Recorded December 1st, 2020
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JEFF HOLMES: To get started, Tyler, I thought it best to start with the big change this year. Obviously, the pandemic started in March, and that forced a change in the production of Conversations with Tyler.
Unlike a lot of other podcasts, we had never done a remote interview before April. Well, March was our first remote interview with Russ Roberts, when we did the live bonus episode right after everything shut down. We’ve had to make this abrupt shift from doing absolutely every episode face-to-face to now not being able to do any face-to-face. And I wonder how that change has affected you, your preparation.
TYLER COWEN: It’s changed my life doing these remote, but it’s also made me much more optimistic about the American economy. I was convinced that doing them remote would be terrible. “Oh, you can’t do them remote.” It turns out we had to do them remote. I’ve asked a number of people, and basically, they can’t tell the difference, as listeners, whether or not it’s remote. They can tell by the fact that they’re seeing the two separate little boxes on YouTube, but they seem, to me, just as fine.
So I think you have to wonder, how much of our economy can we in fact do remote? People like me have been saying, “No, we can’t do this remote,” and we can. I think having been forced into that new mode, there are, in fact, big productivity gains on their way. That said, we do hope to return to doing a lot of them face-to-face as soon as we can. We’ll see when that is. But I, for one, will not be hesitating to get my vaccine.
You know what the biggest change has been from the pandemic is not having proper access to the library. A lot of people — it’s hard to prepare for them because you’d have to get all these books.
I even said, “Oh, Jeff and Dallas, we need to pick some economists because to prepare for economists, you don’t really need to read books.” Is that like a little bit of an insult? Anyway, we did a bunch of economists. I thought they turned out great. And that was because of the pandemic. That was the bigger change in going from face-to-face to remote — my reading habits.
HOLMES: To jump to a listener question, then, will there be a split in terms of face-to-face and remote? Will you go back — even acknowledging that maybe it’s not that different, but for you it’s important. Maybe it’s just a differentiator in your mind to do it face-to-face. Will you go back 100 percent face-to-face post-vaccine? Or do you think there’ll be some split?
COWEN: Well, I just like meeting the people, above all. That, in a sense, is my wage for doing things. We want to do Lydia Davis up in Albany. I suspect she would do remote. I’m not doing it because I want to meet her.
But I suspect it’s the other side of the market that will constrain us. They’ll be like, “Well, you don’t have to come up. We’re willing to do it remote.” Actually, they’re terrified that I didn’t really get a vaccine after all, or the vaccines don’t work. Or maybe you’re carrying tuberculosis by then.
No, I don’t think it’s going to be up to us for quite some time. I’ll just take what reality sends me. We have a backdrop of remote. It works fine. We’ll see what we can do past that.
HOLMES: We’ll get into predictions at the very end on some of this stuff.
You mentioned we shifted composition to people you don’t have to do as much research on.
COWEN: Or online research, right? It’s not that there’s no research, but I don’t need the books of the library.
HOLMES: In terms of the composition of guests. Otherwise, we didn’t really do a lot of COVID programming. In fact, I’d say we did more counter-programming to COVID. We did a few, notably Paul Romer and Glen Weyl.
In terms of the guests or episodes, how do you think the composition — other than the obvious — was affected by our switch? Do you think we got different guests than we normally would?
COWEN: I don’t think so much. We’re well enough known now that, say, people with a new book out — they simply want to do us, whether we deserve them or not, so that’s good.
Maybe doing something like flying to London to do Karl Knausgård — I would have tried something like that again, I’m not sure with whom. Like fly to Italy and yell out Elena Ferrante’s name and hope she appears with a tape recorder. Something like that would have happened, and it didn’t.
We had three COVID episodes. I’m glad we had three, but COVID has been covered very heavily by me on Marginal Revolution, and I think whatever I have to say, people get there, and it changes so quickly. I’m happy with the three we did, and probably it’s going to stay at that.
HOLMES: This was a year of repeat guests. We had Fuchsia Dunlop last year, but it was a bonus episode. But this year we had Ezra Klein for the second time, promoting a book; Ross Douthat promoting a book, as you mentioned; and then Russ Roberts as the bonus episode, as a third. And Paul Romer, I forgot Paul Romer. We did him a second time as well. Do you anticipate doing more repeats in the coming year?
COWEN: Well, I guess my new view is they’re all bonus episodes, right? I don’t want to say we’re going to do more repeats because it might get some people’s hopes up, but in fact, the repeats were really good.
How many of these have we done, Jeff? Do you know?
HOLMES: In total, let me get a real-time fact check from Dallas. Counting this episode, which will be the last of the year, it’ll be 112.
COWEN: OK, so well over a hundred. That’s a lot of people to be dredging up from the ranks, and if someone’s really good, they have more than an hour to say. Even if someone isn’t really good, they have more than an hour to say. Maybe we’ll do some more repeats, right? It depends what people are up to.
HOLMES: We did have one guest who, sadly, we will not have a chance to ever interview. Last year, we had a confirmed time to interview Clayton Christensen. Unfortunately, he had to postpone because his health took a turn for the worse, and then he passed away at the very beginning of the year. We’ll never get to hear that interview. What were you hoping to learn from Clayton Christensen?
COWEN: How he thinks disruption really works, how to improve the case study method at Harvard Business School, how his Mormon upbringing and faith has influenced his ideas on management. What’s his favorite movie? There’s plenty we would have had to talk about with Clay. He was a fan of what we were doing. Very sad that will never happen.
