. It seems very pessimistic. I mean, I think you’ve brought up some good points that this would be reflected in the market. People would be shorting all kinds of things if the US really, over the long run, was going to be in bad shape. People say things like, oh, civil war, we’re going to have violence. I never bought into any of that. What do you think is the difference here? I think, what people think, they don’t look at demographic things. They don’t say, oh, Americans’ birth rate is that low, or they don’t look at anything like that. I think, there’s just a vibe from our politics that…
Tyler: Yeah, they dislike each other. I think we live in a kind of age of derangement. But that can be positively correlated with creativity. I’m increasingly reminded of the English 17th century where people got quite deranged about each other, and it even got violent, right? That was bad. But it’s the beginnings of modern economic growth, like the 1640s, and ultimately the Industrial Revolution.
Richard: I think what people would say is, well, political instability can itself have a cost. With January 6th, with these political cleavages, the idea is that this can potentially translate into something that hurts our standard of living, hurts our economic growth. You say you are worried about that to a certain extent. I bring this up not because I have these worries. I’m not pushing it for that reason. Actually, I think these worries are generally overrated, but what would you have... Let’s talk in terms of probabilities. The US has some kind of big constitutional breakdown, say, in the next 10, 20 years. What would you put that at?
Tyler: Rather than the word breakdown, I would use the word crisis. Chance of a major constitutional crisis, to me, seems a bit over 10%, and that’s uncomfortably high. It was not nearly that high five years ago, 10 years ago. A breakdown, I would think, is a much, much lower chance. You can see it possibly coming, and I think we all should be worried.
Richard: So, a breakdown would be like the Republicans and Democrats have militias in the streets that are fighting each other, and the crisis would be like the Supreme Court rules X, and the president says, I’m going to do Y. Not some kind of weaselly... They always do this. There’s always a weaselly legal thing like, oh, I’m actually complying, but they’re really not complying. It would have to be more substantive than that, right?
Tyler: At least one branch of the government not following the constitution, that seems to me to have popped up on the radar screen as way too high a probability.
Richard: Not just within the branches of the government, you could imagine the states, the states versus the federal government. But I mean, my reading of American history, at least, especially since the Warren Court, since the last 60 years or so, is that they’re really not following the law all the time, and they never say, “we’re not following the law.” They just say, “I have the true interpretation of the law,” and someone says something else. It’s hard to see how we go from that…
Somebody would have to have the political incentive to say, I’m ignoring the Supreme Court, or I’m not following the law, or we’re not going to listen to the president. Which is not impossible to imagine. You can imagine a Republican state not wanting to do what Biden says or something like that. But the most likely scenario, I think, is, I think you’re right. Even if that happens, even if that 10% chance happens, that wouldn’t necessarily hurt our economic growth or hurt our living standards. It could be just something people worry about, and then we settle it, and we move on.
The American Psyche in the Current Year
Richard: Do you worry about the American... There’s a question of whether these things will lead to some kind of real societal breakdown or cleavage or something that could be measured in, say, GDP or rates of violence or whatever. But this stuff also has a psychic cost. Do you worry about the mental health of Americans, spiritually and creative wise what it could do to our culture? There has to be a distortive effect.
It could be better, like you said. You can have these tensions, and you can have these different states, and different regions, and different subcultures, and something could flourish out of that. But it just could also lead to an environment of pessimism and negativity. That’s the flip side, the danger of that, don’t you think?
Tyler: I think there’s a lot of evidence we’re in a mental health crisis already. Now, the parts of it you read about in The New York Times are the mental health crises of intellectuals and media types, which are somewhat their own fault and overblown. But the actual mental health crisis relating from opioids, and covid issues, and lockdowns, and schools being shut down, and people driving 100 miles an hour and so on, those are very real. And a lot of those numbers even predate covid. Covid accelerated and exposed much of what’s happened, but that could be the number one issue of our time in America, the mental health crisis.
Just look at the percentage of young people taking antidepressants, or people who go to therapy, which I’m not at all opposed to, but the percentage of super successful like 32-year-olds I meet, who proudly announce they’ve been in therapy 10 years, and don’t even think that’s weird. Any one of them, it might be the correct thing to do. But the percentage I see of that seems to me crazy wrong and too high for what you would expect. And I think that’s a mental health crisis. I don’t know where it came from. I worry about it.
Richard: As an economist, do you think about the incentives of insurance and the trend towards treating mental health as physical health? So, a third party is paying for it, it’s the same problem with overconsumption of medical services more generally. But here, there’s a bigger problem, because how much you need is sort of by definition in your head. Being always at the psychiatrist is different than getting an extra heart exam or something like that.
