On this special year-in-review episode, Tyler and producer Jeff Holmes talk about the past year on the show, including which guests he’d like to have on in 2023, what stands out to him now about his conversation with Sam Bankman-Fried in light of the collapse of FTX, the most popular and most underrated episodes of the year, what makes a guest authentic, why he hasn’t asked the “production function” question much this year, his essay on Marginal Revolution on the New Right, and what he’s working on next. They also evaluate Tyler’s pop culture picks from 2012 and answer listener questions from Twitter.
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Recorded December 14th, 2022
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JEFF HOLMES: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this, the 2022 year-in-review episode of Conversations with Tyler. I’m Jeff Holmes, one of the producers of Conversations with Tyler. This has become a tradition now, where at the end of the year, we take stock of the year in conversations. I have a bit of a conversation with Tyler that I want to have. We take questions from listeners, and we also go back and look at Tyler’s pop culture picks — of 2012, in this case — and Tyler lets us know how he thinks they’ve fared.
First, Tyler, let’s get straight into the year of conversations. When you look at this guest list, reflect on this roster of guests compared to years past, what do you think?
TYLER COWEN: I think we should have more Irish people on. Roy Foster was great. He was a definite favorite. We had two moments that went completely viral, one of which was misunderstood. Shruti was awesome as a host. Walter Russell Mead throws great dinner parties. Mary Gaitskill was a wonderful kind of quirky, and very often, the best guests are not the ones who you think will be the best. That would be my year’s take in summary.
HOLMES: When you say the moment that went viral but was misunderstood, what are you referring to?
Now, I’m still not convinced by Web 3.0, and Marc’s answer didn’t convince me. But people treated it as some kind of massive, scandalous admission of something, and it was just a normal conversation. After it was recorded, I don’t think either Marc or I thought anything about that moment, but somehow that was the time when people wanted to jump down Marc’s throat over something, and they picked up on that clip.
I think the best answer to what’s the use case for Web 3.0 is just we don’t know yet. There are lots of talented people working on it at the moment, as you might have said with the early internet. Now, I’m still skeptical, but it’s not a terrible answer. That was the misunderstood viral moment, I would say.
HOLMES: Yes. The other viral moment — I think I know what you’re referring to — was the excerpt in the Sam Bankman-Fried conversation, right?
COWEN: That’s correct. There are really two of them, but there’s one that’s gotten most of the attention, where I asked Sam, “Would you keep on playing double or nothing with the world’s population at 51-to-49 odds?” He says, “Yes, I feel strongly about this.” And I say, “Everything’s going to be destroyed, then.” And he’s saying, “There’s some chance you’ll end up creating something wonderful.”
It did seem that captured something about his approach to many different things that was immortalized in that moment. If I may sound self-satisfied for just a second, I was very pleased that I had the insight to ask him exactly that question.
HOLMES: We got several questions on Twitter about the SBF conversation. Joseph Walker specifically asked, “Before everything unraveled, in the moment, did you think that that 51–49 question was a red flag?”
I’ll add onto that, how did your perception of SBF change during the interview, right when everything was unfolding, when that tweet went viral, and now we’re in the middle of December — he’s just arrested. How have you shifted in your mental model of SBF?
COWEN: Well, SBF was and is extremely smart. He proved that in the interview. Anything you can throw at him, he can come back very quickly. Maybe you don’t like the answer, but he has fully understood the question and answered it in some manner. Actually, not that many guests can do that. But at the same time, then and obviously now, it seemed to me there was something quite reckless about the plan.
I didn’t at all imagine how things turned out. I just thought there was this view that FTX could become the exchange for everything, that that belief seemed to me absurd, and that if I asked him some questions about risk tolerance, I thought he wouldn’t be able to answer them well. He answered them incorrectly — “Oh, keep playing double or nothing” — but he answered them very well in the sense the response was immediate. The reasoning was, in some screwy way, internally consistent. He had thought about it before, and so on.
That made me less optimistic about his future prospects. The prediction I was making privately at the time was simply that he had ignored regulatory risk. At some point, the regulators would shut him down, the value of the concern would go essentially to zero, and it wouldn’t work. But again, I had no sense of the underlying — I don’t even know what to call it — fraud is too simple a word, but let’s just say the shenanigans.
HOLMES: One of the things that I appreciated was he mentioned this need to focus on operationalizing what you’re trying to do, and having people who can coordinate and make things happen. Then, as I’ve seen what’s happened, it seems like a big part of the problem was that, operationally, they were a mess.
COWEN: That’s right. He said, “That is what is truly scarce.” He actually had a deeper understanding of the scarcity of good operational talent than I realized at the time.
The other thing he said that reads very differently in retrospect — when he praised Elon Musk and said, “Elon’s greatest achievement is not Tesla the car, but Tesla the brand.” That’s interesting for at least two reasons.
First, Tesla the brand has changed quite a bit since Elon took over Twitter in many people’s eyes, but also the sense that what a company really is is just its image, and you can skate along with that. I really did not pick up at the time that’s what he was saying, though it’s quite clear when you read it that I should have picked it up at the time. When you re-read it in light of what’s happened, you get a sense of uh-oh, he presumably thought that way about FTX. As long as the brand was strong, he could always somehow trade his way out of trouble.
HOLMES: One effect of the fallout with FTX has been on the effective altruism community, in particular, Will MacAskill, who’s a guest on the podcast. He was involved with some of the FTX philanthropic projects. One of our guests on Twitter asked, “What do you think is the future of the movement? Do they need new leadership? Speaking of branding, how are they going to recover from the fallout with one of the biggest personalities of ‘earn to give’ now being wholly disgraced?”
COWEN: It’s hard for me to say. Sometimes losing some funding can help a movement because what’s really strong are the ideas. If I think of, say, libertarian ideas — they were really very strong in the 1970s when there was not much money attached to it, and actually, relatively few people, but you had very strong thinkers. You have Milton Friedman, Bob Nozick, others, and a great deal of impact in the late ’70s, throughout the ’80s, some of the ’90s.