On most popular — and most underrated — episodes of 2020
HOLMES: All right. Let’s go a little bit into the numbers of CWT this year. We’ll talk about the most popular episode picks for most underrated episode this year, and then we’ll get into some Name That Production Function, our favorite segment on these year-in-review episodes.
First, by the numbers, we did — counting this one — this will be our 29th episode of the year, so that’s pretty typical for the past few years. That’s once every other week, plus a few bonus. Any idea what the most downloaded episode was of this year?
COWEN: I don’t know at all, but my guess would be Matt Yglesias.
HOLMES: You are correct. Matt broke the record for first-week downloads.
There is a bias that we get growing listenership over time. So earlier episodes will do slightly worse than later episodes in the year. So if you look in the first six months, Adam Tooze was the record breaker, which was a big surprise, actually, to me. I had no idea how ardent the Adam Tooze fan base was, but he was also on Macro Musings, David Beckworth’s podcast that we produce here at Mercatus, and it did very well over there too. Adam Tooze is very popular.
COWEN: And it was a good episode. Adam and Matt are indicating Twitter really matters for your podcast audience, right?
HOLMES: Yeah. And of course, Matt Yglesias is shortly thereafter making moves and striking out on his own, and also recently announcing that he’s becoming a senior fellow over at Niskanen.
COWEN: That’s right. That surprised me, but it’s good. Good for them, good for him.
HOLMES: What are your picks for underrated? I’m not necessarily equating this with listens, but listens does factor into it.
COWEN: Well, I don’t even know how any of them are rated. I thought the Alex Ross episode was really good. I suspect Wagner fans rate it pretty highly, but there aren’t so many of them, so that’s one of my picks for underrated.
Jimmy Wales — I’m not sure it’s underrated, but I think precisely because he’s been successful and moderate and reasonable, Twitter doesn’t go crazy over him one way or another. My guess is that will do very well in the long run, but in the short run, it was not like a super social media–driven thing because he is not insane. I would name that as underrated.
Those would be the two picks that come to mind right away, but maybe you can tell me.
HOLMES: I think if you look at who underperformed, you clearly see a bit of a, you might call it a liberal arts bias. When we have guests that are less known, (A), and (B), that they’re talking about music or fiction, that’s when you tend to see a dip.
Then I would say, weirdly, the episode performed decently, but John McWhorter — as I was looking through the stats, I was surprised. I would say he underperformed. I would say — to the extent that that tells you something about how people rated it — then I would say John McWhorter, underrated.
COWEN: Here’s what I suspect went on there. He is so available in the podcast forum that you don’t need to come to us. Until very recently, Adam Tooze was quite underexposed in the podcast forum, and that’s being remedied for the better. We were the go-to Adam Tooze place.
On naming production functions (i)
HOLMES: All right, let’s jump into a round of Name That Production Function. We’ll do two rounds of this. As a reminder to you, I’ve gone through and picked some of my favorite answers from responses to your inquiries about a guest’s production function. I picked some of my favorites. I’m going to read you a quote and you guess who it is. All right?
COWEN: I’d be lucky to get one of these because I treat the segment as telling me what not to do, not like something I should remember to do.
HOLMES: But some of these are really easy.
COWEN: We’ll see.
HOLMES: Last year, you did really well because you were able to use clues to guess. I think that’ll be true this year. All right, number one:
“I have a lot of projects on the go and switch between them. Kierkegaard called it crop rotation. You work on something, you put it to one side, and then you pick something else up. I gave a Ted talk on this. I called it slow-motion multitasking. I think it’s striking how many very successful people practice this and have these multiple projects on the go. They provide relief. When you’re stuck on something, you just do something else and don’t get stressed about it because you’ve got something else productive to do.”
COWEN: I have no memory, but it sounds like Tim Harford. That’s my guess.
HOLMES: You are correct.
COWEN: Good. Thank you, Tim, for doing so much and reminding me of your productivity.
HOLMES: I think we recorded him late last year, and he released early this year. It does feel, in some ways, like a lifetime ago.
All right, number two. This person’s talking about going to school, like high school. “I mostly did what I wanted to do and not what I was told to do. If I wasn’t interested in a subject, I did very little on it. If I liked something, I would read 12 other books that no one told us to read on the topic. I remember when, in the college application, they had you list all the books you’d read in the last year. I wrote down a list, and then I was so terrified they would think that I was a liar, that I ended up cutting that list in half lest they would think I was making things up.”
COWEN: That sounds like a rich person. Can I guess Reid Hoffman, but again, I don’t remember.
HOLMES: [laughs] I like that your intuition was, it’s a rich person. I don’t know how rich he is, but it wasn’t Reid Hoffman. Any second guess? Recorded very early.
COWEN: Who would that be?
HOLMES: Jason Furman.
COWEN: Oh, that’s right. Yes, yes, of course. He does read so much.
HOLMES: Of course, the story with Jason Furman from a production standpoint is that we recorded him, I think, before the holidays. He was scheduled to release in the first few months of the year. We bumped him because we did have a more pressing episode.
Then we just couldn’t find a natural place to slot him in. He kept getting bumped and bumped and bumped, and only released in the end of the summer sometime. He’s actually our last release that was recorded in person.
COWEN: I still feel bad about that, like I didn’t do him proper justice.
HOLMES: His episode performed really well. There were some — I don’t know — CWT truthers who thought we had some agenda from holding it as long as we did. I can assure everyone it was for banal production reasons, but his episode performed well, so no concerns there.
COWEN: The part where he announced who Q is, right? That just took off like wildfire.
