On this special year-in-review episode, Tyler and producer Jeff Holmes look back on the past year in the show and more, including the most popular and underrated episodes, the origins of the show as an occasional event series, the most difficult guests to prep for, the story behind EconGOAT.AI, Tyler’s favorite podcast appearance of the year, and his evolving LLM-powered production function. They also answer listener questions and conclude with an assessment of Tyler’s top pop culture recommendations from 2013 across movies, music, and books.
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Recorded December 6th, 2023
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JEFF HOLMES: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the special episode of Conversations with Tyler. This is the 2023 retrospective, where we take a look back at the previous year in conversations, look back at Tyler’s pop culture picks from 2013, and other topics besides. My name is Jeff Holmes; I produce Conversations with Tyler. Tyler, welcome to the show.
TYLER COWEN: It’s always such a pleasure to do Conversations with Tyler with you, Jeff.
HOLMES: This is an extra, extra special episode because this is the 200th episode of Conversations with Tyler.
COWEN: 200th? That’s a lot, yes.
HOLMES: Yes. We released 33 original episodes this year. That’s the most we’ve ever done by far.
COWEN: When we started the first, I had no idea it was a podcast. It was with Peter Thiel. I just thought it was a one-off event.
HOLMES: I was reflecting — obviously, when you review the year in Conversations with Tyler, you start thinking about the origin story. It started as an event series. I don’t know if we’ve talked about that on the podcast. I’ve definitely talked about it with listeners, but this got a slow start, where it started as an event series.
It was sporadic, a little slapdash, and eventually it came in clusters where we would do a few, and then there’d be a break. Then it became a once-a-month thing, and now it’s once every two weeks. But this year, with all the in-between episodes that we released, it became almost a three-per-month year of Conversations with Tyler. Did you feel it?
COWEN: Yes. Ideally, a podcast, I think, should be once every day. That’s not possible for a number of reasons, but there is something socially optimal about that: that you wake up in the morning and you know there’s a podcast for you, and you only listen, say, to the 11 a year you care about the most, but that will be a different 11 for every person. Are you ready?
HOLMES: You talked to me about another podcast idea before this. That’s not the first time you’ve brought up the daily podcast. Maybe soon, everyone will have their AI assistant, and everyone will have their personal podcast, and it’ll be up to the listener to decide whose they want to spend time with.
COWEN: No, it’ll be up to the AI. You’ll ask your AI, “Which are the new podcasts that I want to hear?”
HOLMES: Yes, exactly. You’re looking at the list of Conversations in front of you, 33 original episodes. Let’s do some numbers. Most popular episode of the year — which ones do you think were the most listened-to episodes of the year?
HOLMES: Tyler, you could do better than that. Look at this list again and say, who was the one who CWT listeners would absolutely turn out and listen to in droves?
COWEN: I don’t know. Paul Graham?
HOLMES: Paul Graham. Yes, by far.
HOLMES: GPT Swift I think was just middling, so it was not an underperformer, but it certainly didn’t overperform. Paul Graham was absolutely the top this year and broke first-day listens, first-week listens, overall downloads — a clear favorite.
COWEN: That tells us something about our audience, right?
HOLMES: Yes, it does. Also, the paucity of Paul Graham interviews.
COWEN: That’s right. There are only a few, so he was easy to prepare for. There’s not much you can do. You read all his essays, or reread them rather, and you’re done. Then you study 18th-century British art and hope that leads to something.
HOLMES: He was maybe the easiest prep. Who was the most difficult prep this year?
COWEN: Jonathan GPT Swift is difficult because you have to read most of Swift. Who else here? Anna Keay was very difficult because 17th-century England has an enormously large literature. Noam Dworman was difficult because learning the history of comedy cannot really be done by reading. Lazarus Lake — I mostly prepared for that using GPT because he hasn’t written much. There’s not that much written on ultramarathons, so you keep on asking GPT for background context, and then you get somewhere.
Then the Kenyan trilogy, the three from the Nairobi area [Stephen Jennings, Harriet Karimi Muriithi, Githae Githinji] , especially the two Kenyans. I’d never met them. I didn’t really know who they were, so it’s completely improvised. That’s both the easiest and the hardest prep.
HOLMES: Other than Paul Graham, most popular episodes this year: Coming in second was Reid Hoffman — his second appearance — talking about AI. I took a skim through that one, and AI’s fraught because things are changing every day. Developments are rapid, but that one was more conceptual. I think it has held up really well. Did you have any reflections on that now — I don’t know what — seven months after it was recorded?
COWEN: I promised Reid to do another one with him a year or two from now because everything will be so different. The fact that we could keep on doing this podcast every month, and it would be interesting every month, is what’s important there.
HOLMES: Then third in popularity this year was Noam Chomsky. People turned out for Chomsky. If you look at the MR [Marginal Revolution] comments, people complain. They’re like, “Oh, Chomsky is terrible on some of these subjects. Why didn’t Tyler challenge him more?” What were your thoughts? What were you trying to get out of Chomsky? He’s doing a lot of interviews now. He’s 94. His birthday’s actually tomorrow — we’re recording this on December 6 — according to Wikipedia. Maybe it’s hallucinating. But what were you trying to get out of it?
COWEN: That’s a unique experience. You have a chance to do Chomsky. Maybe you don’t even want to do it, but you feel, “If I don’t do it, I’ll regret not having done it.” Just like we didn’t get to chat with Charlie Munger in time, though he’s far more, I would say, closer to truth than Chomsky is.
I thought half of Chomsky was quite good, and the other half was beyond terrible, but that’s okay. People, I think, wanted to gawk at it in some manner. They had this picture — what’s it like, Tyler talking with Chomsky? Then they get to see it and maybe recoil, but that’s what they came for, like a horror movie.
HOLMES: The engagement on the Chomsky episode was very good. Some people on MR were saying, “I turned it off. I couldn’t listen to it.” But actually, most people listened to it. It did, actually, probably better than average in terms of engagement, in terms of how much of the episode, on average, people listen to.
COWEN: How can you turn it off? What does that say about you? Were you surprised? You thought that Chomsky had become George Stigler or something? No.
HOLMES: You never know. Once you get into your 90s, who knows what might happen there? Speaking of which, you mentioned Charlie Munger. We had an interview scheduled with Charlie Munger in January of 2024. His birthday, I believe, is in December. He was going to be 100 years old when we would’ve interviewed him.
COWEN: That’s right.
HOLMES: Recently, Henry Kissinger died. We’ve had our —
COWEN: I didn’t want to do him, by the way. I felt there was no good way I could handle it. Some of what he did was very good, but a lot was very bad, and I just figured, stay away. I think he might’ve done one with us two or three years earlier, but it didn’t interest me.
HOLMES: Then this morning, actually, it was announced that Norman Lear died, the television pioneer.
COWEN: Oh, I didn’t know that.
HOLMES: Yes. He was 101 years old and pretty active until at least a year or two ago. Do you have any thoughts on centenarians? It seems it’s a weird coincidence that in the past few weeks, we’ve had people who have been very active — Kissinger, Munger, Norman Lear — making it to 100 or at least near 100.
