In this special crossover special with EconTalk, Tyler interviews Russ Roberts about his new life in Israel as president of Shalem College. They discuss why there are so few new universities, managing teams in the face of linguistic and cultural barriers, how Israeli society could adapt to the loss of universal military service, why Israeli TV is so good, what American Jews don’t understand about life in Israel, what his next leadership challenge will be, and much more.
Watch the full conversation
Recorded December 23rd, 2021
Read the full transcript
RUSS ROBERTS: Today is December 23, 2021. Today’s episode of EconTalk is also being released as an episode of Conversations with Tyler. I am speaking with Tyler Cowen of George Mason, who blogs at Marginal Revolution, podcasts at Conversations with Tyler. It’s his 14th appearance here on the program. He was last here in April of 2021 talking about the pandemic.
We’re going to do something a little unusual today. We’re going to talk about what it’s like to be an immigrant, using my move to Israel this year as a way to launch the conversation. As my listeners know, and to let listeners at Conversations with Tyler know, I came to Israel to be president of Shalem College, a small liberal arts college here in Jerusalem. Finally, I want to encourage EconTalk listeners to go to our homepage to vote on your favorite episodes of 2021. Tyler, welcome back to EconTalk.
TYLER COWEN: Russ, thank you very much for having me. I’m so curious about your new ventures. Let me start with a general question. In the mature economies, why aren’t there more new universities? Shalem is in its ninth year, and how is starting a new university in Israel different from in the United States?
ROBERTS: We have a very strange business model. We lose money on every student, and we make it up by volume. We give all of our students a stipend that covers their tuition and a good chunk of their living expenses, and as a result — in America, if that were the case — we take no money from the government; it’s all private donations. And we’re in competition, we like to think, for the best students here in Israel. They often are on scholarships, so we have to match that. That’s the business model.
In America, if you don’t take money from the government, you usually get less regulation, in turn. That is not the case here. The Council for Higher Education is extremely vigilant in making sure that we keep all of our promises. They’re very, very detail oriented. Number of toilets, I think, is regulated here per student. You can imagine starting a new major — we’ve got to get their approval, we have to provide the syllabi of all the classes that would be taught in the major, we have to show the faculty that would be teaching in the major, and we have to get a variety of committees to sign off on it.
To create a whole college is a major enterprise that people who came before me did all that lifting, heavy and light. In America, the challenge, of course, is both accreditation and reputation. You’re in competition with existing — like any new entry, you have to compete with the existing competitors. In the case of a college, brand name’s extremely important in America, obviously. People have emotional ties to colleges. I think there are very, very few new colleges that are at the highest level. As you know, of course, University of Austin is aspiring to be one of those startups in America, but it’s not an easy task. It’s hard to do.
COWEN: Being a university president, it also has a managerial side. How are you feeling managerial culture as being different in Israel compared to the United States?
ROBERTS: I don’t have a lot of managerial experience. They took a leap of faith on me there. It’s been a very . . .
COWEN: You’ve managed your own career your entire life.
ROBERTS: Oh, tremendous experience, and that meant managing a very difficult person, actually. It’s actually quite encouraging. In all seriousness, the job — I’ve grown in the six months I’ve been on the job and on the ground here. It’s been a wonderful experience, adventure. We’ll talk about what it’s like to live here, but to flex a bunch of muscles that I haven’t used much, or that I didn’t know I had — it’s a very multifaceted job. There’s managing people, there’s curriculum and faculty and student issues, there’s fundraising. It’s a fascinating . . .
COWEN: Can you be more direct? When you’re managing in Israel, there’s a reputation that Israelis are super direct; they don’t mince words. Is that true? How does that influence how you manage people? You just tell them what to do? Do they tell you what to do? How’s it different?
ROBERTS: A lot of my management team at the senior level speak English and are Americans. Even though they’re Israelis now and they’re all citizens of Israel, as I am, they bring a lot of their American baggage with them, even though they’ve unpacked for sure. In terms of the staff and the students, there is a directness. With the students, it’s quite interesting. They come here when they’re typically 23, 24 years old to start their college career, very different than in America. Despite having served in the army, they are remarkably young in a certain way.
They have an energy and an openness that’s very refreshing. The bluntness part, I don’t sense so much on their end. In terms of the staff, it’s not really an issue; at least I haven’t experienced it. What I think it causes, though, is a certain hesitation, on my part, for interaction. I’ve got the language barrier. For the native Israelis here, I try to speak Hebrew with them to amuse them, and they’re very kind. And then we typically end up speaking in English, if it’s anything substantive outside of, “How was your weekend?” They are very blunt and straightforward. I like it. I’ve gotten used to it.
COWEN: Now, you’re an Adam Smith scholar, and as you know, Smith, and many of the other classical economists, they were worried about the decline of martial virtue in a commercial society with division of labor. And now that you’ve lived in Israel, how does this worry seem to you? More justified? Totally false? How do you view it?
ROBERTS: It’s a deep question. I appreciate the flattery of calling me a Smith scholar. I wrote a book on Smith, which, of course, makes me an expert, but I’m not really an expert. The martial side, the military side here, is utterly fascinating. There’s a big conversation going around here about whether Israel should continue with the draft or go to a model close to the United States of a volunteer army.
It’s an enormous socializing experience here for the young people to go through that. It’s challenging, difficult, often physically difficult, and it permeates a lot of life here — in the way that there are certain networks of college, for example, in America or a private school system that you have a certain natural connection to the graduates. Here in Israel, the unit you were in, the kind of unit you were in, the people that you were in that unit with, has a very powerful lifelong effect.
It’s jarring often to an American who comes here. There are a lot of people walking around with their Uzis, their automatic weapons. First time you see that, it’s a little bit scary. Second time can be okay, you feel pretty — it’s comforting. But it’s a part of life here, along with reserve duty and other — we have students here who miss the first three weeks of class because they had reserve duty, or they were on some project, and that’s intense. Just very alien to most Americans.
COWEN: Given the rising importance of cyber warfare, it seems, for Israel most of all, should Israel still have a draft? Isn’t the future of Israeli security, drones, cyber defense, cyberattacks, other advanced weapons — it’s a tech story rather than a personnel story. Yes, no?
ROBERTS: You’d think so. That may be partly what’s driving having a conversation about our volunteer army. Israel doesn’t have the personnel needs that it had for an army, that it would have had 20 years ago. There are a lot of units here where people in them can’t tell you what they’re in because they’re, I think, highly classified, highly involved in those kinds of cybersecurity issues.
I think it’s a big issue for the world. It’s going to be an incredible thing to see how this changes warfare in general. But it’s a key part of Israel’s arsenal, obviously. They’ve been very successful in using cyberattacks to slow down Iran’s nuclear program, for example, because that’s the received wisdom.
COWEN: Will the Israeli military, plus conscription, still over time produce that sense of social solidarity if the military personnel themselves are not in the long run responsible for national security? Won’t it become a Straussian façade and at some point fade away or be viewed cynically or not serve its original socially unifying function?