HOLMES: [laughs] No, actually, I will have to say, if I think of a revelation in an episode that I think went underappreciated, Tyler, it’s that you revealed in the Ashley Mears episode that you have a Peloton bike and, at least at the time, a Peloton bike was your main form of exercise. Is that still the case?
COWEN: It is. Whenever the weather is bad, which is fairly often where I live, it’s Peloton every day.
HOLMES: You do the classes and everything or just the bike?
COWEN: The bike. The software confuses me. I can’t figure it out, but the bike is great. Very happy to have it.
HOLMES: This is consistent with the Tyler I know.
COWEN: Exactly. Thank you.
HOLMES: Well, I’m glad to hear the Peloton is still working out for you.
COWEN: Especially now, right? This is late December, so, of course, I’m using it all the time.
HOLMES: All right. Finishing on our first segment on production function, this is a negative production function in the sense that it’s something that this person realized they weren’t good at. Okay. Here it goes. “It turns out it is challenging to manage. It involves real skills. It stressed me out. I don’t think I did a great job of it. You get a good appreciation for the idea that, even though it might be hard to measure or to see externally, there is real skill being deployed in middle management.”
COWEN: I don’t know if I’m going to have any idea, but middle management — I don’t know. Nicholas Bloom worked at McKinsey. Again, that’s a guess, not memory, but how’s that?
HOLMES: That’s a good guess, but not correct.
COWEN: But wrong, totally wrong.
HOLMES: This person was referenced earlier, and hint — they are not managing anyone decidedly now. They have made a recent change.
COWEN: Not managing anyone decidedly now. Everyone’s managing someone, I think.
HOLMES: They’ve struck out on a solo venture.
COWEN: Matt [Yglesias]. Of course, it must be Matt, yes.
HOLMES: Yes. In the early days of Vox, Matt was in more of a managerial position, and he realized it wasn’t for him. Of course, maybe taking that a step further with a solo venture on Substack.
Okay, next one. You will get this one because I’m not going to try to remove the clues.
COWEN: [laughs] If you wrap it up in some software, I promise I won’t.
HOLMES: “I think music critics need to have command of neighboring cultural areas because music is not just separate from the rest of culture, from the rest of our world. When you’re writing about opera, you’re writing about literature as well as music. You’re writing about staging, theater ideas, so every music critic can’t be a pure specialist.” Awesome.
COWEN: That has to be Alex Ross, right?
HOLMES: Correct. All right. Last one in this segment:
“I think almost part of it depends on how you look at the world. Do you look at things and then try to think, ‘Okay, how can I simplify this? How can I take something that’s incredibly complex and narrow on a specific dimension and really understand that in a way that can shed light on the world?’ Then along with that, also being humble about the fact that that doesn’t mean that you’ve understood everything. You’ve looked at one dimension. It sheds light on things, but you need to really know what you don’t know.”
COWEN: That was somebody’s answer?
HOLMES: It was.
COWEN: [laughs] I have no idea. No idea whatsoever.
HOLMES: This one’s hard. I’m trying to think if I can give you a good clue. They’re speaking in a way that would make sense, given their academic work. This person gained notoriety for exploiting a certain econometric technique and has used that to write a number of really good papers in economics.
COWEN: That’s Melissa Dell, then?
HOLMES: That’s correct. Yes. I think her answer was very in keeping with the fact that her papers can tell you a lot about a very specific thing, but she was very careful about saying that it only gives you part of the story, and you have to be really careful about what you don’t know.
COWEN: Sure. I’m looking for tips on how to use my vacuum cleaner so I can write more blog posts in the evening.
HOLMES: Well, you know what you don’t know about vacuum cleaners, I think. That gives us a good excuse to turn to some Twitter questions. How about we go first to a question from Conversations with Tyler producer Dallas Floer. She has a couple of good ones. The first was, what’s your go-to quarantine snack these days?
COWEN: Well, at the beginning, it was pickles, but I got sick of pickles.
HOLMES: I believe you said in your post that pickles were great because they’re always delicious, but you don’t overeat them.
COWEN: I was half right. You don’t overeat them, but that means they don’t stay your quarantine snack. I think just breaking off a piece of Whole Foods 365 sharp cheddar cheese has become my go-to quarantine snack. It is somewhat filling, it has protein, some moisture, and I don’t think it’s that bad for you.
HOLMES: Yes. In the Russ Roberts interview, you said you were doing more cooking. Is that still the case?
COWEN: Yes, but less than I had been then because there’s been outdoor — not right now — but there’s been outdoor dining for most of the year. There wasn’t that when I was speaking to Russ, which was, I think, early to mid-March.
HOLMES: Yes. Here’s another question from Twitter, then. @perrosi1980 says, “Food question: delivery and takeout during lockdown — is it a temporary blip or a permanent change to eating out?”
COWEN: Permanent change. To some extent, I think maybe a third of that shift will stick. I don’t myself like takeout. I think the food tastes much worse. I would just do whatever is possible to make it fresh, served at the right moment at the right temperature. If that means I cook it, so be it. If that means eat outside when it’s cold, so be it, but eat food properly. But I know the world does not agree with me.
I’ve had a small number of dining-in episodes, but I’m always going at 11:00 a.m. when no one else is there. There’s only a small number of places I’ll do even that. Show up at 11:00, order, no one else is there, leave by 11:20. That works in two or three places I go to.
HOLMES: Jared Sylvester from Twitter asks, “What is the post-pandemic outlook for ethnic restaurants? Are any of your heuristics for finding good ones different now?”