COWEN: We need to get one on the show. Who’s the best candidate at this point? Vernon Smith?
HOLMES: Probably, yes.
COWEN: What’s he? 96, 97?
COWEN: If he shows his worth as an economist over the next few years, maybe we’ll give him an invite.
HOLMES: Warren Buffet is not that far behind Munger. I think he’s in his early 90s. I’m not sure on that.
COWEN: He’s harder to get, I think.
HOLMES: Yes. I also did something this year that I haven’t looked at before. I mentioned the engagement for the Chomsky episode was good. I looked and just saw who was actually the highest engagement — who actually, on average, most people listened to the most and got through most of the episode.
COWEN: You mean relative to total numbers or absolute?
HOLMES: Sort of asked the question, on average, how much of an episode do people listen to?
COWEN: Okay. Conditional on starting, is that Katherine Rundell?
HOLMES: It’s not. The two winners — it’s a very tight field. It’s not like there’s some runaway winner. These are all very, very similar. But if you look at the top for retention, as it’s called, Brad DeLong, number one, and Seth Godin. As a measure of engagement of the ones that people really tended to stick to to the end, those were the two at the top of the pack.
COWEN: I would think Vishy Anand might have won that also because there’s plenty of reasons why you might not care, but you know up front — it’s a bit like Chomsky — he’s a chess player; you’re going to get chess. If you don’t want chess, don’t even start.
HOLMES: All right. I’m going to move on to underrated, and I’ll tip my cap a little bit here and say that Vishy was actually one of my picks for underrated episodes this year. He did fine, but actually, I think his engagement was lower, his download numbers were lower. I think it was, as you said, that a lot of people looked in and said, “I don’t know anything about chess.” They either didn’t listen to it at all, or they gave up on it at some point in the interview.
That’s one of my picks for underrated episodes this year, because I’m not a big chess guy, but there was some really good stuff that Vishy had in there about competition, being hard on yourself. In particular, I think his anecdote about being a bad loser and saying he takes defeat probably the hardest of anyone he knows. He has just enough composure to get through the post-match press conference, but then he goes to his hotel room, and he’s just self-flagellating in there.
COWEN: It’s maybe our very best episode on human psychology, of the whole 200.
HOLMES: Yes. He was also just so delighted to talk about chess.
COWEN: And not have to dumb it down.
HOLMES: Yes. So that was one of my picks.
COWEN: I agree.
HOLMES: What would your picks be for underrated? We went through the most popular ones, but what do you think is underrated?
COWEN: Well, I don’t know how these are rated, but I thought Lazarus Lake was one of the best episodes.
COWEN: It just captured something about him. I don’t know how many listeners that had. Katherine Rundell is one of my all-time favorites. Rick Rubin was a great deal of fun for me and a real honor. Noam Dworman — I thought we had very good rapport and back and forth, but they’re all underrated, I have to say, right?
HOLMES: Lazarus Lake — that was one of those episodes. Every once in a while, there’s an episode where as soon as you listen to it, you think, “This is really special.” I would say Richard Prum was one of those episodes. I had the experience listening to the Lazarus Lake episode similar to that, where it’s like, “This is an all-timer for me.” There was something about it — the way that he was, the topics he was talking about — it was actually heartwarming and affirming, but there was also some good stuff in there about competition and self-improvement.
I had a number of other people reach out to me, or they said it on Twitter, they told me in person, that Lazarus Lake was their favorite by far. I think clear number one pick, Lazarus Lake. If you haven’t listened to that one, check it out; it’s really good.
The ones you mentioned are great. The other one that I would throw out there is Glenn Loury. Traffic-wise, it did fine, but if you haven’t listened to that one, it has one of the most unexpected, affecting endings of any Conversations with Tyler episode, where you ask him about death, and he gives a very genuine, from-the-heart answer, and it’s really compelling. It’s not a typical Tyler question. I don’t think this is one of your Talent questions, but why were you compelled to ask him about death?
COWEN: It’s one of our most moving episodes, but I think it is a Tyler question. How is it you feel you’re going to face death? I want to ask more people that one. It’s hard to B.S. in response to that question without sounding like an idiot. So that makes it a Tyler question. You get a sense of how thoughtful a person is, and how they respond on the fly because I don’t think too many people have a ready answer. You’re not used to hearing that in an interview. “Oh, and by the way, President Carter, how do you feel you’re going to face your own death?” It doesn’t come up that much.
HOLMES: I will go ahead and ask it. How do you feel you’re going to face death?
COWEN: I think it will come suddenly, and I won’t be faced with that much of an issue, but that could be a delusion.
HOLMES: That’s my hope. [laughs] I feel like the hope is that it will come suddenly, and you won’t be aware of it. I think I have a fear — like a lot of people — that, if I know death is coming, there will be moments I will be very at peace with it and moments where I’ll completely lose composure. My hope is that I can actually have my final moment be one where I have composure and not be in a panic, but I don’t feel like I have a way of ensuring that in any way.
COWEN: Robin Hanson has looked into this a bit, and he tells me, in people’s final moments, they’re typically very, very weak and just have way less reactions, period, than they think they’re going to, and it’s not that much of a question. That was his empirical finding.
HOLMES: Some solid empirics on that too. Assuaged my panic event.
COWEN: Solid empirics remain underrated, I would say.
HOLMES: Those were our picks for underrated. I definitely encourage all of you. We had a listener meetup earlier this year, and I was surprised to find that — and I’ve heard this since — that many listeners use this episode as an episode guide of sorts to go back and check out episodes if they missed them. Some people actually hold them in reserve and use this as a guide. Definitely check out the episodes that we’ve mentioned, but I would be curious to hear what other people’s picks were as well. So, let us know. I’m curious to know.
There’s definitely a lot on this list. I think that we also got feedback, especially in the second half of the year. People really felt like the show was on a roll, that it was just really good interviews, really interesting people, episode after episode after episode.
COWEN: We didn’t have many bad episodes, [laughs] but I won’t say how many we had.
HOLMES: Jonathan GPT Swift, that guy — it was just hard to deal with.
COWEN: Well, he had a commanding knowledge of history. You can say that for him.
HOLMES: Absolutely. Last year on the retrospective, I think it was in the context of asking what you’ll be working on next, and you mentioned that you had a book that you were working on about top economists, who’s the best economist. You indicated that it was dependent on publishing things, like maybe the paperback of Talent would be coming out, so you were not sure, but it was basically ready.
Now here we are a year later, and that book has arrived. Mercatus ended up publishing it in a nontraditional fashion. It’s called GOAT: Who Is the Greatest Economist of All Time and Why Does It Matter? You haven’t done a ton of interviews or press about it. There’s the EconTalk with Russ Roberts that released in late November, I think. Tell us that story. You had this manuscript — why were you compelled to release it in the way that you did?
COWEN: The site is econgoat.ai. Most of the book I wrote during the depths of the pandemic, the very worst parts, where you couldn’t get to libraries or do many things or travel much. I just thought, “What’s the project I can do where I won’t be driven crazy?”
