Economist and public intellectual Glenn Loury joined Tyler to discuss the soundtrack of Glenn’s life, Glenn’s early career in theoretical economics, his favorite Thomas Schelling story, the best place to raise a family in the US, the seeming worsening mental health issues among undergraduates, what he learned about himself while writing his memoir, what his right-wing fans most misunderstand about race, the key difference he has with John McWhorter, his evolving relationship with Christianity, the lasting influence of his late wife, his favorite novels and movies, how well he thinks he will face death, and more.
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Recorded January 11th, 2023
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TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m here with Glenn Loury, who needs no introduction. Glenn, welcome.
GLENN LOURY: Thank you, Tyler. Good to be with you.
COWEN: Would you like to start with economics or with music?
LOURY: Why don’t we start with music? I’m not sure what you have in mind, but I’m game.
COWEN: Let’s try some music questions. Let’s say that your views — the Glenn Loury worldview — were writ large as a political movement. What would the music be for that movement?
LOURY: [laughs] It would be bebop-era jazz, late ’50s, early ’60s. It would be Charles Mingus. It would be Miles Davis. It would be a young John Coltrane. It would be a young McCoy Tyner. It would be Thelonious Monk. It would be in that space.
COWEN: Why is that music the correct association with your political movement?
LOURY: Oh, actually it’s association with my life story and upbringing, and it was the coolest and the hippest. I was born in 1948, so I was 14 years old in 1962, and stuff was happening, and my uncles and cousins and whatnot — everybody was listening to this stuff. I would just import that into my political movement. There’s no politics in that music that I’m aware of, but should we be looking for politics in music?
COWEN: I think it’s whether we’re looking for politics in you. Right?
LOURY: Yes. That’s [laughs] in a different register. I’m dancing now rather than sitting back, nodding my head to the exquisite improvisational runs. I’m dancing to that, and I’m dancing with a girl, so it’s going to be romantic. It’s going to have all of that kind of adolescent stuff in it. But yes, I could get to Curtis Mayfield and the Chi-Lites and, well, Motown, too, which was right down the street from Chicago. It was sort of part of the same world.
COWEN: Why has Stax faded more than Motown, with time, for listeners?
LOURY: That’s an economist question, isn’t it? I actually don’t know the data well enough to answer that.
COWEN: Everyone still knows Diana Ross, the Supremes. Otis Redding is somewhat known, but a lot of the Stax sound was maybe too gritty or not polished in the right way. It’s not played in Muzak as often, I think. That’s my impression.
LOURY: Yes, or just Smokey Robinson or some of these others, but I don’t know. This is beyond my knowledge. I wanted to credit the organizational and marketing genius of Berry Gordy at Motown as part of the story, but it might be that it was too gritty. What about the Sound of Philadelphia, since we’re going back? There were other R&B studio dynamics that were going on, and they haven’t all fared as well as Motown has done, and I agree with that. I’m not sure why.
COWEN: Al Green still turns up in movie soundtracks, I noticed, but a lot of the rest of it — maybe not.
LOURY: Did you ever see Jackie Brown? That early Quentin Tarantino film, Jackie Brown.
COWEN: Of course.
LOURY: Yes. Isn’t it a TSOP [the Sound of Philadelphia] soundtrack?
COWEN: I believe so. We’d have to ask GPT, right?
COWEN: Or Google.
LOURY: Oh, okay. [laughs]
COWEN: Yes, these days it’s GPT.
LOURY: I’m still a Google man. I got to get with it.
COWEN: Should we listen to Michael Jackson with the same emotions as we did before? Or is he cancelable?
LOURY: I don’t know how you cancel Michael Jackson. You probably listen with something firing in the back of your brain about “warning, warning,” but you still listen.
COWEN: The songs seem much sadder, though, right?
LOURY: Yes, they do, but the pop icon Michael Jackson — it wasn’t just the lyrics. It wasn’t just the tune. It was the whole thing. It was the performance, it was the dancing, it was the tragic arc of this celebrity life.
It happened that I was in Bogotá, Colombia, teaching summer school when Jackson died. And our host took us out to one of these four-hour lunch extravaganzas at a restaurant out in the countryside. It was beef, beef, beef, and more beef, and it just kept coming. [laughs]
All of the waitpersons were dressed as Michael Jackson impersonators, and there were big screens playing Michael Jackson videos everywhere you looked, and this was in Colombia. [laughs] Such was the force of Michael Jackson’s celebrity and musical genius and personality. I don’t know. I don’t have a problem listening to Michael Jackson, although you’re right, I don’t hear it being played on the radio [laughs].
COWEN: At what age would you let your daughter listen to Prince’s Dirty Mind album?
LOURY: I’m going to tell you, I don’t know what’s in Prince’s Dirty Mind album.
COWEN: Well, just from the title of the album, perhaps you have some idea, right?
LOURY: I’m going to acknowledge, while I do have two daughters, they’re in their 50s, so the time I’d have anything to say —
COWEN: Are they old enough?
