In this special episode, Tyler sat down with Jerusalem Demsas, staff writer at The Atlantic, to discuss three books: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, and Of Boys and Men by Richard V. Reeves.
Spanning centuries and genres and yet provoking similar questions, these books prompted Tyler and Jerusalem to wrestle with enduring questions about human nature, gender dynamics, the purpose of travel, and moral progress, including debating whether Le Guin prefers the anarchist utopia she depicts, dissecting Swift’s stance on science and slavery, questioning if travel makes us happier or helps us understand ourselves, comparing Gulliver and Shevek’s alienation and restlessness, considering Swift’s views on the difficulty of moral progress, reflecting on how feminism links to moral progress and gender equality, contemplating whether imaginative fiction or policy analysis is more likely to spur social change, and more.
Watch the full conversation
Recorded May 22nd, 2023.
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I am sitting here in Arlington, Virginia, with the great Jerusalem Demsas, formerly of Vox, currently at The Atlantic, read across the entire world. Today we’re going to do something different. This show is called Conversations with Tyler, but this time we’re actually going to have a conversation with Tyler. Now we start. Jerusalem, welcome.
JERUSALEM DEMSAS: Hi. Thanks for having me.
COWEN: We agreed to go away and read and then talk about three books. Let’s start with Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed. The other books will be Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, and Richard V. Reeves, Of Boys and Men. Ursula Le Guin — where do you want to start?
DEMSAS: I first read this book — I think I must have been early high school. I don’t know if this is what you were like when you were early high school, but I was very angry about a lot of things. It was hard to have conversations about anything to do with politics without getting very upset or angry. That’s, I think, what a lot of my peers felt at the time.
I think reading science fiction — it’s like a way of having conversations about politics without having to necessarily feel that. It actually felt like a real entry point into how to start having discussions without all of that. Not that the emotion itself was bad, but it made it hard sometimes to have productive conversations if you were overcome by the things you were feeling.
The Dispossessed is great. We can start, I suppose, with maybe a very basic plot summary. Do you want to do that or should I?
COWEN: Let me first say, I also read it early in high school. I was 13 or 14. It was such a different reading this time around. The first time I read it, I didn’t really like it. I quite liked Ursula Le Guin, but this one — it was somehow, at the time, too communal to me, too utopian. Of course, I read it now, it seems almost the exact opposite of that. Do you want to start with a very brief plot summary?
DEMSAS: Sure. There are two planets that are relevant. They’re kind of close to each other. One is home to an anarchist separatist cell that moved away from the original planet hundreds of years in the past. Then, the original planet is supposed to be more like a capitalist planet. It looks a lot more like Earth. Our main character is a physicist who travels between the two, trying to bridge the gap. I think that’s a broad summary.
COWEN: That makes sense to me. This was published, I think, in 1974. Reading it this time, it seemed to me to be the ultimate anti-utopian novel that, in fact, the collectivist society — you have to live together with other people who are strangers. You can’t rear your own children. There is very little freedom of expression. People only get to eat two meals a day. The way they talk about sex is not really very romantic, you might say, and it seems like a horror. I can’t imagine — the first time I read it, I thought, “Le Guin is really on the side of the communal society.”
The other thing that struck me on my later reading of the book is just how anthropological it is as a mode of presentation. As you know, her father was a very famous anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber at Berkeley. Le Guin’s mother was a well-known psychologist. It’s almost not science fiction. It’s an anthropological investigation of two worlds that we call science fiction because we don’t know where else to put them.
DEMSAS: Yes, I think it’s referred to as an ambiguous utopia. I think Le Guin is pretty clear that she prefers the anarchist world but doesn’t shy away from the problems with it, which I think is usually the issue with utopian writing. Did you disagree? You don’t think that that’s clear?
COWEN: I don’t think she prefers the communal anarchist world.
COWEN: I think she has greater hope for it, but she’s telling us, “Unless you come up with something new, this is what you’re going to get.” It’s quite horrible. The Terran, I think, ambassador in the work — he praises the non-communal society, Urras, as the best of all the worlds that exist. Earth, or Terra, has also been destroyed, something that sounds a lot like climate change, so the only place that works at all is the one that’s a consumer society, has a lot of gender inequality, rampant income inequality, and a lot of war.
I think part of Le Guin’s message, which was very 1974 — maybe more true than people realize today — is you only get a shot at the good parts of the non-communal society by tolerating this pretty high risk of war, that it keeps things dynamic in some way.
DEMSAS: I don’t know. The fact that she gives . . . The protagonist is from the anarchist world, and he is the one who has the major scientific breakthrough that everyone is trying to get their hands on. The fact that he hasn’t returned to his home planet at the end — we don’t know if he actually lands and is safe there — I think is a clearer message of how . . .
I feel like a lot of the words that she uses to describe the capitalist society are quite disdainful. Not that she thinks somehow that her original world is perfect, but it’s pretty clear to me that she doesn’t think it’s worth it. She doesn’t think it’s worth it, the pain, the suffering, everything that’s hidden there. Even the property owner who becomes friends with our protagonist is pretty upset with his life there.
At the same time, there’s this larger point that she’s making, which is that you shouldn’t expect any society — even one that claims to be utopian, even one that has a lot of your shared ideals — to be satisfactory at any point. I think it’s pretty clear that she has, as you said, greater hope for the anarchist planet.
COWEN: I view Shevek, the protagonist, the scientist, as pretty selfish. He’s quite a bit like Gulliver. What he really wants to do is travel. One theme of this novel is that there are some things you can only learn by traveling, and he learns those things. He wants to learn them. He leaves his family. The very last sentences of the novel make it clear he comes back empty-handed.
For all the talk about the scientific breakthrough, I think he never has anything. There’s never a part of the novel where it’s useful or even revealed or published. When you read throughout how the breakthrough is discussed, it sounds like nonsense. I think there’s a bit of underlying, maybe satire. Does he have anything anyway?
DEMSAS: Yes, chronologically, this is the first of a larger series of works that take place in the same universe, and his breakthrough ends up being extremely important later on for future communications, the ansible idea later on. I do think it’s interesting that the thing that he takes back is that it’s important to have free flow of information. He’s obviously very frustrated by that throughout his time at university.
Even back on the capitalist planet, there wasn’t free flow of information going on. They describe all the newspapers as just lying and making things up. The other professor at the university can’t even really talk about. He feels uncomfortable sharing that he’s dissatisfied with his home planet. I think there’s this current here which is trying to really undermine the idea that there are these ideals in the capitalist society that are actually . . .
COWEN: It’s his rival, Sabul, who more or less makes him leave because he can’t publish the idea on the communal planet, and they all think he’s a traitor for leaving. They throw rocks at him. One of the rocks hurts his shoulder, even. He wonders, when he’s coming back, if they’ll even let him back in or put him in prison or maybe even kill him. It sounds quite fraught to me.