ROBERTS: I think there’s a lot of cohesion here that we’re not seeing — it’s a very fractious political environment here, as you know — a lot of political parties, parliamentary system, no constitution, a lot of yelling in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. But despite all that, because of, I think, the external threat, there’s a lot of cohesion here, whether there’s an army or not.
The other part of the army that I think is fascinating is the age of the people in leadership positions. Very early in their career, there are people in their mid-20s, early 20s who have the lives of 100 or more people in their hands, in their units. And it creates a different mentality here. I can’t say I’ve sensed it personally, but that’s my impression. I don’t know what will happen. It’s a fascinating question, what will happen to Israeli social life if the army becomes less central, but right now that’s not the case. It’s very central.
COWEN: As you know better than I do, the Israeli media landscape is very different from the American media landscape, though they overlap. How has that changed your mind about podcasting? How do you view podcasting differently from Israel?
ROBERTS: It’s a lot of work podcasting from Israel. The challenge of moving here is that a huge chunk of my life gets crammed into 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., because 3:00 p.m. is the earliest you can expect somebody for a meeting or an interview in the United States, when it’s going to be 8:00 p.m. on the East Coast. And certainly, on the West Coast it’s even a bigger difference. Starting around three o’clock, my day tends to get a little more crowded and intense.
Just as a logistics matter, it’s challenging. I don’t have a very good feel for the newspapers world here, but newspapers are much more important than they are in America. They haven’t died out. They’re not just online. It’s fun to walk around on an afternoon or morning in Jerusalem and see four or five different newspapers out for sale, even if I can’t read all of them — or most of them, and sometimes any of them — because my Hebrew is so embryonic and mediocre. But they come with a flavor. I think that’s part of what you’re alluding to. They’re more like TV in America.
They have often an ideology and a certain perspective. American newspapers, until recently I would say, pretended they were objective. I think there’s less of pretense lately. But how podcasting fits into that, I don’t know. I listen to some Hebrew language podcasts, and my Hebrew is not good enough to listen to the other ones. I should maybe be trying, but podcasting . . .
COWEN: You’ve remarked to me in the past that in Israel baseball seems less important to you. Does podcasting seem more or less important there?
ROBERTS: That’s interesting. Sports does seem less important, partly because the games are on often at 3:10 in the morning here, which reduces my — and I’m not a recorder person. I don’t have time to watch them at my leisure so much anymore. EconTalk doesn’t seem less important, but I am surprised at how much I enjoy the challenge of improving the classroom here. We have an amazing set of teachers here. I want them to be better. We’re trying to make the evaluation process a little more sophisticated and less a customer service, “On a scale of one to five, how’d you like your professor?”
We’re trying to enculturate our faculty to certain styles of teaching and expose them to certain ideas. I’m enjoying that much more than I thought I would, and I’m much more passionate about it. I’m a little bit dangerous, Tyler. I’m what’s called in Hebrew a new oleh, one who’s come upward, who’s come up to the land, the land of Israel. I find my passion for things Israeli and my national identity way out of line with what I thought it would be as a person who’s — I’ve been here many times. I’ve been here a dozen or so times to visit. I lived here as a teenager for eight months when I was in high school with my family.
My dad’s company sent him here. I thought I knew what it would be like to live here. I knew it wouldn’t be the same as being a tourist, but I’ve been surprised at how much national pride I have, how I’m not quite as interested in what’s going on in America. I thought I’d stay connected — either sports, politics, which is just a different form of sports sometimes. It’s very different. And I think you read stories of immigrants who come to America and who are very emotional when they pass their citizenship tests. I feel the same thing here, and it’s been a pleasant surprise.
COWEN: What in the Torah now feels different when you read it living as an Israeli?
ROBERTS: In the Torah?
COWEN: Or the Hebrew Bible more broadly.
ROBERTS: No, no, no. I’m not sure I heard you correctly. It’s interesting sitting in a synagogue here on Saturday morning, which I used to do in America. The biggest difference isn’t the Torah reading, it’s a blessing for the state of Israel, which gets recited every Saturday morning. In a Jewish synagogue in America there’s also a prayer for the soldiers of the IDF, the Israel Defense Force. It’s much more visceral here. People pay attention. You feel like you’re actually saying something that matters and that means something.
As for the Torah, I think the biggest thing that I felt actually wasn’t in services or reading the Bible; it’s exploring different parts of the country I hadn’t ever been to before. When we first got here early on, we went up north to the Golan Heights, which Israel didn’t have access to until the 1967 war — it’s still controversial in some quarters, of course. It’s really a stunningly beautiful part of the country, and you can walk a town called Gamala.
Gamala was a Jewish town in Roman times that the Romans destroyed, a little bit like Masada. They’ve uncovered the mosaic floor of a synagogue. There’s some houses; the floors and rooms and house walls of partial houses are still visible, and it’s a very wild part of the country. There’s big ravines and outcrops, and then in the distance you can see the sea of Galilee, the Kinneret in Hebrew.
It just felt different that there’s a Jewish presence in that outpost in the middle of nowhere that’s 2,000 years old. I feel part of something that — obviously, intellectually, I felt it before I moved here. But moving here and feeling that and being there and standing on that — having that town to ourselves, my wife and I, we hiked to the top. It’s a little tiny space, hard to believe that a few thousands of people live there, but it’s a crazy, crazy archeological experience to be part of that, and other things like it.
That’s what to me is more special. The holiest part of Israel, most people would say, would be the Temple Mount — a Jew would say is the Temple Mount and the Kotel — the wall, the supporting wall of the Temple Mount that the Jews pray at every day now. We have access to it since 1967. Jews have been praying there for thousands of years. It’s very moving to be there. I’m about an 18- or 20-minute walk from there, and I’ve been there once since I’ve been here.
In the past, I’d come here every trip. I had to make sure I got to the Kotel and the old city, and I’m surprised how little I’ve been there. The workaday, suburban — not suburban — urban streets of Jerusalem feel special in a way that doesn’t require that past hovering over it. It’s just nice to be here.
COWEN: Now, there’s a great books emphasis at Shalem, if I understand correctly. If you had a bit more time than you probably have and wanted to choose one or two great books — Hebrew Bible aside, of course — to make sense of your time and experience in Israel, what would you pick and why?
ROBERTS: It’s crazy. We’re a great books curriculum, sort of, but there’s so many things we try to cover because we also have not just Western civilization, but Jewish thought and also other civilizations — our neighborhood, Middle East neighborhoods. Our students read the Jewish Bible, they read the Talmud, they read the Quran, they read the New Testament. And we have a course on Indian culture, civilization, and religion as well. It gets a little crowded. It gets crowded. You’re asking me, though, what book I would want to read?
COWEN: What book to make sense of your own experience in Israel, which great book?
ROBERTS: I’m a sucker, I think I’d pick The Odyssey. It’s about travel adventures, a sense of home, a very reliable wife who’s come with me for this adventure. And I’ve been writing about it recently for my next book — Penelope’s decision and dealing with the absence of her husband, but the idea of that book, which I think is just one of my favorite books, The Odyssey, is the idea that home pulls you.