LOURY: [laughs] Yes, I think they’re old enough. But nowadays, can you really control what your daughters listen to?
COWEN: If you tell them, I think in some cases it has an impact. At times a negative or reverse impact, but words matter. Would you put it on in front of them? That would be another way to pose the question.
LOURY: If you don’t want them to listen to Prince, say that they have to listen to Prince, that it’s a mandatory rite of passage to listen to Prince. That might get them to not listen.
COWEN: Do you ever enjoy bluegrass music? What’s the whitest stuff you listen to a lot and really like?
LOURY: I don’t listen to as much music as I used to. I’m partial to jazz, blues. I work out Monday, Wednesday, Friday with a trainer who has a small studio with a good sound system. We listen to hip hop, we listen to blues, we listen to a lot of blues.
Bluegrass — now, I love a brilliant banjo solo as much as the next guy. I can really get with it when it comes up in the soundtrack of a movie that I’m watching or whatever, but I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to find it. It’s just something that comes across my screen, so I’m not very knowledgeable at all about bluegrass, or about country, for that matter.
COWEN: Do you like the movie Deliverance, speaking of banjo solos?
LOURY: It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it again, but yes, it was disquieting at a very deep level.
COWEN: I’d like to go back and revisit your early career in theoretical economics. See what some of your current thoughts are on those pieces. Are you game?
LOURY: Okay. Yes, I’m game.
COWEN: Do markets exhaust natural resources in the ground too rapidly or too slowly under competitive conditions? What’s your current view?
LOURY: Well, in that you haven’t internalized the environmental externality, I’d say, probably, if I had to answer that question — too rapidly or too slowly — too rapidly.
COWEN: Because there’ll be too much of the environmental externality now, whereas you should spread it out over time. Is that the implicit belief?
LOURY: No. My thought process was that the initial price level would be higher. The theory tells us that the price is supposed to rise at the rate of interest, or something like that, because the supplier can substitute supplying today versus supplying tomorrow, so he has to anticipate a return in price terms that’s comparable to what he did if he sold it all today. So, I don’t know that anything about the environment influences the rate of increase of prices and the pure theory of pricing of natural resources, but the level is too low.
COWEN: Should we be happy when a lot of those resources, perhaps, are held by monopolies because the monopolist will restrain output, and that brings us closer to an optimum? Or not?
LOURY: Yes. I think that’s worth exploring if the quantitative magnitudes probably matter. Maybe the monopolist’s monopoly is so strong that he overshoots in terms of internalizing the kind of Pigouvian tax that you’d want to slap onto the market price in a competitive environment. It might be the monopolist is too much of a monopolist, but at least it’s worth thinking about.
Better than relying on monopoly would be having a government that could estimate what the right non-priced external cost of the use of the fuel is, and then slap that tax on, but that’s a political impossibility.
COWEN: Sure. Governments very often subsidize, say, fossil fuels more than they tax them.
Now, here’s an, I think, 1979 release from Glenn Loury. Are large or small firms better at innovation? What do you think these days?
LOURY: [laughs] I think that that was a nice little paper in the QJE circa 1979. I was proud of it. I took this problem that guys like Mike Sherer, the distinguished IO [input-output] guy at that time, or Mort Kamien or other people had been worrying about market structure and innovation — what’s the relationship between the two? I had a nice little stick-figured model where I could analyze that issue. But I never got beyond an industry with identical firms, and they were either n of them or n+1 one of them, and that was my parametrization of competition: more firms, more competition.
I didn’t get at all into real industrial organization, which would have to do with oligopoly and a size distribution of firms in the industry and so on. I’m trying to remember [laughs] what I had to say about the relationship between a number of firms and the rate of innovation. I think the rate of innovation is increasing in the number of firms, but I think that’s what I found, but [laughs] it’s a long time ago, Tyler.
COWEN: When you were researching those papers and writing them, what did you see then as your career trajectory? What did you think the 72-year-old Glenn Loury would be?
LOURY: I thought — this is, by the way, before Glenn Loury becomes at all political — I was just an applied theorist. I was a student of Bob Solo, Peter Diamond, MIT in the 1970s. I thought I was just going to write papers more or less like that for the rest of my academic life. I thought getting into a top-five journal and getting elected a fellow of the Econometric Society and getting grants from the National Science Foundation was the be-all and end-all of my professional life.
I was at Northwestern in my first job in the late ’70s, [laughs] and get this, the year that I was hired, Roger Myerson was also hired in the theory group at Northwestern. The next year, Bengt Holmström showed up. The following year, Paul Milgrom showed up. Leonid Hurwicz was always around because he and Stan Reiter were very close buddies. Leo was up at Minnesota, but he was always around at conferences and seminars and stuff like that.
I was right there at the birth of mechanism design and information economics and the revolution and theory of auctions and bargaining, and stuff like that that was going on in my midst.
I didn’t appreciate fully, at the time, the extraordinary and revolutionary character of the developments in economic theory that I was in the midst of. I was still using my differential calculus and just trying to write down these silly little models. I didn’t have deep questions. This is what I’m trying to get to.