Tyler: I don’t know if there’s overconsumption of the service, and I’m also not sure how much therapy helps people. I’m not sure how much antidepressants help people. And I have read in all these areas, I’m just not sure what the answers are. But I’m pretty sure there’s just too much of the malady of mental health problems. You see a version of it in our intellectuals who have just become so negative about each other. I’m sure you see it on Twitter every day. Again, to me, that’s the least worrisome part of it. But a lot of people I’ve known have just flipped out about politics. Again, I might even agree with most or maybe even all of what they say, but it seems to me perspectively, they’re so off. I consider them, I wouldn’t say ideological opponents. But I feel very distant from them, even when I might agree. Like, well, “January 6th, that was terrible. The people committed treason. The this, the that. The FBI was fine to come in and take the materials.” But at the end of the day, I don’t feel I’m living in the same universe as a lot of those people.
Richard: [laughs] Yeah. Well, I mean, some of the political stuff is very weird. So if you propose some kind of regulation that, on trans issues, for example, goes back to what we had in 2010, I mean, the reaction will be “fascism.” This is going to lead to people dying. I mean, it is so disproportionate to objectively what’s going on. I wonder what... I tend to think that it’s such a... I’m previewing something else that I think I might want to write about. So if you look at, for example, the 1990s, and you have the Oklahoma City bombing. You have the bombings of abortion clinics. You have Ruby Ridge. You have Waco. I mean, serious body counts in all these things.
Tyler: Sure. I lived through all this.
Richard: Imagine if this stuff was happening today. People would say... We just saw it on the news. I’m just old enough to remember this. We saw it on the news. We sort of moved on. The level of political violence at the time was much higher than it is today. There aren’t a lot of these incidents today, and yet the pessimism and the worry about our politics is just off the charts. I just have to think it’s social media and the internet. The news always had a negativity bias, but I think the negativity bias has just been so extreme that no matter how good things get, we’re going to be extremely pessimistic about America for the rest of our lives. And that itself is depressing.
Tyler: Some of it may well be social media as an amplifier, but I saw comparable trends on cable TV before social media was much of a thing. So I wonder if the greater interest in social media is not itself an endogenous part of the process. There’s plenty of earlier periods of historical time, maybe on average half of them, where just the social mood is getting worse. And there are particular reasons, but maybe the most general theory is that half the time in history you’re approaching a period of greater derangement. And that might be a more important point than the particular culprits.
Like there are social contagion effects with all communications media, but maybe they’re not actually as causal as they seem. They’re just right in front of our eyes all the time. The 17th century in England, that being so deranged, was that social media? Well, they had all these pamphlets at the pubs, in the alehouses. Maybe it was, but still, that seems to miss the point a bit as well.
Richard: You’re, I think, saying that there’s this dynamic, and it moves in one direction or not. The technology might push us in one direction or another, but you could imagine an alternative history where social media was never invented or never took off. We still might be just going in that direction for whatever reason. Is that what you’re saying?
Tyler: Yeah. It’s like email can carry certain kinds of messages. You can blame the email, but at the end of the day, maybe the messages get carried anyway. It just seems to me it’s prematurely judged far too often. People see it right in front of their face as bias like, oh, I hate that bastard on Twitter. It’s pissing me off. It must be social media. It’s a very crude form of inference, not befitting of real academics, I would say. They need to be more detached. And certainly there could be something to what they’re saying, I don’t dismiss it. But people leap at that explanation so quickly. And I think that is itself part of the derangement.
Richard: I don’t know. I mean, I think that’s just the way social media has you express yourself…
Tyler: You see this the most in Jonathan Haidt, right?
Richard: What do you mean?
Tyler: Well, his take on social media, it’s far too negative, and it’s way more negative than the evidence itself justifies in my opinion. And he’s this weird mix of someone who’s such a huge defender of free speech, but when free speech comes on social media, all of a sudden it’s ruining the world. [laughs] And I don’t really get how he squares all those views. It’s not logically impossible, but it’s not an easy or comfortable fit either.
Richard: I mean, my experience... I don’t know. My experience leads me to think of social media…
Tyler: It seems to me social media are probably bad for 12- to 14-year-old girls, and probably good for most of the rest of us. That would be my most intuitive answer, but very subject to revision.
Richard: I think it’s good. I mean, I think it’s good for me…
Tyler: But they’re bad for a lot of academics. I guess, they get classified in...
Richard: They might be at the...
Tyler: They get lumped in with the 12 to 14-year-old girls, right?
Richard: [laughs] There might be a similarity there.
Tyler: They have something in common.
Richard: I think that’s right, but the thing about the differences… The academics, and the journalists, I would put them in the same category, are the lens through which we see everything else.
Tyler: Of course.
Richard: This could potentially be a problem. I don’t think that the average person working as a manager at Walmart is necessarily driven crazy by social media, although some might. It’s just that everything they consume is produced by the kinds of people who do tend to be driven crazy by social media. That might be a problem. I guess we’ll see. This is a testable hypothesis, right? Either the pessimism will stay with us over the next decades, or we’ll see if it’s possible to have a world where everyone’s on Twitter, and everyone is holding hands and loving each other.