COWEN: At least where I live — Northern Virginia — I’ve been surprised, I might even say shocked, at how few of them have closed. They must, in some way, be more thickly capitalized than I had thought. We can debate exactly when how many people will take the vaccine and so on, but it seems most of them are sustainable, or they would have closed by now.
DC is a different story. A lot have closed, or they’re just weirdly boarded up. But where I live, I haven’t lost a single favorite that I’m aware of, and that’s very heartening.
HOLMES: Heuristics haven’t really changed because —
COWEN: Haven’t changed, but I would say this: While the pandemic is still on, the value of comfort food is higher. The value of complicated dishes is lower. They’re harder to pull off under current circumstances. There are issues with kitchen crowding. Staff can be lower.
The good side is, you often have the best person in the kitchen cooking for you. The downside is, complex production is harder. But order simpler dishes, and they will taste better. That would be a new rule — pandemic dining. Order simpler dishes and comfort food. It will taste better, and you will enjoy it more.
HOLMES: I mean, I’m actually ashamed to think I haven’t thought about that when I’m ordering takeout, as I’m not really ordering what I think will actually travel well or hold up well. I still order what I want to taste and what I think will be delicious, as if I were in the restaurant. So that’s a helpful heuristic for me. Thank you.
COWEN: I don’t think buffets will come back post-vaccine. I think they will eventually, but we’ll have to lose the collective memory of being afraid of them.
On how well state capacity libertarianism fared
HOLMES: Let’s switch to another big area that started the year. A couple of listeners indicated they really wanted to hear your thoughts on state capacity libertarianism, given that you started the year with this big post trying to name a new strand of libertarianism, and indeed, arguing that it was the future of libertarianism.
Then we have this major global issue that, at least in my mind, directly relates to some of the key points of tension in a broader libertarian ideology about the proper role of government and what restrictions we might take, short or long term, in order to let the government step in and handle certain problems.
The first post on Marginal Revolution that I found that referenced coronavirus wasn’t until January 23, and I think you were actually linking to a Bloomberg column.
COWEN: That’s correct.
HOLMES: You’ve obviously written about pandemic in preparation before, years ago, but when you wrote this state capacity libertarianism column or post on Marginal Revolution, you weren’t really thinking at all about the fact that there was something brewing in Wuhan.
COWEN: Correct. I had read the Wuhan reports, and I was concerned, but events of concern come out of China fairly often with flu viruses and the like, and I didn’t then think this one was it. I did mention it to some people on WhatsApp, so I was following it.
I think, right now, libertarians are at a war with each other. I’m not sure a state capacity libertarianism is the future of libertarianism, but it’s the future or present of my libertarianism.
Milton Friedman said this, too. He said, “One of the public goods you need government for is to control contagious diseases.” This is that. When it happens, you will best secure liberty by beating back the virus. That does mean, say, subsidies for vaccines and government taking an active role in trying to support testing. We did a better job with vaccines than testing.
That’s the case when you really want your government to have its act together. You can see a big difference between countries where the government did a good job and countries where government did a bad job, and it has long-run implications for their liberty.
What surprised me is how many libertarians moved into a kind of denialism, like, “Oh, this isn’t so bad. It’s only the old people. It only kills whatever percent.” Older, more macho libertarians would have said, “Oh, this virus is terrible. We need to let the market rip to crush it. If we would let the market do whatever, that would be so great. The market would crush the virus better than the government.”
I don’t think that’s quite true as stated, but it would have been a very libertarian response. Instead, I think there’s been a lot of people who’ve gone down different rabbit holes that haven’t really been that fruitful or have involved very off predictions like, “Oh, this thing will be over with by the fall,” or something.
HOLMES: When I read that post now, it seems to be a pretty clear distinction. You’re talking about the old emphasis on, as you say, “We just need to let the market go.” The argument is not, this isn’t a risk. It’s that the best way to solve it is to have the strong market response. Do you see that as being a clean line here of, when you were writing that post and you were thinking of the kinds of people who were emphasizing state capacity more and what it can do to empower individual action are exactly the people who are now arguing with each other in a libertarian community about response?
COWEN: I think who ended up where is 80 percent, 85 percent predictable. I would stress I’m not a big fan of lockdowns. I did think, in March, we did the right thing by closing so many things so quickly because we knew so little and had to prepare hospitals and just figure out that you can do things outside. If you’re modestly careful, it’s probably fine almost all of the time.
Since then, I don’t think lockdowns have been a good idea. I think, really, lockdowns are just shifting exposure through time. What you want to do is get to the point where you are winning the war against the virus, and that you will do better with vaccines and testing.
Even tracing, I have mixed feelings about. Clearly, there are countries that have done it well. I’m not sure I ever thought that would be possible in the United States. We are not a trace kind of country, and same with England. It’s just not something we’re going to be very good at. We’re too big or too complicated or too messy. We don’t even have an integrated system of national ID — which I’m fine with, by the way, that we don’t. But given that we don’t have systematic electronic medical records compatible across all systems, odds are trace was never going to work here, in my view.
HOLMES: A childhood friend of mine and listener to the show, Paul Matzko, suggested this framing, and I’ll just provide it to you: based on the events of 2020, what are the best cases you can make for or against state capacity libertarianism?
Let’s do the pro case. What is the pandemic? How does the pandemic bolster the case for state capacity libertarianism?
