Hello everyone, I am Tyler Cowen, Holbert L. Harris Chair of Economics at George Mason University.  I serve as chairman and faculty director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. With my colleague Alex Tabarrok, I coauthor the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution and am cofounder of the online educational platform Marginal Revolution University.

I have authored several bestselling books, as well as publishing widely in academic journals and the popular media. My latest book is Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the WorldSome of my other well-known books include The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better and Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals. I write a regular column for Bloomberg View, and am host of Conversations with Tyler, a popular podcast series featuring today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between. In 2019, Patrick Collison and I authored We Need A New Science  of Progress.

Ask me anything! I will answer a selection of questions on Tuesday, January 17. 

Use the comments below to add questions, and upvote any questions you'd particularly like me to answer.

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Many of the movements you are involved in and praise (e.g econ and EA) use online writing/blogging to communicate and generate new ideas.

Will this continue in recognizable form despite AIs surpassing human skill at writing? Are the young people who are investing in this skill learning how to use the hand powered loom in 1800?

3Tyler Cowen15dThe skill of the operator will remain paramount, see my book Average is Over. I don't view LLMs as substitutes for human beings, not for most tasks. Think of them instead as servants you can embed in your work flows. Writers and public intellectuals who are good at that will do very very well. Of course those skilled at that task are probably a very different set of people than those who have been succeeding to date.

Some ~12 years after the book, what are your thoughts on the Great Stagnation? (Asking more about the phenomenon of stagnation and less for thoughts on the book itself.) How has this played out? Have your predictions held up? What will stagnation look like going forward?

1Tyler Cowen16dSee this column for my take: https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-12-24/2020-in-review-maybe-it-wasn-t-quite-as-horrible-as-it-seemed?sref=htOHjx5Y [https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-12-24/2020-in-review-maybe-it-wasn-t-quite-as-horrible-as-it-seemed?sref=htOHjx5Y] My prediction in 2011 was that the Great Stagnation would end within twenty years, so far to me that is looking correct.

You are well-known for your love of food, cuisine and dining, both as a diner and as a cook. Has your deep relationship with food informed or substantiated how you think about progress and progress studies? 

3Tyler Cowen15dSTudying food markets shows that progress is possible! It shows the importance of immigration. The diversity of quarters from which innovation comes. Not all sectors are like food markets, but it is one very good place to start. And food markets give you a very good chance to chat with very smart people who are not college-educated.

By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries.

Since writing We Need A New Science of Progress, a number of intellectuals have started to work on Progress Studies writ large. Which areas of progress do you think the movement underrates, or are in the need of more attention?

4Tyler Cowen15dWell, it all needs more attention. Science policy is one area that has gained in attention the most, but perhaps it is still the most underrated? Or how about serious engagement with the histories of East Asia? Ireland for that matter? Current Poland? Fortunately, the Industrial Revolution is relatively well-studied, though those works should be much better know and taught more generally.

What role should biography play in progress studies? What do you think of the “Great Man Theory of History”? Should economists write more biographies?

2Tyler Cowen16dEvery economist should write a biography or two! Biographies cast a pretty severe light on what you can and cannot explain. Most things you cannot explain and choice is so often idiosyncratic. The Great Man Theory seems underrated to me. Take away Napoleon, Lenin, or Hitler, and a lot seems veyr different. So maybe we should call it "The Evil Man" theory... The good individuals matter less, at least as individuals!?
1Henry Oliver15dI think there are “good” people, or at least influential non-evil people, who fit the theory. Jesus is an obvious one. What about Martin Luther, Michaelangelo, Copernicus. Hero worship today is associated with tribalism but perhaps progress needs more heros and disciples?
1Tyler Cowen15dAgree, but of course it is easier to destroy than to create...

Are you excited about Charter Cities for more progress? I.e. not charter cities in developed countries as a kind of developmental anti global powerty intervention. I mean highly developed charter cities meant for rich well educated ppl to live there. Those CCs could implement all the cool progress movement ideas. E.g. they could be a heaven for biomedical companies wanting to do human challenge trials. They could test out land value tax schemes, or different voting mechanisms and other, more effective forms of government.

What's the lowest-hanging fruit you see in Progress Studies? What are the research topics or programs that are sitting there, waiting on the right people? If it's important to the answer, who are the right people?

2Tyler Cowen15dImproving science policy? I wrote a bit more about this in another answer. Maybe Heidi Williams will lead the charge. I am optimistic.

Are current US rates of growth and disruption enough to keep protectionist interest groups from outpacing innovation (#MancurOlson)? Comparing your 2003 work and present work, it seems, at least to me, that your sense of how culture works has changed, namely the extent to which culture and individuals are elastic. What's your current view here?