If we can get back to the 1990s level of cultural optimism with Twitter still having its role... Maybe it’s endogenous too. Maybe people stop using Twitter. Just even if people stop using Twitter, I would say that that still works with your cyclical theory of these things, because we’re not slaves of the technology. I think that’s the argument that people make. That it is sort of a deterministic thing, and whether the technology is compatible with a more optimistic cultural worldview, or we can choose to get rid of it, maybe we choose for whatever, memetic social contagion reasons. We stop using it. That would indicate we’re more free. We have options here, right?
Tyler: In my view, the chance of returning to optimism is pretty low. I call it greater weirdness. I just think we’re going to see greater weirdness. I suppose I think what happened with or without social media is weirdness. If you just look at, what, a 25-year period…
Richard: Well, yeah, but is...
Tyler: No, I don’t think they’re the same. The weirdness has all kinds of bubbles of funny kinds of optimism.
Richard: So you think we’re...
Tyler: Like more people believing in UFOs, that’s weirdness. It’s not pessimism per se. It might be, oh, they’re all going to kill us, but it’s mainly weirdness. If you have a 25-year period where you have 9/11, the financial crisis, covid, a bunch of other bad events, war in Ukraine, you’re going to have more weirdness.
Richard: I guess that’s right. 9/11, I think, was an important factor unquestionably in breaking that 1990s level of optimism. I think, society was pretty self-aware about that.
“How Ambitious Are You?”
Richard: Let me go back to the book. It was interesting reading about the Emergent Ventures procedure, because I myself, CSPI, is an Emergent Venture grant winner, so it was interesting reading your philosophy and the thought process behind that. You mentioned in the book, and this is a question that threw me off when I got it, you asked “how ambitious are you?” Can you talk about the benefits of that question? Because I think it’s very interesting. It’s not something I’d heard before, so it took me by surprise. Can you explain why you asked that?
Tyler: That’s a question I like to ask leaders and potential leaders. It’s not actually a good question for most people. I mean, in the extreme, if you’re interviewing a Starbucks cashier, “how ambitious are you?” That’s crazy. If anything, you want them not to be too ambitious so they don’t get bored. But people who are not very ambitious, I’ve just found empirically cannot fake a good answer to that question. You’re not even assessing if they just say yes. Some ambitious people will kind of say no, but they’ll lay out their plans with such detail and enthusiasm, you get the sense they’re quite ambitious indeed, so don’t take them too literally, but gauge how well they seem to have thought through and felt through what they want to do. I think, it’s one of the best questions for prospective leaders of institutions.
Look, I was interviewing an academic not too long ago. I said, “How ambitious are you?” And the answer was, “I want to publish a bunch of papers and get tenure.” Totally honest. I admired the person, but it’s like, come on. At that point, for me, the interview is over. Of course, that is what they’re supposed to do.
Richard: Do you remember how I answered that question?
Tyler: No, I do not. What did you say?
Richard: I don’t remember exactly... I remember how I felt and how I tried to gauge the answer. I don’t remember the exact thing I said, but I remember thinking to myself, if I give an honest answer, I’m going to look maybe crazy, maybe a little bit too ambitious. I mean, I think if I answered it completely honestly, I would’ve said, I want to be... In 100 years, I want people to say Richard Hanania was the greatest thinker of the early 21st century. And society was going this one way, then he came along, and now we’re still reading him and studying him because he’s so smart and interesting. What if I would’ve said that? Would that have been a good answer? [laughs] Or would you have said “This is too much. This is a little bit crazy.”
Tyler: No, that would’ve been fine, and probably, I mean, my guess is whatever you said, I read as you saying that. So in a sense, you did say that.
Richard: I tried not to. [laughs] That’s all I remember, that I was trying not to say that, but I must have.
Tyler: Trying not to say it is in a way how you say it, right? So, that’s part of the point of the question. It’s very hard to not tell the truth no matter what the literal words might be expressing. The people who have no ambition, they can’t even fake holding in their true ambition. They don’t even know how to do that. It’s like, oh, I want to publish a bunch of papers and get tenure. Eject!
Richard: In academia, do you think this is... You’ve talked about the feminization of social life, feminization of academia. I remember writing papers or having ideas. The feedback I’d often get would be, it’s too ambitious. It’s trying to explain too much. It’s trying to do too much. I’ve always thought that there was such a cultural bias against that. It’s fine to be on the lookout for research that’s too ambitious and doesn’t have good methodology for answering the question that it wants to answer. But if that concern leads you to not ask important questions at all, and I think that’s where academia is, then what’s the whole point of the enterprise? Do you see academia... I think you probably do, overly risk averse, but is that how you would think about it?
Tyler: I would like to see people be more intellectually ambitious. They are in some ways more ambitious than ever before, like how much money they earn, or how good a school they get tenure at. There’s a whole bunch of dimensions where ambition is way higher than 20 or 30 years ago. I was definitely around in those days. I remember it quite well. But intellectual ambition, ambition of curiosity, ambition of influence, seems to me they’re all down. A lot.