COWEN: Well, our best program in the United States, Operation Warp Speed, will have ended up making an enormous difference, getting us vaccines sooner and a broader choice of vaccines. If some of those in the pipeline had failed, the fact that we invested in this portfolio of seven would have turned out to have been very important. As I’m speaking, we’re not completely sure how important that will be, but ex ante, that was a brilliant decision, and arguably, we should have done more. That’s the good side.
I think the downside of state capacity libertarianism is simply realizing there are some very nice features to not being surveilled all the time, as they do in China. When I said a moment ago that the United States is not very good at trace, though it’s good at innovating — if you had stronger state capacity, presumably you should worry more about state surveillance, and I do. That, to me, is the best case against state capacity libertarianism as I envision it.
Even though having a good trace regime would have been fine in this instance, I’m not sure it would have been a good precedent.
HOLMES: Yes, one thinks about the fact that — I think it’s still the case — that Germany can’t do a census because there’s just such a cultural resistance to a census. It’s interesting how these cultural attitudes affect the ability of the government to respond and have these longer-term effects.
COWEN: South Korea did a remarkable trace. One person would get something, and they trace that person to hundreds of others, and then test them. Just as a logistics operation, just incredible what they did.
HOLMES: Yes, my mother-in-law is Korean and went back to Korea over the summer. Her experience traveling there and the procedures — it probably was your ideal version of state capacity because it was very much empowering you to live your life. You were required to take a number of steps, including downloading, I think, three different tracing apps and getting a lot of notifications about exposures and everything else, but she was able to actually have a holiday while she was taking care of some family business.
COWEN: Here’s the thing. I did not get onto a plane and fly to Korea. Now, I would have had to have quarantined — I think there it was for two weeks. I don’t recall, but whatever the period was, I could have done that. I actually preferred to stay here, but socially, overall, they did quite a good job.
HOLMES: Revisiting your conversation with Russ, I think it’s instructive for all of us to go back and examine what our attitudes were in middle March when things were starting to shut down, and how long we thought things would last, and so on.
If you read between the lines of what you all were saying, I think the worst-case scenario that you outline was that we’ll still be in a situation like we are now maybe through August, maybe later. I think you open it up to being a little bit later. I know a lot of this is endogenous, but if we had known that we were in it for a year in March, how do you think things would change? Would it have made things worse or better?
COWEN: I’m not sure it would have mattered because many people have been acting with very short time horizons. I think, overall, my predictions in that episode are quite good. I reread it recently.
The biggest thing I got wrong was I thought unemployment would stay higher for longer than it did. The general underlying mistake in my forecast was I thought people would stay terrified for longer than they did. They have resumed in many parts of the country in numerous ways. That has led transmission to last longer in many cases. It’s also helped the job market come back. That’s what I was off on.
I think I even said in that dialogue, “Well, we’ll probably have vaccines by March of 2021.” At the time, that was a very bizarre prediction that was not being widely made. It turns out, it’ll have been very, very close to correct.
I’m also wondering when you’re going to mention the biggest single event in CWT of the whole year. I wonder if we even agree on what it is, but continue.
HOLMES: Oh, my gosh. The tables have turned. Now I’m scrambling to think of what that could be.
COWEN: It’s a recent episode. You may not have even heard it yet. Anyway, go on.
HOLMES: Well, I think I know what you’re talking about now, but let’s go back to Twitter, and then we’ll see — we’ll stay somewhat along COVID lines.
Brandon Tice on Twitter asked, “What are your tips for planning safe but still enjoyable local road trips? Do you think trips are still advisable with an emerging wave?” I know you had spoken earlier about, you went and visited New York. How would your outlook on trips change? Do you have anything planned for the winter months?
COWEN: I’m reluctant to tell people they should go because many of them shouldn’t. They might be more vulnerable than I am or just less disciplined as travelers. When I went to New York, for one thing, I drove up, which I typically never do. I was not even willing to use the restrooms on the New Jersey Turnpike, which are ghastly in the best of times. I’m just like, “I’m going to pull over the car and do my business right here.” And that, of course, is extremely safe.
New York then had about one-tenth the COVID load that Northern Virginia did when I went. I saw more people, but it was all outside. At one-tenth the load, I was pretty sure I was not boosting my net risk, and the trip itself seems safe.
Again, most people will set out to do something like that. I’m not sure if they’ll all pull it off. Right now, I’m hanging around, waiting for my vaccine, figuring out how I will get one. I don’t have a trip planned. But I don’t need to plan to do a trip, so we’re just going to see how everything goes.
HOLMES: Very well. Another question from Twitter from Sighsyphus.“What policy consequences, if any, can we draw from the rapid development of vaccines in response to the pandemic? Is there any way to accelerate innovation in other areas similarly?”
I’ll just add on to this. I thought it was interesting that in your conversation with Russ, you had already — this is true to form for you — but you had mentioned the notion of big prizes as a way to try to spur innovation. Then, in some ways, you could see almost the seeds for Fast Grants being discussed in that conversation, though I know it came separately.
Maybe this is a chance for you to talk a little bit about Fast Grants, but then other ideas that you see, based on the success of the rapid development of vaccines.
COWEN: Including Fast Grants, but not only, the world has seen it can address critical problems much more quickly than it had thought. The use of the internet to spread science was a big factor. Philanthropists stepping up.
My own effort, Fast Grants — the idea that you would get grants to top researchers within a number of days, and make these submission forms super easy. Not that people have to worry about what kind of font was being used on the submission. Not that they would have to wait six months for an answer, but they would hear back in a few days and get the money a day or two later.