Classic texts, you can work with, either online or I already owned copies, had read them, just needed to reread them a few times. I didn’t know when a book could come out in any form, how the pandemic would evolve, but I thought, “Well, this is timeless. If it doesn’t come out for a number of years, that’s not a problem.”
By the time things were reopening, most of the book was written. I just thought, “Well, I’m going to sit on this for a while, improve it slowly, and there’ll be a chance at some point to do something really interesting with it.”
Then GPT-4 came along, and I started thinking, “Well, this should be the first book published in GPT-4.” It’s 100,000 words. You can access it through GPT-4 or just read it like a regular book, or interrogate a GPT-4-based app that you helped build and oversaw the construction of, and ask it to summarize chapters, ask it for more background, ask it what mistakes it thinks I made. That’s the future of a lot of learning. I thought, “Let’s be in advance of this.”
HOLMES: You’re planning on using it, I believe, in a class that you’re teaching next semester?
COWEN: History of Economic Thought. It’s a graduate class I’m teaching, already fully subscribed. Of course, the book to the students — as for everyone else — it will be completely free, and they can just ask away.
HOLMES: A professor at Purdue, I believe, reached out to us and was planning on doing the same. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of that as a use case, but it makes complete sense. I think in this case, the professor was mentioning that it’s hard to pinpoint, sometimes, a specific book to do a bunch of readings. Well, maybe you can do a reading or two, but also just use a tailored AI assistant to help give you that context that you would get from multiple readings.
COWEN: That’s right. It’s kind of a meta book. You can ask it, “What did Joseph Schumpeter say about Walras?” And it will give you a reasonable answer.
There aren’t that many History of Economic Thought classes, period, anymore, but I think the topic is making a comeback online with nonprofessional economists who just want to read great books, smart books. I hope this is speeding along that comeback, because Adam Smith, Keynes, John Stuart Mill — they’re some of the greatest thinkers of all time. As I reread them, it just amazed me how much even smarter they were than I had thought. That’s the main thing I learned from doing that book.
HOLMES: Who got the biggest upgrade, and who got the biggest downgrade in the writing of the book?
COWEN: John Stuart Mill got the biggest upgrade. Just how much Mill there is — it’s either 32 or 33 volumes. If you just open up to pages randomly, it’s interesting almost all the time. He wrote about the ancient world, wrote about Plato and Socrates, wrote about the French historians in addition to the well-known works. Reviewed Tocqueville. That to me was the biggest upgrade.
I don’t think that anyone got a downgrade. Maybe Hayek didn’t get much of an upgrade, but that’s because I liked his best pieces so much already.
HOLMES: Yes. You’ll be happy to know I read this in the Tyler Cowen fashion, Because I was working on the AI assistant for the book, I will say, I looked at every page of the book, as you have said from time to time. So in that sense, have I read it? Maybe, but I’ve worked a lot with the AI assistant. I read some of it traditionally, and I’ve looked at every page.
COWEN: I think this is encouraging people to rethink how they read. With the app, you can just ask it, “Well, the chapter on Keynes — give me three anecdotes for a cocktail party. I don’t want to read the chapter.” It will do that quite well. Now, if that’s how most people read anyway — and there’s a lot of evidence from, say, Kindle, that that is how most people read — why shouldn’t we cater to that demand?
Now, underneath the surface, there’s a slight Straussian mocking of the reader, like, “This is what you want. We’ll give it to you, ha ha.” At the same time, I honestly think we should accommodate that and give people the option, but also just let them read the book straight through if they want.
HOLMES: That’s maybe a cynical view of what people read books for.
COWEN: Mostly they just don’t read them. They buy them, and they sit dormant.
HOLMES: Mostly they don’t read them. Certainly, podcasts have substituted for books. On some level, there’s a cynicism, where it’s a signaling thing. You’re just trying to show a certain intellectual level of sophistication.
But there’s also a level of thinking on the margin with some of this stuff. If I can listen to a podcast interview with the author and get 80 percent or 90 percent of the insight, why would I read the book? Similarly, if I can sit down with the tutor for an hour or two, can I get a level of insight that’s sufficient? It’s not just cocktail party fodder. I get the learning I need to.
COWEN: I’m fine with that competition. Most authors are running away from it. I think we should run toward it and embrace it. If you have to figure out, “This is actually my comparative advantage,” it’s fantastic to know that. Most authors never know that.
HOLMES: When you read nonfiction books, you can read very fast, but you also read really efficiently. You can skip parts of the book that you’re like, “I know this.”
COWEN: Which is often the case, yes.
HOLMES: When would an LLM get good enough that you feel like it could help you do that? It can just excise the stuff that you don’t even need to see.
COWEN: I think in less than two years. Now, whether that’s a product on the market that I can subscribe to, I’m less sure of, but technologically speaking, it’s probably possible right now. It’s a question of at what cost? What’s the token cost? If it’s $2 per query to do that? Well, I’m not going to do that even if I could afford it. Again, it’ll be affordable in a few years’ time. You’ll train it on Tyler Cowen and then say, “Just take out the parts that Tyler already knows.”
HOLMES: What would give you the certainty that it’s doing the job, and would you actually —
COWEN: I don’t have the certainty now that I’m doing the job. I’d be fine with that. I think it’d be 87 percent accurate, and I’d get to read much more, and then I would apply my own rules to what’s left in there. If it leaves in too much, I would’ve been faced with that anyway. You can always set type I versus type II error. It almost certainly has to be a help. I don’t see the scenario where it’s not a help.
HOLMES: It puts you, though, in a digital reading context, unless you’re having it print on demand for you somehow.
COWEN: Give that another year or two. If there’s something like a Kindle but more sophisticated — now that’s a kind of digital reading, but it would be enough like reading a book with some kind of screen. Or it’s an audiobook and it just tells me the parts I didn’t know.
HOLMES: Speaking of audiobooks, after this recording, we’re going to sit down and record a sample of you reading the book to generate a synthetic Tyler voice. I don’t think we even told you about this, but we’re going to take five minutes and have you record a sample to generate.
COWEN: There’s not enough of my voice already with 200 episodes. It has to be my book voice. The Tyler-Cowen-talking-about-Adam-Smith book voice is a special thing, I suppose.
HOLMES: There is enough that we can do it, but we’ve been told by those in authority that we’ll get even better results if it’s you actually reading the book, so now, a five-minute sample will improve things.
COWEN: Give me advice on how my book voice should be different than my podcast voice. Should it be more pompous? It shouldn’t be more giggly, right?
HOLMES: That’s a question. I’m not a big consumer of audiobooks. I know you talked about it on the Brian Koppelman episode. I think it is true that a lot of people — at least with nonfiction — they want to hear the actual author speak the words, and they imagine it — I think most people tend to imagine it in their voice if they have any conception of the author’s voice. One is it should be you. I just don’t think you have that many register styles. [laughs]
COWEN: That’s good. It makes it easy then.