The better-funded movement maybe never matched those achievements. I don’t really have a prediction for effective altruism, but I don’t think we should hold this against it. I think leadership at Open Philanthropy is excellent, and whatever virtues or qualms you might have about the movement, it’s continuing.
HOLMES: All right, switching back to looking at the year in Conversations, if we run through the numbers, we released 28 episodes this year, so our usual amount plus a few bonus episodes.
COWEN: That’s counting this one?
HOLMES: That’s counting this one as well. Do you have a sense of what the most popular episode of the year was?
COWEN: I never have a good sense of this. If you count that viral clip, I’ll say Marc Andreessen. If you don’t count the viral clip, maybe SBF will overtake all the others, whether or not it has done so yet. Those would be my guesses, but I suspect I’m wrong. Chuck Klosterman maybe was popular. So, you tell me.
HOLMES: Good guess. This one is surprising to me. We’re looking just at podcast downloads and not overall impressions, so it may well change if we factored those in. The top downloaded episode this year was Thomas Piketty.
COWEN: Piketty, okay.
COWEN: I thought people were a little tired of all that.
HOLMES: I was very surprised by the response to that. It’s the most popular episode this year and most popular episode in terms of the first week of any episode so far.
COWEN: It was a good episode because you got to see this clash of different points of view, I thought.
HOLMES: Yes. I’m amazed people stuck with it because the audio quality was a little rough. But people stuck with it and were very engaged by that episode.
COWEN: I do sense people are liking debate. My episode with Byron Auguste, which I certainly liked when we did it, but it’s proven to have longer legs than I would have expected. It’s just a very clear case of two people debating labor market, value of education, how can we get people without college degrees into jobs in a very stark way.
Jeremy Grantham was a bit like that — debating environmental issues in a very stark way, back and forth. He even apologized at the end for being a little — what was the word he used? Not grumpy, but combative. I was like, “Yes please, bring it on. Please teach your other guests to push back when they need to.”
HOLMES: Mary Gaitskill, I think, is someone who — not combative, but you said — I think on Twitter, or maybe it was your posts on Marginal Revolution — that this is someone who doesn’t feel the need to impress you, and just is giving you her thoughts on the matter, and doesn’t particularly care whether you think they’re here, there, or anywhere. It’s just what she thinks, and that’s what we’re here to listen and learn from.
COWEN: It was one of my favorite moments of the year when she has to end the episode a few minutes early because she’s really hungry and just says that, not some kind of polite excuse. “I’m really hungry.”
HOLMES: Did we include that in the episode?
COWEN: Yes, we did.
HOLMES: Yes, I remember listening to that when I was reviewing the episode.
COWEN: You’ve got to keep stuff like that in.
HOLMES: We’re kind of touching on it already, but what are your picks for underrated episodes of this year? Let me preface that by saying, this year, a pattern I saw was the dispersion has gotten tighter in terms of listens. There are really just two tiers this year. There are the people who really got a surge and maybe did 15 percent, 20 percent better than the second tier, but there wasn’t this clear sense of, “Oh, people just didn’t tune in to that one.” Either it was really popular or it was just pretty good.
COWEN: How do you model that? That we’re less dependent on external celebrity?
HOLMES: What I’d like to think is that people are accepting the value of the CWT/Tyler Cowen filter, and they’re giving every episode a chance. Now, if I peer deeper into looking at how long people listen to episodes, maybe you’d see more drop-off on some of those less popular episodes, but that’s what I’d like to think — that they’re at least giving everyone a chance. “If they’re on the show, they’re probably pretty good, so let me at least tune in.”
Whereas before, I think we had more of a problem where someone — if it was an unknown name, or we’ve talked before about some of the biases people have in terms of women, or actually even people with accents — they might just be like, “Eh, I can’t listen to this.” Maybe that’s not been such a factor this year, but what’s your pick for underrated?
COWEN: Vaughn Smith, the polyglot and carpet cleaner, probably is an underrated episode. The people who listened to it seemed to quite like it. I already mentioned Roy Foster. Ireland just doesn’t have that large a population, but that was a great take on Irish history. I liked most of them, I have to say. I think a lot of them are properly rated.
HOLMES: I had Roy Foster and Vaughn Smith. I would throw in, if you look at download counts, maybe Lydia Davis a little underperformed, but she still performed well. I personally really enjoyed Walter Russell Mead.
HOLMES: It was just a great back-and-forth.
COWEN: You could have him on an endless number of times, and he would always have something to say.
COWEN: He’s one of those kinds of guests.
HOLMES: Now, speaking of Roy Foster, are you going to accept the Roy Foster challenge to go to Ireland and check out their database and look up the Cowens? That was the one question he wouldn’t engage with you on: Tell me a bit about the Cowen clan.
COWEN: That surprised me because they’ve had a Prime Minister Cowen, right?
COWEN: He would’ve known of him. I think I would sooner fly to Salt Lake City than to Ireland for that purpose. I don’t know how I would ever know that it were my Cowens. Or you could see a bunch of Cowens from, say, some county. Well, are they my Cowens? Are they his Cowens? I don’t know. What’s the actual bridge? I think to hire someone who’s worked in Salt Lake City archives would be a better approach than for me to be digging around in a library.
HOLMES: Or maybe we should get you on Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates. We’ve asked Henry Louis Gates to be on the show, and he famously hosts Finding Your Roots, where he takes celebrities through their family history. I think it’s time for a Tyler Cowen episode of Finding Your Roots.
COWEN: I believe mine is quite a New Jersey history with no roots in the South.
HOLMES: Moving on to some more Twitter questions. James Broughel: “I think the Mary Gaitskill interview” — speaking of underrated — “was one of the most interesting of the year, largely because of her genuineness coming through so strongly. So here’s a question: What makes a guest more genuine or authentic?”
I should mention, that’s Mercatus research fellow James Broughel, and also, I believe, you advised his PhD.
COWEN: Correct, yes. Jim’s great.
HOLMES: He goes by Jim? Jim Broughel, I don’t know.
COWEN: You have to call him James. I can call him Jim.