Now I have two homes. It’s a little bit weird. I was born in Memphis, Tennessee. I’ve never lived long anywhere in the United States. Maryland’s the longest. My time in America, when I was teaching at George Mason and later working at the Hoover Institution — which I’m still affiliated with, by the way — 18 years of my 67 were spent in suburban Washington, DC, which is roughly a quarter and certainly more than a quarter of my adult life.
There’s a certain home there. I have certain friends there, and now, all of a sudden, this feels like home. I don’t know what Odysseus — he must have had a lot of ups and downs when he was thinking about whether to come home or not, but he came home. I think that helps me a little bit. I love that book.
COWEN: Now, the United States has about 330 million people, yet there are more Israeli TV shows I want to watch than American TV shows. There’s Srugim, there’s Shtisel, there’s Prisoners of War, there’s In Judgment, there’s Tehran. There’s more. Why is Israeli TV so good?
ROBERTS: I’m glad you mentioned Prisoners of War, which doesn’t get enough — Prisoners of War is in my top five. If I had to list my top five, I’d pick Shtisel, Prisoners of War, The Americans, probably The Wire, and The Crown. Do you have a top five that you could reel off?
COWEN: The Sopranos would be my number one. Srugim and Prisoners of War plausibly would be in my top five.
ROBERTS: Prisoners of War, by the way, is very much about your . . .
COWEN: Curb Your Enthusiasm, that’s another top five too.
ROBERTS: It’s a different thing.
COWEN: It’s very different thing.
ROBERTS: What I love about those other ones, when they’re doing well, is there’s a form of long-form storytelling that’s simply not available to us until now. The closest thing I guess you could have had to it in the past would be a Dickens novel that came out every week. And you couldn’t binge-read it; you had to wait for the next installment. I’m sure there’s been many PhD theses written about how the impact of that weekly thing affected Dickens’s style and so on. It’s an interesting question. I have an answer, but I want to hear your answer first. What’s your answer?
COWEN: I think the audience is more demanding and has evolved into an equilibrium where it expects something more intellectually substantive from television, and precisely because it’s not economically so viable. The notion that at the margin you get a much bigger audience by pandering to more people just doesn’t go that far in Israel. Now, this may change as Israeli shows themselves become more popular, so I worry about this. That would be my offhand answer: smarter, more demanding audience, plus limited incentives to sell out.
ROBERTS: That’s certainly interesting. There’s some really bad Israeli TV shows that I’ve enjoyed, that take weird and strange turns. I’ll mention The Good Cop or Hashoter Hatov — which is often in really bad taste and quite, quite amusing — that all of a sudden gets really serious in season two or three. It starts off as a silly comedy. Similarly, The Beauty and the Baker, which is this cheesy — there’s an American version of it too, but in the Israeli version, this baker, he somehow gets tangled up with this movie star, this model. She’s a model, I guess, not a movie star.
It’s cheap fun, and all of a sudden it gets really serious. Their families get involved, and it takes these strange and inexplicable turns. I’m sure it’s partly driven by the economics of the business. I think there’s another thing to think about, which is Jews created Hollywood. Jews have been making good movies for a long time. We’re called the “people of the book.” We’re interested in storytelling — just a standard thing Jews have been doing for a long time.
Now, why Israelis, per se, are so good at it is an interesting question. It’s obviously a function of wealth and the ability now to market those stories to a much wider audience. I think your point about how subtitles and Netflix allowed that to reach a much wider audience than was available before — it’s really a puzzle. They’re not particularly designed, I don’t think, anymore for the Israeli market. The real puzzle to me is why they’re popular, not why they’re so good. Why do people want to watch Shtisel, which is — not much happens in Shtisel and it’s a look . . .
COWEN: There’s actual romantic tension; that’s the thing with Shtisel and Srugim. In American shows or even European shows, why don’t they just divorce, or why don’t they just go to bed together, or why don’t they just whatever? But in Srugim and Shtisel it’s always a question what the boundaries are, and that’s hard to recreate.
ROBERTS: One of my favorite scenes in Shtisel is when Akiva and Bashevis — she pretends, or is actually interested in renting a heater from him, a portable radiator, and he’s just started this business. He’s put up a sign around town. It’s very entrepreneurial for him. He doesn’t have much to do with himself other than art. She shows up at the doorway, and it lasts about 30 seconds. There’s incredible tension in that scene, romantic and sexual tension, and it’s because they’re not going to do anything and they’re good actors, and so it’s a very powerful scene.
I’ve also argued, I think part of the appeal of that show — there’s an anthropological voyeurism. Here’s a culture and a community that’s very alien to most people, including modern Orthodox Jews. It’s a very different form of religious Judaism, the ultra-Orthodox that they’re portraying in that show. Part of the charm of the show is that they have the same problems we do. They have trouble with their kids. They’re not sure whether they’re going to make a living. That’s part of the charm.
I think the other part of the charm is what you’re talking about. There’s a certain old-fashionedness there that people may not want to live that way themselves, but they like watching it, the way they like reading a Jane Austen novel, where the mores of romance are long gone in the past. And there’s a certain innocence, I think, to the characters in Shtisel, which makes it so deeply appealing.
The only other observation I want to make, which I think is so fascinating to me, is it’s a show about ultra-religious, ultra-Orthodox Jews — there’s almost no Judaism in the show. They murmur and mutter blessings under their breath, but there’s no glorification of, say, the religious experience of the Shabbat, and they don’t make fun of it either. There’s no mocking of it or of the attitudes; they’re just taken as they are. I think that was a genius move by the creators to make that show the way it is.
COWEN: Which Israeli norm is hardest for you to deal with?
ROBERTS: Negotiation is challenging. I think it’s particularly hard for my wife, who likes set prices. A lot of prices here are just suggestions. They’re an invitation to negotiate. There are a few settings in America where that’s normal — you buy a house or car, you don’t expect to pay list price. But you do expect to pay list price for, say, a haircut or, I don’t know, a repair or something. A lot of times the price they announce is just a hint or suggestion, and it’s very hard for Americans to respond to that.
If you come here and you get off the plane and you get in a cab — this happens in America. Prices in America in a cab off the meter are often negotiated. The cab driver will say something and, “How about if we don’t use the meter? How about a flat rate?” In America, you know what it’s going to be because you’ve been in cabs in America. As a newcomer, you don’t always know how far it’s going to be, what the real fare should be, and so you’re vulnerable. A lot of Americans I know get angry when the cab driver says, “Let’s take it off the meter and pay cash.” They say, “No, put it on the meter.”
A friend of mine was telling me he got yelled at by the cab driver. Like, “I don’t want to put it on the meter.” He was thinking, “That’s the job. That’s the rule. Come on, put it on the meter.” I think that the anger of the cab driver was really just, “Hey, we’re negotiating here. We’re having fun. Here’s the game. It’s not theater, but it is a game.” And there is some theater involved because you don’t know how the drama’s going to end. I think here, it’s a little bit of the fabric of daily life, and that’s a little strange. It takes some getting used to.