COWEN: There are several Nobel laureates in your list of names, as you know.
LOURY: Yes, that’s what I’m saying.
COWEN: Now, when you meet promising young economists today in graduate school, is your first thought, “Oh, let the person stay on that path and be the next Roger Myerson?” Or do you a bit want to shake them and say, “Well, I want more of you to go the Glenn Loury way and be public intellectuals,” or some of the other things you’ve done? What’s your gut reaction to that?
LOURY: No, I don’t do that. I want them to get jobs. I want them to have a successful launch. I want to get them focused on the question and writing. Now, I must say I’m not advising very many graduate students these days and haven’t for some years now. But I want to get them focused on producing a dissertation that’s marketable, so I want them to ask a good question, and I want them to use rigorous methods appropriate to the high standards that we have.
But these days, my kind of applied-theory life that I took up more or less successfully in the decade after I left graduate school is passé. Everybody is calibrating and estimating, and they’re looking for a natural experiment or a quasi-natural experiment or whatever it is. They’re doing the kind of empirical work that you can do now with the computing power that we have and the data availability and whatnot.
The profession is completely different. I wouldn’t advise a young graduate student to follow in the path of writing papers like the papers that I wrote, because (a) they’re not going to get in the AER [American Economic Review], and (b) you want to get a job. You want to be able to sell yourself.
I confess to being a little bit alienated from the profession these last years, especially as my public intellectual profile has risen. I don’t spend that much time worrying about what to tell graduate students. I don’t teach graduate students. I used to teach microeconomic theory to our first-year PhD students, but two years ago I stepped aside from that. We have eight theorists in our department, and the younger full professors weren’t able to get at the graduate students of the first year.
There are eight of us, and there are only those two courses. I thought it was time for me to make room for some other people to teach theory to our graduate students. So, I’m not doing very much interacting with graduate students these days.
COWEN: What’s your favorite Thomas Schelling story?
LOURY: [laughs] This is a story about me as much as it is about Tom Schelling. The year is 1984. I’ve been at Harvard for two years. I’m appointed a professor of economics and of Afro-American studies, and I’m having a crisis of confidence, thinking I’m never going to write another paper worth reading again.
Tom is a friend. He helped to recruit me because he was on the committee that Henry Rosovsky, the famous and powerful dean of the college of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, who hired me — the committee that Rosovsky put together to try to find someone who could fill the position that I was hired into: professor of economics and of Afro-American Studies. They said Afro-American in those years.
Tom was my connection. He’s the guy who called me up when I was sitting at Michigan in Ann Arbor in early ’82, and said, “Do you think you might be interested in a job out here?” He had helped to recruit me.
So, I had this crisis of confidence. “Am I ever going to write another paper? I’m never going to write another paper.” I’m saying this to Tom, and he’s sitting, sober, listening, nodding, and suddenly starts laughing, and he can’t stop, and the laughing becomes uncontrollable. I am completely flummoxed by this. What the hell is he laughing at? What’s so funny? I just told him something I wouldn’t even tell my wife, which is, I was afraid I was a failure, that it was an imposter syndrome situation, that I could never measure up.
Everybody in the faculty meeting at Harvard’s economics department in 1982 was famous. Everybody. I was six years out of graduate school, and I didn’t know if I could fit in. He’s laughing, and I couldn’t get it. After a while, he regains his composure, and he says, “You think you’re the only one? This place is full of neurotics hiding behind their secretaries and their 10-foot oak doors, fearing the dreaded question, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ Why don’t you just put your head down and do your work? Believe me, everything will be okay.” That was Tom Schelling.
COWEN: He was great. I still miss him.
I have a few questions about America for you. Where’s the best place to raise a family in the United States today?
LOURY: Oh, gosh. It’s going to sound like a cliché. I’m going to say something like a small town in Ohio or Missouri or someplace like that, where there’s a Presbyterian church or a Lutheran church on the corner, where it’s suffocating in the sense that everybody knows everybody else’s business. But schools are halfway decent, you can let your kids play until the sun goes down without worrying about their well-being, you can leave your back door unlocked if you dare. But that’s corny. Doesn’t that sound corny to you?
COWEN: Yes, but corny is good. What about Providence, Rhode Island? That’s where Brown is. What do you think?
LOURY: I was past the kid-bearing age by the time I got here in 2005, but I see my younger colleagues. If you can get past the problem that the public schools are challenged, and you have to work really, really hard to find a school and a program and a community that you could be confident sending your kids to. A lot of my colleagues send their children to private schools, and it’s costing them $50,000 a year per kid, or whatever it costs, which ain’t nothing. If you can get past that problem, Providence is not so bad.