We showed that can work. We did that to a scale of about $43 million and could have done more. It had a pretty substantial impact. Not just that, but everyone sees when you put your mind to it, you can be a lot better and do things more quickly.
I hope we keep that lesson emotionally internalized and don’t just do it for the stuff that feels pressing now, but do it for many more things. Take dengue — always with us. It’s not a new thing. It doesn’t command the headlines. It’s a very high number of people each year — it can ruin their lives. We should do more. We can do more.
HOLMES: I think the pessimistic case would be, one reason we were able to act so quickly on COVID is because it became this clear focal point where that was the thing to do, to figure out this problem. Once we figure out this problem, that energy will dissipate in ways that will prevent the kind of speed that we saw. Do you agree with that take or disagree?
COWEN: It’s certainly true that is a big advantage. But I think as people expand the size and scope of their mental models, they will see you can carve out subsectors of academia, of philanthropy, of government, of private sector that take other maladies very seriously. They’re not going to quite have the same urgency.
One big advantage, if you would call it that — not advantage — but other labs were closed unless you were doing COVID work. At least for a while, there was a big substitution into COVID work, and that’s not going to be very common.
But I also think the other tasks will benefit a lot from the work done on COVID. The notion of a semi-universal vaccine, a testing to find other viruses, using mRNA vaccine platforms to combat other things — all those will be offshoots of the COVID triumphs. I believe. I hope. I think. We need to see those through and not just give up on them.
On naming that production function (ii)
HOLMES: Yes. All right, let’s jump into the second round of Name That Production Function. These are all related to writing. I think these are a little bit easier, but let’s see.
First one: “From engineering, I learned to start with an outline and decide what I wanted to say and then write all the sections to meet my outline. Justice Breyer taught me just write all my paragraphs and then work backwards to figure out what I had to say after the fact.”
COWEN: Engineering? Justice Breyer? Who do we have on these shows?
HOLMES: What I’m learning is that our recollection of these episodes — this is true of me as well — is that a lot of these past episodes just feel a long time ago. I can distinctly remember doing this episode last year, and the episodes felt very fresh to me. But this year, it feels like long periods of time have passed since we’ve recorded some of these.
This person studied engineering at MIT and then became a lawyer.
COWEN: Studied at MIT and then became a lawyer. Hmmm, I don’t know. Who is that?
HOLMES: That is Rachel Harmon, who you spoke to about policing because she’s done a lot of scholarship on policing.
COWEN: Oh, of course. I brought a little cheat sheet list, and you gave me a cheat sheet list. I made the mistake of looking at mine rather than yours, and her name wasn’t on it. That’s why — not that I forgot her episode. It was a good episode.
HOLMES: Yes, it is a good episode and, I think, worth revisiting. Yes, studied engineering at MIT, and then became a lawyer and talked about how those two ways of viewing the world have been useful for her, not just in writing.
Second one on writing: “In college, I would munch on a box of Dunkin’ Donuts to get through a term paper. Now, I find whatever cookies my kids have. I always have some sweet junk food. This is probably not really great advice for anybody, but it’s just my habit now.”
COWEN: Is that Emily St. John Mandel?
HOLMES: No, this is Ashley Mears.
COWEN: Okay, that very good episode. One of the best of the year, I thought.
HOLMES: Yes. Ashley Mears, I think, performed well. I was worried people wouldn’t give it a chance, but from the numbers, people seem to have given it a chance, and I think those who listened to it really enjoyed it.
All right, next one: “I haven’t always found writing easy at all. I’ve been to a lot of therapy of various types to stabilize myself emotionally and psychologically. I still do. It’s very important for me in handling the stresses that arise in writing. And one of the things I’ve realized in the course of that is, actually, rather than thinking it was something terrifying that I had to steel myself to do, the best way to think about it was something I do every day, so it’s like exercise. If I have the chance, I like to exercise. It’s a puzzling activity. I just treat it almost like a game, rearranging the words, trying to fix things.”
COWEN: Now, was that Emily St. John Mandel? No. Who is it?
HOLMES: This is Adam Tooze.
HOLMES: Adam Tooze, who writes very prolifically but confessed that it was a struggle for him. One breakthrough that he’s had is similar to you, but he’s just changing his mindset to a default. It’s just something he does and doesn’t think about. He doesn’t psych himself up to do it anymore. It’s just something like brushing your teeth. It’s just something you do.
COWEN: Yeah, yeah.
HOLMES: Okay. “My parents really loved books. We always had a ton of books in the house. We went to the library every week. I had an enormous time to read. There was a period of time when one of the requirements of the curriculum was that I had to write something every day. That’s what got me writing in the first place. I might have had a completely different life if I hadn’t had so much time to spend reading and such a focus on books.”
COWEN: I’m going to guess Emily St. John Mandel again.
HOLMES: Third time’s the charm. You’re correct. That one was Emily St. John Mandel. Thank you for playing Name That Production Function.
Is it just me or did you not explicitly ask it this much this year? I was reviewing the conversations. I did leave some out for this segment, but it also didn’t seem to come up as explicitly as a segment. If it came up, it was a little more—
COWEN: Organic, yes. I just think you have to vary somewhat and not become too formulaic. Even if something is good or people like it, better to leave them wanting more than they just know it’s coming all the time. That’s part of my production function.
On Tyler’s personal highlight of the year
HOLMES: You mentioned that I haven’t brought up the big highlight of the year. What is it, Tyler? Do you want to quiz me? Or do you want to just tell me what you think of as your highlight of the year?
COWEN: You tell me what you think it is?
HOLMES: From context clues, I’m guessing it’s your interview with John Brennan.