We’re hearing about that planet, or moon rather, from the vantage point of people who believe in it. But once you see through their descriptions, to me it sounds much worse than even the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, you could keep your kids, right? That was just understood.
DEMSAS: [laughs] I think there’s a comment made by a woman that Shevek, our protagonist, meets on his travels, where she says that it’s better to have the conflict outside of your head than to have the conflict within yourself.
When you are forced — as they are in his home planet — to never be able to openly confront the political problems because the assumption is there is no hierarchy, there is no government, so there’s nothing to confront. Which makes it actually quite difficult to confront the very things that are causing distress, and they realize that the real problems are within all of their own collective minds about what are social norms or rules that are actually concerning them.
From my perspective, yes, there can be a lot of things around social norms and rules and things that are allowed to be spoken about that can stifle and reduce freedom. But nothing can be more stifling than the state itself creating violence against other people, which we see on the capitalist planet. They’re having a proxy war. There’s an invasion of another country, which is meant to be an allegory to Vietnam, I suppose.
There’s a real present threat of danger and violence, which Shevek has not really felt except in a brief fight that he has early on when he’s a youth on his home planet. To me it’s just like, yes, there are serious problems, but it seems —
COWEN: They do shoot at the more radical syndicalists on the communal planet, right? Then Shevek realizes, “Oh, this is what our army always was about.” There’s this pretense that there’s no government, but in fact, things are centrally planned by a computer à la Daron Acemoglu, I suppose, and a lot of it just doesn’t really seem to be as it’s advertised.
DEMSAS: Yes. Do you think it’s a feminist novel?
COWEN: I very much thought that the first time I read it, and now I wonder. If you think about Shevek — when he goes to the more capitalist planet, his real self comes out, so I think it’s saying how men and women truly are with each other. It’s very hard to change that socially.
There’s that woman he forces himself on. You could even say he rapes her. It’s not a completed rape, but she’s saying no, no, no, and he keeps on doing it in a way that is really well past any boundary point. It seems to me anti-Marxist and anti-blank slate, that this is what people are like, and it’s how you’re going to channel those impulses. I think it’s ambivalent about feminism. What’s your take?
DEMSAS: Well, I think the message is . . . First of all, he gets drunk on the planet for the first time, and then he sexually assaults this woman that he’s friends with. I don’t think it’s about blank slate. It’s that he’s entering a society with different incentives and different rules, and in a society that’s been very clear is very non-egalitarian, where he has an entire conversation with someone where they’re very clear about the lower assumption about sexism.
Within just weeks he’s able to understand, and he explains to his friend that women here are just ornaments. They’re always below men. She pushes back on this slightly, but at the end of the day, he’s being influenced by the society around him. I don’t think something like that would’ve happened on his home planet. He would’ve been constrained. I think it’s hard to say one of these is blank slate or not. I think both of them are clearly products of the institutions that are pushing behaviors, especially —
COWEN: But there’s nothing about growing up in that more sexually egalitarian alternative that inoculated him against those pressures. It’s not like, oh, he grew up in the nice communal planet. He learned to treat women like human beings with individual rights. Then of course he can just carry that training with him, which we would expect from a normal human, even from a not-so-nice society.
DEMSAS: Well, I don’t know. I think that’s pretty clearly the case, that the incentives and how different people are viewed in a society matters. We’ll talk about Gulliver’s Travels pretty soon, but the behaviors that people engage in are going to be extremely contextual. If there are no laws or if there are no rules or mores around treating women as inferior, then I think it’s going to open up a lot of things there.
But also, I don’t really know if we should take Shevek to be some hero, as you said. There are a lot of problems with this character. It’s not really clear to me that Le Guin is valorizing this man in many ways.
COWEN: Oh, I think he looks worse and worse as the story proceeds.
DEMSAS: As the story goes on, yes. It’s hard because, obviously, Le Guin is a woman, and it’s interesting she chose to have her protagonist be a man. That happens all the time, but all of the women are technically pretty side and supporting characters that seem to only — at least in Shevek’s mind — be pushing his own story arc forward, but at the same time, they are . . .
Even the woman who he befriends and then later assaults — she describes her own agency as secretly being able to push men behind the scenes to do what she wants. And that becomes revealed to be a farce in the society because she’s not able to stop him, obviously, from assaulting her. That’s one of those things where I think Ursula was making a pretty clear comment that yes, there are problems on both planets, but here is a planet where even this woman who’s clearly very wealthy, very well connected, can’t stop this stranger from doing the very bare minimum of not hurting her.
I think that she’s making a critique of how feminism or women are treated under capitalism, how they’re commodified, and even the people who realize that commodification ends up hurting them. It’s the same day that he gives this whole speech about how women are treated terribly in the society that he ends up assaulting her. None of that happens on his own planet, even though there are harms that women are facing all the time: being separated from their children, not being able to make choices similarly to men around their life and well-being. I think there’s a clear difference.
COWEN: I’m struck by the prison scene on Anarres, the communal society. It’s early in the book, and the children — he’s one of them then, he’s younger — they’re playing at prison, and just how rapidly they become tyrannical investigators and violent and abusive. Again, this idea that some vision of true human nature — it’s just right there underneath the surface. There’s nothing about egalitarianism that really changes it.
DEMSAS: Or is it about men? Because they’re all boys.
COWEN: Yes, men also. Of course.
DEMSAS: But I wonder if that’s what she’s saying. It’s not about human nature; maybe she’s making a comment about male nature.
COWEN: I think she is. The Left Hand of Darkness, which I assume you know — the way you get peace is by having genders that only are capable of sex a small percentage of the time. The implication is, that’s the one thing you have to do that will get you peace, and nothing else will work. Neither capitalism nor socialism nor anything in between. I think it’s this 1960s Neo-Freudian, like Norman Brown direction, point of view that everything’s about sex and violence and conflict and how they fit together. She’s, in a way, anti-utopian relative to the ’60s. That’s how I read her.
DEMSAS: Yes. One thing I thought about while reading this book was — I don’t know if you have an opinion on this, but I feel like people don’t really write utopian literature anymore. Do you feel like that’s changed?
COWEN: Oh, there’s so much. I see a higher proportion of dystopias —
COWEN: — as Peter Thiel has argued, but the better things get, if you’re going to be interesting, you have to actually create a lot of destruction and conflict.
DEMSAS: Yes. It’s hard because I see the value of utopia as trying to clarify what it is that you’re actually trying to get to. It’s not meant to be, “We think that this form of society will necessarily come about because of my preferred policies or changes,” but if you can define what Eden is, then you can approximate it as close as you can get. It seems sad to me that people don’t really do that anymore. Obviously, things have gotten better on various measures, but I don’t think anyone would describe our current world as a utopia, and you don’t really see that kind of engagement.