The Feminization of Academia
Richard: I was a little bit surprised by your chapter on the... It was about talented women and minorities. Because you’ve talked about the feminization of academia. I know you don’t think it’s all bad. I don’t think anyone can say it’s all bad. It’s obviously changed things a lot, but there’s a... It is an open empirical question whether we’ve gone too far in making women comfortable in academia and other professional settings, or we haven’t gone far enough. I think the tone of the chapter was we haven’t gone far enough. Is that how you see it, and can you defend that?
Tyler: Sure. Well, if it’s academia, one thing we could do is change the current system of tenure clocks. I don’t think women are the main reason to do that, I think there’s plenty of other reasons to reform tenure. But the way the tenure clock falls now, it’s exactly running against when most women tend to want to have children. That’s another reason to do it. I mean, look at Katalin Karikó with mRNA vaccines. That’s incredible. That’s feminization. I’m a big advocate of it. It mobilizes much, much more talent.
But that said, we’re in this funny in-between world where things are feminized, and they’re not. The rules are unclear. It’s not all working that well, but there’s no reversing the feminization, right? It’s like figuring out how to make it work better. I think we should do that.
Richard: The tenure clock, I mean, I think there’s all kinds of good reasons to... I think just the way we think about time in academia. I think, we think that people live to be 200. I mean, for a man to get a PhD, postdoc, not start his career until his mid-30s, I think is also... It’s not good with the male biological clock either. Men at some point have to become adults and self-supporting and have children too. Maybe it’s worse for women, but I think this to me is in the category of things that’s just... The reason to do it is overdetermined. There’s a lot of reasons to make everything shorter and compress it.
But then you think about just the way we talk. I’ll go back to my own experience of academia. Again, it’s considered rude or gauche. If I was in a seminar... Economics is famous for being not as much like this as say political science. But in political science, if somebody just has an idea and you say, I think that’s wrong. It’s wrong because of X, Y, and Z. That’s a bad variable. That’s a bad dataset. That, I think, people would consider you sort of mean. That was my impression. You couldn’t directly challenge people. I think I do see that as feminization. When I hear complaints about economics, coming out of political science, I’m like, oh wow. Economics sounds more like what I wish political science was. I attended some workshops of law and economics at the University of Chicago, so I got a little bit of a sense of this. I think that, in particular, too much agreeableness, I think, is just poison for the search for truth. If you want to categorize that as feminization versus not, many men are going to be uncomfortable with that. I just think that’s something we need to get. We just have to normalize saying A is correct, B is wrong. This methodology is good, this methodology is bad. These people are right, these people are wrong. I just don’t think we do enough of that.
Tyler: I think I agree with that, but I would stress the point we’re going to need a feminized version of acceptably publicly voiced disagreement. We can’t go back to how things were. There are many feminizations. Women disagree with each other publicly all the time. I don’t think you can say there’s no way to have feminized open disagreement. The new thing we should evolve toward, to understand how to make it good and sustainable, we need to understand it will be some kind of partially feminized version of disagreement.
Richard: Yeah. Although, I mean, how much feminization we want depends on the rules that we set, how welcoming they’re going to be. It’s not like there’s a set of number of women who are going to be in academia or who are going to be in political leadership roles. The choices we can make about these things also influence how much we have to accommodate. It’s just very hard. I mean, it is very difficult to... I’m trying to imagine what would this feminized version of disagreement look like in an academic setting. I mean, I think the point is these feminized ways of communicating are by their nature designed to take into account feelings more than objective truth.
Just to have a crude stereotype of “men are like this, women are like this.” Men sit there. They fix a car. They’re focused on the thing. They don’t stop in the middle of it, and say, “how are you feeling?” They’re trying to find the right answer. If you imagine a feminized way of going about solving a problem, it seems like femininity itself as a way of communication style is, by definition, geared towards taking into account feelings, putting less emphasis on truth. Maybe...
Tyler: That contrast, I don’t agree with. I think, men have their own ways as they go along of asking, “well, is this okay? What are your feelings?” They just don’t recognize them as such. And women have their own ways of caring about truth more than men do. Men don’t always see it as such. And in my view, feminization cannot be reversed, should not be reversed. We need more female talent in most, maybe all of the sciences. And we probably will figure out a better way of making things work than what we have now, but I don’t think that’s the main difference between men and women. I don’t think women care, say, less about scientific truth than men do. Men are like the grand system builders on average who make up all the bullshit, right? How much of that stuff is true?
Richard: Well, it’s...
Tyler: If you’re going to generalize, women are doing healthcare economics, and most of it’s correct. So who cares about truth more?
Richard: Well, you picked one field. You picked... I could find examples of...
Tyler: I know. I’m just saying there’s a lot of different ways to slice the bread here.
Richard: Right. Is it difficult to hear like… You can have this women’s division, and you can have this men’s division. Is it hard to bring them together... Is that part of the challenge here, and that it’s like bringing two cultures together, but they’re more separate? Men and women are more different than various cultures. I mean, you bring people from different countries here to the US. You bring people from China, India, Africa. It doesn’t seem like there’s a big difference in how, say, men of American background versus these foreign men… it doesn’t seem to be causing serious disputes on college campuses. Can we just see it maybe as an extreme culture clash? Maybe the answer here is some kind of educational or labor market segregation, where you can have these men things, and you can have these women things, and then you avoid the difficulties of some things making some people uncomfortable and not others?