I think when I rented our apartment here, I think it was an eight- or ten-page lease, had to hire a lawyer. Never had a lawyer for a lease. I’ve rented a dozen places, 20 places in America. That was strange. What I had to do to sign the lease, things I had to do to get the lease done, insurance I bought, weird stuff that just doesn’t happen in America, and it’s all in Hebrew. That part’s challenging. Anything else? Those are the ones that come to mind.
COWEN: An Israeli friend of mine suggested I ask you the following question: “Are you tired of being a freier?”
ROBERTS: [laughs] Freier is the slang phrase, I think it’s Yiddish. There’s a few Yiddish words that get peppered into Israeli daily speech. Not much, not like you’d think. Because of course, the early days of Israel was very much a revolt against the Eastern European mentality. Hebrew was going to be spoken here and not Yiddish, and Jews here were going to be strong and proud, not hunched over a book. And they were going to fight in the army. There’s a certain huge pride, actually, in that here.
As a result, the best langue is Arabic. There’s an enormous number of Arabic words that are used daily. I like to tease my Israeli friends that there’s no Hebrew word for “fun.” When you tell them that, they say, “There’s kef.” It’s an Arabic word. It’s a cheap shot at the seriousness of life here, and that’s not true. There’s a lot of vibrancy and people here have a lot of fun, but there’s no native Hebrew word for fun. I blame it on Ben Yehuda.
The word freier is a very, very interesting word, and it’s an interesting aspect of human nature, because it means a sucker. Some Americans here will talk about the freier tax, the amount of money extra you pay because you just don’t know what you’re doing here. You’re just lost; you don’t know the norms. I try not to worry about being a freier. I view it as a form of charity. I have a comfortable life. I can pay a little bit extra, it’s not a problem, I’m happy to do it. But people worry about it, I think, emotionally.
I think it’s an important part of human nature that economics doesn’t have much to say about. The fear that you’re being taken advantage of drives a lot of bad behavior on both sides of various transactions if you don’t have a good level of trust.
COWEN: As you well know, a significant portion of the population of Israel is Arabic in descent. What do you think you’re learning about those Arabic cultures, living in Israel?
ROBERTS: Not as much as I’d like to yet. I’ve only been here six months. There’s a lot of — it partly depends on where you live, of course, but in the parts of Jerusalem that I live in and walk in near our campus here, there’s a lot of Arab Israelis. Most people don’t know this — I don’t know it well, so I may embarrass myself — but people who are born within the borders of the Jewish state right now, in the borders of Israel, who are not Jewish — Arab Israelis — are full citizens. They get full healthcare, they get to go subsidized to the universities, they vote.
They don’t serve in the army, which is fascinating. They don’t want to serve in the army, incidentally, which I also understand. It’s complicated for them. And those are distinct from the West Bank of Gaza, who are Palestinians. Then there’s some special categories of folks who live in East Jerusalem, which is a disputed, more challenging — and I don’t know all the ins and outs of that.
But my wife is going to ulpan — ulpan is Hebrew lessons. She goes to ulpan three hours a day, four days a week. Twenty-two of her 23, I think, or 21 of her 23 classmates are Arab Israelis who think their Hebrew is not good — they all speak Hebrew. They speak very good English, but their Hebrew is not good enough, so they’re improving their Hebrew because they want to go to a good university, they want to get a good education, they want to be in business. And they’re all young, by the way; they’re all in their 20s. I don’t have much exposure to the Arab Israeli population yet. It’s something to find out about.
COWEN: You’re both non-Muslims. What is it you think we can or should learn from the Quran?
ROBERTS: I don’t know the Quran. I love the religious Muslims I’ve met face to face, as opposed to the ones that are called the cultural zeitgeist of Islam that’s in the air in the West. But the actual Muslims that I’ve met face to face, I have a lot in common with them. We believe in God. I think they have a very deep, deep faith, which some Jews have, but not all. Even religious Jews struggle with faith in a way that many Muslims — and Christians, for that matter — don’t struggle with.
I think there’s something to learn there. I think it’s possible I’m naïve. I like to think there’s a way that the great religions of the world would get along a little bit better, the followers of those religions. On the ground, face to face, I think we get along pretty well, but it’s not going so well overall in the outside world, so there’s work to do.
As an economist I like to think that commercial interaction helps. Do you think that helps? Do you think it’s trade — what do you think of this view that trade leads to peace?
COWEN: I think it’s been overrated by many of us. At many margins, clearly it’s true. Trade also helps you build up weaponry. Trade can solidify groups within a nation. An overrated proposition though, on average, true. That’s how I would classify it.
ROBERTS: I like that. I’m going to use that. Thank you. I’ll cite you too. It’s good.
COWEN: Late 19th-century Europe had plenty of trade. The world was remarkably globalized. And you get World War I, you get World War II. I’m not saying the trade caused that, but you can see it’s what you might call a complicated regression.
ROBERTS: Yes, I agree. I agree.
COWEN: Here’s another religious question. The Knesset recently, as you know, they voted to loosen up kosher certification regulations and take away power from a group of rabbis. That’s a kind of deregulation. You are a market-oriented economist. Are you happy, or should you be worried as a religious, observant Jew that this could mean a higher probability of some Israelis eating non-kosher food?
ROBERTS: Yes, it’s a fascinating example. Listeners should know that Shtisel is not the model family in Israel. The ultra-Orthodox are a percentage of the country, and they’re a politically powerful percentage because they tend to vote as a bloc. But there’s really all kinds of variations now, both religious and nonreligious, in Israel that are extremely fascinating.
Many Jews here are secular. Their Judaism is that they live in a Jewish state. Now, there are other Jews who are religious. And then, in between that, there’s all kinds of stuff happening here that’s really fascinating. I recommend the book The Wondering Jew by Micah Goodman, that came out in the last few years, about what’s going on on the ground here in Israel and the amount of religious innovation that’s happening and how people who are “not religious” are connecting to Jewish text. People who are religious are leading more open lives.
The tension between the religious and the nonreligious here is somewhat overrated. Having said that, some of the source of that tension is governmental mandates that give preferences for subsidies to childbearing, and the ultra-Orthodox tend to have much, much larger families. Families are much larger here in Israel than in America generally, secular and religious, but the ultra-Orthodox tend to have the larger families. And they’ve used their political power to get both subsidies for children, exemptions from army service, and other forms of special treatment that nonreligious Jews, not surprisingly, find offensive.
I don’t think the alliance of the state with the Jewish religion has necessarily been a good thing. Many people before me have pointed out that the United States is generally a more religious country than Europe, but there’s no state religion in America. Most of Europe has state religion. The state doesn’t do anything particularly well, and it doesn’t tend to lead to good feelings about religion and has not over time.