COWEN: I think there’s a lack of cultural self-confidence that would be needed to do that, and in that respect, our world probably, or the Western world, is worse.
DEMSAS: What do you mean?
COWEN: Well, you look at cartoons from the 1960s, The Jetsons — they have a flying car. That’s where the expression comes from: “They promised us flying cars, and all we got was 140, now 280, characters on Twitter.”
That was not a joke. I watched that as a kid. Everyone took it seriously. “Okay, I’m going to get my flying car. I just have to grow up a bit.” The idea that you could just apply reason and technology to problems, and things in America would keep on getting better was a very common view. And if you wrote a novel in that direction, it eventually became boring, but people wouldn’t laugh.
DEMSAS: Maybe there are other cultures who are writing utopias. I don’t know. You are the one who reads internationally.
COWEN: I don’t know of any, really. Asimov’s I, Robot — it’s not utopia, but things work out like, oh, you elect the robot president, he’s a pretty good leader. Different weird things happen, but you hold it all together, even though, at a micro scale, all the laws are violated.
Today, I consider it a kind of fictional story, Eliezer: well, the AGI is going to destroy us all is obviously beyond dystopia. This is the end of everything. The people are like la-di-da. There was some investment bank. I think they issued investment recommendations, and they said, “Oh, this stock will go up. This stock will go down. And by the way, there’s a 40 percent chance the world will end in 10 years.” Then they started talking about currencies without missing a beat, and our world, to me, seems like that.
DEMSAS: Yes. I guess there have always been people preaching doom, even people amongst technologists. Not just Luddites or people who are very religious or finding themselves in cults, but there’s usually . . . The bulk of my literary reading has been 20th-century literature, and so it’s something that is very interesting, when I read modern-day, to see that kind of a shift.
COWEN: If you were to sum up what makes The Dispossessed, to you, an interesting novel — how would you put that?
DEMSAS: I think that the ambiguity, clearly, between you and I about what Le Guin is trying to tell us about these different systems is actually extremely valuable. I find that what’s really good about science fiction today, if you’re reading Ted Chiang, or you’re reading, what is it, The Children of Time. Who wrote that book?
COWEN: Oh, I know who you mean, but that’s a bit older, isn’t it? As a book?
DEMSAS: Yes, Tchaikovsky. But just in the last couple of decades, they’re really, really, really good at world building and being very, very particular about making the world as realistic as possible and how they would get there.
Le Guin dispenses with a lot of that and just tries to get you to a point where you can actually engage with the ideas that she’s working on. This I find very valuable with the science fiction that Le Guin writes. It becomes very possible to actually engage with questions of right and wrong in such a different context, and she does bring Earth into the mix at the very end. I think that that’s what’s valuable about it. What about you?
COWEN: I like how it continually subverts my expectations, which a lot of science fiction doesn’t do, even if it’s conceptually strong. The societies are believable in some very real way. Shevek, as a lead character, is quite interesting and strong and, ultimately, unlikeable in just the way I might want to look for. The theme of parallel worlds has interested me for a long time, so it has all those things. It’s well written. It’s very much a novel of its time, but in an interesting way, and I partly identify with that time, nostalgically.
To see how people frame the issues of gender and war and capitalism back then — I actually feel those traditions have been somewhat lost and forgotten, and this book is trying to pull us back to them.
DEMSAS: Mm-hmm. I think it’s also very interesting to see — we talked about them as parallel worlds, but the way the capitalist world views this off-planet as this declining mining outpost that sends them what they need — it’s almost like a mining colony, is how they think about it.
COWEN: Oh, sure. And a prison, right?
DEMSAS: Yes, exactly. Obviously, we’re starting with his perspective of growing up there, but even that is challenged by Le Guin, too, at some point, where you’re like, oh, are these parallel worlds? Are these even countries? And what’s also interesting about it, too, is, it started me thinking of the travel book. I guess we’re talking about Gulliver’s Travels soon, but the travel book presumes a level of alien that is still left to be discovered.
What’s remarkable is that the two planets — they refer to each other as aliens all the time. There are some differences in physicality, even, as well, as they describe. But they’ve only been separated for a few hundred years, and they’ve been in trade with one another and in communication with each other the entire time.
Obviously, there are some real barriers to engagement with one another, but the speed with which they view each other as alien and not human is very interesting, because if someone were to come to me from South Africa, I would not view them as a fully alien person. To me that’s a very weird shift.
COWEN: The notion that you never escape your prisons, prison being a recurring theme in the novel — no matter how hard you try to hold away the other, you never escape it; you’re always imprisoned, both by yourself, your own institutions, and by your relation to that other — I thought the novel was quite good on and ahead of its time.
DEMSAS: Yes. The only walls on the anarchist planet are the ones that surround the space travel, the launching pad or whatever it is. That’s something that’s said very early on, but then you discover throughout the book how much there are all of these other “invisible walls” that he’s discovering. That’s made very explicit at times, sometimes maybe too explicit. [laughs] But I think it’s also a lesson in how much you have to have an other to compare yourself to in order to even understand yourself.
He’s alone for a really long time, and when he’s doing his studies at the beginning or in the middle of the book, and he can’t get these scientific breakthroughs that he inevitably does get to — it’s when he starts interacting with other people and rebuilding those bonds with other humans that you do actually get these breakthroughs. I think that’s also another point in favor of Le Guin pointing out that communitarianism is important.
COWEN: We can jump around and come back, of course. Tell me, on your first read, what struck you most about Gulliver’s Travels?
DEMSAS: It was very readable. I did not expect that. I know that people talk about this. I think it’s been billed as a children’s book sometimes. I don’t think it’s a children’s book.
COWEN: I read it as a kid.
DEMSAS: How old were you?
COWEN: I don’t remember. I would guess 10.
DEMSAS: Oh, okay. Very young.
COWEN: It might have been an abridged edition. I don’t even know or remember anymore.
DEMSAS: It’s very readable. The actual sentence level, it’s not very difficult to understand what’s going on — it’s written in the 1700s — that’s pretty remarkable. I can’t tell if I like satire or not after reading this because the book is Gulliver coming across these different people. They’re all fantastical. It’s fantasy in that way. He’s satirizing the human condition. He’s also satirizing travel novels at the time, I suppose, as either being full of falsehoods or being fixed on really trivial matters or things that are just not that important, or observations that are not relevant to a reader back home.
I had trouble figuring out whether or not I find this writing that useful. I find modern satires to be very funny and interesting sometimes. Obviously, I was a fan of Stephen Colbert when he was doing that bit. But as a long-lasting tool for understanding other people and other times, I find it a barrier, because how are you going to understand fully the context? I can get the very obvious points that he’s making about humanity and its drawbacks, but I think that you probably miss a ton.