Tyler: I think the gains to integration are very, very high, and we will become much better at it. But if you look at, say, scientific research teams, vaccine teams. Like who succeeded with the vaccines? Bunch of teams full of women. Novavax was some incredible ratio of women to men. I forget the numbers. So, we’re going to make it work. We’re already making it work. We do have to get a lot better at it.
Richard: Yeah, but that sounds like just labor market segregation. You have biology. Women organically chose biology more than physics or STEM. If the teams end up being 70% or 80% women, great, I don’t mind that. And then you look at these software startup builders, and they’re all men. Maybe we need a level of comfort with this idea that these spaces will be all women, these spaces will be all men. Some of them will be integrated perfectly 50/50. I don’t know how many markets end up like that, just because it seems to me that institutions and fields of study, they tend to draw one or the other. Then you have this cycle where they build one kind of culture and not another. I’m not arguing for the state-enforced gender segregation of the labor market. I think you get it sort of organically. Maybe we should just be okay with that, I guess, is what I’m asking.
Tyler: If the top chess tournaments are all men, which as you know is the case, doesn’t bother me at all. But just predictively, I expect the big advances to be made by closely integrated teams, integrated in multiple ways, but here I’m meaning gender.
And the mRNA teams, I don’t know the exact numerical… but it’s a lot of men and a lot of women. It’s not like 80/20. Novavax was unusual that it was so many women in the Maryland facility. That’s great.
Richard: What about the other part of that chapter on women and minorities? Are you under the impression that these... My impression is that, yeah, I mean, it could be true that somebody of black or Hispanic descent, they might have different cultural norms than people of white descent. I think there’s major differences between whites of different socioeconomic classes and regions and ethnicities. Is this something that is... I guess I’m seeing it in the context of, we worry about it. We make it such a big deal in our culture. Is it a good idea… When we’re rating a problem as a nine, and it’s really a four, I mean, is it reasonable to think that maybe we should be just saying things are working out fine, and this is not really as big of a problem as most people think?
Tyler: I’m not sure how much of a problem most people think it is. Maybe one big subset of media overrates it as a problem, but I don’t think the country as a whole does. I think the country as a whole probably underrates it as a problem. I mean, I’m just struck by data on, say, African Americans who seem to experience much higher levels of stress than what you might call normal white guys. That to me is a serious problem. I suspect the country as a whole underrates it. But if you want to tell me, well, The New York Times overrates it, I’d want to see what they said, but that could certainly be true. It wouldn’t shock me if that were true.
Richard: Yeah, but I think the way that people feel is shaped by The New York Times and how we talk about it. I don’t know if you’ve seen data that’s been floating around that if you ask black people, “how much racism do you experience?”, if you compare them to late 1990s, early 2000s to today, today they say there’s much, much more racism. Objectively, I don’t know how you find that. I don’t know what metric you would use other than people’s feelings. But one theory is that our education establishment and the media just told people that racism is everywhere. It’s a big deal. You should be stressed about it, and it’s oppressing you all the time. Then people came to believe it, right? It would be a self-fulfilling prophecy if that’s what happened.
Tyler: Well, I would just say that whole communications campaign in my view has been a miserable failure either on its own terms or in different ways in which you or I might disagree with it. I just think it’s a failure.
Wokeness Around the World
Richard: One thing you said that was interesting was one of your articles is about the question of wokeness. You’re a critic of the woke in some way, but you’re also... You have an interesting angle on it. You said something in your article that these Gulf Arab monarchies are becoming more woke. The idea is there’s a spectrum here from Saudi Arabia to the campus of UC Berkeley or something like that, or the streets of Portland or whatever. Is that how you see the wokeness issue?
I don’t see it as exactly like that. I see wokeness as more... Maybe this is just a way for me to oppose wokeness without having to support Saudi social customs or whatever. I think that the better view is there’s an obsession with creating equality of results, a blank slatist commitment to explaining differences between groups. And I don’t see that on the same spectrum as, say, Saudi Arabian gender segregation. Can you defend thinking about wokeness in these very, very broad spectral terms?
Tyler: Well, I would say look at wokeness as a whole. It has many bad effects, like encouraging people to think about equality of outcomes far too much. And it has a bunch of good effects, like raising people’s awareness of, say, gay rights. In Singapore, they just reaffirmed gay marriage is illegal, and they also made it very hard to reform that. People who are woke, whether you want to include that in the definition of woke or just empirically observe the woke, almost always are quite against that. And the woke there are correct. Most of the world should be more woke, so how can you be totally against the woke?
Now, do I think wokeness has been bad for American campuses? Absolutely. For US politics, I would say complicated, but the good thing about the woke is just they help their opponents more than they help themselves. If you just take them straight up, it’s been bad. It might be good in this roundabout indirect way. But look, the world as a whole… I’ve been to over 100 countries. Most of them should be more woke. I was just back from India, been to Pakistan. I just don’t doubt that. It’s hard for me to see why that isn’t self-evident.