Being a CEO makes you less authentic. Now, one thing about Mary — she’s quite well known as a writer, but the outlets that interview her are not mass media. They’d be places like Bookforum, and she has no fiduciary responsibilities per se. If people come away with the sense that she’s unusual or quirky, there’s no problem in that for her.
People who are lone operators tend to be more authentic. Vaughn Smith, the polyglot and carpet cleaner, I thought was extremely authentic. He’s hardly ever done any interviews before. He was extremely articulate, but you just got Vaughn Smith, I’m pretty sure. People who are not used to arguing in the media, not used to being criticized — they approach it more innocently in a good way.
HOLMES: Do you think people on Conversations with Tyler . . . well, Ken Burns would be an example of someone. Some people joked on Twitter — and I knew, having worked for him and seen his media interviews — people joked that he had the conversation he wanted to have.
COWEN: That is correct.
HOLMES: Ken is very good at delivering eloquent monologues that may or may not actually relate to the questions he was asked, but he knows how to hit the points he wants to make. He’s, to my mind, an extreme outlier in the sense that he has a very clear direction he wants to take interview questions, and he’s very good at it, versus other people who are maybe self-conscious, and then all the way on the other side, people who just don’t even think about the fact that they’re on the podcast.
Do you have a sense of that in the interview? Are they very aware that “This is going out to a lot of people and I need to be — ”
COWEN: People forget that often as they’re speaking. Now, you know Ken and I don’t, other than that interview, but I have the sense that maybe that was the authentic Ken Burns, right?
HOLMES: It is the authentic Ken Burns. That is how he is, yes.
COWEN: So, in a way, he was the most authentic guest, though it would not have appeared that way to someone who didn’t know better.
HOLMES: Yes. I can say, as someone who listened to him — I worked in the production house where he was editing films. And when he was talking about reviewing a cut of a movie and talking about what needed to change, he is just as eloquent talking about something on the fly that needs to change in a movie, recalling very specific details from what are often three-, four-hour cuts of what needs to be cut down to maybe an hour, hour and a half. He has an amazing mind for that and can deliver that on the fly very eloquently. So, yes, you’re absolutely right. That actually is very authentic Ken.
COWEN: I thought John Adams, the American composer, was also quite authentic. He was willing to be grumpy, to complain about film music, to say the music of Boulez is a torture to listen to. I’m pretty sure it’s what he really thinks. He didn’t have to say those things. He was polished, but I felt you got the actual grumpiness of the man.
HOLMES: Yes. John Adams was fun for me. I told you before the fact that one thing that I find fascinating about John Adams is that I discovered him because his music was featured in the game Civilization IV. In that game, you build a civilization, and there are different eras, and when you get to the modern era, they play John Adams music. I found it so immersive and perfect. When you asked him that question in his interview, he thought about some commercial where his music —
He was very upset about the commercial, but he didn’t respond to the game. It’s just fascinating because I don’t think he actually cares that much, but there is a whole generation of people, probably about my age, who love John Adams music because of the game Civilization IV.
COWEN: It’s his largest audience by far, right?
HOLMES: Yes. His saltiness — I’m good with that. I still enjoy the music, and I enjoy listening. I enjoy recalling that time in my life as well. It brings me back. It’s very vivid for me.
Josef Yau: “On which topics do your views have the highest error rates? Why?”
COWEN: Error rates. What are the topics that are hard to predict? Who’s going to win a contest? In most areas, it’s hard to predict. Not in chess. Magnus Carlsen just played Caruana. He beat him 22 to 4 and didn’t lose a single game. That was not hard to predict. The margin of victory was hard to predict, but not that Magnus would win. But if you were to ask me who will win the NBA title this coming year — very hard to predict.
The history of China is very hard to predict. Switching from zero COVID to COVID free-for-all, I was not predicting. I don’t think I got that wrong publicly, but I know in my own mind, I wasn’t expecting that. China, in general, does very rapid shifts that are hard to predict in advance in a way, say, that India does not. My backup answer after sports would be China is very hard for me or, indeed, anyone to predict.
HOLMES: Pavel Grachev asks, “Who would you love to have on your podcast but can’t because of a language barrier?”
COWEN: It seems to me from what I’ve seen on YouTube that Michel Houellebecq does not speak English very well. I’m not sure how good a guest he would be, but I would love to have him in any case, just to see what he would be like. And there, possibly, language is a barrier.
Various rural Mexicans I know whose first language is Nahuatl, but even in Spanish, I don’t think I would quite be good enough to make for a satisfying podcast, and most of our listeners don’t understand Spanish anyway, I’m pretty sure. So, they would be some fascinating guests, but there would be logistical difficulties.
The people I might interview in German pretty much all speak good enough English if we want to do them. Those would be some answers.
HOLMES: Related, Corey Paddock: “Who are the guests you’d like to have but were unable to secure?”
COWEN: Paul McCartney. Everyone knows that. You don’t even know how to ask him, but you also figure he’s just not going to do it. He’s Paul McCartney.
HOLMES: I pulled up the lists. We have reached out to many, many guests who we either haven’t heard a response to or they’ve said no. Just going through some of the highlights: Charles Barkley, David Bentley Hart, William Shatner, Tilda Swinton, Haruki Murakami.
COWEN: Let’s try Shatner again because he has a new book out.
HOLMES: I think we did. Yes, we did. We checked after the new book came out. Mark Cuban; MrBeast, the YouTuber; Dolly Parton.
COWEN: Oh, she would have been great. How about the Thai film director whose name I can’t pronounce? [Apichatpong Weerasethakul] He just did Memoria, and he did Uncle Boonmee. Why don’t we ask him? He does speak English.
HOLMES: Okay, real-time guest suggestions going on.
COWEN: That would be a coup to get him. I suspect he’s not asked all that often, and he might be quite authentic.
HOLMES: Werner Herzog would be another name. Hans Zimmer, Peter Zeihan, Stanley Tucci. Actually, early this morning, you released a bleg on Marginal Revolution and asked for guest ideas. We’ve got some good new ideas, but some of those names have either been asked, or they’ve been on our long list. Before the recording, Tyler and I were talking about triaging some of those and reaching out.