I did some reading of the relevant contextual history, but even then, would it have been more useful to have Jonathan Swift just straightforwardly — he’s prevented from doing so at the time — say his views? Then, I also think it’s a question of length. Like “A Modest Proposal,” which is an essay, it’s a very satirical essay where he proposes people just eating babies as a solution to too many children who are in poverty. That’s very clear and obvious what’s going on there. I think that in a novel of this length, I don’t find it super long-lasting.
COWEN: I read this as a novel of ideas, satirical in parts, but to me, it’s not fundamentally a satire. That dwindles away, and every time I read it, I have a different take on it. I think on my fourth reading of it — this is past that — I thought, this is a Tory being anti-modern and skeptical of the science of his day. That’s a pretty common reading. It’s not my reading anymore.
On this reading — which is maybe my sixth or seventh, but across many years; like I said, first reading, I was 10 or so — I think it’s actually a novel about slavery. In some ways it’s pro-science. The episode where he goes to Laputa and Lagado, he meets all the weird projects. We would call them venture capitalists. The plot to live forever, have your brain hooked up to different devices, the form of artificial meat.
You could take it as a satire on Silicon Valley today, and it’s ridiculous. Clearly, it’s ridiculous in Swift’s eyes, even though some of it has happened or will happen. The version we call now ChatGPT, the books that write themselves. But that scientific society — it’s the only one where there’s not slavery.
When he goes to the Lilliputians, they enslave him. When he’s the little figure in Brobdingnag, they enslave him. They make him entertain them. It’s on and on and on. He gets tired of it. He begins to hate it. Then the Houyhnhnms enslave the Yahoos. At the end they tell Gulliver, who’s a stand-in for Swift, perhaps, “We’re either going to kill you or enslave you. You have to get out of here because in a Planet of the Apes-like fashion, you could lead a revolt of the Yahoos against us.” That too is based on slavery and caste.
It’s only the scientific society — where people are curious and wacky and nutty — where there’s no slavery at all. It appears the most ridiculous, the least well-ordered, the one most based on dreams and fantasy. Swift isn’t, in my reading, not quite endorsing that, but just saying, “Look, give this a break. It’s not as crazy as it seems. At least these people are running off with some other set of projects and not just brutalizing each other.” That’s my seventh reading of the book, but that didn’t occur to me in any of the earlier readings, so I’m not sure how hard to push that.
DEMSAS: It’s hard because if Gulliver is a stand-in for Swift, which I’m not sure about, he spends very little time there. He gets out pretty quickly. He finds it ridiculous. He describes the endeavors straightforwardly but in a way that it is very clear that he does not find it a useful pursuit of time. It’s almost like these people have no grounding reason. They’re just doing randomness.
The way he describes the books that write themselves is literally just a bunch of random word plates being moved around and stamping in different directions. There’s not even supporting thoughts behind it. You’re correct that that is the only one without explicit slavery in it. At the same time, he spends so little time there relative to the other.
COWEN: The first edition of Gulliver’s Travels — there’s a frontispiece and a picture of Gulliver. It’s typically interpreted as Gulliver looking a lot like Swift. I don’t think that means, per se, he’s a stand-in, but you’re at least supposed to wonder that he is.
I view Gulliver as just a super curious person. Every time he gets home, basically within two weeks — he seems to have a nice wife, has a family — he’s got to go off again. He’s learned it’s dangerous, but he can’t resist. In that sense, he’s like Shevek. You read this, you identify with him, his troubles, but I think if you step back and ask, is he really a nice person? Not so obvious.
DEMSAS: No, he abandons his wife and children.
COWEN: At the end, he finds them disgusting because they’re not horse-like enough for him.
DEMSAS: With Gulliver, I had a hard time deciding whether or not he was smart because he would obviously be extremely self-possessed when he would come across a new — either the giant species or the very tiny people. You can say all their names really well, but I feel like I can’t.
COWEN: None of us know how to say them properly.
DEMSAS: Is it Lilliputians, is it the small people? When he comes across the small people, he wakes up, and he’s been bound by all of them. He’s able to free one of his arms and then has this thought after they shoot some arrows at him, and it hurts. They’re around six inches tall each, but I guess it’s a good hypothetical — how many six-inch people would it take to subdue a person?
He has his wits about him enough to be like, “I should just not present myself as a threat.” Then again, when he comes across the other groups, he’s very quick not to present himself as a threat. Interestingly, the only people that he doesn’t do that with are the Yahoos at the end, where those are the humans of the planet, but he views them as beasts.
By this point, I suppose we’re supposed to expect that Gulliver has a very low position of humanity, and Swift has a very low estimation of people. At the same time, he does the weirdest things, like he pees on the queen’s tower to put out the fire because he’s so much larger than the tower, but then it becomes completely unusable, because why would she want to live in this home that’s been urinated upon? It becomes a problem for him at the end.
He keeps going back out there and making decisions that end up with him deserted. I’m not sure what the rates of being lost at sea are at this point, but it just seems like —
COWEN: One hundred percent.
DEMSAS: It’s kind of wild with him. Did you think he’s supposed to be smart?
COWEN: I think he’s maybe a reflection of the human condition, that he is smart insofar as he’s deciding to do nothing or to exercise options or to wait. Like, “I’m in this new society. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m not going to try to take all the small Lilliputians and crush them. That would be a mistake.” It turns out, in fact, there was probably some way they could have poisoned him or done him in.
All the times he just plays wait and see, it eventually works out okay. Whenever he has impetus, he basically goes off into another misadventure and almost dies, tortured, enslaved, whatever. I think it’s kind of a version of Pascal’s commentary on mankind, that the fundamental problem of the human condition is we just can’t sit still in a quiet room. That’s what Gulliver can’t do either.
DEMSAS: By the end, he is so enamored of the horse society, which he views as so full of reason and so full of goodness and does not even have, I think, words for lying, because why would you communicate to lie? The whole point is to explain and get across ideas to one another. He’s so disgusted by his own species that he faints when he’s told he has to go back.
I think he considers or he attempts suicide when he’s being taken home, even though the person who’s helping him is displaying all of the virtues that he’s just said he loves about the horses. They’re giving him their clothes off their back. They’re giving him money. They’re transporting him all the way back to England. He gets back to his wife, and she embraces him, and he faints again because he’s so disgusted by her.
Again, obviously, it’s satire; it’s extreme. But even by the end, he’s meant to still retain this extreme disgust towards humanity because of this experience with the horses, but the horse society is not good. They’re enslaving a bunch of people —
COWEN: Yahoos, who are probably descendants from Europeans, right? But I take Swift to be quite critical of the Houyhnhnms. There he’s being satirical, and he’s so over the top in his praise that you just start thinking, “Come on.” It’s a bit like how the problems in the communal society in The Dispossessed are revealed more and more. The horses, it turns out, have this caste system, like how light or how dark a colored horse are you?