COWEN: That’s correct, and one of my questions in particular. I am reluctant to speak for him because the exact wording is very important and careful. I urge you all to check the transcript, but I asked him about UFOs, and I pushed him on it. As I understood his answer — again, with this caveat: please read and listen to his words, don’t take my word for it — but I took him to be saying that the single most likely explanation was, in some way, alien beings.
He wasn’t saying that’s higher than 50 percent, but simply that of all the explanations, he didn’t see a better one than that. He was head of the CIA for, what, four years. Now, he wasn’t pretending to know. He’s not like, “Oh, I’ve got the little green men hidden under the ground somewhere in Langley.” Just after having thought about it long and hard, he thought we needed to seriously entertain that possibility. But again, please check his words.
HOLMES: One of the crazy things about 2020 has been this under-discussed acceptance of what you just described, that it has become more — mainstream is the wrong word — but more accepted among smart people that we may be seeing actual signs of alien life. It may not be likely, but it’s becoming the most likely explanation.
COWEN: Even if it is, which I give 5 percent . . . I’ve been saying it’s almost certainly drones, not that the proverbial little green men are inside. But it should be a big, big thing, and it isn’t. That to me is so startling. Brennan can say what he said. It won’t be on the front page of the New York Times. Some number of people will talk about it.
To me that’s more remarkable than the phenomenon itself. It’s the lack of interest. “Oh, the Fermi paradox. Well, it turns out, they’ve been here. Oh, whatever. Okay, forget about that one.”
HOLMES: Yes. I think that relates back to COVID, too, because in any dramatization of a pandemic, it is so focal. It is the thing that everyone is thinking about all the time, and that has not been the case for — even for someone like me, there were certainly days when I’m not driving through quarantine checkpoints. I’m living my life in my house and trying to keep to myself.
Similarly, there have been a number of stories that have come out in 2020 that if you were experiencing the movie version of this, it would be a huge thing that the characters would be listening to on the radio. Everyone would be buzzing about it. They’ve just gone totally unnoticed.
COWEN: I’ve never seen a year like this, right?
HOLMES: Yeah. In some ways, you think about how the history books will be written about it because we think it’ll be all COVID. It might be all these crazy discoveries that we made in 2020, some of which had something to do with COVID, but many of which didn’t.
COWEN: SpaceX and protein folding. A lot happened this year that, arguably, is getting us out of the great stagnation.
HOLMES: Some more questions from Twitter. Then we’ll wrap it up. Paul Tilley on Twitter asked, “What industries or groups surprised you in their response to COVID, good or bad?”
COWEN: That the NBA just shut down all games as early as it did in March was brilliant and prescient, and that they would have the guts to pull the button on that rather than dragging it out. I give them a big A+ for it. That surprised me. I’ve always liked the NBA, but for that, they deserve a prize.
On the downside, I don’t think you should blame small businesses or businesses for wanting to reopen, even if it’s bad for society. Maybe you should blame the people who go. But just the ease at which people have considered going to these very large-scale events, like college football games, in a way that, to me, just doesn’t make any sense.
I believe in intertemporal substitution: if you can, don’t do it for a year, but next year, go to twice as many games. And how hard people find that to do is really striking. We actually need to incorporate it into our economic models. I can travel less this year, and next year, vaccinated, I might take more trips if the world will let me. Do more face-to-face CWTs and so on. Hang out with Lydia Davis, whatever.
But people don’t think that way. It’s more a utility function of habit formation than intertemporal substitution than I would have thought, and I already knew the behavioral evidence on that. So it’s not that I’m completely in the dark that people aren’t entirely rational, but even then I’ve revised my priors.
HOLMES: Another question, from Nikkhil Mulani: “Any big changes to your production function in 2020 that you think will stick around for the future?”
COWEN: Oh, will stick . . . Doing these by Zoom will partially stick, I suspect. I think I wake up slightly later in the morning. Not by much, just by 10 to 15 minutes. I wonder if that will stick. Cooking more? Nah, that’s not going to stick. Mostly, I’ll go back, I hope. Again, it’s when the world lets me is the binding constraint, and I think it will.
HOLMES: You mentioned in your conversation with Russ that you thought that there would be an average is over aspect to the return to face-to-face, that more would happen over Zoom or remotely because we’ve gotten better at it. Then, the face-to-face — you would require more of it, that you would savor it, that there might be some exuberant return to face-to-face. Do you think that’s going to happen, vaccine rollout?
COWEN: I used more explicit language than that, if you recall.
It may happen before vaccine rollout. But I think that will be the case. There’ll be a certain amount of people going crazy. That might just mean a lot of trips to the shopping mall. It might mean other things that we won’t mention on a family podcast.
But a lot of people have just returned to normal routines already. Again, that’s a big part of what surprised me, but certainly not, say, in California or New York — you haven’t really been able to.
HOLMES: Have you thought at all about how it might be determined by locality? I mean, living in DC, I could see what was happening in Maryland. I could see what was happening in DC. I could easily see what was happening in Virginia.
Then, for anyone who’s done any interstate travel by car, it’s striking the degree to which you can sense the different response just passing through. In a place like DC or, say, LA, which is still very “You have to wear a mask in public,” versus other places where it’s “Oh well, only indoors.” It’s a little more laissez-faire, even if they have restrictions on the books.
I wonder if that will linger. You go to DC, and playground etiquette will be different than playground etiquette in North Carolina or whatever.