COWEN: What’s wrong with these people? Seriously, what’s your theory? Some are afraid? Some are too busy?
HOLMES: I think the standard filter is if it’s not coming through a personal connection, don’t even bother with it. I doubt some of these have actually gotten to the actual person. If you’re listening to this, and you have a connection to any of the names we mentioned or just someone you think would be good for the podcast, please reach out. I am [email protected]. Send me an email because we’d love some personal connections with some of these people.
COWEN: They can email me, too. Either way. It’s online.
HOLMES: It’s online. Moving back to Twitter questions. I want you to answer this rapid-fire because it’s . . . Just answer this as quickly as you can. [laughs] It’s kind of a grab-bag question. Vikash Palit: There are three questions. “What are the pluses and minuses of ending the Fed? What are the top three ways you would change the US healthcare system? What’s the ideal tax system look like, according to you?”
COWEN: In reverse order, the ideal tax system is a progressive consumption tax with a relatively light rate of taxation on capital income, though it can’t be zero because otherwise, people will reclassify their labor income into capital income.
Best ways to change the healthcare system. A lot of that is frozen into place. I’m more focused in my current roles on improving the rate of progress in science and getting more innovation and reforming the NIH and NSF and making them more dynamic and quicker to respond to change.
People don’t usually call that the healthcare system, but that would be my emphasis. If you look at, say, the mRNA vaccines or what seems to be coming against malaria, against dengue, possibly against cancer — that’s yielding huge dividends. Fighting over the scraps of Medicaid expansion or something ultimately seems to me like a misallocation of talent.
Ending the Fed. Well, what do you replace it with? You can’t answer that question in the abstract, but I suspect what you replace it with will not do better. The price of gold is much too volatile to have a gold standard now, even if you liked the classical gold standard. I’m not sure it was better than the Fed, but it wouldn’t be workable now. And what, Bitcoin? That’s a non-starter. So, replace the Fed with what? Just a frozen stock of dollars? Again, seems to me worse than what we have now.
HOLMES: All right, Vikash, you got your answer.
HOLMES: Answers. Marc Bisbal Arias: “What is the thing you are most excited about or looking forward to next year?”
COWEN: The next 28 guests on Conversations with Tyler. Could it be anything better? Paul McCartney walking into the studio, singing “Maybe I’m Amazed” for us, and we’re the ones who are amazed.
HOLMES: Next year 28 guests, Paul McCartney, Brian Eno, Werner Herzog, they’re all coming in. They will all be in the Mercatus studio. Mark my words.
Twitter user Breaking Extent asks, “Does Tyler think TV shows are a waste of time?” Have you watched many TV shows this year?
COWEN: Well, for whom are they a waste of time? I haven’t watched a lot of TV this year. I plan on starting the new Disney+show, Andor.
HOLMES: It’s very good.
COWEN: My other friends told me the same, so I think I’ll like that. I don’t know that I found anything good other than the new season of Borgen, which came to the US this year. That was excellent and very different from the earlier years. Grumpier, more cynical about politics. You could say more right-wing in the Danish sense, which is not the same as more right-wing in the American sense.
That was great, but I think that’s all I’ve really liked or even watched. Natasha starts some things, and I turn away quickly. Most TV — it seems to me, it doesn’t interest me. I much prefer movies.
HOLMES: What does Natasha put on that you turn away from? Do you even recognize what it is?
COWEN: I think there’s some show — is it called Hackers or Hacks?
HOLMES: The comedy. The show about the stand-up comedians? Is that what you’re thinking?
COWEN: I didn’t get far enough. It’s on, I think, HBO Max.
HOLMES: Yes. It’s about a kind of an elder statesman female comedian who’s doing her show in Vegas.
COWEN: That’s right, yes. It seemed to be backed by talent, but it’s just not for me. It’s not informationally dense enough, not challenging enough, somehow constructed to string people along through subsequent seasons, which is the commercial incentive. I get that. No grudge held here. But I’d rather watch . . . The movie Tár I loved. Memoria I loved.
HOLMES: I haven’t seen Tár, but that’s been a big movie this year that people have really, really responded to.
COWEN: Saint Omer, the French Senegalese movie, was excellent. I saw that a few nights ago at AFI in Silver Spring. Movies, to me — way above TV, but I don’t think it’s a mistake for most people.
HOLMES: All right, why don’t we use that as an entrée — we’ll come back to some Twitter questions, but let’s go to 2012 picks and see what your favorite movies were in 2012. In your post, you say, “Hollywood continues to collapse into mediocre tentpole franchises.”
COWEN: That’s true, so I was correct.
HOLMES: Which is absolutely true because that was the Marvel decade, among other things. “Overall, it has been a splendid year for movies. Here were some of my favorites, noting that I count by the year I saw them, especially for foreign films, not necessarily the year of release.” Here we go. One, A Separation.
COWEN: I’ve taught that movie, I think, five times since then, so I rewatch it every year, and it’s incredible. It’s one of the best movies, period. It’s an Iranian movie about a couple who are separated and the difficult decisions they face, what to do with the daughter, and whether or not they should leave Iran. A-plus.
HOLMES: Yes, I watched that on this recommendation and enjoyed that movie.
COWEN: My students love it also.
HOLMES: Two, Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
COWEN: I haven’t re-watched it. I have fond memories of it. I hear people cite it still. That’s a good sign about a movie. I’m still very favorably inclined.
HOLMES: It’s probably now a little underrated because that style of documentary that was especially so food-focused — but the story itself was very compelling — has now become . . . the same filmmakers went on to make a series for Netflix called Chef’s Table, and they’ve taken that format, and now it’s become TV.
Now, I think if someone went back and watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, they would be like, “Well, what’s special about this? I can put this up on Netflix at any time.” Here’s someone’s dedication to food and also some story about their biography that reveals why they’re so obsessed or something that gives you insight into why they are the way they are.