Today, certainly in Swift’s time, obviously, you realize what he’s talking about, and they don’t make any progress, unlike the scientific societies, which at least try to make progress. All they’re good at is poetry. They’re entirely conformist. I think he’s just saying, this is how things would have to be for these supposed utopian visions to be realized. Maybe it’s a commentary on Thomas More and other such writers.
To get to a utopia, things would have to be like this, truly communal. That would be horrible because a communal society is wonderful at oppressing each other. I think the best you can do for now Swift, and even Gulliver, is actually the family unit.
DEMSAS: Is Gulliver happiest in the family unit?
COWEN: He’s not, but that’s maybe the best you can do. He’s so restless at the end of the novel. We’re never told, does he feel a need to go off again? He did it a bunch of times with always bad results, and you don’t get any feeling that he’s been cured of his wanderlust.
DEMSAS: Obviously, the novel ends, and we don’t know if Gulliver has any more travels or anything like that. But at the same time, I don’t know if Swift is making a commentary on the only way for these . . . He’s actually largely not that imaginative about the structures of society from place to place. There’s always some sort of oppressive king. Except for the final society, usually, there’s just very weird, bizarre punishments that are being meted out. Obviously, there he’s satirizing just how ridiculous many of our own customs may look like.
COWEN: That’s the “you can’t escape your prisons” point that I think is in Le Guin very well and in Swift very well.
DEMSAS: Again, I did not find the time with the scientists or the universities to be as . . . I honestly set that aside quite quickly because it was such a small part of the book to me. When I look at the rest of them, you have this king that’s threatening to just drop an island upon his subjects if they disobey. You have other bizarre articles of impeachment that are laid against him because someone in the court doesn’t like him, or something like that. Most of it seems like a rebuke of royalism and courts, which, of course, Swift had his own —
COWEN: That faction is inevitable is a striking perspective from a 2023 vantage point. The whole notion of cancel culture, and that’s in Swift — there are the people who open their eggs on the side of the big end or the little end, and they’re willing to go to war with each other. That, to me, is very 2023, or at least 2021.
DEMSAS: Or is that just a rebuke of the idea of cancel culture, since it’s just the same thing we’ve always been doing?
COWEN: I think it’s a rebuke of the idea of cancel culture. It’s always been with us. Faction is inevitable, which I take to be one of Swift’s main points, all the more clear when you read his directly descriptive writings, like his actual policy pamphlets. He’s obsessed with faction. It’s a common theme in early 18th century writings. “Oh, Britain, Ireland — it’s all full of faction, and this is our fundamental problem.”
The other eternal verity in Swift, I think, is war, and you see that in the different travels. In his own time, there’s basically a war every few years. The Dutch, the Spanish, the French, something. None of it, to us now, makes any sense. I think one of the things Swift is showing us with these very odd societies — their wars, to us, make no sense — he’s saying the wars of his own time, from any future vantage point, won’t make any more sense either. That, I thought he did very effectively.
DEMSAS: He’s a pacifist in real life, so clearly, that’s where he’s going with this.
I was really interested, I couldn’t tell whether he viewed women as better companions than men in this book, because in his own life — it’s unknown, I think, whether or not they were actually romantically involved, but he has a female companion that he at least has a friendship with for a long time.
In the book, the person who treats him kindly in basically each place is a woman. There’s this little girl that takes care of him when he’s tiny compared to the giant people, and she makes sure that he’s safely being carried around. She actually cries when she knows he’s going to be taken away. This happens again and again, but at the same time, he describes women as grotesque, and very bizarre things happen with him in the giant land. I don’t know, what did you think?
COWEN: I’ve read quite a few of his letters to Stella, who’s the woman you’re talking about. They seem really quite affectionate, not at all misogynistic. I do definitely think they had sex. They use the word coffee. Maybe they were just drinking a lot of coffee, but they use it in such artificial ways, I think that’s their stand-in word for doing it.
And he views men as the warmakers and the troublemakers. But he didn’t love Queen Anne, either. He writes that satirical pamphlet that, in Straussian fashion, is a criticism [of Queen Anne]. Maybe it’s about incentives there, too. Men are in the positions to make trouble.
DEMSAS: What’s interesting about this book is that he’s writing it as a letter to a reader. He addresses the reader multiple times in it. How do you think that he views the reader?
COWEN: A bit of wearied resignation, fear that the reader is as trapped up in the silly factions of the time as the reader probably was, but actually with some sense of hope.
I read Swift as a great humanitarian who is extremely skeptical about moral progress, and he thinks to evaluate all these other institutions, you need to understand the skepticism about moral progress. Keep in mind, he’s from Ireland, and the richest, “most advanced” society of his time is Britain, and Britain is treating Ireland very badly. He frequently refers to that as slavery. He calls it slavery, and he always wants to be giving the Irish a better deal. I don’t think he’s entirely pessimistic, but he doesn’t see the progress in front of him.
DEMSAS: At a very surface level with the reader, it’s interesting because he’ll say things like, “Obviously this will bore you.” But then he’ll just tell it to you in extreme detail. Things about what he’s eating or very bizarre anecdotes always about his bowel movements which I can’t —
COWEN: He’s obsessed with that in many of his works. [laughs]
DEMSAS: Oh, really? What is behind that?
COWEN: Psychologists have speculated it was an actual psychological syndrome of some kind, but of course, we don’t know.
DEMSAS: I’ve not read travel novels of this time, and it’s clear that there’s some form to the genre that he’s making fun of at some points in the book, where he’s just like, “readers of these kind of novels.” He’ll say that, and then he’ll juxtapose that with a “Dear Reader,” as if you’re supposed to be different, but then he’ll provide you with the exact same things, as if he doesn’t actually have that high of an opinion of you as a reader.
COWEN: All the talk about excrement, piss, and all that — it’s definitely a Swift thing, and you see it all over. Just how he was.
DEMSAS: Even beyond that, there’s this one passage where he goes into detail about the types of food that he was eating, and then he goes, “Well, no one’s interested in that.” [laughs] You’ve written this as a letter, so you didn’t have to include that. That indicates to me this level of derision for the reader, that he feels like this reader is going to be interested in these mundane details that aren’t actually important to the broader story or moral or message of the book.
COWEN: Swift himself was abandoned by his mother in his early childhood for a while. She went off to England, probably to work, and we don’t really know what happened to him during those years. But Shevek also — he’s upset throughout his life that he felt, and indeed was, partially abandoned by his parents for a lot of his early years.
This sense of alienation in both cases, this obsession with the question, who are the “we”? For Shevek, “Is it both worlds? Is it just my world? Do I really belong in the other world?” For Swift, “How much should I identify with these strange beings, creatures, societies that are enslaving me? With whom should I identify?” He’s alienated from his family, for sure. He keeps on leaving them. But where exactly does he find his people? It’s pretty clear that he never does.