When you ask the question, “If you take away some monopoly power from the rabbinic authorities here, are you going to get less kosher food?” The answer is you might get more kosher food. There’s a lot of resentment of the way that the kosher certification has worked here. A lot of people feel that a lot of times a fee is collected and not much supervision takes place. These are nonreligious people who resent that they’re paying for something that gives them the certificate they need to serve their religious customers, but don’t like the hypocrisy of that system.
It’s a fantastic example, by the way, of the natural assumption most people have that when there’s a law that gets enforced, or when there’s a law, the government does it well. Or I’ve had people say to me, “What if we move to a more decentralized system? People won’t be able to trust the kosher certification.” You sure you trust it now, when the government has a monopoly driven by rabbinic oversight? A lot of people say it doesn’t work so well.
I’m excited about the role competition might play in the process, and I think it’ll lead to cheaper kosher food, more kosher food, more restaurants offering certified kosher food that I think will actually be kosher, and we’ll be fine.
COWEN: Let me give you a perspective I sometimes hear from Israelis, but I’m going to put this in maybe more public-choice terminology than they would use. I’ve heard it argued that secular Israelis, to some extent, free-ride upon the stricter, more religious Israelis who do more to shore up the unity of Judaism or the cultural foundation of the country and thus — that is part of the bargain — the more extreme religious individuals have to be given some kind of political preferences to keep them on board.
As you know, decades ago, many of the ultra-Orthodox were anti-Zionist, rather than Zionist that they now tend to be. So there is actual pressure where everyone has to be in the Riker-esque winning coalition, and things like monopoly power over kosher certification — whatever it’s going to be — but you have to give them something. Is that an accurate way of thinking about the Israeli political dilemma?
ROBERTS: Well, it’s not accurate. Might be useful.
COWEN: Is it useful?
ROBERTS: I’ve never heard that quite that way. By the way, I think there’s a wide range of views about what the role of the state should be in the country, and whether the government should be more sympathetic or less sympathetic to the religious currents here. Jerusalem tends to be a more “religious” city than Tel Aviv, but there are plenty of Orthodox people and religious people in Tel Aviv, and there’s plenty of nonobservant people here in Jerusalem.
They tend to have different rules about how Sabbath is kept in terms of public services. Cultural norms also, of course, play a role. I don’t like that idea. As a Jew, I don’t like that idea. As religious person, I don’t like the idea that this implicit bargain that somehow the ultra-Orthodox are, what, carrying the water of the ballast — I don’t know what you would call it — anchoring the Jewishness of the country. I don’t think it’s an issue for most Israelis to think about it that way.
I don’t think it would come natural. I think that’s definitely a Riker-esque — a reference to William Riker, who I got to be a colleague of for about five years at the University of Rochester. He was a wonderful, wonderful man — very insightful and credible, twinkle in his eye. His work — I think you’ve probably read it, Tyler — he was applying a lot of economics tools in his day long before other folks. He’s forgotten among our colleagues, but I like him a lot.
COWEN: Does living in Israel, and being a citizen there, make you more or less utilitarian in your moral philosophy?
ROBERTS: Why would it? Curious. You have something in mind?
COWEN: For instance, the Israeli policies toward hostages, as I understand them, which is imperfectly. From what I can tell — I admire these views — the notion that if someone takes hostages, you simply have to look at the longer-term calculation, and you can’t cave to every demand. You need to play it quite tough.
ROBERTS: Is that utilitarian or nonutilitarian?
COWEN: From my point of view, it’s utilitarian. I’m asking you; I’m not insisting you take my point of view. Living in Israel, has it made you more or less utilitarian?
ROBERTS: I’m not much of a utilitarian. I think all of us have some utilitarian impulses in the certain cases where it’s overwhelmingly clear that too many people benefit from something, or the size of it’s so large. I think in most of the interesting cases, I think our profession has been so damaged overall by professional economics, by the Benthamite calculus. I went back and read — went back, I hadn’t read it before — I went and read Bentham in the last year. Have you read any Bentham?
COWEN: Of course. I’m a big Bentham fan, though I’m not at all a pure utilitarian. Even on issues such as gay rights, or animal welfare, or monetary theory, or usury laws, or tariffs, he’s a fantastic thinker and economist . . .
ROBERTS: How about the designated hitter? You’re showing his incredible breadth.
COWEN: I don’t think Bentham wrote about the designated hitter.
ROBERTS: No, I didn’t think so.
COWEN: I disliked it in baseball, but that’s maybe a topic for another podcast.
ROBERTS: It is, but I have to ask, do you still dislike it? You’re still anti-DH?
COWEN: I’ve become neutral only in the sense that I stopped caring about baseball, so I would be anti-DH.
ROBERTS: Why have you stopped caring about baseball? You haven’t moved to Israel. What’s the story?
COWEN: I’ve moved to other places, and it’s too time consuming. It’s hard to watch in chunks. I think it’s a less efficient game than it used to be.
ROBERTS: They’ve tried to speed it up. They’ve tried some ways to speed it up. It’s not just the total time. It’s everything. It’s not a game made for the TikTok generation, for sure. I don’t mean to imply that you’re a TikTok person.
COWEN: Or even the YouTube generation, right?
ROBERTS: Exactly. Going back to Bentham. I haven’t read a lot of Bentham, but I’m surprised at how little he has to say. He gives you this overarching theory that we can take all of our pains and pleasures. It’s very important to emphasize this. The pleasures aren’t just physical pleasures, not just about gluttony or animal drives. He understands pride, and he understands satisfactions are more ethereal, and other kinds. But he gets into a problem, which is that after a while, when you start adding them all up, you can’t add them up anymore. They can’t really be quantified. He was, as far as I understand — and I’d be curious to get your take on this — he never could solve that problem.
He was constantly — we try to solve it as economists through money — not literally money, but by putting a monetary value. In the next five minutes, Tyler, I’m going to say something embarrassing about your past that I’ve discovered. I could ask you — it’s just an example, Tyler; I don’t really know anything. I can’t imagine there’s anything embarrassing. Suppose I knew something about you, and I said “Tyler,” before the show, I said, “I’m thinking of saying this. How much would you pay me not to say it? I’m not going to collect the bribe.”
I’m blackmailing you in that story. The way economists use the utilitarian framework is everything’s a form of that calculus. The Grand Canyon, the view of the Grand Canyon, is that a monetary transaction? Of course not, but we can ask the question, how much would you pay to be able to continue to see the Grand Canyon for the rest of your life? How much would you pay for your children to be able to see it?
In that way, I can trade that off in theory against other things and create a scale. The problem with that scale, of course, is every good economist knows — and many bad ones don’t — is that the scale depends on how much money you have. It’s not a real scale of pleasure and pain. It’s a scale for me. My ability then to compare my cost and benefits to yours is, I think, zero. As economists, we don’t like that. We want to aggregate. We want to be able to say, “This is good policy because the net gains are positive,” or “This is a bad policy. The net gains are negative.” Do you agree with that? I think it’s horrible.