COWEN: I suspect the movie’s more subtle and the TV show is too literal, would be my guess, not having seen the television show.
HOLMES: You don’t have as much time. They’re more like vignettes. That was much more of a deeper study, not just of the master chef but also his sons because that was a key part of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the sons who were, I think, in their 40s but were still in the shadow of their dad. Clearly one of the subtexts was, “When is he going to let us step into this role and take on the mantle?”
COWEN: Marley. Oh, the Bob Marley movie. That was fantastic. It’s a very long movie set in Jamaica. Excellent. I don’t think you have to love the music of Bob Marley to watch it as a movie.
HOLMES: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and you added, “Boring for most people, big screen only, I suspect.”
COWEN: I mean, every movie is that, but especially slow-moving foreign films. It’s just much harder to pay attention at home. Again, seemed to me a very strong movie. Now that I am hearing these titles, it was just a great year for movies, though not Hollywood movies.
HOLMES: Okay, well, here’s where it gets very Tyler Cowen sideways — your next two movies. The next one, The Dictator, which is the Sacha Baron Cohen comedy.
COWEN: It’s aged poorly, and I think he has aged poorly.
HOLMES: I was going to ask.
COWEN: Some of the TV show is still quite good, I think, but —
HOLMES: You were a big Ali G fan. Is that your favorite character of his that he does? He’s Borat, Ali G, other ones I can’t even remember.
COWEN: Like the mini-episode where he interviews Donald Trump is A-double plus. Trump just immediately sees the guy is a fraud and just walks out and says, “Good luck.” The peaks were high, but it’s not really watchable anymore.
HOLMES: Okay, Dictator, and the next one, The Three Stooges. This is the comedy remake of The Three Stooges. I think it was a Farrelly brothers movie.
COWEN: The original is too good, I think is the problem.
HOLMES: I’m very surprised that made your list. [laughs] I’m just trying to think about what you found in that movie that you were like, “Best of the year.”
Next one, The Raid: Redemption. “Better Indonesian martial arts, you will not see,” you say.
COWEN: Nor have I seen better Indonesian martial arts since then. A thrilling movie. You have to be up for that kind of movie, but the best one in a long time in this country.
HOLMES: The Raid is a strong favorite of a lot of people I know.
Your Sister’s Sister. This is an indie movie with Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mark Duplass.
COWEN: I don’t remember it, so I guess I have to give it a thumbs down.
HOLMES: You say it was Straussian. I’m not familiar with it.
COWEN: Maybe it was too Straussian.
HOLMES: Circo, Mexican circus movie.
COWEN: Hasn’t stuck with me.
HOLMES: Okay, let’s go through these. You’ve got quite a few of them, so let’s go through them quickly and see if you respond to any of them. Take This Waltz, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Margaret, which I think is a Margaret Thatcher documentary. Nope, I’m totally wrong.
COWEN: That was quite interesting.
HOLMES: It’s a narrative movie with Anna Paquin.
COWEN: Yeah. Beasts of The Southern Wild really has stuck with me. It’s a portrait of a certain way of life that you find only in America, and this movie shows that way of life better than any other movie.
HOLMES: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.
COWEN: I think he’s milked it too much at this point and become a marketer, so not the movie as a movie, but all that has gone down in my eyes. Not that interesting anymore.
HOLMES: Samsara — again, another one you say probably only makes sense on the big screen.
COWEN: Say the name again.
HOLMES: Samsara. I’m looking it up. “Filmed over a period” — it’s not a narrative movie — “almost five years and in 25 countries, Samsara explores the wonders of the world from sacred grounds to industrial sites.”
COWEN: Oh, that movie. It’s just visuals, and it’s great as visuals on a large screen, but a huge mistake to click on Netflix. It’s just not going to do it for you.
HOLMES: Searching for Sugar Man.
COWEN: Incredible movie, and I saw him in concert a few years ago. He’s the South African star. Well, he’s from Detroit, and he became a huge star in South Africa and didn’t even know it. He learned this quite late in his life because this is a country full of people, a lot of whom worship him. Excellent music in concert, still a wonderful film — unique, original, memorable.
HOLMES: Day Night Day Night. I don’t think I’d ever heard of this movie. The description is “a gripping drama that follows a young suicide bomber on a mission to wreak havoc in Times Square.”
COWEN: It was good, one of these movies that’s focused on one thing and does it well, and some people just don’t get it, but a good movie.
HOLMES: Then a week or two later, you added Lincoln, the Steven Spielberg movie.
COWEN: No, it’s too sappy. It’s aged poorly for me.
HOLMES: People reacted strongly because Spielberg has this movie coming out, The Fabelmans.
COWEN: Which is excellent, and I thought I would hate. I saw the preview. The preview was unwatchable.
HOLMES: The marketing for it is generally considered really too poor to give you a sense of what the movie is. But you also gave a brief Spielberg ranking. I think in particular, you suggested that some of his most commercially successful, like Jurassic Park, are his worst movies.
COWEN: That’s right, and E.T. is not very good.
HOLMES: I’m with you more on E.T. But Jurassic Park?
COWEN: The novel is better. It seemed to me too Hollywood, too manipulative. The special effects are now completely out of date, and that made the movie so much —
HOLMES: Actually, that’s one of the things that people think aged well, is the special effects. There are definitely moments, but because of the mix of practical and special, it’s aged pretty well. You’re wrong on that, Tyler.
COWEN: I don’t know.
HOLMES: I will absolutely agree with you, though. I’m glad we managed to bring Michael Crichton into this because Crichton, who wrote Jurassic Park and Lost World and many other science fiction stories — by far, my favorite author as a kid. I loved Michael Crichton, and I loved those books, and I still love Jurassic Park the movie. Lost World is another story.
COWEN: He was a tremendous art collector, and he wrote a great book on Jasper Johns. He would have been a first-rate CWT guest.
HOLMES: Yes, absolutely. I actually emailed you. This is before I worked at Mercatus, but when Michael Crichton died, I emailed you and asked you if you would write anything, and I think you said, “Nothing particular is occurring to me to say that would be of any value.” But I loved Michael Crichton.