Richard: Have you had experience…
Tyler: It’s some of the bad parts of the package deal. Yes, I would prefer to unbundle the package, but it would still be better if they got more of the package.
Richard: Do you think... I don’t know how much experience you’ve had with lower class Americans, lower middle-class Americans. Would you apply that analysis to them too? Do you think they should be more “woke?”
Tyler: Many. My family started off as lower middle class. You could even say lower class. They didn’t end up that way by the time I was, say, 18 or 20, but that is my background. If I think of say my sister who is gay and was gay, it was very hard for her to come out. If I think of my high school in the 1970s, the rate of gay people in that high school is probably about the same as what the rate would be now, but not one person felt they could come out. That just seems to me extremely wrong. It has on average been worse in lower middle-class culture in this country, and, yeah, those people should be more woke.
Richard: Well, do you think that... I mean, just to flag, you said the number of gay people are probably the same then as now. According to surveys, there was a report from CSPI that you probably saw that the number of young people identifying as gay is five times or something ridiculous…
Tyler: A lot of that’s just posturing. People who actually want to live a life where they are primarily gay or bisexual, I’m not saying it’s exactly the same. I don’t know. But there were plenty of people back then who were gay. This I know. Since then, most of them have come out and for the better, but at that time, it was not possible to do so, and their lives were made miserable, often for decades. And that was a failing of this country not being woke enough.
Richard: I tend to take the rationalist view on these things. I’m not a person who says if people are grossed out by something it should be banned in most cases. There’s just bad cultural practices that we should get beyond. On this question in particular, I wonder if there was a kind of Chesterton’s Fence kind of thing. Because when people were arguing against gay marriage 20 years ago, they said it would lead to the breakdown of society. It would break down gender roles. It would create confusion. Then if you look at what’s happened just very soon after gay marriage, it’s like all of human history until 2010 or so, 2011, we don’t have any gay marriage. Then we have acceptance of gay marriage. Within a decade, we have skyrocketing rates of depression. We have it concentrated in people who are liberal, people who identify as LGBT…
Tyler: They’re not liberal! They’re illiberal, but please continue.
Richard: Well, they’re left wing, right? They self-identify as left wing. So, maybe society had some wisdom here in suppressing something that could easily get out of control, and make every... I understand there’s a minority of gay people who want to live their lives as they see fit. But maybe suppressing that was the price to pay for this sense of normalcy, and for encouraging what works for most people most of the time. Is that a view you could be sympathetic to?
Tyler: I don’t think that would pass a causal identification test. So legalizing gay marriage, causally, it seems to me, made marriage somewhat stronger, reaffirmed traditional values, and took away some interesting, but probably better left taken away, parts of promiscuous male gay culture. Those seem to me the causal effects. Now, I do think what happened is we got a whole bunch of social trends together, like the good side of woke, the bad side of woke. The good side of woke legalized gay marriage. The bad side of woke did a bunch of other bad things, but it wasn’t legalizing gay marriage that led to the bad things. That seems to me really extremely unlikely.
Richard: I would not single out the legalizing gay marriage. I think civil rights law has a huge role to play here. And I always thought that creating new identity groups, I think, is just a bad thing. It leads to things like government coming in, telling a school you can’t... I think that just leads to issues with freedom of association, freedom of speech. Once you go down that path, I think you get a lot of the problems we see today, but I wouldn’t put it all on gay marriage. I would’ve taken gay marriage as a compromise, not to have the anti-discrimination laws, which I think are much more problematic. But I get your point. I wouldn’t put it all on gay marriage.
Tyler: But I wouldn’t put any of it on gay marriage is what I’m saying.
Richard: Well, it’s hard. I think, you had to take it as a bundle. If you put me back 15 years ago, and you said, are you pro or anti-gay marriage? I would’ve said, maybe this compromise I would be happy with, but I think there’s a bundle coming, and I think it’s going to be more bad than good, so it’s part of that bundle. It’s just the most visible of the issues that were included in that bundle.
Tyler: I like to work to unpack the bundle, but part of the unpacking is to defend the good parts and criticize the bad, and gay marriage is one of the good parts.
Richard: Got it.
Courage and Conformity
Richard: Tyler, I’m conscious of your time. I just wanted to ask you before I let you go. You ask, “how ambitious are you?” to people. What your goal? What do you see as your role in the intellectual ecosystem, in American intellectual culture more generally? Is it just you’re looking for interesting people? Are you trying to push the culture in a way? Are you trying to be an evangelist for human progress and trying to facilitate it? How do you see what you’re doing? There’s nobody like you, so I’m just interested in how you conceive your role.