COWEN: I would put it this way: Insofar as we can aggregate — and to make a choice, a policy choice, you have to aggregate in some manner — but I think we aggregate by making moral judgements about different kinds of well-being. In this sense, utilitarianism is parasitic on nonutilitarian moral theories about which pleasures and pains we count, and for how much, and even how we understand what pleasure is. There’s not a simple physiological definition as a unidimensional measurable variable. It’s all, to me, parasitic on pluralistic moral value theory, which makes me not a Benthamite.
ROBERTS: That’s well said.
COWEN: I think Mill understood this about Bentham. Bentham’s utilitarianism is the weakest part of his philosophy, but I think he’s a wonderful thinker. If you read more of him, you’d be very impressed.
ROBERTS: I’m going to let you create a reading list for me. Not a very long one, Tyler, though. You can give me 25 pages to start with that I may have missed. I want to just go back to that for a second if I could. Since it’s my program, and — well, it’s not really; it’s ours today. I’m semi-host today, but I want to ask you this. When I think about marriage — and my adviser is Gary Becker, his theories of marriage, his mathematical models of marriage — do you think it’s a reasonable thought to compare two people as potential mates for yourself, oneself?
In other words, let’s suppose a person’s considering two different spouses, and you choose one, and they’re willing to marry you. As economists, we say, “There’s revealed preference. You picked the one you thought was better for you.” How would you begin to conceptualize what “better” means in that context? I think the risk, and I think that the easy way to think about it is more fun. Fun broadly defined, meaning day-to-day life will be better with this person than the other person. That’s my expectation.
I think that’s a bizarre — the more where I’ve thought about this — I’m happily married. But this book I’m writing next, called Wild Problems, is about this kind of challenge. Is it really a meaningful statement, in the sense that there are so many different aspects of marriage and life, and all kind of choices we make like this, that aren’t about just what it’s like to be around them? It includes things like pride, it includes things like sense of purpose, includes things like meaning.
When I take a job, obviously I don’t take the job that pays the most, necessarily. I take the job that I think will be the best, meaning a mix of nonmonetary and monetary benefit. Is it really a meaningful statement if one job gives me a huge amount of pride, and the other I’m embarrassed about? Do I really think I can trade those off and put a number on those? Ultimately, this Benthamite calculus to me is about this idea that we could put a scaler, a single number, after we’ve aggregated everything up. I think that’s a false claim.
COWEN: Here’s how I would put that tension. With so many choices — including having kids — you’re choosing, what kind of person do you want to be?
COWEN: Which is fine — identity. Once you have two different possible persons you could be, two or more, which of those gets to do the ordinal choosing? That’s indeterminate. That’s another reason why I think pure utilitarianism, whether of the cardinal or ordinal variety, is self-undercutting. It needs to pull in values from outside of the utility itself.
ROBERTS: We talked about this on the program with L. A. Paul, talking about the vampire problem. Before you’re a vampire, it looks pretty grotesque. After you’re a vampire, it’s fantastic. What I’m suggesting in my new book is that it might be fantastic. Her conclusion is that the rationale is ill defined. Mine is, “But I don’t want to be a vampire. It’s gross.” [chuckles] I don’t care how fantastic I think it’s going to be. You get to live forever, I think, if you play your cards right. I just think we bring, as you say, other value systems into that calculus, which makes it — I like that phrase, undercuts it.
COWEN: I have a very easy question for you now. If there’s a conflict between the ethnic religious identity of Israel and the democratic nature of Israel, what philosophic standard do you apply to resolve that conflict? Easiest question of the hour, right?
ROBERTS: You just flip a coin, I think. I talk about that in the book also, by the way. There’s a beautiful poem by Piet Hein where he says — and I’ve heard other people say — “You flip the coin so that you’ll know what to root for. That tells you what you really want.” Piet Hein was a great scientist, thinker, mathematician. Here’s this guy saying, “Flip the coin so you can find out what your gut is really hoping for, and use that to make the decision.” That’s part of what I’m interested in for this book. I think there’s a really interesting tension that you’re identifying, especially for a religious person. I don’t want to live in theocracy, Jewish or otherwise.
I’m a big believer in competition to make the world a better place, under some constraints of course. Israel has — was it 30 years ago? Thirty years ago, everybody knew that Israel was going to struggle to stay a Jewish state because birth rates were low among the Jewish population. They were high among the Arab Israeli population. Soon, Israel will be in this weird predicament of being a Jewish state where the Jews are a minority. People did not foresee the fall of the Soviet Union and the influx of millions of Russian Jews into Israel. Israel’s really avoided the existential threats that would require a very, very nondemocratic response.
It’s not a democratic place like America. Any Jew can come live here, if they can prove that they’re Jewish — but much harder if you’re not. I’m a big fan of open borders, but I do want there to be a Jewish state. There’s an inconsistency there, for me, that’s somewhat troubling. But I’m happy to maintain that, the ethnic religious character that you referred to as a Jewish state. I have to say that it used to be, when I was growing up, “That’s pleasant. It’s nice to have a Jewish state.” In the last 10 years, the last 5 years, I’ve actually thought, there really has to be a Jewish state.
We actually were living in a world where anti-Semitism was unimaginable 20 years ago. It’s now increasingly common or not surprising. I think it’s scary. The so-called Jewish question: What’s the Jews’ role in the world when they’re a citizen of another country? It’s back, and hard to imagine. I’m shocked by it.
Are you surprised by that? I know it doesn’t touch you the way it touches me or my children, but are you surprised that anti-Semitism is actually — people get killed for being Jews in the United States? Weird. Didn’t think it could happen. Doesn’t happen very often. I’m not paranoid about it, but it’s surprising it happens at all.
COWEN: I would just say I have worked very hard over the last 20 years to try to root out recency bias in my expectations. Fewer bad things surprise me than used to, is how I would put it, because if you look at broader history, it’s a pretty common event, as are many other bad things. We suffer from recency bias. We think what we’ve seen over the 20 or 30 years where the centrality of our own growing up happened is somehow special, but it’s not.
ROBERTS: Tomorrow will be like yesterday, until it isn’t. I’m curious. I got way overexcited about fairness and way overexcited about driverless cars. Is that the same phenomenon? Meaning, all the hype and excitement that this was different, that they’d solved this problem, that there was going to be this new world. I’d call it more of an optimism bias. I wanted to believe that we’d solved, improved, transformed. Did you fall prey to that?
COWEN: I think you were right to be excited about driverless vehicles. They’re not going to revolutionize the world tomorrow, but I think that will happen within our lifetimes in a significant way. On fairness, though, I just wasn’t paying that much attention to. I have become successively less skeptical about longevity research, I would say that. I think it’s a long, slow haul and a tough slog, so I don’t have a utopian vision there. I think there’s so much talent now working on those problems, we’ll make some progress on them. Those would be my two responses.
ROBERTS: It’s hard to know. There were so many smart people — and I just got swept up in the excitement — so many smart people who said within three years we’re going to have driverless cars — 35,000 lives saved because there won’t be any deaths on the highway. True, there might be a few more pedestrians killed, but it’s going to be a huge advantage for improvement in human life. I think the technical problems there turned out to be quite a bit more daunting. I think a different kind of bias is we just assume that technology and focus will solve anything. Often it does — amazing. Getting a vaccine in a weekend, that was a great moment of human achievement. So many other things turned out to be harder.