COWEN: Sphere is a wonderful book. Quite underrated now.
HOLMES: Yes. I think you’ve said it was one of your favorites.
COWEN: Maybe my favorite, yes.
HOLMES: What do you think of the movie Sphere?
COWEN: I didn’t want to see it because it would wreck the book for me. It got so-so reviews.
COWEN: I just stuck with the book. Andromeda Strain, of course.
HOLMES: Yes, quite relevant. Okay, and then the last one you added was Life of Pi.
COWEN: I would like to see it again. I found it engaging at the time. A lot of smart people I know turned against the movie. Maybe it’s too manipulative or too corny or, in some way, condescending toward India or maybe Bollywood, but it touched me nonetheless. I think it’s probably still a good movie.
HOLMES: I didn’t watch the movie, and I didn’t particularly enjoy the book. It was obviously a big book.
COWEN: I don’t love the book, so that’s why it took me so long to see the movie.
HOLMES: Okay. Moving on to books. Favorite fiction? Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl.
COWEN: Well, it’s become really quite famous. It’s fun and engaging and totally manipulative. But it’s become a thing, and I think that I picked it is to my credit, if I may say.
HOLMES: We’ve either considered her or outright asked her to be on CWT. I’d have to check my notes. Gone Girl — I have read the book. I’ve read the screenplay, which she also wrote, and I’ve watched the movie. Sometimes I do that to just see, how do you adapt something, especially if it’s the same author. It’s interesting, the choices you have to make going from novel to screenplay and then seeing what actually made it to screen.
Next one, Nell Freudenberger, The Newlyweds.
COWEN: Eh, forgotten.
HOLMES: Alonso Cueto, The Blue Hour.
COWEN: Peruvian, excellent novel. Peruvian literature is a thing underrated. Not all of it’s translated. I have a few in Spanish in my pile to read, but it takes me so long, I don’t know when I’ll get to them. But that’s a very good book.
HOLMES: Peter Sis, The Conference of the Birds. You say it’s “mostly illustrated, beautiful in any case.”
COWEN: That’s the old Persian poem. I think so.
HOLMES: Let me look it up. This is “Celebrated children’s book author . . . his first book for adults, a beautiful and uplifting adaptation of the classic 12th-century Sufi epic poem.” You’re right.
COWEN: Yes, and that’s a wonderful poem, definitely recommend it. There’s a new translation of that that came out a year or two ago. That’s also very good.
HOLMES: Alice Munro, Dear Life: Stories.
COWEN: She’s a A++. Read everything by her, one of the deepest writers and thinkers.
HOLMES: You said, “I can confidently put this on my list without having read it yet.”
COWEN: I was right.
HOLMES: Then you add, “I was disappointed by most of the well-known novels to have come out this year, including the Tom Wolfe (unreadable, alas)” — I’m not sure which one that was — “and McEwan (OK but not distinguished). Mantel is somehow too dense for me, and I do not enjoy it. The fault may be mine.”
COWEN: I’d rather read history than her stuff. Sad to say that in a year when she passed away, but it never clicked with me.
HOLMES: All right, favorite nonfiction books. First one, Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010.
COWEN: It’s now so well-known, but it was quite ahead of its time, and the notion that parts of the nation were, in some way, coming apart, he completely nailed. That’s an important book, and he was right on target, and he gets full credit for that one. But do you need to read it now? You’ve heard it too many times. I would say, in that sense, no, but definitely a big hit for Murray.
HOLMES: You’ve got a lot of these. Let me run through these fast. You can say anything if anything jumps out. David Hackett Fisher, Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies: New Zealand and the United States.
COWEN: Everything by him is great, and we should consider having him on as a guest. Some people recommended that in the comments today.
HOLMES: Oh, there you go. George Dyson, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. I wonder how that would look today.
COWEN: I think good, but there’s been enough other books that it’s not so special anymore. Probably, you don’t need to read it, but I think it’s still fine.
HOLMES: Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.
COWEN: Great topic, great book. Excellent author. More important than before, because the corporate lab has appeared increasingly important with time.
HOLMES: Michael Dirda, On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling.
COWEN: I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. That’s a good book. Dirda is a very smart guy. I love his stuff for The Post. Yes, it’s good.
HOLMES: James Fallows, China Airborne.
COWEN: It is out of date, but at the time, it was, in some ways, the best analysis of the problems in China and Chinese business. Different ways in which lack of trust meant you could not manufacture certain very high-quality goods. Again, it is fairly out of date, but still an excellent book for its time.
HOLMES: Greg Woolf, Rome: An Empire’s Story.
COWEN: So many Rome books. Somewhat forgotten, but I don’t mean that as a slight. It was probably quite good.
HOLMES: Reach out to Tyler for your blurb on the next Rome book. “So many Rome books.”
COWEN: Look, the number of sources is limited. So there’s new archeology, but until we read those burnt codexes and the like, just rehashing with another interpretation — it’s diminishing returns. Maybe better to read the Romans. I don’t know. It’s hard at the margin to improve your understanding of Rome, I find.
HOLMES: Odd Arne Westad, Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750.
COWEN: Very good book. There aren’t that many good books on Chinese history that will be intelligible to a Western reader, but that’s a good one.
HOLMES: Robert Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography.
COWEN: I like geopolitics. Some of the claims are overstated. He generalizes too much, but that’s better than a writer who won’t tell you anything.
HOLMES: Barry Eichengreen, Dwight Perkins, Kwanho Shin, From Miracle to Maturity: The Growth of the Korean Economy.
COWEN: There are way too few books on Korean economic growth. That’s one of them. Excellent on facts, quite boring in terms of style. But just for what it covers and what it does, strong recommendation.
HOLMES: Those are your picks. I may have missed it, but I didn’t see music picks from 2012. But what do you think of your picks? How have they aged overall?
COWEN: Well, by whose account? Do I still like what I liked? Mostly. That doesn’t mean they’ve aged well, right?
HOLMES: Not The Dictator, not The Three Stooges. Can’t get over that, Tyler. Sorry.