Tyler: Well, maybe a lot of those things. I did write an essay for Mercatus once called something like My Personal Moonshot that you can Google to rather easily where I lay it all out, I think, pretty clearly. One angle of it I would stress is I like learning things, and I like having fun, and I’m pretty selfish. And I want to be learning things every day. And the way my life is structured now, I can do that. So getting back to the senator idea, I’m kind of like an intellectual senator, but I have a very good arrangement: a lot of diversity in the kinds of things I can build or create, time to read, freedom to write, a number of different outlets, a high degree of freedom of speech, high degree of autonomy, a high ability, I think, to help other people. And I’m pretty happy with that. So just the narrowly selfish interpretation of, this is good for me to do so I’m doing it, goes a long way. It doesn’t contradict a bunch of the other things you cited, but… Why shouldn’t I do it?
Richard: [laughs] Right. Why do you think more people don’t do it? Because when you’re a tenured professor, you have so much freedom. It seems to me that most people just do what they did before they had tenure. Why do you think you’re actually unique here?
Tyler: I’ve never fully grasped this. I do think a lot of people lack courage. Daniel and I talk about this in the book. Courage as an important feature of talent, I think, is grossly underrated. Again, you don’t need it for plenty of jobs. But for plenty of jobs, you do, and certainly in academia you do. Am I allowed to curse on your podcast?
Richard: Sure. Go ahead. Most people don’t ask. That’s good. Go ahead.
Tyler: I don’t think the right way to explain it is I don’t give a fuck, because I sort of do give a fuck. But at the same time, I have some perspective that I want to do the thing I want to do, and I actually can succeed in doing it, and I’m just not that fearful about what they might do back to me, is a big part of it. But I think I have a few unique abilities that make it easier for me to do. In that sense, I’m not looking down on all the others, oh, you bastardly cowards. It’s just hard for them to do it, and I got lucky in the genetic lottery, and it’s easier for me to do it. That’s another big part of it.
Richard: The courage thing is so interesting because I’m always... I’m amazed by the lack of courage among intellectuals. But then you look at men generally. So, something happens, like Russia invades Ukraine. It seems like when there’s a war or something, it seems like you can have a constant stream of men going out, being willing to risk themselves, engage in physically very brave activities. Countries all over the world, they have drafts. They go die by the millions. There’s courage. It’s too simple to say men are cowardly, but then you’re looking for people to say politically incorrect things. They’re scared. That always drove me crazy [laughs]. Why do men seem more likely to be willing to die – people in general, I’m just focusing on men here – than they are to say politically incorrect things about race or gender or whatever issue? I don’t get it. It’s a very odd aspect of humanity, don’t you think?
Tyler: It may be which way the social pressure cuts. There can be a lot of pressure to enlist in particular wars, and then the courageous thing to do is to not enlist. Even though fighting may be a higher chance of dying, but courage in this sense is subjective. It also amazes me the number of wealthy people who are just afraid. And they could really say f-you to the world, and just go off and live off their money, and be more than fine. People respond to this differently, but it’s not always the marginal incentives that you might expect. A lot of people get more caught up in the trap the more they have, not less. It’s like they earn to be independent, but the more they earn, the less independent they are. That fascinates me as well.
Richard: Likewise. I mean, the idea that it’s all just social pressure, that would be a parsimonious explanation of what’s going on... Having the right attitudes on a college campus and fighting a war, they look very different. One looks like being meek and submissive to the collective, and the other one looks brave and masculine, but they’re the same thing. They’re just responding to social pressure. So if you just assume human beings are social creatures, and highly influenced by what other people are doing, I guess that would explain it all, right? It’s all just conformity.
Tyler: Here’s another factor, and this worries me. It’s very hard in contemporary society to help other people a great deal unless you are yourself like politically acceptable. And I think there’s a lot of people. They’re not cowards, they really want to help others. But for them to continue helping others, they’ve got to stay on one side of the line. That’s one of the more screwed up things we’re doing. If you could be considered socially out there and unacceptable, but we still would let you help other people, I think we’d have a better discourse, a better society. I know that’s hard to pull off, but it seems to me it should entirely be possible. That’s one of those things we need to learn, because it’s not all just people being cowards.
Richard: Sometimes it’s self-sacrificial. You’re right. So if you’re a professor for example, and you need to write the letters of recommendation and help place your students, you’re in a position where your actions don’t only harm yourself, they harm others, right? That is...
Tyler: Yeah, or you’re Bill Gates, and now people say all these things about you. I don’t follow those debates, but his ability to help other people is way lower than it had been.
Richard: Do you think that with greater cultural and political polarization, that takes care of it? Because for example, you look at somebody like Peter Thiel, who’s... He could have just stayed a more neutral cultural figure, he could have decided that. He would probably have less influence on politics today if he did it. He put his chips in with being more influential on the political right, and maybe overall that gives him more power. So is maybe greater polarization and political discord a way to create these bubbles, in the sense of like, “ok, this side hates you…” This is not going to work in academia where it’s a monoculture. Everything else like, this side hates you, these other people like you, and that creates good incentives for people to maybe go a little bit out there.