I live on the East Side of Providence, and Brown University sits up on a hill. You go down the hill, across the river to the flatlands, and that’s where the “real” city of Providence is, and it’s a working-class town. It’s doing better than it had been doing 30 years ago. I think the restaurants are good. The economic climate here seems to be healthy. There are challenges, but up here on the East Side, it’s a bedroom community of middle, upper-middle class, mostly single-family housing on decent-sized lots. It’s quiet. There’s crime in Providence; there’s not so much crime on the East Side. It’s not a bad place.
I like the smaller town — Providence is maybe 200,000 — relative to . . . I lived in Boston for many years. I was born in Chicago. There are no traffic jams to speak of around here in Providence. When I wanted to vote and had to go to city hall in order to cast my ballot, I could park my vehicle across the street from city hall and walk in, cast my ballot, walk back out again. Things like that. I like those myself, personally — the smaller scale of this town that I’m living in.
COWEN: Why do undergraduates today seem to have worse mental health issues than they did, say, 20 years ago?
LOURY: You’re asking the wrong guy, but I’ll venture —
COWEN: You teach them, right?
LOURY: I do teach them, and they’re under enormous stress. You must have noticed —
COWEN: But from what? Levels of wealth are higher. If they’re going to Brown, their future, while not assured, is certainly not looking bad. What’s really going on here?
LOURY: Again, I confess ignorance, but I will nonetheless plunge ahead. They all want to get the brass ring. I agree with you that the prospects for them are rosy, all things considered, but not everybody is going to get into Stanford Law School, or Yale Law School, or the Chicago Business School, or get hired as a young associate at one of the investment banks of something. They’re fiercely competitive. The grade grubbing is mind-boggling, and they seem to be driven by this idea that each and every one of them has to be in the top 10 percent when only 10 percent of them are going to be.
That’s part of it, but you’re asking the wrong guy. You need a culture critic to respond.
COWEN: You are a culture critic, Glenn, and you’ve taught these people for so long. Now, is it different for black students at top schools such as Brown? Similar set of mental-health problems or quite a different situation? What do you think?
LOURY: I think it’s a different situation. I won’t qualify my response any further by saying I don’t know what I’m talking about. Let’s just stipulate that I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I’m going to talk anyway.
I think there are, for the black students, the kinds of pressures that I mentioned, which might be moderately ameliorated by the fact that affirmative action, both in postgraduate admissions programs and in employment, gives them a leg up. A black kid with a decent portfolio coming out of Brown probably is in a relatively advantaged competitive position for the next step.
But they’re black kids, and depending on the background, they may feel exactly, perfectly comfortable in an elite environment if they come from the increasingly large number of prosperous black families who are sending their children off to places like Brown.
But I’ve known many kids of color, as they say, who didn’t have those advantages and nevertheless find themselves — because they’re crackerjack smart, and they got discovered here or there and channeled into the funneling mechanism that leads to them getting admitted to Brown — who didn’t feel all that comfortable socially in this environment, which is pretty high-pressured and self-consciously elite, almost smugly so.
But I’m in my 70s, and the kids don’t come and cry on my shoulder, so I don’t know what’s keeping them up at night.
COWEN: Moving somewhat away from the elite, Fentanyl is the driver of a high death rate in the United States. How’s that one going to end? Do we just cycle through, where all the people who can get addicted become addicted, and a lot of them die, and then it burns out after a generation? Is there something we can do? Will it continue to spread to blacks and not just, say, whites in the Midwest? What’s the equilibrium?
LOURY: That’s a good question. It could be very bad. It could be that we’re not at the beginning or the end, and we’re just at the end of the beginning with it. I hadn’t even thought about the social contagion aspects of the question. I was thinking mostly about enforcement issues. Can you keep it from coming across the border? Treatment issues — what do you do with people who are susceptible to addiction and who find themselves in trouble? Well, there’s some accountability for the opioid epidemic problem with the pharmaceutical companies and so on. That’s the thing that I was thinking about.
But breaking through to other elements of the population — you’re right. It’s not yet, as far as I know, anything like the crack epidemic of the ’80s and early ’90s was for urban black America. Heroin is not an unknown drug of choice in those precincts. I gather they’re highly substitutable. Again, I’m going to confess ignorance, but I’m worried. You’ve got me worried now.
COWEN: In your life, when you stopped taking drugs, did you feel you had lost anything positive? Or was it just pure gain — “That was just a terrible thing, and once I could stop, I was just flat-out better off”? Or is it some fun that you actually lose?
LOURY: That’s a good question. I’m actually at the end stages now, finalizing my draft of my memoir manuscript that I’ll be submitting to the publisher in a few weeks, literally. This is actually going to happen. Anybody who’s followed me knows I’ve been talking about writing a memoir for almost a decade. People were saying, “Where’s the book? Where’s the book?” Well, the book is going to happen.
In it, I tell the story of being addicted to freebasing crack cocaine in the late ’80s. I went into treatment, and I went to a halfway house, and I went and I fought. Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, the support of my lovely wife, the late economist Linda Loury. Thank God for her, for the church, that community that took me in, and so on, and I kicked it.