Let’s go to production function. This will be easier this year in one sense because you only explicitly asked it three times this year. I know you embed it in the conversation, and it comes up more organically, but was there any intent this year behind not asking as much? Literally not even saying the words “production function” or getting a lot into a guest’s process as a discrete segment. Was there any intent behind that, or just happened that way?
COWEN: If listeners like something too much, maybe you should move away from it. That’s the intent. You get trapped or caught in your own memes a bit.
HOLMES: As I sip from my self-recommending mug.
COWEN: Exactly. That’s why I did less of it, just to screw with people. “Well, you thought you liked this. Now I’m going to take it away from you.” But I’m still interested in the question.
HOLMES: [laughs] Tyler, you’re a cruel mistress. Let’s do the three, though. I will read out the answer to the production function question or where they talked about it, and you guess the name.
“My dad is a good guy. I think it showed something about my interest in taxonomy” — he’s talking about bug collecting, I believe — “which is probably not unconnected to later becoming a baseball reporter, as I became a stat head in high school and in college. There is probably a story to tell there.”
COWEN: It’s got to be Chuck Klosterman, right?
HOLMES: It’s not Chuck Klosterman. It’s a good guess, though.
COWEN: Who is it?
HOLMES: It’s Jamal Greene.
COWEN: Ah, that’s right.
HOLMES: You asked him a question about his dad.
HOLMES: Number two. “There’s a huge amount of power in being quantitative. There’s a huge power in thinking about things, not just from a qualitative angle, but putting numbers on things, building statistical models. Doing that in a world where you know you’re forgetting an enormous number of factors — how do you do that? I think that is one of the core things here — getting quantitative, numerical when it’s really hard to do so.”
COWEN: Was that SBF?
HOLMES: It was Sam Bankman-Fried, indeed. It was your first question, it was a production function question. He emphasized the quantitative and putting numbers on things.
COWEN: And learning how to count.
HOLMES: [laughs] Yes. Third and last one. “Frankly, I don’t understand people who go quiescent intellectually as they get older. In a way getting older — you get more control of your time, and you have more savvy on how to do things and how to make things happen, who to call when you have a question and all that stuff. So, your ability to investigate stuff, especially with the internet now, is going up all the time. Why would you let curiosity fade?”
COWEN: Sounds like either Mary Gaitskill or Lydia Davis.
HOLMES: It’s Stewart Brand. Stewart Brand, who up until Jeremy Grantham was our oldest CWT guest. I think Grantham. Dallas, is that right?
DALLAS FLOER: Jeremy’s two months older than Stewart.
HOLMES: Dallas Floer, our other CWT producer, confirms that there’s two months difference between Stewart Brand and Jeremy Grantham.
COWEN: I’m glad someone knows these things. Who’s our youngest guest ever?
HOLMES: Ooh, good question. Any guesses?
COWEN: I don’t think it was anyone from this year.
HOLMES: Ana Vidović is young. I don’t think she’s the youngest. She was the first guest this year.
HOLMES: Yes, I would think that it’s someone probably in their late twenties would be the youngest, and we have reached out to people younger. We’ve reached out to teenagers.
COWEN: Tavi Gevinson we tried, right?
HOLMES: Yes, and there have been several people like that who have done something exceptional. Some of them have been headline newsmaker-type people, and we’ve tried to get them on, but for various reasons, no dice.
COWEN: Let’s try someone else very young.
HOLMES: Yes, and that’s something you’ve talked to us explicitly about, too.
COWEN: I’m a little reluctant that if they’re that young — it’s not that I think they’ll screw it up, but they do get branded by the episode, and that’s a responsibility on our part. It makes me a little nervous. There are some people where you know that will be fine, and I would want to make sure it’s a young person in that position.
HOLMES: Yes, you have to be careful, the younger they get. There are definitely people who are CWT-worthy, but there’s more to consider for them in coming on the show, to be sure.
Switching on to some of the questions I had, and we get a few minutes to have the conversation I want to have.
COWEN: It’s all been the conversation you want to have, I believe.
HOLMES: That’s right.
COWEN: Especially the Three Stooges part.
HOLMES: Yes. [laughs] The through line of this episode is the Three Stooges movie from 2012 absolutely none of our listeners remember but does exist.
COWEN: Just paying tribute to the original Three Stooges deserves a mention, I think, so I don’t regret having put it on the list.
HOLMES: Are you a Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello guy? What’s your ranking?
COWEN: I watched a lot of Abbott and Costello as a kid because my father did, but I have to say I never found it funny. I think you can see roots of Larry David in Abbott and Costello, and that I find interesting, but no, it’s unwatchable. Like “Who’s on first?” It’s just not funny. Laurel and Hardy — there’s a bit. W.C. Fields, The Bank Dick, I like better. Charlie Chaplin, I like better. Buster Keaton, I like better. Most early comedy, I don’t love, and I think that tells us something about the nature of comedy.
HOLMES: I’m an Abbott and Costello guy. I think I watched the most of that. I think some of that holds up. Others — maybe not so much.
COWEN: Actually, a good Frankenstein and the Wolf Man movie.
HOLMES: I watched that movie many times as a kid.
COWEN: Yes, it’s very good.
HOLMES: You wrote one of your big Marginal Revolution essays this year. Last year you did one on state capacity libertarianism, and this time you did one on the New Right. What was your thought process going into that? You said for the SCL one, the state-capacity-libertarian one, that you were typing it with glee. You knew it would be poking the bear or something. For the New Right, what were you trying to accomplish for yourself and for your readers?
COWEN: Well, when I go to events, I very often meet quite smart young people. And those who are not on the left and who are not effective altruists — those who are on the right — they tend more and more to be some version of the New Right, for lack of a better term, even though that’s a quite diverse set of views.
I wanted to write a piece that would actually try to persuade those people and make them more in the direction of classical liberals, but recognize what it was they might be correct about, but still give reasons why I thought they weren’t on the proper path forward. That was my thinking there. I think it’s the most influential piece I’ve written this year, is my guess. Probably the most widely read as well.