HOLMES: I don’t think you really need to worry too much about it. I think, actually, it would be totally fine as we were originally doing, where we just took an episode of Conversations with Tyler and said, “Here you go.” But we’ll give this a try and see what happens.
COWEN: It needs to learn how I pronounce Smith, right?
HOLMES: Yes. Maybe it will take with you some of your more idiosyncratic pronunciations as well, which is important to preserve. I don’t know if I even connected the dots there, but we’re doing that to generate an AI audiobook.
COWEN: Great. When do we think that audiobook will be ready? Do you know?
HOLMES: Right now, it’s a function, I think, mainly of when they give the synthetic voice back to us and how long it might take us to . . . It’s a fairly long book, so how long it’ll take us just to edit it and all. Assuming we get the voice back relatively promptly, it’s days or weeks. It’s not a long process. How long does it take a human to actually package that audio file in a way that is presentable?
There’s also a version in which we release it and say, “We haven’t even listened to this really, [laughs] here it is. Let us know what goes wrong.
COWEN: I would think within a year, an AI should be able to edit it. Again, I don’t think that’s a service currently available, but technologically, it should be possible right now. You feed it the text, you let it listen, you ask it about the discrepancies. It sends you a list.
HOLMES: The nature of this is that you can’t imagine there being a lot of outright errors. It’s more about maybe having to divvy it up into chapters or things, like packaging as an audiobook, but it’s really not as labor intensive.
What it gets you, though, is you don’t actually have to worry about was there a flub that we didn’t catch, because it’s just a synthetic voice reading the text. There might be weird mispronunciations, or there might be weird inflections, but that’s it. There’s not going to be an outright mistake. Or perhaps it reads a footnote or something and it’s not supposed to, or does chapter headings.
COWEN: Say when I write about Keynes being into eugenics. I’m not sure myself, what’s the right tone for that discussion? [laughs] I wonder if the AI — I’m pretty sure they don’t change the tone at all. It should sound more grave or something.
HOLMES: That’s a great question. I don’t know to what extent there’s an ability for it to have that contextual awareness of, this is a more serious, grave matter. I’m sure there is.
COWEN: I don’t think there is now in the current product. Again, I don’t think it’s at all difficult, but it’s just not set up as a current service.
HOLMES: You just select a mood and say, “Go for it.” Possibly. There might be a weird mood for some of these, where it’s a very light and lilting exposition on eugenics or whatever.
COWEN: Or when Adam Smith is kidnapped by the gypsies, it’s all joyous.
HOLMES: Of course. That sounds fun. So, that is coming up as well.
Incidentally, on the GOAT thing, you and Russ Roberts, at the end of your EconTalk conversation, had a bit of a discussion about GOATs in various fields. I think this book has inspired people. You were inspired by Bill Simmons writing about the greatest of all time in basketball. You did it for economics. What are you looking at next? What do you want to see someone make a good case for as a field for who’s the GOAT?
COWEN: Almost anything, it can work. It’s been done plenty for basketball. There’s my take on economics. I think the fundamental innovation is not GOAT per se, but writing from the perspective of a fan. It’s what a lot of people actually want. If you read, say, theringer.com, it’s written from the perspective of a fan, which is great. To have many more things written from the perspectives of fans, to me, is more important than whether or not they do GOAT.
GOAT may not apply to a lot of fields. Political science — it’s much more heterogeneous and varied than, say, economics. So, maybe there is no GOAT of political science even, possibly. That’s fine, but you could write a book about your favorite political scientists, again, with this perspective of enthusiasm and why they got me excited about things. That’s what I want. Academic incentives are precisely to do the opposite of that. Like, here’s why it’s not really very exciting at all. That’s not how it’s described, but that’s the way it turns out.
HOLMES: That’s very much the Bill Simmons brand. I think the success of The Ringer has shown that that thing is really enticing, when you hear people come to it from deep appreciation and enthusiasm.
COWEN: The goal is to teach people how to appreciate. How can you do that if they can’t even see you appreciating? It’s insane. The key thing — there’s plenty of information, but how do you motivate people to want to study? Teaching them the art of appreciation is what CWT has been about from the beginning. Like, here’s how I’ve learned to appreciate these people. You hope your listeners either appreciate them or just learn the general art of learning how to appreciate. That’s the whole mission.
HOLMES: What’s strange is Bill Simmons has even said that he noticed that that wasn’t the case always in sports writing, that he would read columns and think, “This person doesn’t even care about what they’re writing about.”
COWEN: Or they dislike it.
HOLMES: Or they actively disliked it. How do you model that? I don’t understand. I do, but if you can find people whose profession is to commentate on sports or these other things that seem like dream jobs, and they still don’t seem to actually like it, what’s the model for that? How do we have hope that that can be brought to bear on things like who’s the GOAT of political science?
COWEN: You used to have these comprehensive media outlets that did sports pages. It was never their specialty and probably didn’t have much influence over marginal subscribers or nonsubscribers. The Washington Post, New York Times — they would sometimes have very good sports reporting, but a lot of the ordinary stuff was just not that interesting. It didn’t use analytics. It wasn’t from the perspective of a fan.
New York Times has now mostly switched to The Athletic, which is much better. Places like ESPN or The Ringer just way outcompete the sports section of, say, The Post or ordinary newspapers that don’t really do sports. That will disappear — them doing sports — one way or the other. And that’s for the better. Washington Post should cover politics, and The Ringer, ESPN, and Substacks should cover sports, and that’s what we’re getting. What’s not to like? And podcasts cover sports, like Bill Simmons.
HOLMES: By the way, I hope we have “Washington” in the reading sample because we’ve got to capture your “Warshington.” [laughs] That’s a Tyler.
COWEN: I don’t know if it’s in the GOAT book, because none of the GOATs are in Warshington.
HOLMES: We’ve got it, either way.
Let’s move on to some Twitter questions. We’ve got a few from either past or actually upcoming Conversations with Tyler guests. Let’s start with those. First, from Hollis Robbins: If the humanities are dying — she says it’s speculative — what are the opportunities for revival with AI?
COWEN: I don’t think the humanities are dying, and podcasts show that. I don’t have data, but I suspect more people are reading Shakespeare than ever before. Certainly, if you’re counting India and China, that’s quite likely. The presence of classical music on YouTube is very high. Poetry — I wouldn’t quite say it’s popular, but it’s a thing, and I think it’s robust. They’re being removed from the academy. That’s probably good for them at current margins.
So, I’m bullish on the humanities. I think they’re showing time and again that people who have studied them have special and unique talents. Peter Thiel would be a simple example, that he’s such an incredible judge of who will be a good CEO. It comes in part from Peter having studied the humanities, and others are seeing that. You go on Twitter and someone like Tommy Collison is saying, “What have you read this weekend?” Everyone just knows he means great books. He doesn’t mean the latest Robert Harris novel, although some of them are not terrible.
There’s the Catherine Project with Zena Hitz and many other groups. I think there’s a huge revival of the humanities right now. Harold Bloom has become a popular thing. People ask me about Harold Bloom all the time. Why is that? I didn’t even know Harold Bloom. He’s a guest we should have had, by the way, but he was ill for too long.