COWEN: Let me ask you another super easy question. Let’s say we think that under current circumstances, a two-state solution would not lead to security either for Israel or for the resulting Palestinian state. Many people believe that. Let’s say also, as I think you believe, that a one-state solution where everyone votes would not lead to security for a current version of Israel or even a modified version of it.
Let’s say also that the current reliance of the Palestinian territories on the state of Israel for protection, security, intelligence, water — many important features of life — prevent those governing bodies from ever attaining sufficient autonomy to be a credible peace partner, guaranteer of its own security, and so on. From that point of view, what do we do? We’re not utilitarians. We’re thinking about what’s right and wrong. What’s the right thing to do?
ROBERTS: There’s an expression from the Talumd, “to answer something on one foot,” because you can’t stand on one foot for very long. For some people it means you get 30 seconds. There’s some baseball pitchers who could probably stand on one foot for an hour or two, but it usually means — you want me to answer this on one foot. Of course, there’s no answer. I mentioned Micah Goodman a minute ago for his book, The Wondering Jew. He has another fascinating book called Catch-67, which explores the contradictions and inconsistencies with different worldviews toward the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in an incredibly thoughtful way.
I recommend that book. It’s the best book you can read about what’s going on here politically and intellectually and emotionally. It’s a phenomenal book. Even though part of his insight is it’s wrong to look for a solution — if I remember the book correctly; I read it quickly — but think about ways to live with it. Think about ways to make life better. Think about ways to move toward improvement rather than fixing it. I think the American foreign policy establishment has spent the last decades just trying to fix it. It may not be fixable. It’s hard to admit that as a rational person. It’s hard to admit it as a person who lives here.
By the way, I should just mention, people have hurt me in the last month saying, “Is it scary here? Would you be afraid to raise your children there if you had young children?” It’s an incredible place to raise children. Children here run free without fear. They play in a way that American children used to be allowed to play. I played that way growing up; it’s still true here. There’s very little crime on the streets, very little street crime, very little theft, very little burglary and so on. There’s the threat of terrorism. You’re much more likely to get stabbed in Jerusalem than you are in New York City. Of course, it’s not common, thank God, at least of right now, but it’s serious.
Then you got Iran. As I alluded to earlier, it’s a tough neighborhood. I think it behooves — if I may use a word that’s out of fashion — it behooves us all to think about ways to both reduce the security threat to Israel, and to improve the lives of the people who, of course in the West Bank, in Gaza and elsewhere, who — they’re not very good democracies, even though sometimes there are elections. I don’t necessarily believe that the person on the street there is being — I don’t know what their attitudes are. They can’t give an honest answer, out of fear, so I wouldn’t rely on survey data.
I think there’s certainly a lot of people in those parts of the world — our neighbors here, our cousins, just want to lead a normal life and have a better life for their children, like most people aspire to. How do you improve that? I would love to have more commercial interaction, although I agree with you that trade is not a panacea. Or does that mean it is a panacea? I can’t remember; I have trouble with that word. I think there used to be more commercial interaction between the Palestinian population and Israel because it was more peaceful.
Now that the threat of terrorism is aired, Israel’s rolled off its borders to those neighborhoods and those parts of the world, to Gaza, because it’s scary. That’s tragedy. They live horribly there. It’s a very tough place to live, Gaza. Egypt’s not very nice to them either, by the way. They have a closed border with Egypt. I think the challenge is to find ways — the real problem right now is that Israel doesn’t have a negotiating partner who thinks that Israel has a right to exist, so Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. It’s hard to imagine a two-state solution with that.
How do you improve things along the way? I think you look for ways to do some commercial interaction. I think the other thing reminds me a little bit of — I’ll say it this way. This is the Middle East. There are cultural norms here that are not the same as in America. I think a lot of Americans have no understanding of that. Certainly American Jews don’t. I don’t think American negotiators understand it so well, probably, the role that pride, face, dignity plays — as opposed to, say, narrow self-interest, narrowly defined. I think it’s much greater for those other intangible things. Personally, I’d like to see Israel try a different move toward normalcy.
I also understand that I’m naïve and have only lived here six months, and have very little thoughtful to say about that that I would want anyone to pay attention to, because it’s a different neighborhood than where I came from in Maryland. It’s not easily understood. What might be seen as a generous gesture in Maryland might be seen differently here, and vice versa. Something that’s harsh in Maryland might be seen very differently here. Israelis have their own cultural baggage, not just that they’re part of this Middle Eastern culture, that they share to some extent with their neighbors.
Israelis are very proud of their self-reliance. I’ll tell you a story. I once — again, I’ve only been here six months, but this is an old story; it tells you something. I’m flying out of JFK. I have to get to Israel to visit one of my kids who’s studying here for the year, this special program for the parents. It’s a small window for me to get here in time to enjoy the program with my son. JFK, every flight’s cancelled, it’s snowing, just this relentless hour after hour blanketing the city. I leave midtown Manhattan to go to JFK. My flight on El Al, the Israeli airline, is still not cancelled somehow, but the cab can’t go faster than 20 miles an hour.
There’s no one on the road. Our cab’s the only car on the road. Takes us about 45 minutes or an hour to get to JFK at 20 miles an hour. I get to the desk to check my bags. They asked me the security questions, which El Al does differently than anybody else. They take my bag. I get to the front desk to get my boarding pass, and they say, “Can I help you?” I said, “Yes, I’m on flight such and such.” I said, “We’re not leaving tonight, are we? We’re not really going to fly in this? This flight’s going to be canceled, isn’t it? I’m two hours early, and it’s still going to keep snowing the whole time.”
She looks at me and she says, “Our pilots, they’re all from the Israeli Air Force. The rule here is it’s the pilot’s call. They can decide they’re uncomfortable flying and cancel a flight at any time.” She said, “As long as the airport’s open, we’re going to fly, because those pilots, they’re going to fly. They’re confident that they can fly through that storm.” There’s something beautiful about that. Something scary. [chuckles] I was really excited because I wanted to get to see my son, but just thinking, “I don’t know if that’s always my mentality.”
That’s the Israeli mentality. “We’ll get it done. We’ll take care of it. It’ll work out.” We’re joking a lot. Not joking, but we’re talking around these issues of bluntness and this culture here, but there’s a vitality and national pride here that’s so missing in America these days. I’m very worried about the future of America. It’s a different set of worries here, but they’re not bad worries relative to what America’s dealing with, it feels like. Are you optimistic about the future of America as a country?
COWEN: I would put it this way. I’m increasingly optimistic about economic issues, technological issues, and even American democracy, contrary to most people. I am increasingly worried about the possible collapse of geopolitical stability in places such as Taiwan, Ukraine, parts of Africa. I’m not sure if I’m optimistic or pessimistic as a whole. I’m relatively optimistic about North America compared to the rest of the world.