HOLMES: Are these movements now just coming fast and furious? Is that one place in which things are getting more dynamic and changing all the time? Is every year now Tyler is going to be writing a new essay on some new intellectual or political movement that’s coalescing?
COWEN: Probably. There’s a lot of fracturing. Old views are breaking down. With the internet, everyone’s eclectic, so there’s always more to write about in terms of other people’s views.
COWEN: The tour is still going. I’m still giving talks, webinars, whatever, about the book quite often. A lot of institutions are using the book in a way that I find rewarding. I’m not sure I’m free to let on what they all are, but some pretty good places. I think the book has a remarkably dedicated set of readers. Per reader, it’s the most influential book I’ve written in terms of changing something about practice. And of course, a lot of the credit there goes to Daniel, so I’ve been very happy with how the book has gone.
HOLMES: Did anyone ask you your question, which is, “What are you working on next?”
COWEN: Anyone in a podcast?
HOLMES: Anyone in that press tour. You mentioned that one of the things no one ever asks about is, what’s your next book or what’s your next project. Did you get that this time?
COWEN: I did a few times. I’ve always been thinking about a sequel with Daniel. I don’t think that will be the next thing. I don’t think we have replenishment of fresh material on a rapid enough basis. And I’m writing a book, my take on the greatest economists of all time — Hayek, Keynes, Smith, Malthus, Mill — and why they’re interesting or where they went wrong, and that’s pretty far along. It’s over three-quarters done, I would say.
HOLMES: Oh, that’s exciting, Tyler. I’m excited.
COWEN: But it won’t come out soon, so there has to be the paperback of Talent. That will take a while. Then that goes through its run.
HOLMES: The paperback of Talent prevents us from learning about the talent in economics.
COWEN: That’s exactly right. In a funny way, this is a sequel to Talent. It’s case studies.
HOLMES: You were on Aarthi and Sriram’s Good Time Show, and one of the questions they presented to you was about the NBA Halftime Show, and you said you really liked it, and you liked it because the people argue with each other, but they seem to love each other. They’re really highly analytical, but trying to get to the truth of things.
COWEN: This is the TNT show, in particular, with Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Shaq, and Ernie. They’re not always analytical, but they have fantastic chemistry, and they know how to make it work, and it’s one of the best things to study, I think, to understand podcasting.
HOLMES: He mentioned it in the context of podcasting. Do you know where that format came from?
COWEN: Originally? No.
HOLMES: Because it was an intentionally created format. How do you have something on TV that’s argumentative but compelling and insightful?
COWEN: They use visuals very well, too.
HOLMES: Readers can correct me, listeners can correct me if I’m wrong here, but I believe one of the sources that people point to that format is actually the Siskel and Ebert show that started in the ’80s. And that was the thing that they figured out — how to have two people who were a little cantankerous and a little antagonistic, but fundamentally love movies.
HOLMES: They had two different points of view and could argue about a movie in a way that was still instructive, and it took them time to dial that in. But one of the big producers at sports shows, like on ESPN, directly credited Siskel and Ebert with giving him the idea to do shows like the Halftime Show.
COWEN: I didn’t know that. That’s great. It took a while for them to work Shaq into the group, and it’s fine now, but at first, I was like, “Eh, this isn’t going to work.”
HOLMES: It took Siskel and Ebert — and I think this is an instructive lesson for everyone — it took them a while to figure that out. It is very difficult to make that work and to operate in that environment, whether you’re on a podcast, NBA Halftime Show, or talking about the movies. And this is something we think about at Mercatus all the time. How do you have that insightful dialogue, where there’s some tension, but you know you’re trying to get to the truth of the matter? And that is a really powerful format for actually developing understanding and insight for things that sports has got figured out.
COWEN: Seinfeld did also. Early Seinfeld episodes are pretty iffy, but at some point, it becomes funny and interesting.
HOLMES: I have to say, I’m not a Seinfeld person. I like Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but I’m —
COWEN: Well, he’s better. It’s a more pure thing, but for ensemble work, I think Seinfeld is where one goes.
HOLMES: Seinfeld — we have, I think, had a direct line to — we did have a connect with Seinfeld, and we sent an invitation pre-COVID, I think, or maybe during COVID. But no, no luck with Seinfeld, but I think he would be a really good guest as well.
COWEN: We should try Larry David.
HOLMES: Larry David —
COWEN: We can promise not to ask about crypto.
HOLMES: But weirdly, Larry David — even though he was marketing FDX, he played the guy who thinks it’s a bad idea, so he is coming up aces on this.
Lastly, I forgot to ask one of the most important questions of this retrospective, which comes from our fellow CWT producer, Dallas Floer. She says, “I saw Limp Bizkit in concert this past summer, and it was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to. What are some of Tyler’s best or favorite concerts you’ve ever attended?”
COWEN: Master Musicians of Jajouka. They’re Moroccan. I would call them a noise band. That’s one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. Seeing live Gamelin music in Bali is one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. The Paul McCartney tour in the early ’90s. Seeing Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark play at NYU in what would be, I guess, the mid-1980s was a top show. Those are a few that come to mind off the top of my head.
I saw Horowitz play at Carnegie Hall once — piano. He did Beethoven Opus 101, Schumann Carnaval, some other great works of Chopin. That was amazing, even though it was not Horowitz at his peak. Uchida playing Mozart was incredible. So many for top concerts, I wouldn’t know where to stop.
HOLMES: Those are good picks. I’m not sure how they stack up against Limp Bizkit though.
Before we close, let me give a shout-out to everyone on the team who helped out this year. That’s Limp Bizkit fan Dallas Floer, Morgan Hamilton, Kate De Lanoy, Sloane Shearman, Caroline Bair, Karen Plante, Christina Behe, Haley Larsen, Katie Kinderknecht, Anna McVae, and Ashley Schiller. If you count all the people that helped out here in Mercatus with live events and things like that, it’d be a much longer list. But we thank you for all your help, and we look forward to another year in Conversations.
COWEN: Thank you, Jeff.
HOLMES: Thank you, Tyler.