But I thought I was missing something. I thought that there was a kind of fun, a kind of excitement, a kind of sensation of euphoria. Having gone two years sober, I took myself back to one of my places where I would cop. I bought a little cocaine. I prepared it, and I smoked it. The feelings of euphoria came back just as I had remembered them, but also with them came a sense of shame. There was no doubt that I was experiencing a titillation, a euphoric sensation. There was “happiness” there.
But having gone through, as it were, the valley of the shadow of death, and having emerged from it to the arms of a loving wife who stuck with me and a young family that was coming along — my sons Glenn and Nehemiah, who are in their 30s now. Having done all of that, I asked myself, “Is this what you were willing to risk everything for?”
I realized that there was no doubt about the euphoria. The euphoria was certainly there, but my obsessive pursuit of it, which had nearly destroyed me, was a way of living that was just undignified and contemptuous. So I put the pipe down after a couple of hits, packaged everything up, threw it in the trash, and never touched cocaine again.
So, I was wondering about your question about what was I missing. I decided having done this thing, this unforgivable thing from the Alcoholics Anonymous point of view — it was unforgivable what I did, but I just had to find out.
COWEN: Now, this process of writing your memoir — obviously you had already lived those years. But to write them up, put them together, edit them, rewrite, what’s the main thing you learned about yourself?
LOURY: [laughs] Okay. One of the motifs in the book is to distinguish between the cover story and the real story because there are so many junctures in my life, where living my life and thinking back on it, unreflectively, just thinking back on it, I embrace a cover story. “Oh, I did that because . . .” It’s always self-aggrandizing. It’s always not as craven, not as callow, not as vicious, not as obsessively, monomaniacally narcissistic as it actually was. I never remember it the way it actually was.
What I’ve done in producing this book and reliving these critical junctures . . . For example, I really did lose my nerve when I got to Harvard in the early 1980s. I didn’t do what Tom Schelling advised me to do, which is just put my head down and write my little papers about natural resources or imperfect competition or imperfect information or whatever. I didn’t do that. I jumped ship. I left economic theory behind entirely, and I became a Reagan conservative political-pundit black guy.
I was pretty good at it. I would say in retrospect, I was more often right than wrong in some of the political positions that I took. This will come as an upsetting remark to some people who know and love me, but I think conservatives had the better of those arguments in those years.
Be that as it may, the real reason — I’m just giving an example. You asked me what have I learned about myself, and I’ve learned that my capacity for self-delusion is almost unbounded. And it’s a very dangerous thing, too, because I had persuaded myself that the economics department was cold at Harvard in the early ’80s. I didn’t have any buddies except for Tom. I had persuaded myself that Harvard saddled me with these dual responsibilities in Afro-American studies and in economics — almost impossible.
You’re going to be a humanist and you’re going to be a theoretical social scientist at the same time. It’s almost impossible for anybody to do, let alone a 34-year-old guy who’s barely got his legs under him. I had persuaded myself of everything other than the real story. The real story was that I choked, I blinked, I lost my nerve, I was afraid of failure.
I found something else that I could do that would generate acclaim. I went from the economics department to the Kennedy School. They were very happy to have me at the Kennedy School of Government. It’s a wonderful place, a wonderful place. It’s just not a place, if you’re a serious economic theorist, that you would want to spend most of your time. It was just too easy for me to do.
Now, I could blame affirmative action. I could blame the larger political environment and whatnot, but I know, within myself, I was afraid of failing. Every time I opened up Econometrica and I saw another paper from Roger Myerson or Paul Milgram, I was asking myself, “Would I ever write a paper like that?”
I had an out here. If I go over to the Kennedy School and become a pundit, no one’s ever going to ask me to write a paper like that. I learned that about myself through forcing myself to be honest, in retrospect, about what was really going on with me. There are many other stories like that. I won’t try to recount them all because I want to save something for the book.
COWEN: I have a few questions about race for you. Do you have any interest in that topic?
COWEN: Let’s take the part of the white right wing that really likes you. I know there are different phases in your thought, but overall, they really like you. What’s the main point or insight they are missing when it comes to race that you would like them to know but they don’t?
LOURY: Thanks for asking that question. I think I have an answer. Those people who are languishing in the ghettos, the housing projects, the lockups, the emergency rooms of the hospital wards, the ones who are doing the carjackings, the ones who are doing the crazy shit that you see when you turn on your television and you look at what’s going on in Chicago or Baltimore or St. Louis or Philadelphia — those people are us. They’re our people. Those are Americans. They are us. That’s us. It’s not them.
That’s what I’d like them to understand. I don’t think that my right-wing acolytes — I don’t think many of them get that. I think they think this is an alien imposition upon an otherwise more or less pristine Euro-American canvas. They think there are shithole pockets of America that they need to protect themselves from. True enough, they do sometimes need to protect themselves, but those are our people over there. That’s our failure. This is an American story, not a black American story.
COWEN: Why doesn’t that lesson get through? Is it that it’s not articulated well enough? The people are closed-minded? The racism? What’s your account of why that remains insufficiently known?