DEMSAS: I think maybe part of it is, in both of these novels, these men would not be happy anywhere in any context. Maybe that’s part of what’s going on here, is that there’s not a society that would make Shevek happy. When he’s amongst the communitarians, he’s frustrated by the strictures they put upon him, but also, he’s frustrated when his friend critiques them, and he’s angry at him, and they get into a big fight over it.
Then Gulliver — everywhere he goes, he has some critique. At one place he doesn’t is a place where he’s treated terribly, and it’s unsustainable for him to stay there, and you can’t actually imagine him providing anything of use to that world. He’s literally just an oddity that gets pushed out every once in a while, like at these dinner parties.
To me, it’s an indictment of this sort of traveling in order to find yourself or find something important or true because in many ways, Gulliver does not end up more enlightened by the end of the book. Shevek ends up right back where he was. His entire goals when he was moving there seemed naive in hindsight. I think that’s maybe slightly a little bit too much in The Dispossessed world because we know later on that his connections end up being the foundation for a really important technology that connects space, different planets. But at the same time, what was the point? [laughs]
COWEN: Still, Shevek and Gulliver — they’re the two people who know things that no one else knows. Even reading about it, you can’t really understand what it was like, and it’s raising the question: The ancient Greeks on “knowledge is everything” — how true is that really? What does it get you? What does it get anyone else? What does it get your spouse? Both come home empty-handed, as I think I mentioned before, and neither seems happy at the end. But they had to do it, perhaps.
DEMSAS: I question whether they needed to travel to get the knowledge, because Shevek is really pushed out of his framework of viewing his own society as utopian by a friend who has this realization, never travels, is within that community the entire time. He just witnesses his own inability to get his own research done. He witnesses a childhood friend of theirs get sent to an insane asylum because he’s ridiculed after he does a subversive musical performance or theater performance. To me, that knowledge was there. You’re obviously a big proponent of travel but —
COWEN: I don’t think it makes people happier, at the same time.
DEMSAS: You don’t think it makes people happier?
COWEN: Not on average. Some people, it clearly makes happier. There’s a desire to do it, and you’re unhappy if you don’t satisfy that desire. But on average, people are happier at home. I strongly believe this.
DEMSAS: Is it because you think they travel badly?
COWEN: No, it’s in the nature of travel. We’re creatures of comfort whether we like to admit it or not, and that’s also partly a theme in Gulliver’s Travels. When you’re traveling, you’re discovering all these new, exciting things. But say if I went to Eritrea, I would, in fact, be quite uncomfortable. There’d be a much higher level of background stress. Maybe two-thirds of the value is both the anticipation and the memories afterwards, and it’s still worth doing. I want to go to Eritrea, but no, I won’t be happier when I’m there.
DEMSAS: Or even when you’re back?
COWEN: I will be glad that I went, but that’s partly investing in the memory and the experience.
DEMSAS: I wonder then, to me, I’ve always had this opinion. I think a lot of people don’t travel well for what they want to do.
COWEN: Oh, I agree with that.
DEMSAS: They end up getting sucked into doing things that would not actually make them happy, and there are things in many destinations that would’ve possibly made them happy.
COWEN: That’s endogenous, but go on.
DEMSAS: Yes, sure. The other thing is, there is, I feel like, a large cultural message that you’re not going to understand yourself if you don’t go travel in some way, and because of the ubiquity of that message, especially in the US and in other Western societies. I have friends who have gone to study in Europe. It’s very pushed as an idea there. Part of me wonders if you actually are happier because you can at least say that you have fulfilled that cultural norm.
DEMSAS: You don’t get embarrassed by saying, “I don’t have a passport,” or “I’ve never been out of the country.”
COWEN: Maybe it’s harder to understand yourself if you travel a lot in a good way, perhaps, but you might rather have more questions than answers. Understanding yourself is a kind of answer, and if you just think, “I want the life where I have all these open questions that bug me,” I would say go travel a lot.
DEMSAS: Then why do you tell everyone to travel?
COWEN: I want them to have the kinds of lives with a lot of open questions that bug them.
DEMSAS: But if they’re unhappier, don’t you think that might make them biased against the openness that you —
COWEN: There’s plenty of inertia keeping them from traveling, so I don’t feel I’m misleading them. [laughs] The behavioral bias is not to travel. If I nudge them, I feel it’s a better world even though it’s maybe not a happier world.
DEMSAS: I think that if you were to buy the idea that . . . Happier is just a hard metric. Am I happier if I’m more satisfied or more well-rounded? I’m not really sure. It depends on how that actually takes root. At the same time, it’s just like many of the things that I’ve gotten from really productive travel experiences that have also been analogous to experiences when I read very, very good books or I hear a very, very smart argument or something like that. Those are much lower-cost things to attain, and there are millions of those. It’s obviously costly.
COWEN: I think in part we travel to read better. If you’ve been to a lot of places, there are many more things you can read, and they make sense to you. If you’ve hardly been anywhere, so much stuff . . . I went to Kiev in 2019 — coincidence, but now, when I read about what’s happening there, it really does make more sense to me. I don’t pretend I figured it out at all, but I would have very little idea without that trip.
DEMSAS: What particularly did you learn? Like visually understanding what the city looks like?
COWEN: Partly that, but when I read, say, “The Ukrainians have been quite fierce in defending their country,” I have an emotionally vivid image that matches up with what I felt when I was there, like how people talked about what they did in 2014, and so on. Just a lot of it makes sense. The geography makes sense. Its religious importance to some of the Russians makes sense. Many things.
DEMSAS: I feel like this is a particular way about how you travel. I think many people, when they travel, end up staying within very similar social groups or even only with Americans or the people they’re traveling with, and have very little interaction with people and learning about their lives in any meaningful way.
COWEN: I did hang out with an economist there, so maybe I’m not that different.
COWEN: Now, you mentioned this idea of men who just can’t be happy no matter what. [laughs] And that brings us — we can circle back to the other books as well — but our final book: Richard V. Reeves, Of Boys and Men.
DEMSAS: You should do an overview of what this book’s about.
COWEN: I’m very bad at overviews. As a reader, I’m so selective and focused. To me, the main point of this book — and to be clear, listeners, this is not an overview — but it’s simply that for men, a lot of elasticities are zero.
There’s that anecdote about the free college program in Kalamazoo, Michigan. A lot more women go. No more men go, just zero. At least for some public policies, the gender split on who responds to it is going to be immense, and I vaguely knew that before, but this book made that clear and vivid to me. That’s a big contribution. There’s good evidence for that. There’s a lot of other different things in the book, but that’s my key takeaway. What’s yours?
DEMSAS: The book starts off with this presentation of an idea where people have worried in recent decades about the plight of women, and now we need to also add to that the plight of men in modern economies. It relays a bunch of statistics around college completion rates or how well male students do in academia, but also even earlier, in kindergarten or throughout their education.