Yes, I’m very optimistic there.
HOLMES: Upcoming Conversations with Tyler guest Patrick McKenzie asks, “What has changed the most in your production function since LLMs became widely available? And what will change the most over the next five years, assuming continued improvements?”
COWEN: What I do when I prepare for a guest who hasn’t written a lot — I keep on interrogating the LLM about background and context, and that works very well. I mentioned that already with Lazarus Lake.
In general, when I’m reading books, unless I know the area quite well, there are all sorts of references where I just don’t know really what they’re talking about. I just type a query into my GPT-4. Usually, I’ll experiment with the other services too, and it will tell me a lot. I find that is more useful than trying to read more books, is taking one book and the things I don’t know, asking questions. That would be the main difference.
Over time, it’s hard to predict. What I’ve already started doing is, I do more personal appearances and give more talks because I think simply writing isn’t good enough anymore. You don’t have to believe the next GPT will write a better book than person X, but I do think many more people will be playing around with LLMs rather than reading books, so we need to diversify more out of only doing books.
HOLMES: Has ChatGPT condensed the number of tabs you typically have open? Or has it expanded it? Or has it just substituted maybe one-for-one with what you might Google for?
COWEN: I have several LLM tabs always open, like Anthropic, which is a great service. More to come. It’s going to increase the number of open tabs by four or five in equilibrium. I don’t have access to X yet, their AI service. Open source I’ve played around with, but I’m not using it yet on a regular basis, but I will be once there’s open service fine-tuned on what I want it to have read. That’s not very far away. So, it’s five more open tabs perpetually.
HOLMES: Do you see it collapsing? If you continue to make the analogy with Google, do you see it collapsing into one thing that you’re using? You’re mainly using ChatGPT, but you’re experimenting with others. Do you see that eventually there’s a leader, and you’re just going to whatever that service is? Or do you think that it’ll persist where you’re going to have —
COWEN: Well, there’s a leader now, but I strongly believe diversity will persist. For one thing, there’ll be differences in prices, which is not the case at Google. It’s all p=0. If you’re in Kenya, you’ll probably want cheaper, free open source, and it may not be as good as what I’m using, but it will make sense for them. Open source will just allow a lot of diversity of product.
The different companies — they’ll be less gated. Elon Musk’s will have less reinforcement learning. It’ll be ruder, in some ways more interesting. Character AI will play out different historical characters or some offshoot service. I would be shocked if there were just a single dominant provider.
HOLMES: John Starker asks, “What does he think about Aaron Renn’s reasons for why you don’t come across more Protestant intellectuals?” You made a comment on the Marginal Revolution that you don’t perceive there being these leading Protestant intellectuals like there are in Catholicism, and then Aaron Renn wrote a response. What do you make of it?
COWEN: I don’t hang out in Protestant intellectual circles. That’s the main reason why I don’t meet more of them. I do hang out in Jewish intellectual circles. Part of it is just called academia. Catholic is trickier, but I think there’s something systematizing about Catholic philosophy, where I’m more likely to end up interacting with those people than I would be for the Protestants. There’s a lot of Protestant theology. When I read it, mainly I’m bored. That’s probably my defect. I’m more likely to read something in Ptolemist philosophy because it’s closer to other things I know in terms of the way it thinks.
HOLMES: “What of your favorite things in Sri Lanka changed after your last visit?” Joshua Parikh asked this question. You had an old post on Marginal Revolution, I think, actually, maybe from 2013, 10 years ago —
COWEN: That’s when I went the first time, yes.
HOLMES: — where you list some of your favorite things in Sri Lanka, but you say you’re not happy with your picks, and you say, “I’ll try better next time.”
COWEN: The architecture of Geoffrey Bawa, especially the hotels, is one of the great glories of the world, and most people haven’t heard of it. You can see so much of it in Sri Lanka. I would elevate that over all else. I understand the food much better. There’s very good Western food in Sri Lanka, which I hadn’t understood on my first visit. Baked goods in particular can just be first-rate.
If you get tired of hoppers and string hoppers, which everyone does at some point — I don’t care what you say, you get tired of it — what do you have next? Just their weird, mediocre Chinese food or you can get Western baked goods. On the second trip, my view of Sri Lanka changed a good deal, and I recommend it highly as a vacation spot. One of my best friends just did two weeks there, and he loved it, and he was blown away by the quality of the architecture and the food. And it’s quite safe and very affordable.
HOLMES: Great. “Do you want to do more DJ-ing of your favorite songs, like you did with Rick Rubin?” asked Roommate Dave.
COWEN: After my CWT with Rick Rubin, he recorded a podcast with me at his place in Italy. That was quite a fun experience. I went to visit him, and he just asked me to DJ for him. I had no prep for this. This is intimidating. “I’ve got to DJ for Rick Rubin.” We did that, I guess, a total of seven or eight hours. He turned about two hours of it into one of his podcasts. Now, since then, he’s asked me to make a number of playlists for him that will be on a new website he’s building.
I’ve sent him two already. One is on avant-garde music — this is a Spotify playlist. The other is African/world music/jazz, which is world music, too. Those are done and ready. They’re not out yet, but they exist. I’m going to do at least two more in classical music. One will be the best performances of some of the best pieces, but restricted to shorter pieces. Then the other would be what are obscure pieces by the best-known composers that are wonderful nonetheless, and those I’m working on right now.
HOLMES: Wow, that’s amazing. You say it’s a seven- or eight-hour DJ session. Are you literally just sitting in the room playing songs and talking about them for eight hours straight?
COWEN: This is over the course of three days. It’s actually maybe, I don’t know, 10 hours. And he’ll play for me, too. There are breaks, and he has work breaks, I have work breaks. There are meal breaks, but it’s a very intense experience. It is taken very seriously in exactly the right way.
HOLMES: Do you think there’s an analogy there to developing taste appreciation for other fields? What would be the equivalent of that in even something like economics? Is that just a seminar?
COWEN: You could have a group of three to five people read the same piece and talk about it. We do that at George Mason pretty often, like with Alex Tabarrok, Robin Hanson, Brian Kaplan, Garett Jones. I recommend that. Academics don’t do it enough. There’s somehow no space for it. You learn more that way than for most seminars.
You can even have a guest or visitor come if you want, but if you do music appreciation with Rick, you learn a great deal about talent. He’s one of the greatest talent judges of all time, and you learn a lot about appreciation. I think one of the things he and I have in common is, we’re both quite keen to get other people more excited about appreciation.
HOLMES: Eric Silver asks, “Will there be more clustered shows as with the three Tatu City episodes?” I’ll broaden that to say, do you think you’ll experiment more with format or guest ideas? We also have the Jerusalem Demsas book club —
COWEN: Where we just read books and talked about those three books. We had, what, three big experiments this year. One is the GPT episode. The other is the Kenyan trilogy — the two Kenyans, I had never met before, and nothing to read by them. Then, with Jerusalem Demsas, doing the books. I want to experiment more, and I’m looking for ideas. So, ideas are welcome.