LOURY: Maybe human nature. Maybe it’s very easy — us and them. I could, by the way, flip the script on that and say to the radical black activists who are rah-rah-rah, demanding Black Lives Matter justice, that the working-class, struggling white truck driver, gas station attendant guy that’s working or woman that’s working, who’s attracted to the populist rhetoric and who might want to vote for Trump — those are people too. They’re people not so different from ourselves, that they have a story.
Everybody has a story that a little bit of generosity would go a long way. I could say that to black activists, and they would have a hard time hearing it. It may be that empathy and a suspension of disbelief, a kind of interrogation of your gut, visceral instinct to react with an ad hominem and react with a categorical dismissal and with a stereotype — it may be that the ability to resist that impulse is difficult for anybody to come by.
I would also say that — I speculate here a little bit, but you’re not going to let me stop speculating — that the political interest of various actors, who have to marshal majorities of the electorate and who have to develop narratives that get the juices flowing in one way or another for their supporters, militates against that more moderate and self-effacing and humble posture.
I’m not the Christian that I used to be. When I was coming out of drug addiction, I was much more observant and fervent. But it seems to me that in the teachings that I can recall from my encounters with Christianity about humility, about walking, thinking, doing, and acting as Christ would do, as he would have us do, there’s just a lot there. I think that it’s a lot easier to talk the talk than it is to walk the walk on that.
COWEN: Which aspects of the US black experience do you wish that you knew more about?
LOURY: [laughs] By the way, let me just comment. I like your technique. I like your podcast interview technique. I may well emulate it.
COWEN: Thank you.
LOURY: All I need is a list of 20 questions, and we could talk on forever.
I have this ongoing conversation with my friend John McWhorter at The Glenn Show where we talk about Omar. Omar is a type. He’s just a stand-in representation of dysfunctional — probably on the wrong side of the line in terms of law enforcement, bragging about having babies by three different women, can’t keep a job, dropped out of school, et cetera. Problematic kid in the ghetto. John says, “Omar makes me sad, and Omar makes you mad.” He says this to me. This is one of our things.
How do we react to the fact of this dysfunction that is so prevalent in low-income black communities, that creates such problems for others who share those communities with them, and for society more broadly, that redounds to the discredit of African American society? You can’t be proud of a “thug,” can you? Our reaction to this dysfunction — he makes me mad. I don’t understand him.
I don’t understand how you take a pistol, fire it out the window of a vehicle in a residential area where you know people are sitting on the front porches — you have no idea where that bullet is going to land — and then crow about it. I don’t understand. I don’t know what those frustrations are. I don’t know Omar’s story, not really. I know stereotypes about the story, cartoon representations of the story. Is he angry? Is he disconsolate? Does he have hope? What does he believe in?
I’m saying, “he,” and I’m saying “Omar,” but of course, it doesn’t just apply to the guys. I don’t really know what’s going on, and when I meet people — social workers, cops, nurses, religious people — who are working on the ground in these communities, they’re trying to tell me a little bit about what life is like and so on.
I wish I knew more about it. I wish I could have more factually grounded empathy for the people who I am so quick to castigate for creating the problems, but whose genuine life stories I don’t know so much about. I wish that the creative arts and the journalistic practice would get grittier, wouldn’t be so much in the service of a “progressive political program” but would just tell me what’s going on. I want to go inside those housing projects and find out what people are actually saying to each other and doing to each other, and how they feel about it.
I don’t trust the reportage that I get because it’s all too tendentious and in the service of making sure that Donald Trump doesn’t get any more votes than he might otherwise get, or that Black Lives Matter comes out smelling like roses. I want to know the real story, which — if I flatter myself with this, forgive me — I think would allow me to be less mad and more sad when I encounter the mischief that Omar is creating throughout the country.
COWEN: We’ve had John McWhorter on this show, and I know you and he have had many, many dialogues. If you had to boil down the differences between you and him and your views to the smallest, most abstract number of dimensions possible, to what would you attribute those differences? What’s the key difference and where does it come from?
LOURY: He cares what his colleagues at the New York Times think about him, and I stopped giving a damn about that a long time ago.
COWEN: And before he wrote for the Times? That’s pretty recent, right?
LOURY: Yes, the Times is just the last year or two, but he lives there in New York. He goes to the cocktail parties and stuff. I’ll give an example. I don’t think I betray his confidence in saying this. I cannot get John to discuss the transgender debate in our conversation. I’m not asking him to agree or disagree with anything; I just want to take up the question. He refuses to do so, God love him. He says it’s a complete losing — “All that is going to happen is, if I say what I actually think, a ton of bricks is going to fall on me, and so I won’t talk about it.”
COWEN: Who is your strongest critic on race, the best critic of you?
LOURY: [laughs] You’re going to think I’m dodging your question. My wife, Lajuan Loury.
COWEN: It’s not a dodge at all. It’s probably an excellent answer. Not that I know her, but it makes sense to me.