Then it provides a few prescriptions. There are a couple ones that are pretty well known by this point, whether it’s paid leave for fathers or it’s hiring more male teachers. But the one that’s different is redshirting the boys, which is basically having a presumption of starting boys one year later than girls in kindergarten. I found the book . . . it’s hard because I was saying this to you before we started this, but most of the book is trying to convince you that the idea is a very heterodox idea, that we should care about men as well.
Richard Reeves — he’s at Brookings, so a lot of his audience is obviously going to be at least center-left liberal. Most of the time, he’s addressing them and excoriating progressives for having this large blind spot of men. It just feels like this is actually not engaging with a lot of work that’s been done to talk about how men suffer under patriarchy. One of a very, very old feminist critique of patriarchy is that men are going to be harmed, not just as much, but are going to be harmed even though patriarchy is going to privilege men in many ways.
It talks about the fact that men are alienated as fathers. They don’t get to have that caring persona. They’re castigated for showing emotions, and these things are going to have real harsh effects on them. Of course, feminism is primarily concerned with the plight of women, but I think that the equivalence there is . . . not that he’s saying that they’re the same level of harm, but that the harm is of similar type, feels incorrect.
The things that were happening with the women’s movement are things where there are legal barriers or physical barriers barring them from accessing academia or accessing the job market or voting, or from even being free and walking around in society.
The things that he’s identifying that are barring men are not . . . There are no laws saying men can’t go to college. There’s no admissions . . . Actually, there’s affirmative action for men, trying to push men into college because otherwise all colleges in the US and much of the West would be female dominated, more so than they are already.
Part of me is saying, okay, if we’ve identified that these two things are actually quite different in kind, then the question is, these responses have to actually engage with the cultural pushes, not just the institutional pushes.
He has this one line very early on, which I find pretty bizarre, where he says, conservatives say men should be more like the old-school fathers, and progressives just say you should be more like your sisters, and both of these are wrong. But we tell women all the time — and some of these are good lessons — “You should try to salary negotiate; men do it all the time.” And that’s a very productive lesson that a lot of women learn and have transmitted amongst themselves. We tell them, “Be more assertive in conversation, and don’t let people interrupt you.”
These are all very important cultural lessons. These are norms that have been expressed and have allowed women to do well in the workplace. Even Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg — there’s an entire book of this. But in this book, there’s no question about, should men be given lessons as well? Like, hey, the reason why you’re doing better in school at a younger age if you’re a girl is usually because you’re more willing to sit still. You’re able to sit around and do the work.
Reading is the big place where there’s a divergence. He talks about English scores a lot, and there’s nothing stopping men from reading. [laughs] It’s one of those things where I feel there’s a complete abdication of any kind of idea that there should be some kind of cultural shifts around what you should be telling young boys to do.
COWEN: I don’t know Richard Reeves at all. I’m not saying these are his views, but when I read a book like this, I can tell you where my mind runs. Maybe there is even some chance he can’t say everything he might think. The core message as I read it — again, not saying it’s his intent — but just, men and women are more different than we had thought. I was already someone who thought men and women were pretty different, so if I pick up that message, he’s really saying men and women are pretty different, more at the margin than I had thought.
The policy recommendations — what everyone thinks of them — they’re sufficiently predictable and anodyne that there’s an alternative reading where, even if you think they’re fine ideas, you dismiss them a bit, and you wonder if he’s not just saying there’s not actually a way to solve that problem.
To circle back to the other books, especially Ursula Le Guin on the capitalist society of Urras, men are clearly in charge and dominant, and only men are scientists. It’s a society based perpetually on war somewhere on the globe.
The notion that men do well in societies in relative terms when there’s a lot of war, and it’s better to get rid of war, but when you get rid of war, a lot of men won’t do that well because they’re not well-suited to that kind of society. That’s the alternative reading. That to me is more on the table than arguing about the small, “Do we start the men a year later?” which I’m not opposed to. I don’t know, but maybe we’re just better off shifting into a society where a lot more men do worse and suck it up and take the net gain of less war.
DEMSAS: I actually think this is incorrect for a couple of reasons. One is that he makes a comment that I think is meant to fly under the radar very early in the book, which is that he’s only talking about cis, heterosexual men. Obviously, most studies are only going to focus on that because you don’t have high enough numbers. But what’s interesting is that there is some research showing that these gaps disappear with gay men and that on educational fronts, they’re doing as well as women.
Obviously, there are questions about heritability and the genetics of it, but at the same time, this idea that men just cannot succeed in this society is also not true, given that even within the world that we live in, from country to country, men are able to be less violent in certain contexts and are more violent in other contexts. Institutions matter, clearly. Incentives matter.
COWEN: Some classes of men — there’s a distribution. Some need some form of war; others become Mark Zuckerberg, obviously do incredibly well. There’s a sublimation or re-channeling, where certain male instincts get put in other directions, and these people just have incredible lives. But in terms of the whole distribution, wherever gay men may fall in that, maybe it’s the case 20–25 percent of men in a society where there aren’t that many manufacturing jobs, very few active wars that you might go fight in, and gang warfare is not a thing.
I’m not saying that’s good for men. It’s clearly more destructive than just sitting at home and watching porn or smoking weed, but nonetheless, there’s some cultural vigor from the subset of men that is just sapped, and we’re not getting back. And one’s wondering, how much do we need to write that off?
DEMSAS: Obviously, there are always going to be outliers. But as Reeves mentions multiple times in his book, even though, on average, men may experience X or Y or Z traits, whenever there’s remarkable overlap of the genders, there are tons of women who are “more aggressive” than other men, or are above the mean or median for male aggressiveness, or things like that. My question is, yes, maybe there are tail risks going on, but at the same time, incentives matter a lot.
The fact that there are a lot of men who are wealthy and white who are able to escape this “masculinity trap” just indicates that there are institutional things that you could do to affect large portions of the population. Largely, I found his prescriptions for what to do at the end pretty anodyne, but I found redshirting the boys to be not very well thought through in many perspectives. I don’t think he devotes any time to what it would look like to have a class full of 14-year-old boys and 13-year-old girls, [laughs] or what kind of dynamics that would create, or how that would affect women’s educational outcomes.
Again, maybe you’re right, and because he doesn’t spend much time on that, he’s actually more making a larger cultural message. But I think that we’re entering a time — and maybe the through point of all these books, as you mentioned, is just this question of what is base instinct, and what can be actually mediated by political or economic institutions?
We’re entering a time now where people are spending a lot of time talking about the heritability of traits and what that means. I feel, to become that fatalistic about people would require a lot more action on very low-hanging fruit that we know we haven’t done on policy matters, but —
COWEN: In Gulliver’s Travels, of course, we neutralize the destructive tendencies of men by having them do science, even if it’s silly, and having them build these dream worlds where you can supposedly — maybe you’re actually visiting them, but it’s at least the fantasy that you’re visiting these dead ancestors and talking with them. Which is also, in a weird way, a little bit like some of the ChatGPT models and their offshoots.