HOLMES: Tom Mong asks, “Given his interest in cultural dynamics, it could be intriguing to discuss how he sees cultural shifts affecting global economics and politics, particularly in relation to the rise of virtual communities and remote work.” He’s thinking about digital nomad groups, educational communities centered around, say, YouTube channels. You could think of Vitalik’s Zuzalu, a three-month conference in Montenegro, as an example of this. What do you think?
COWEN: I think there’ll be much more of that. I’m going to visit one of those groups in January in Honduras — Próspera. They’re running a two-month experiment. It’s called Vitalia. One of the integrating themes is, people going there are interested in life extension. I don’t know very much about it at the moment. I would be going there anyway, but I’m very curious to see it and interact with it and try to learn something.
I think this is appealing from the user point of view to do this. You meet other very interesting people. You’re in an interesting location for a while. The cost shouldn’t be that high. If it can be done, I think it’s going to happen much more.
HOLMES: Wham Mo asks, “What guest appearances on other podcasts have been your favorite this year?”
COWEN: When I was on Rick Rubin’s. That would, by far, be my favorite, yes.
HOLMES: Yes, I would encourage everyone to check that out. There are two. There’s an interview with you, and actually, it ends up being one where you talk a lot about yourself, more of your personal bio. But then the DJ session is great as well and turned me on to some new tracks and artists that I had never heard of. That was great. If you haven’t listened to those, jump on that.
COWEN: I did many other podcasts this year. They tend to blur together in my mind. I don’t even know anymore which are the favorites. I don’t listen to them afterwards. Unlike with CWT, I don’t read through a transcript afterwards. Some of them are good, is what I’ll say.
HOLMES: Jeppe Johansen says — I’m going to summarize this one, but he’s pointing out that when you look at the GOATs in different fields, you point to the Beatles, Bach, Homer, Shakespeare. Is there a bias there, in that it feels like we look more to older figures as GOATs? Is Shakespeare really the best writer or the best playwright?
COWEN: Yes, he’s the best, but it’s going to be older by its nature. It doesn’t mean modernity is collapsing. If someone did something amazing two years ago, say in gaming, it just won’t be called GOAT yet. You’ll even wonder, maybe it’ll be surpassed next year, just like, say, the Beatles surpassed the Rolling Stones. Things that qualify for GOAT — they’re not going to be that new, but we’re generating GOAT-like outputs all the time. We just don’t know yet which are the most wonderful in their areas.
HOLMES: All right, let’s switch gears and go to a version of GOAT. These are your pop culture picks from 2013. You do a year-end list on Marginal Revolution. I’ve gone back to 2013, and here are your picks. Favorite music — you say these are favorites from a radically incomplete sampling, not a best-of list, which I don’t know that you usually put that qualification on there, but you did this time. Let’s run through them. Kanye West, Yeezus — his best album by quite a bit.
COWEN: It’s a very, very good album. I’m no longer sure it’s his best, but it’s held up very well. Kanye himself is a more problematic matter, but people still listen to it, and they should.
HOLMES: MBV by My Bloody Valentine. You say if you had to ask who did better after a 20-year hiatus, Kevin Shields or Bobby Fischer, this is decisive evidence in favor of Shields. A totally unexpected renaissance.
COWEN: Strongly agree. It’s still a very good album.
HOLMES: Acid Rap by Chance the Rapper.
COWEN: I don’t listen to rap much anymore. I’m not sure why not. It’s very innovative and there’s a lot of high-quality work, but somehow it strikes me as being in a rut, and a lot of it doesn’t stick with me. Chance is very good, but I don’t listen to it these days. I don’t regret picking it, but yes.
HOLMES: Wed 21 by Juana Molina. You say, “Why isn’t she better known?”
COWEN: She’s from Argentina. She does a mix of pop and avant-garde. She’s coming to Barns at Wolf Trap on my teaching night. I’m sad to miss her. I still think about her and her music. Yes, strongly agree, held up well.
HOLMES: MATANGI by M.I.A. You say, “Her first album had enough posturing that I figured that was it, but by now she has compiled an impressive streak.”
COWEN: The streak ended; she stopped. She was an incredible talent. It may have been family obligations, I’m not sure, but she is not a part of my musical life in terms of new output. But again, quality on the older work has held up.
HOLMES: Lastly, you say, “I’m also starting to like Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe. My favorite jazz album of the year has been Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran, Hagar’s Song. I have more on order.”
COWEN: Charles Lloyd had an incredible renaissance. Not that he really ever stopped at quite an old age. You would think playing the saxophone is hard to do when you’re very old, but his last few albums were some of his best. Some of the best jazz, period.
So, I like my picks for that year. Much better than my picks from the year before. It’s like I learned something between 2012 and 2013.
HOLMES: Favorite movies. At the end of the year, in resonance, maybe, with 2023, the movie Her came out, and you were a big fan of it. It came out after you released your best-of, but that movie, I think, has held up really well, and people are returning to it now because it feels like it got some things right. One is just the natural feel of how it’s already possible now to chat with an AI and for it to feel very seamless.
There’s now Humane which has made an AI pin, but the primary interface with it is voice. The other thing it got right, by the way, is if you look at the costume design in the movie Her, it very much imagines that the future will look like an updated version of the ’50s and ’60s. So the trousers will be higher-waisted, the cuts will be looser, things like that, and that is totally coming to pass. So great job, whoever did the costume design on Her. I think you got that one right.
COWEN: It will go down as one of the great movies of its time, like Frankenstein or City Lights or Gone with the Wind. Total clear winner.
HOLMES: Relatedly, you did a review of Google Glass in 2013. Thinking about Google Glass, you were not a fan of it. I think you found it just hard to use.
Now, in 2023, we have this product that I guess will launch next year. That’s an AI pin that you primarily talk to. It’s supposed to be, in some sense, a substitute for your phone, so you’re not on your screen all the time. What do you make of that? Will you try it out?
COWEN: I will try out the pin. The thing I’m most bullish about is the Meta glasses. They’re not out yet. I believe they’ll be priced below $200, and they’ll be what Google Glass was trying to be, except now we have all the tech. I was very sympathetic to the idea of Google Glass. I give Google a lot of credit. I don’t think it worked, and the market agreed with me, but that was step one. With LLMs being so much better, we’re ready for a step that people are going to want to use.
The privacy issues will be tricky, but it’s going to happen in some form, no matter what. The notion that you can wear glasses and talk to your glasses, and they’ll tell you whatever you want to know — that’s going to be here to stay.
HOLMES: All right, let’s go through the favorite movies. You have a lot of favorite movies. You say, “It’s been an excellent year for movies. I can’t remember a period so good.” This is after 2012 when you were like, it’s good but a lot of tentpole studio stuff. Let’s run through these. Not all of these released in 2013.
COWEN: But it’s when I saw it. That’s how I organized them.
HOLMES: Amour by Michael Haneke.