LOURY: I think it’s correct, frankly. Every time I go into one of my rants at The Glenn Show and I start complaining about whatever — affirmative action or the Defund the Police movement or critical race theory or whatever — she’ll say something like, “The real structural issues here have to do with economics. They have to do with a decent social provision. They have to do with corporations getting away without paying any taxes. They have to do with inequality. They have to do with the defects of capitalism, to which you are seemingly indifferent or unwilling to acknowledge, and all of this culture war stuff that you engage in.”
This is my wife talking to me complaining about critical race theory or whatever. “It’s just a dodge. It’s a smoke screen from confronting the underlying power dynamics that generate and sustain inequality and privilege and disadvantage and whatnot in the society, and that’s what I want you to talk about. I want you to talk about why people can’t pay the rent, about why the wage is so low, about why they can’t get decent healthcare.
“And about why the fat cats get away, on Wall Street and everywhere else — practically they get away with murder. No one ever holds them to account. You’re an economist. Why aren’t you developing and expositing critical theories that address yourself to the real foundation of disparities of power, influence, and success in our society, instead of shooting fish in a barrel?”
I paraphrase, but this is pretty much her argument. She doesn’t really disagree with me about a lot of this stuff. It’s just that she thinks it’s the wrong target.
COWEN: But is she right?
LOURY: That’s the last chapter of the memoir.
COWEN: In your own evolution of your views on religion, am I correct in thinking you’ve moved from a Christian evangelical to some kind of agnostic? Or how would you describe it?
LOURY: I think that’s probably accurate.
COWEN: How did that change your views on abortion — that evolution?
LOURY: Not at all, frankly. I was always one of these people who thought that the fetus before it’s viable outside the womb — that’s one thing, and people might decide to terminate the pregnancy. I could have a private conversation with someone about that, but that the law shouldn’t intervene. But late term — that’s a human being, and you can’t just dispose of it for your convenience. I’ve always thought that. I thought that even before I was a Christian.
COWEN: Which of your views did change the most due to the evolution of your religious opinions?
LOURY: I’d say — this is off the top of my head here — my willingness to hold myself to account and accept responsibility for the way in which I was conducting my life. I don’t know if you remember The Bonfire of the Vanities.
COWEN: Of course.
LOURY: The Bonfire of the Vanities — that was Tom Wolfe’s comic novel from the mid-1980s. He had in there, I can’t remember the protagonist’s name, but a bond trader who had made a lot of money and got himself caught up in a series of unbelievable fiascos that ended up ruining him. The bond trader was a master of the universe. I always thought of myself as a master of the universe, notwithstanding my crisis of confidence when I moved to Harvard and whatnot.
I was a highflier. I had shaken hands with the president of the United States. I had spoken on five continents, I was making money, and I was famous. The world was my oyster. I was accountable to no one. Not to the loving woman who was by my side and who I did not respect from the way in which I conducted our marriage for years. Not to the people from whence I had come, off of the south side of Chicago, who were looking to me for a certain kind of leadership that I was not interested in providing.
I had no real connections with community. I had these faux communities that I would flit around with, but I didn’t have real, deep, personal relationships that went across class lines or racial lines, for that matter. I was a performer. I was self-absorbed. I was a narcissist, and I didn’t take responsibility for that. It ended up getting me into the cul-de-sac into which I ultimately wandered.
COWEN: Then you become religious, but moving from religious to agnostic — how does that then change your views? You go back to being a narcissist?
LOURY: Oh, I didn’t understand the question. No. Agnostic is not atheist. It’s saying that there’s a kind of mystery there, and there’s a kind of awe, and you have a suspension of disbelief, which I certainly indulged when I became religious. There’s a kind of suspension of belief. What am I asked to believe as a Christian? I’m asked to believe literally that a man born of a woman was divine, and that on the occasion of his death, he was raised from the dead, and he lives on to this day. I can’t believe that. I don’t know that I ever actually believed it.
But there’s a mystery here, and I don’t know. I think the quest for belief is noble. I think the arrogance of a presumption of omniscience on my part — “Well, I know that that’s just a lot of bunk” — offends me. An old dear friend of mine was the great sociologist Peter Berger, now dead, but for many years, a great man who wrote many books about many things, including about the sociology of religion. He was Lutheran, and he became alienated by the Lutheran clergy because they were too postmodern-y liberal and relativist and whatnot, in his view.
He used to go to a Greek Orthodox church in Brookline, Massachusetts, and sit in the back pew and listen to the music and smell the incense and hear the bells. He just immersed himself in that milieu. He wasn’t looking for an answer. It wasn’t a logical proposition. It was simply being in the midst of the faithful. I do that sometimes. I don’t go to church on a regular basis, but especially in the years after my late wife, Linda Loury, passed away in 2011, I found myself sometimes just wanting to be in the midst of people whose belief was firmer than my own.
I don’t know if I’m answering you or not, Tyler. I am not an atheist, is what I’m trying to declare. And I’m, to some degree, in awe of the majesty and the dignity and the humanity of these people who are seeking to have a relationship with the creator of the universe.