2Tyler Cowen15dOur market is large enough, and there are enough foreign sources of competition and innovation, that yes I think this will work out OK. It is just that we could do so, so much better.
1Tyler Cowen15dThe degree of federalism in the United States helps as well. I see more decisions and functions of government devolving to the states and even cities. That introduces more political competition into the American system.

What should we do to ensure capital allocators (VC, etc) begin to care more about stagnation? I believe we have enough evidence at this point that when interest rates are low and there are fast growing companies with 80% gross margins (a relatively ahistoric phenomenon) - many capital allocators will optimize for book value mark ups and liquidity as opposed to backing enduring productivity growth bets. Perhaps Marc Andreessen's "It's time to build" blog post led to an early zeitgeist shift here - what should we do next? 

1Tyler Cowen15dI think it suffices if they simply care about their profit. Ideally, VCs would speak up more for progress, but a lot of them are already pretty good on these issues. They are far from the problem. It is all the other interest groups that I worry about.

Are you more of a hedgehog or a fox? (In Isaiah Berlin / Archilochus terminology: “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.”)

Are you more of a bird or a frog? (In Freeman Dyson terminology: “Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas … out to the far horizon. They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one a... (read more)

2Tyler Cowen15dThe one big thing I know is that I know many things. And I am a bird.

Ignoring the possibility of crazy AI stuff, will economists 'solve' development economics in the next 100 years?

2Tyler Cowen15dNope. That was easy!
2Tyler Cowen15dDevelopment has a lot to do with culture, and "culture" as a problem never will be solved. And new technologies change which features of a country are most important for development. Will "manufacture plus export" ever be so important again as it was for Japan and Korea? Doubtful, at least not anytime soon. Poland has been going a very different route. Expect something quite different again from the parts of Africa which succeed.

Do the GPTs constitute >10% of the AI capabilities progress (set zero at just before AlexNet) necessary for automating most of the science R&D process?

2Tyler Cowen15dActual R&D involves so much interface with the real world, I fear that AIs will have a tough time there. So much of R&D is like "gardening." AI will be a significant aide to us, but the humans will remain paramount in those endeavors. Important aides, but complements to us, not some means of replacing us. Thus it is hard to give a percentage.
2Tyler Cowen15dWe are not close to that in my view. Not close to ten percent even.

Dear Tyler, I have 2 related questions about developing countries. 

Russia and China are considered to be the least religious countries - for example only 4 % Russians regularly go to the church. Do you think there is a connection between the lack of religion and the authoritarian form of government Russia and China seem to revert to every time they have a chance?

 

And another question – it seems that as soon as some developing countries arrive at some higher income levels, instead of keep improving the lives of their citizens, they try to go for some historical grandeur theme. Russia, Turkey, China, Ethiopia. Will we see the same happening in India – will they try to restore a Mauryan empire?

1Tyler Cowen15dRussia was authoritarian in earlier times when it was also more religious. (Plus I think that number under-measures current Russian religiosity.) Maybe authoritarian family structure is one underlying reason? Never have been ruled by the Roman Empire also seems important? India is already trying a version of that with Hindu Nationalism, yes.

Is the ability to automate most of the scientific R&D process a necessary component of transformative AI that meaningfully accelerates economic growth? If not, what do these intermediate abilities look like?

2Tyler Cowen15dThe short- and also medium-run impact of AI will be to dramatically improve workflows for the five (?) percent or so of those who will know how to work with it. A long time before aggregate productivity measures as much higher! Like both computers and the internet. The more important thing is that we now see that the key breakthroughs are possible.

I would think that computers being orders of magnitude better than humans would diminish interest in chess, but that does not seem to be the case.

Human chess seems to be more popular than ever. What’s driving that? Is it a fad?

1Tyler Cowen15dIn fact I think computers are the main reason why the game is so much more popular. It gives almost everyone access to what is going on in the board -- that was previously unavailable. and you know exactly how your favorite player is doing. Imagine if we had to watch NBA games without knowing the score! That was pre-computer chess for most observers.
1Tyler Cowen15dWe love watching the commenting computers tell us where the human is going wrong. There is a lesson in that!

What do you think Effective Altruism 1) gets right and 2) is important?

What do you think Effective Altruism 1) gets wrong and 2) is important?

Emerson: overrated or underrated?

Why is David Foster Wallace overrated?

What will the world look like when we get our flying cars? 

Related: Does the theory that low impact regulations can have a super-additive impact on productivity hold muster? When I was reading "Where's My Flying Car?", the book claimed regulations reduced GDP growth by a massive amount, and I read about the foregoing theory when I went digging in the literature.

Should modernisation theory receive more attention in critiques and apologetics of economic development?