COWEN: Very dramatic, very European. I don’t like a lot of his movies. They’re too negative, but that’s a good one.
HOLMES: The Chilean movie No, which is an account of how, even in the strangest of circumstances, democracies filter policy outcomes — as indeed, autocracies do too, in different ways.
COWEN: One of the best movies about elections, politics, and public choice. Strong plus.
HOLMES: Spring Breakers.
COWEN: That was just fun. That movie has really stuck. It’s an easy movie to hate or make fun of, but it’s full of energy. It’s cinematic in every shot. I thought it was great and still do.
HOLMES: The Gatekeepers, a documentary. You taught it in a Law and Literature class. It’s about six former heads of Israel’s secret service agency discussing their successes and failures in the Six Day War in 1967.
COWEN: We all should watch that one again, right? Excellent film.
HOLMES: Another resonance with 2013 is, you were actually in Israel in December. You were writing a lot of posts about Israel. That was another resonance with me when I was reviewing it. I think you were also doing a dive more into Israel at the time, as you were wont to do.
COWEN: It’s about these people who think there are all these secret hidden meanings in The Shining. It’s a hilarious film. More people should watch it. I’m surprised it hasn’t become better known because Strauss has become much better known and more widely discussed. I would recommend that. Room 237 — that’s the title, right?
HOLMES: Yes. Oblivion, Tom Cruise movie directed by Joseph Kosinski, who went on to direct Tom Cruise in Top Gun Maverick which was one of the biggest movies of last year.
COWEN: Maybe it’s a bad sign that I don’t remember, but which one is Oblivion?
HOLMES: I’ve never seen it, but a lot of people remark on Oblivion as being a visually spectacular movie. That’s actually what you say. I’m quoting you. “It’s one of the most visually spectacular movies I’ve seen. The first half is a very good movie in its own right. The second half is mostly narcissistic trash, only periodically compelling, in which Cruise also rewrites the story of his breakup with Nicole Kidman.”
COWEN: There you go. I must have been right.
HOLMES: It’s been one that I have meant to check out for its visual style.
COWEN: You might need a big screen, though.
HOLMES: Yes. Next on the list, Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley.
COWEN: She’s an incredible filmmaker. The very recent one about Women Talking, I couldn’t stick with.
HOLMES: I was a big fan of it, actually.
COWEN: I like the idea of it. Away from Her also is another amazing Polley movie. I’m glad to see she’s gotten the recognition she deserves.
HOLMES: Stories We Tell is a very unique documentary. It’s about the stories we tell, and it relates to her life and upbringing, and it’s a very well done and crafted documentary. I highly recommend it as well.
COWEN: She will still do great things, I think.
HOLMES: Before Midnight, “completes the trilogy realistically with charm and bite.”
COWEN: People love that trilogy. Again, it will go down as a classic achievement of the age. Maybe it’s too poppy or too popular or too clichéd, but it does cliché in just the right way, and it’s a bit self-mocking. I think those are great.
HOLMES: I think they’ll age well. I am a fan of the trilogy. I think they will age well.
Next one, In a World. This is probably your most out-there pick. Do you remember it, In a World?
COWEN: Tell me something.
HOLMES: It’s a comedy about voiceover artists.
COWEN: Oh, that was very good, yes. I like movies about how things are done, how things are made. Something very CWT about it. More people should watch it, yes.
HOLMES: By the way, another random question for me: What is an intellectual romance or gossip book? What does that mean to you?
COWEN: There’s a number of recent books about early 20th-century intellectuals and their love lives. I reviewed them on MR. Those were just fun, and you don’t have to read all of it. You can just pick out figures you’re interested in. There’s one of them — it’s about what different top central European thinkers were doing, often with their love lives, right before World War I broke out.
There should be more books like that. It brings things to life. It helps you appreciate. It makes it vivid. You get some sense of what might have actually motivated them. It’s like if you read the letters, Heidegger and Hannah Arendt — a very strange romance. He’s this Nazi, really, and she’s Jewish. It’s a fraught romance, but there was a really deep, electrifying connection between the two as well. Of course, you should read that stuff.
HOLMES: This is a very Tyler book. I don’t know if you’ve invented a new genre there, but the reason this came up is, you spoke positively of a book called Lives of the Wives: Five Literary Marriages.
COWEN: Oh yes, that’s a good example. Yes.
HOLMES: That’s from this year.
All right, moving back to movie picks — The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu.
COWEN: I don’t remember it well. I know I liked it, must have been good. With a lot of history of communism, I feel a bit too much “I know this story,” and a lot of things haven’t stuck with me. Maybe that’s me oversimplifying, but I’m not going back to that topic very much.
HOLMES: Pieta, a beautiful Korean tale involving money lenders and nonprice compensation schemes.
COWEN: Korean movies for almost a 20-year period are just some of the best in the world. The ones that are known at all are quite good at a success rate of about 90 percent.
HOLMES: In Another Country is another pick, Korean and French juxtaposed. World War Z you say was surprised how serious and deeply politically incorrect it is, including on third-rail issues such as immigration, ethnic conflict, songs of peace, the Middle East. You also mentioned The Attack, Lebanese and Israeli in its sources.
COWEN: That’s an incredible film, The Attack. The Z one — I don’t know if watching it would hold up well, but part of it is this story about killers scaling a fence, and we should rewatch it and see. The film was willing to take chances. I suspect a lot of it doesn’t hold up, but fundamentally creative, and I’m for that kind of effort.
HOLMES: The Act of Killing, a documentary with interviews with Indonesian gangsters and murderers from the ’65 pogroms.
COWEN: Saturday night, I was talking to the cellist in the Jack Quartet about this movie, The Act of Killing. He and I both agree it’s just phenomenal, one of the best movies, just flat-out, of its time.
HOLMES: Happy People: A Year in the Taiga depicts the life of the people in the isolated village of Bakhtia in the eastern Siberian taiga.
COWEN: Hasn’t stuck with me.
COWEN: We should try to get Cuarón on the show — remember that.
12 Years a Slave — it was good. Too Hollywood. I think I would like it less now. What was the middle one again?
HOLMES: Captain Phillips, Tom Hanks, Somali pirate, based on a true story.
COWEN: It would bore me now. It’s a well-done Hollywood movie. I’m fine with that.
HOLMES: The reason that movie has stuck — I think it’s lived on in YouTube fame for the clip where Tom Hanks depicts going into shock. It’s in the final minutes of the movie. He very realistically portrays what it’s like to go through shock as he’s being treated. It’s just this really surprising punch right at the end of the movie where he’s just breaking down as he’s being treated.
HOLMES: For a lot of people, I think that’s why Tom Hanks is still a top contender for GOAT in terms of actors today — because just the skill of being able to go through this range of emotions and portray it so realistically, he gets all these little nuances of it exactly right. I watch him on YouTube all the time. I don’t know why, but it comes up for me all the time. Like, “I’m going to watch Tom Hanks go through shock again.”
COWEN: Who is the GOAT of actors? Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood?