Tyler: There’s a lot packed into there, but I would first challenge the view that we’re so polarized. I don’t think we are. We are in the sense that we hate each other a lot, but in terms of people agreeing how the federal budget should be spent, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen more agreement in my lifetime, for better or worse. We’ve packed all the polarization into a smaller number of dimensions, is how I would describe it. But we might be less polarized.
I’m not sure Peter Thiel is politically influential. I mean, I guess we’ll see after these senate races, but I wouldn’t take that for granted. I think, Peter’s doing what he thinks is right. I don’t know if it’s influential. There are boomerang effects in politics, just like woke. Maybe they’re just helping elect Republicans. Some of that’s been undone by Dobbs and the abortion stuff, but if somehow that were on a different trajectory, clearly, the impact of the woke would’ve been to elect more Republicans. Now it’s more up for grabs.
Richard: You’re right. Maybe we’re not polarized. It’s funny how little debate there is on these budgetary matters compared to the Tea Party 12 years ago, where there seemed to be some actual intellectual difference there. But the affective polarization… Political scientists, they talk about affective polarization, just how much you hate other people.
Tyler: That’s clearly up.
Richard: But that can have the effect that I’m talking about, right? Because if I’m canceled by group X, then group Y might be more favorably inclined to me, and therefore I have more room to influence group Y. At least I’m not a non-person. I think it’s getting harder to have, outside of academia, a complete societal cancellation. There’s people on the far right and the far left who I think are more influential than they could be, the most outer edges, just because there’s so much polarization. Like if The New York Times writes hate piece on Mr. X, even if Mr. X is pretty bad, we don’t want to do what The New York Times says, so we accept that person. I feel like that gives people more room to... Maybe it brings in some odious figures to the public debate, but also gives other people just more room to say what they think.
Tyler: But even that phrase, odious figures, I’m made uncomfortable by. Like okay, you can cite Hitler. Hitler’s odious. I think we make ourselves stupider. I like to ask this question: does this person favor price controls on prescription drugs? Well, they might, they might not. To me, that’s a terrible view that will kill many thousands of people, maybe more. But I don’t think of those people as odious. I think, they’re wrong about something. If someone’s called odious, I’ll just ask myself, well, are their views worse than the views of someone who wants price controls on prescription drugs? [laughter] Like, who’s odious? I know there’s the Hitler thing, and Godwin’s law, but we have got to mostly move past that, and just focus on the ideas and being more analytical.
Richard: I think that’s right. I was using the term just sort of a…
Tyler: No. I know. I’m not blaming you. If anything, you react against this. I get your role in this debate.
Richard: Exactly. I guess I’ll ask one last question. What do you think, in that context, about social media censorship? Do you see it as a big problem, because that seems to be the way that some of these people get excluded from society?
Tyler: No, I don’t. Keep in mind, I grew up in a world where there were three network television channels, and then PBS. And there was radio, a transistor radio was a new thing. That was kind of like the internet. Do I think some people have been kicked off who shouldn’t have been kicked off? I do think that. But relative to the gains, it’s such a small amount that’s been coughed back up.
Richard: No, I agree. I’m not asking about that.
Tyler: I would, at the margin, have fewer people kicked off.
Richard: I’m not asking about how much free speech, how much diversity of opinions, we see compared to the 1970s or ‘80s. I just say compared to what it could be, how big of an issue do you see social media censorship in shaping our political environment, and contributing to this stuff, and just making some ideas off limits?
Tyler: I’m still a libertarian on this issue. I run a blog. If someone put up a comment that was anti-vax in a stupid way, I would just delete it. If Twitter, Facebook, Meta now, want to do that, I say great. Though I agree they’ve made some mistakes, but I think it’s within their right. I think often it’s a good thing they do it, and wonderful. It’s their property. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else.
Richard: I have a blog too. I also censor comments, so I guess I’m in no place to speak. I guess that’s the case for libertarianism. It’s always my freedom to do X is almost always more important than to take away someone else’s freedom. If you told me a trade where Twitter would not be allowed to censor, and I wouldn’t be allowed to... Actually, I would take it [laughs] …but I get the point that we all curate when we have the opportunity to do so.
Tyler, is there anything... Do you have any projects coming up now? You just finished this book. Is there another book in the pipeline, or anything else you want to talk about?
Tyler: Well, expanding Emergent Ventures is taking a lot of my time. I’m working with Shruti Rajagopalan to build out Emergent Ventures India. That’s really her project, but I can be of help in some ways. I have a long-term project to be writing a book on my views on the history of economic thought, but I also would like to write a sequel book to the one I just published with Daniel. So all this goes on at once, and sooner or later, it’s all going to happen.
Richard: What’s the sequel going to be? What’s the difference going to be between that and the original?
Tyler: I think we need more good ideas first, and the sequel comes out of the ideas rather than being planned top-down. But the natural sequel would be to extend the last chapter on how to motivate talent, how to retain it, how to develop it, and not just how to find it. That’s the most likely sequel. But again, if the ideas evolve in some other direction, so be it.
Richard: Gotcha. Well, Tyler, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for joining us.
Tyler: Great. Take care. Thank you for the chat.
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