DEMSAS: I feel like this is a very low opinion of men that is being described. If you think that’s what all these authors are getting at and it’s intractable, it’s…
COWEN: Do you agree with Swift about the difficulty of moral progress?
DEMSAS: That it’s difficult? I agree that it’s difficult. I think he’s much more pessimistic about it than I am, given how quick the gains have been in my own lifetime around moral progress.
COWEN: So, you’re with Steven Pinker, more or less?
DEMSAS: I don’t know. I think there have been obviously a lot of economic gains that have been made over the last century. I think that ideas are very, very powerful, and in general, over time, it really matters if those ideas are true or can be persuasive. As a classical liberal, it’s true that there’s a quality across people.
I think that those ideas end up winning out time and again because they’re just unsustainable when you set up societies that don’t work that way. They’ll be beaten by other societies that are more egalitarian and that can take advantage of other people. I think moral progress goes along with the economic progress. Those are inextricably linked, and so you end up beating out other countries.
COWEN: Maybe moral progress is just feminization of you that Mill flirted with, but once we give women, if not quite an equal share of influence, a much greater share, they’re less inclined to want to fight. That’s a good thing. Maybe more risk-averse on average. Given the destructiveness of war, that’s a good thing, but perhaps it’s the same process to some extent. Now, with birth control, it appears permanent, this higher influence of women. There’s no simple change that’s going to reverse it any time soon.
DEMSAS: I think it’s hard because moral progress and feminism were inextricably linked at a time when there was even tons more gender-based violence or things happening in the United States. Of course, moral progress had to point in the direction towards more liberation of women. The idea that that would be totalizing seems incorrect. It really depends on the structures that are then set up once women are freer.
But you can’t get around biological sexism in some ways. The fact that women have these . . . The costs of the wage gap are largely explained by the cost of having children and what happens after you have kids. People are having fewer and fewer children, but I also think there’s counter-cultural reactions to that, and then people, I could see, having more and more children in response.
I think it really does depend on what happens with technology around increased freedom from that work. The idea that we’d have artificial wombs seemed so far outside of my current technological horizon. But at some level, being pulled out of the workforce and, in many ways, potentially having your healthcare disabled long-term seem like things that are such permanent facts about being a woman right now. If you end up having kids, it seems hard to get to a level of moral progress where you have equality of the genders there.
COWEN: Does that summing-up across all three books — if you think, what did we actually learn by reading these, thinking about them, talking about them — how would you put that? Or maybe we don’t know yet?
DEMSAS: I think it’s interesting to me. I think you suggested Gulliver’s Travels, and I suggested Le Guin.
COWEN: Then you suggested Reeves.
DEMSAS: Yes, and I had not thought about these three as having very many connections before I sat down and started reading them again. One of the things that’s very interesting to me all the time is, we’re having the same conversations in so many different contexts over decades, over centuries and in ways that, if you’re in a good mood, can feel very unifying. You’re like, “Wow, I’m just like every other person that’s out there. I’m like Jonathan Swift. We’re all wrestling with the same questions. Le Guin, all these people, Reeves.”
Maybe it’s a knock against moral progress that the same questions are being debated over centuries. It doesn’t matter the format, it doesn’t matter the style, it doesn’t matter the background of the interlocutor. It’s like we’re just forcing this one circular human condition. I was surprised by the amount of overlap in themes, honestly.
COWEN: Along those lines, one of my key lessons would be, everything is much more connected with other things than you think at first. Even now, I keep on revising that upwards as I read more things.
The same is true of travel. Going to a lot of different places, you appreciate each one more. You learn something about it by virtue of the fact that you’ve been to other places. Even if it doesn’t make you happy, you get this neat form of knowledge. Travel as a form of knowledge, as a key theme in Le Guin and Swift, comes through to me all the more on these readings.
I feel the lack of that a bit in Reeves. I get that he’s writing for — which press? For Brookings. He works at Brookings. I don’t expect him to go off to some distant country and start doing fieldwork, but that’s what feels, to me, is missing. The kind of thing that Alice Evans is doing in her writings on gender, which is going everywhere, trying to learn things in a pretty speculative way that is not exactly a randomized control trial. I think she’s maybe more likely to get somewhere than these smaller investigations.
Travel as a mode of knowing has gone up in my eyes, and it’s something I think we should talk about, think about, read about, travel about all the more often.
DEMSAS: I think it’s interesting because I agree there are nontangibles that you learn from the speculative fiction, on one hand, and also the travel that we’re talking about here. But at the same time, if you’re trying to affect things in concrete terms — in my opinion, Reeves is. He wrote an article for The Atlantic where the excerpt was just about the one policy prescription of keeping boys back one year. To me, it depends what your theory of change is.
Is your theory of change that whatever you can do to illuminate these broader ideas or truths that you think you’ve discovered about the world, and however you can make those things entertaining and accessible to as many people as possible, is how you actually effect long-term change? Or is it a very succinct argument about how we can actually change a very clear policy problem that I currently have a problem with? Obviously, we want both of those things existing in a society at the same time, but I think it’s a very unsettled question about which one of those things gets you further.
COWEN: I agree. It is striking to me, if I go to Singapore or New Zealand and I talk with policy people, usually the first question they ask is, “What do other countries do?” If you’re in America, that question might come up, but in policy circles, it’s not usually the first question. Certainly, at the electoral level, it might be a negative. So, I’d like to see that be a bigger question.
DEMSAS: I wonder sometimes if it’s just that America’s so big. We have two neighbors — that’s bizarre. Most countries have so many neighbors and are much smaller, and so the proximity to them is so much larger that you’re used to that spread. Our states function like this. It’s one of the most interesting things that I’ve realized. I do a lot of reporting at the state level and at the local level. The amount to which one state taking an action increases the likelihood of its neighbors engaging with that question is just remarkable to me.
If California does something, that’s much less impactful to New York than if New Jersey does something, or if Massachusetts does something. Similarly, I think that’s the part of the problem with the US engaging with other countries. At the same time, I’ve done some infrastructure reporting on the researcher Alon Levy at the American Institute. He very much complains often about how transit authorities don’t pay attention to how other countries are building infrastructure much more cheaply than we are, especially rapid rail.
It’s a problem across sectors. The US doesn’t look at anyone. If you look at the UK, they don’t look at Spain and Italy, even though they have lower transportation infrastructure costs, because why would you look at Southern Europe? It’s absurd. You get to Southern Europe and other areas — they don’t look at East Asia as a model, even though those places are often much better at building these infrastructures. It doesn’t seem like a uniquely American problem. It just seems like we have fewer neighbors to look at.
COWEN: Jerusalem Demsas, thank you very much.
DEMSAS: Thank you, glad to be here.