COWEN: I think it will. We’ve been cut off from each other. People don’t quite know how other places are, what they’re doing, how they feel. I’ve been to Maryland, Chesapeake, West Virginia, southern Ohio, New Jersey, New York City, New York State, and Northern Virginia of course, the part of Maryland near DC, and each and every one of those areas has been quite different.
Again, I’m not sure that’s something I would have expected. It’s a counter to these globalization, homogenization arguments, and I do think much of that will stick.
HOLMES: All right, last question through Twitter from Craig Paulson, EV fellow. He asked when we’re going to get the book with Daniel Gross on talent. This is your next book, I believe. Any update on timeline there?
COWEN: We have a draft of about 80,000 words, if I recall. It is not finished, but it is well along. The when depends exactly on the publisher. Of course, we’re recording this before it is being presented to all you listeners. I expect that by the time you’re hearing this, I will know when, but at the moment, I don’t quite know exactly when. But it’s well along. It’s not a figment dream in our heads. It exists. It needs to be better. It needs to be finished, but it will come out, and not five years from now.
HOLMES: All right. Let’s switch to thinking about the year ahead. I’m going to ask you to channel your — I don’t know — your super forecasting abilities. First question: will you be moving to Substack in the coming year?
COWEN: I write for free on Marginal Revolution. I’m fully aware that people who do Substack can earn a lot of money, but I’d actually rather have the bigger audience. As you all know, Conversations with Tyler is free. There’re no ads. It’s fully open. I just think that to have audiences like this is a privilege greater than the money. I know that’s weird, but —
HOLMES: No, I very much enjoy producing a podcast that we don’t have to worry about monetizing it explicitly by running ads. As much as I would enjoy having Tyler read ad copy every episode [laughs], I think that would get old quickly.
In what months do you think we will record the first in-person CWT?
COWEN: Oh, I think that’s pretty random. It could be quite soon if it’s outdoors. It could just be someone I know and trust. I’m not sure where I’ll be in priority line for vaccines, but I’ll say February.
HOLMES: All right, February. We have talked about doing one outdoors.
COWEN: It depends on you and Dallas and other people. If you all don’t want to do it, we’re not going to do it. Someone has to be there to make it work. It is unanimity rule. It’s not my say-so.
HOLMES: I think the big issue has been travel. If you have to travel, then it’s harder to do it safely. Certainly, if the people are local, that’s something we can accommodate.
Will we hold a live event for CWT, a live recording in 2021?
COWEN: Calendar 2021, I’ll predict yes, but not in the spring.
HOLMES: I think so too. Again, maybe with the caveat that in the warmer months. It’s not necessarily that everyone has gotten a vaccine, but —
COWEN: Here’s the thing. The auditorium is not booked. That’s a big head start.
HOLMES: [laughs] That’s right. Not related to CWT, when will you watch a movie in a theater with people you don’t know?
COWEN: Oh, last week.
HOLMES: Oh, you’ve done it?
COWEN: Well, you rent out the theater privately. Natasha invited two of her Russian friends in a theater that seats 150. I’m like, “I don’t know these people. Do you trust them?” She does, and she gave me really very convincing evidence that they’re even past the point of optimal safety and to sit in opposite corners of a huge theater.
I’ve been renting out theaters a few times. It’s not as much as you think. I hope the price doesn’t go up. It’s a great thing to do.
HOLMES: You got out of that question on a technicality. You were with people you don’t know, but I was thinking specifically of a scenario in which you’re buying a ticket, and you don’t have control of the theater. When do you think that’ll happen for you?
COWEN: The second vaccine dose is two or three weeks after the first. So, that day. No, you need some time for immunity to kick in, so that’s probably another two weeks.
HOLMES: Is that an answer to the question of, what’s the first thing you’re going to be doing as soon as that immunity takes hold?
COWEN: It depends on what’s showing, but that’s the first thing I want to do.
HOLMES: What speaks to you about the theater experience? Do you care about the technical specs of projection and sound? Is it being with others?
HOLMES: It’s everything.
COWEN: It’s the greatest art form of the 20th century. I was born in the 20th century, and I’m going to stick with that form as long as I can and see what it does for me. It’s not always good. I’m very willing to walk out, but I want to be in the theater again seeing a new release and not having to pay $100 to rent out the whole thing. But in the meantime, I will pay up, yes.
HOLMES: I hope that you will be able to enjoy a theater and enjoy going to see movies with other people.
I hope that we will be able to see each other face-to-face. I don’t think we’ve even seen each other face-to-face since maybe April when I recorded the Tetlock episode remotely. We were very concerned with disinfecting the microphone and wearing gloves. Masks were not a thing yet, but we did it in a socially distanced way. I am looking forward to a resumption of some face-to-face with Conversations with Tyler in the next year.
Before I go, I want to thank everyone on the team who has helped make our switch this year possible. There’s been a lot of work done behind the scenes to prep guests and to equip them with equipment they need to keep the quality of the conversations high.
Let me give a shout-out to everyone who helped out this year. That’s Dallas Floer, Grauben Lara, Caitlyn Schmidt, Kate Brown, Kate De Lanoy, Mike Hopper, Sloane Shearman, Karen Plante, Christina Behe, Haley Larsen, Anna McVae, Carter Woolly, and Ashley Schiller. Thank you all very much. We look forward to another year of production.
COWEN: You remember that list better than I remember people’s production functions. I would second and third that wholeheartedly.
Thanks to you all for listening and reading. A great pleasure to have you as an audience. And you yourself, Jeff, obviously should be on the list.
HOLMES: Thanks, Tyler.