1Tyler Cowen15d"Theory" in general is out of style these days. Insights of modernisation theory might end up being tested, but as a "theory" I don't think it will make a comeback. Somehow there is too much academic hyperspecialization for that to happen, and it increasingly seems like the approach of a bygone era. And to be clear, I still have some sympathies for that bygone era, even if most of its hypotheses were wrong.

Thanks for doing this!

What is the most important domain for which talent is just not very important?

2Tyler Cowen15dFarting?

In your book on Talent you mention “crystallising experiences” in the last chapter. Do you have any ideas how people might generate these “synthetically” for themselves, I.e. get themselves to experience certain possibilities as vivid and real without any external input?

1Tyler Cowen15dBuild out your "small group" and also your mentors! Raises the likelihood of this then happening spontaneously.

To what extent is fieldwork underrated by economists? I feel it is quite so because it captures things that numbers often lose (eg nuance) and context that is hard to get without it. IMO i

t shouldn't be the best form of evidence, but definitely a starting point in it

2Tyler Cowen15dThe researcher also learns a great deal doing fieldwork that is not learned sitting at the PC, or whatever. That makes field work all the more underrated.

How do the returns to high verbal intelligence change if AI gains the writing abilities of the median NYT opinion writer? How should people whose comparative advantage is in writing prepare for this?

2Tyler Cowen15dPossible answer: The returns to high verbal intelligence will not necessarily fall if AI gains the writing abilities of the median NYT opinion writer, but they will become more heterogeneous and dependent on the context and purpose of writing. AI may be able to generate coherent, grammatical, and persuasive prose on a variety of topics, but it may not be able to capture the nuances, subtleties, and originality of human expression, nor the emotional, ethical, and aesthetic dimensions of writing. Moreover, AI may not be able to adapt to changing audience preferences, cultural norms, and rhetorical situations, nor to respond to feedback, criticism, and dialogue. Therefore, human writers who can leverage their high verbal intelligence to produce more creative, engaging, and distinctive writing will still have a significant advantage over AI, especially in domains that require more personal, emotional, or artistic communication, such as fiction, poetry, memoir, humor, or criticism. However, human writers who rely on conventional, formulaic, or generic writing may face more competition and lower returns from AI, especially in domains that require more factual, analytical, or informative communication, such as news, reports, essays, or reviews. People whose comparative advantage is in writing should prepare for this scenario by developing and honing their unique voice.
2Pradyumna15dUnrelated to the accuracy of this, it feels ChatGPT generated. If so, we'll played

Cowen writes...

"For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up."

Can you please explain why the goal should be to speed up the knowledge explosion?  

We already have thousands of massive hydrogen bombs aimed down our own throats, an ever present existential threat that we typically consider too boring to bother discussing, perhaps because we haven't the slightest clue how to rid ourselves of these weapons.    And so, we're ... (read more)

1Tyler Cowen15dI observe more people migrating to the high-technology countries than away from them...poor countries are hardly safe and secure...
1TannyTalk15dWell, nobody claimed that poor countries are safe and secure. The claim is that high technology countries are not safe and secure, and that speeding up the knowledge explosion will make them ever less safe and secure. Trying to understand the dynamics of progress is great. If we are assuming without questioning that speeding up the knowledge explosion should obviously be our goal, then we have not yet understood the dynamics of progress. What we are witnessing is an engineering failure of historic proportions. That is, we are failing to take in to account all relevant factors in our design of this technological society. We love the story that we are brilliant, so we cling to that, willfully ignoring that we are instead a very immature culture bordering on insane. What other word should we use to describe anyone who has a loaded gun in their mouth and is bored by the gun???

What US state are you most optimistic about, with regards to progress, development, YIMBYism, investment, higher education, and so on?

What about pessimistic?

In e.g. 50 years, what states do you think will have trended upwards vs. downwards from now?

1Tyler Cowen15dI think all states will be much better off in 50 years time. Maybe it is the Midwest that is currently underrated? Lots of great cultural roots there. Currently it is the moment for Florida and Texas, but I wouldn't say I have a very specific prediction for fifty years out, that is a long time away.
1TannyTalk15dThe population of Florida is now 7 times larger than it was when I was born in the early 50s. A thousand people move here every day. Florida is still a place of incredible beauty... https://www.tannytalk.com/s/nature [https://www.tannytalk.com/s/nature] ...but in 50 years it will likely look a lot like New Jersey. I'm happy to report that I will be dead then, and won't have to witness the destruction of one of the most wonderful places on Earth.

Post Dobbs and the fall of Roe v Wade, what should society do about the problem of unwanted pregnancies?

Who was your mentor?

1Tyler Cowen15dWalter Grinder was my very first mentor, I met him when I was 13 or 14 years old. He showed me what a life of reading could look like. But I've had many other mentors along the way, Thomas Schelling being one of the most famous of those, Derek Parfit too. Fischer Black. I don't have a good answer to the pregnancies question...
1Simon Weatherfield13dThat's what I thought your answer was going to be. Thanks.