COWEN: What’s your favorite novel?
LOURY: It’s Mario Vargas Llosa, and I’ve got two. One of them is The Feast of the Goat, which is about Trujillo’s rule in Santo Domingo in the 1950s. The other is The Dream of the Celt, which is about Roger Casement, an Irish diplomat and humanitarian who served the British crown in the first decades of the 20th century, exposing terrible humanitarian disasters in the Congo, where the Belgians were doing what they were doing, and in the upper Amazon, where the Spanish were doing what they were doing.
He got knighted — Sir Roger Casement, but he was an Irish patriot and also a closeted homosexual. He ends up being executed because he gets caught in a scheme collaborating with the Germans in 1915 to try to stage some event that was going to be the occasion for provoking an Irish revolt, et cetera, et cetera. Long story, but it’s Mario Vargas Llosa, a master of this kind of historical narrative. I just love both of those novels. American Pastoral is another one that I’m really very fond of, by Philip Roth. I could go into details, but let’s leave it with Vargas Llosa.
COWEN: What’s your favorite movie?
LOURY: [laughs] That’s a hard question. What is my favorite movie? Chariots of Fire.
COWEN: Why that one?
LOURY: Well, my wife, Linda, and I — may she rest in peace; she passed away from metastatic breast cancer in 2011 — we were married in 1983. We first met in 1974. We were together for 37 years.
That was her favorite movie, and I love the movie. You know the story of the movie. It was an era in Hollywood of movie-making that I don’t think we’ll ever see again. I don’t know if we’re ever going to see it again. Wonderful characters, wonderful human aspiration, competition, excellence, the pursuit of excellence, dignity. What’s his name? Harold Abrams, the runner — Jewish guy in upper-class British society. He was somebody that I could identify with. I like that movie a lot.
I also like Pulp Fiction. I mentioned Jackie Brown, but I do like Pulp Fiction. I like The Godfather I.
I was going to report that I just saw a fantastic movie that reminded me of why I like movies. This is not my favorite movie. It’s The Banshees of Inisherin. This is a movie set in Ireland, about a friendship that goes rotten, and I won’t even try to say anything more about it. It’s quirky and weird in a certain kind of way, and yet, it’s deep and it’s unpretentious in a way. I like that kind of movie. What is another movie like that kind of movie? They don’t make them like that anymore. They don’t make movies anymore. It’s all whiz-bang and — [laughs]
COWEN: What is there in the black visual arts that is especially important or meaningful to you? For me, it’s Haitian art, of course, but I suspect your answer is different.
LOURY: I don’t know anything about black visual arts. We need my late wife, Linda, on the scene. Every piece that I have in this house of that sort of sculpture or sketching or painting is something that I inherited from a previous life when I was the green-eyeshade guy worrying about my research and whatnot, where my wife was a fine researcher in her own right and also had an aesthetic sensibility that she cultivated assiduously. It wouldn’t have only been black, but the black visual arts would’ve come into it, so I’m going to beg off. I don’t know anything.
COWEN: Very last question. Do you think you will do a good job facing death?
LOURY: I sure hope so, but I’ve got my doubts. I’ve mentioned my wife, Linda, my late wife. She did pass away 11 and a half years ago. Of course, we were together in that room pretty much continuously for the last few months, and I watched her wither and die. I watched her suffer bravely and in a dignified manner and without self-pity, almost without self-pity.
I asked myself as I was watching this, were I in the same situation, knowing that there was no hope, that I’m going to die, that I’m going to die from this cancer in my liver and in my brain, that it’s going to kill me, and the question is when. The when doesn’t measure in years and may not even measure in months. Could I have carried myself with the courage and the dignity that she exhibited it? I’ve got serious doubts about it.
Right now, I don’t know what will happen when this moment comes — because it’s coming — but right now I imagine that I’d be furious beyond consolation. Why me? That I would be impossible to deal with. Nothing anyone could do, solicitous of my needs, would be enough because I’m the one that’s going to die.
All of this stuff that they tried to teach me when I was becoming a Christian, about grace and about belief and about acceptance and about faith, would be of no consolation whatsoever. Nietzsche would be my friend, not the New Testament, I imagine. That bitter old, dying man — feeling sorry for himself, angry at his fate — is not who I want to be in my last days. I don’t want to be that guy, but I fear that that’s the guy that I would be. I fear further than that, that my stepping away from Christianity makes it more likely that that’s the guy that I would be.
Even though I think it’s ridiculous to assert that a person lives on after they die — the person is the brain and the consciousness, which will go to dust. There’s no life there. I think that’s an absurdity at one level. On the other hand, it may be that only by embracing some such belief could I manage to pass away, as I must, in a manner that is honorable and dignified. I don’t know. I am worried for myself as that moment approaches. It will come.
COWEN: We’re all looking forward to your memoir. Glenn Loury, thank you very much.
LOURY: Been my pleasure, Tyler. It’s been bracing but enjoyable.