HOLMES: I’m very biased. For me, I don’t watch enough old movies that I could give you a pick for older, and the style has changed so much. I think if you were looking for criteria, they would have to have critical success, commercial success, longevity.
COWEN: How about Tom Cruise, the Kubrick Eyes Wide Shut? He’s amazing in that.
HOLMES: Tom Cruise is absolutely a contender.
COWEN: I’ll say Tom Cruise off the top of my head.
HOLMES: He’s worked with top directors. He has been in critically adored films. Now he’s in a phase where he’s doing shooting-for-the-moon blockbusters with physical stunt work, and that could be another dimension of it, the physical demands of the role. Absolutely a contender for GOAT.
All right, those were movie picks. Let’s move on to fiction. We’ll have to run through these quickly because we’re running short on time. Karl Knausgaard, My Struggle Book 2: A Man in Love.
COWEN: I called Knausgaard early, even the earlier book about the angels. I basically said, “This guy is going to be great.” I feel very good about that one. He, of course, has been a guest in one of my most favorite episodes.
HOLMES: Yes, that’s an underrated pick from years past. Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs.
COWEN: She’s done good things since then. Good pick on my part.
HOLMES: Amy Sackville, Orkney.
COWEN: I love the Orkney Islands. That made that one work for me. I’m not sure everyone should read it.
HOLMES: Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
COWEN: That’s one of these fun books you read on a plane. It’s good for that. I don’t think you need to read it now.
HOLMES: Kathryn Davis, Duplex.
COWEN: Her work is very deep. It seems to have slipped a bit out of people’s attention, but people who like very serious fiction should take a look at her.
HOLMES: All right, favorite nonfiction. Quite a lot here. Why don’t I just run through them, and you stop me if you want to say anything. Jeremy Adelman, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman.
COWEN: Obviously a great book. Self-recommending, as they say.
HOLMES: As they say. Daniel Brook, A History of Future Cities. Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. That’s a very of-its-moment pick. I liked Neil Powell, Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music.
COWEN: Confessions of a Sociopath, people should still read. Sociopaths are underrated, I think, is a key point of that one. I’m serious.
HOLMES: Please elaborate.
COWEN: They can be problematic. The notion that they can be super smart, high-achieving people — people are beginning to learn this, and her book is one of the best statements of how you could think more deeply about sociopaths. They’re not psychopaths, to be clear, right?
HOLMES: Right. Are you willing to bite the bullet on this idea that a lot of things that might be considered mental disorders of one form or another are more about just cognitive diversity? If there are specific problems or behaviors, that’s one thing. But in general, maybe we should be more open to —
COWEN: You toss me that bullet, I’ll bite it. I’ll swallow it.
HOLMES: Okay, moving on. Emile Simpson, War from the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics.
COWEN: Hasn’t stuck with me.
HOLMES: William Haseltine, Affordable Excellence: The Singapore Healthcare Story.
HOLMES: Clare Jacobson, New Museums in China. It’s mostly a picture book.
COWEN: A lot of them are still empty, but the construction boom there and how the Chinese state tried to use aesthetics — that book has very important lessons, and we should all think about that more.
HOLMES: Mark Lawrence Schrad, Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State.
COWEN: The roles of alcohol and drugs in war, people are starting to pay attention to. That book was an early move in that direction, way ahead of its time. I would say a very good pick by me.
HOLMES: I feel like you were tweeting someone else or linking to a piece that was making that point just recently, about if you don’t engage with the role of alcohol, particularly with Russia, you’re missing a fundamental component of the dynamics there.
COWEN: And how many of the Nazis were on speed or some version thereof?
HOLMES: Paul Sabin, The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future.
COWEN: In any given year, it changes who is looking better in that bet. The funny thing I’ve realized is that Ehrlich’s, in a funny way, is the more optimistic prognosis, that rising resource prices is a sign that AI is working. I think the price of energy is going to go up a lot because people will need to compute, and they’ll be building all these new projects, and that’s a good thing. So, in a funny way, the Simon side is pessimistic.
HOLMES: Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher, biography.
COWEN: That’s an incredibly detailed and thoughtful piece of work. There are several volumes. Just amazing. More detail than most people need to know. I don’t think I’ll read them all, but you’ve got to give that one an A+.
HOLMES: From books you say close at hand, you very much liked The Power of Glamour by John List, Yuri Oganessian, Virginia Postrel; Lant Pritchett, The Rebirth of Education; and Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist Strikes Back was the book in 2013.
COWEN: I know all those people. They’re great; they’re just obvious picks. Everything they do is quality and interesting, and Tim has been on the show.
HOLMES: Another past CWT guest.
“If I had to offer my very top picks for the year,” you say, it would be Joe Studwell, How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region; Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832; Mark Lewisohn, Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, volume one; Peter Baker, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House.
COWEN: The Studwell book has become seminal, and I’m happy I had a role in its spread. It’s the book a lot of people go to to understand Asia, and I feel I was early to that.
The Alan Taylor book, Jon Elster recommended to me. One of the best history books, I think, of its generation. I don’t think it’s really stuck with, say, the smart people on Twitter who read great books. I’m not sure why, but more people should know about it.
Beatles book — Beatles have made a huge comeback in the public eye. Mark Lewisohn is one of the best books about them. What was the other one you mentioned?
HOLMES: Let me go back. It was Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House and Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia.
COWEN: The Taylor, yes. The Days of Fire — I am tired of all that stuff, so people don’t talk about that time so much anymore, which is interesting. But overall, I think my 2013 recommendations might have been my best year ever of recommendations because so many of them turned out so well.
HOLMES: That is all of your pop culture picks that I could find from 2013. I’m glad to hear your assessment is positive.
COWEN: But it means I’ve gotten worse, so we’ll see.
HOLMES: We’re catching up to the era in which I actually knew you and we’d been working together. This year was a year in which I feel like, especially in movies, I watched a lot of the movies, either coincidentally or on your recommendation. So I felt a little more up-to-date in some ways with your recommendations this year compared to previous years, but quite a few, as well, I think, an uncommonly large amount of recommendations from this year.
Those are the pop culture picks. Last question from me before we close: Returning to our number one underrated episode with Lazarus Lake — what did he teach you about Emergent Ventures, specifically with the application process? Did you learn anything from Lazarus Lake there that you want to apply?
COWEN: He strengthened something I’ve been feeling for a while, which is that it’s very difficult to get true geographic diversity in your winners. Maybe where they’re from, you can do, but where they live now. He is in central Tennessee, as he takes pains to emphasize. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten an application, much less a winner, from central Tennessee. I know that’s a failure on my part, but it’s a hard problem to overcome, and his success just drove that home to me all the more.
HOLMES: Before we close, let me give a shout-out to everyone who helped out on the show this year. That’s Dallas Floer, Sam Alburger, Jen Whisler, Morgan Hamilton, Karen Plante, Christina Behe, Haley Larsen, Anna McVae, Ashley Schiller, and there are many others who have contributed as well in small ways. Thank you all very much, and we look forward to another year in Conversations in 2024.
COWEN: Years, right? Thank you, Jeff.
HOLMES: Thank you.