Do you think is there more low hanging fruit in implementing policies that improve the plus side of Wealth Plus, or the wealth side?

What are some of your top suggestions on how society can enhance the Plus side of the equation in the current political and social climate? 

At the margin, do you think developed countries like Canada would increase Wealth Plus by decreasing average annual labour hours (ie increasing statutory minimum vacation/reducing work week) ?

2Tyler Cowen15dI see fixing mental illness as the number one priority here...that would boost both wealth and wealth plus, though probably the latter by more.

Could you give a prediction of the form "in 2040, there will exist people which are more efficient at skill X than the best AI models" in which you are more confident than not? What about 2030 or 2050?

(Don't take this in bad faith, I have no intention of going back and mocking anyone's predictions; but there is very useful signal in correct answers and I'm curious why more people don't offer takes on this.)

2Tyler Cowen16dI don't see the import of AI models as stand-alone skills, rather being integrated into workflows. So I am not sure the predictions would mean that much. There are plenty of skills (memory!) where "computers," broadly construed, are already much better than humans.

One of the consequences of the pandemic is a dispersion of talent and capital away from of the traditional regional economic engines.  Steve Case documented that change in his Rise of the Rest book and you spoke on Joe Londsdale's American Optimist podcast on how Austin maybe one of big beneficiaries of this change. 

To see if this is leading to a change in regional innovation we have to be able to measure it, but as I see it the traditional measures have some large flaws. 

The primary challenge is that innovation is created locally and distur... (read more)

1Tyler Cowen16dThere is so much joint production I am not sure we will get so far with this. Simply the level of wages may be a start, however.

Is cool weather an underrated factor in economic growth ? With the exception of city/states like singapore gdp per capita seems to be higher in cooler areas. If this factor has any credence will it affect your optimism about India ? 

2Tyler Cowen16dThere are papers on this which I haven't read, I would consult those most of all. India will spend a lot on A/C. Texas is doing pretty well, as is Phoenix, so I am not worried so much about heat per se.

In academia, you've said that “The incentive is to build a brick … not to build a building.” If the balance is off here, how could we reform academic incentives to get more buildings?

2Tyler Cowen16dCan't really do it! You have to hope for some crazy people with tenure bucking the system. There are always a few of those, but they will not dominate. But add to their ranks crazy untenured people who write on the internet, and then you have something real in terms of influence.

Preface: If we assume that a global zeitgeist of degrowth, anti-solutionism, pessimism, national tribalism, de-enlightenment, and de-globalization — creates a non-trivial risk to future human progress, then

Q: What might reasonably be done by the progress studies community to move the zeitgeist? Or is it too little, by too few, coming too late? It's sometimes difficult not to see the entirety of the progress movement as a drop in the ocean of doom-centric media.

2Tyler Cowen15dProgress has its own fans, namely those who drive it and benefit from it. So I think the Zeitgeist is not entirely against us. It is a better situation than it looks from the so-called "world of ideas" alone.

Is the internet and social media driving global emotion and feelings? If so, what are the main outcomes and how should we be thinking about it? 

You have previously argued that envy is local (in either Average is Over or Great Stagnation), and in a recent talk (Why do liberal democracies feel stuck) you argued that the internet is a global engine for ideas more so than before. My feeling is that in the last ~7 years emotion and feelings are more becoming global due to the internet.  An important point is that people celebrate wins far less than th... (read more)

miscellaneous fun questions:

Is the best yet to come for New Jersey?

Is the best yet to come for the Visegrad 4?

Who's the most talented Brontë sister? Best Brontë book?

Who was the most important British woman author?

Is it important for kids to play sports?

3Tyler Cowen16dNew Jersey has more talent and human capital than before, but the Northeast is much less culturally central. I would still be long New Jersey, though, for the future. The best for Visegrad 4, for human creativity, was late 19th century/early 20th century, up through the 1930s. That will never be reattained. As for living standards -- now is the peak and it will get much better yet. I don't love Jane Eyre, so I have to go with Wuthering Heights. On most important, the usual answer would be Jane Austen, but how about Mary Shelley instead? More prophetic. Virginia Woolf too, I prefer both over Austen. Maybe important to play sports for 2/3 of kids? But heterogeneity reigns!

What's your guess on which will end up increasing productivity more: the internet, or the latest AI models?

2Tyler Cowen16dI think they are complements. The internet always can take credit for the AI models, if need be. I think they are both transformative in any case, though the AI models will take a long time to boost gdp in a measurable fashion. In the short run, AI models will make the most productive people, if they are willing to experiment with AI, much more productive.