ROBERTS: Yes, you are.
COWEN: Because it’s geopolitically secure, right?
ROBERTS: Because it can’t be invaded. It’s hard to invade.
COWEN: Not readily. It has enough of its own resources. If we were cut off, we would, in different ways, manage.
ROBERTS: Of course, we could destroy ourselves from within. I’m now putting my American passport — I’m still an American citizen also. We could destroy ourselves from within. Are you worried about that?
COWEN: I always ask people, “Are you short the market?” They never say yes; there’s a lot of hemming and hawing. I think it’s become a kind of protective talisman to over-worry about American democracy because people feel angst about the content of what it’s producing, which a lot of that I would agree with. I think it will continue. An American democracy has looked and sounded ugly for most of its history, getting back to recency bias.
ROBERTS: Great example.
COWEN: Maybe it sounded better in the ’80s and ’90s, but for American democracy to be lunacy is, in fact, part of our history. Let me close with two final questions. One is super easy. The other is very hard. Easy question.
ROBERTS: Can I have the easy one first? [laughs]
ROBERTS: Maybe we’ll run out of time.
COWEN: It seems to me, Israel faces a pending or even current shortage of unskilled labor, and is also committed to the idea of being a Jewish state. Countries like Switzerland, that I never thought would take in a lot of outsiders, have done so because it makes economic sense. How will Israel address this question? That’s the easy one.
ROBERTS: That’s the easy one. Oh, great. Oh, no. [laughs]
COWEN: Is everything going to be robots and driverless cars? But you don’t believe in those anymore. Who does all the work?
ROBERTS: I think robots are pretty powerful, but we’re not going to have driverless cars for a while. We’re going to still have drivers. Again, I’m a newcomer. There’s a lot of debate here that I’ve not paid close attention to before I arrived about immigrants from other countries. There’s a lot of people here from Asia who do some of the jobs that Israelis don’t want to do at market wages here. There’s people from Eritrea and other places. It’s really a national identity issue that the Israeli people will work out through their really complicated — and not so, perhaps, robust — democracy, pretty robust. It’s 70 years now, which is pretty amazing, heading toward 75.
I think it’s a bit of a fallacy — I know you don’t subscribe to it, but a lot of people do — that if we don’t import workers to do those jobs, no one will do them. That’s not true. What will happen is, if you have something of a market economy, the wages rise, and they become more attractive to the native population. Immigrants aren’t needed. Some of the things, if the prices rise so much, they won’t be done anymore. People won’t want them at those higher prices it would take to pay for those services.
There’s a temptation always to look for the efficient solution, the one that’s financially wise, but there are other aspects. I think Brexit and other decisions that populations are making in the modern world are a view that there are things more important than money. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. I think, as I’ve said before, a good economist understands that; a bad economist focuses on it.
An episode — I don’t know when it’s coming out. It might come out before this. I think it’s now coming out. I can’t remember. I think it’s before this — with Megan McArdle on Roger Scruton’s book Where We Are, which is about the role that place plays in our emotional well-being and our heart and our decision-making. I think those things are really important. People care a lot about them, especially here in Israel. Their connection to the land, their connection to their country, their sense of identity that we alluded to earlier, that I think is extremely important here. I think Israel will make the decision. They might be willing to pay a price.
Israelis might be willing to pay a higher price for a bunch of stuff to have it done by Israeli sources or not get done at all. America’s got that same issue. It’s the same challenge. A lot of people like the idea of inexpensive fruit and vegetables picked by inexpensive labor, home repairs done by inexpensive labor — all immigrant, often illegal, perhaps. A lot of people like that. A lot of people like what comes with that, which is more interesting life, more interesting types of people, but some people don’t like it. The fact that they’re going to pay a higher price for some things — that doesn’t surprise me, that they’re willing to make that tradeoff.
COWEN: Here’s the hard question. It’s hard because you actually have to solve it. In your new job, what is your next task?
ROBERTS: That’s an easy question, Tyler.
COWEN: But you have to do it. That’s much harder than the others.
ROBERTS: I don’t have to do it by myself, and I don’t have to pretend I understand something I don’t understand, like preventing warfare among people who’ve been fighting for a long time, tragically. The thing I really have to do is that in about one hour, we have our first gala dinner here of alumni, which we haven’t had because of COVID.
It’s an amazing thing right now in Israel. This is December 2021. We’ve closed our borders to the United States, which means that my youngest son can’t come visit us for winter break like he planned to. A lot of people can’t come to their kids’, their grandchildren’s lifecycle events.
Until, I’d say, about a month ago, when Omicron was just a glint in somebody’s eye or throat, people here were living a totally normal life. It’s just totally normal. We have these mask mandates, like on the buses you’re supposed to wear a mask. Even the driver’s not wearing his mask. Excuse me, they’re all wearing it; nobody’s wearing it over their nose and mouth — very few. The older people are, generally, but the younger people are either wearing it under their chin, maybe a little over their mouth, but not their nose.
I think with Omicron, the level of anxiety has risen here, some. I assume it’s risen there where you are as well. We’ve got a gala dinner tonight. There’s going to be 125 alums of this place. We’ve only had five years of graduates. That’s the first thing I’m doing, but that’s not really your question. What am I doing that I can share that’s not too secretive or important? I’ll tell you another thing we’re doing, which is glorious. Leon Kass is our new dean of faculty. He’s 82. He taught the great books at the University of Chicago and St John’s for over three decades, often with his wife, Amy, who’s passed on but who is an incredible teacher also.
Leon’s just an incredible visionary, educationally. One of the thrills of this job is sitting in on the faculty colloquium which he started, and listening to my colleagues, my faculty members — I like saying my, our faculty members — talk about a text that they love. We have a faculty member, Assaf Inbari. He’s a great Israeli novelist, at least I hope so. I can’t read his books; they’re in Hebrew, they haven’t been translated yet. But they’re popular, I think, among the right people.
Anyway, he taught a class last week and a half ago. He chose a poem by Yeats. The poem was “After Long Silence.” I am a Yeats fan. I love Yeats. I picked up this poem. I looked at it, and I thought, “I’ve no idea what this poem’s about. It’s trouble.” Then I read it again before the colloquium; I didn’t get anything out of it again. For 90 minutes, we studied it with other faculty members from all different departments. I got some light, a lot of light, actually. It’s a beautiful poem.
It doesn’t have much rhythm to it. Its rhythm is disjointed. Some lines are iambic pentameter, some aren’t. Assaf said, “This is Yeats. Don’t you think he did that on purpose? You don’t like the rhythm of the poem, maybe you ought to think about whether this is part of the poem.” It was an amazing, glorious experience. That’s my favorite thing about working here — that and going to choir practice with the students here and pretending I can sing. I’m looking forward to seeing them tonight. It’s a cheap ducking of your question, but it’s best I can do, I think.
COWEN: Russ Roberts, thank you very much.
ROBERTS: Thank you, Tyler.