The Fire Hose

The price of admission to the first rank of economic celebrity, at least in the United States, is an introductory textbook – a means of establishing authority as a virtuoso performer over and above whatever popular appeal may be gained by other means, plus the opportunity, just possibly, to shift the focus of the entire profession slightly in one direction or another (not to mention the substantial income!) The gate is narrow.

True, Milton Friedman never wrote a textbook (though he permitted a couple of enterprising students to publish their notes on his lectures and wrote a preface).  And Robert Shiller, of Yale University, who is surely among the best-known economists of the present day, hasn’t bothered. But even superstars like Steven Levitt, of Freakonomics fame and the University of Chicago; Laura Tyson, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and former dean of the London Business School (she’s back at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley now); or Daron Acemoglu, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Econometrics Society, have been tempted to undertake the task.

Thus N. Gregory Mankiw (of Harvard), Paul Krugman (Princeton), Ben Bernanke (Princeton), Joseph Stiglitz (Columbia), John Taylor (Stanford), Robert Frank (Cornell), William Nordhaus (Yale),  Alan Blinder (Princeton), Karl “Chip” Case (Wellesley), Glenn Hubbard (Columbia Business School) and Tyler Cowen (George Mason University), to name the most prominent; and Stanley Brue (Pacific Lutheran University), Michael Parkin (University of Western Ontario) and David Colander (Middlebury), to mention less familiar but powerful brands:  all are authors of popular principles texts.

Each professor is unique. Some have partnered with a less (or more) celebrated co-author to help shoulder the load. A few have acquired ghosts to carry on with new editions, as when Bernanke became chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. All have outside interests – Mankiw and Hubbard served as advisers to George W. Bush, Krugman is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times (and has a Nobel prize); Stiglitz has written a steady stream of best-selling books (and has a Nobel, too). Taylor, still involved in monetary policy, is interested in politics, as well. Nordhaus works on climate change at the highest levels. Case invented the house price index by which the recent bubble was first measured, then by which it was burst.

Almost all, in other words, have aspired to higher callings at one time or another – all but Tyler Cowen. Sometimes Cowen, 48, seems to have nothing but outside interests, as his readers know from Marginal Revolution, the blog he writes with fellow George Mason professor Alex Tabarrok. To put it slightly differently, Cowen seems interested in nothing more than teaching economics and its place among the social sciences, except perhaps eating ethnic food; and even there, he is working on a book about the economics of eating out.

Consider Cowen’s output last week on the blog – 34 items.  Among them: entries n the the speech patterns of service employees (flight attendants, doctors, hookers, economics professors); the significance of layoffs in the futures market for greenhouse gases; the economic fallout from a recent earthquake in New Zealand; the nature of firms; the joys of cineplex-hopping; the magnitude of US war finance during World War II; the cost of high-speed rail; the role of securitization in the recent financial crisis; the efficacy of betting on one’s own ability to lose weight; the reason the Australian dollar is the fifth most-traded currency in the world; an arbitrage opportunity in the administration’s plans to stimulate business investment; the architecture he saw on his trip to Buffalo; a review of a new book about Adam Smith (plus a review of some other reviews); a notice of Economist correspondent Greg Ip’s The Little Book of Economics: How the Economy Works in the Real World; a lengthy rejoinder to fellow libertarian Bryan Caplan on education in poor countries around the world; news of Austan Goolsbee’s nomination as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers; capsule reviews of the five books he is reading this week (everything from W.G. Sebald on The Natural History of Destruction and Michal Whinston’s Lectures on Antitrust to Suzanne’s Collins’ The Hunger Games, first of a trilogy for young adults); the possible benefits of not recognizing faces (a condition known as prosopagnosia, described in an article by Oliver Sacks; a plan to sell daily permits to drive 90 miles per hour on Nevada highways; the reason that a rise in imports lowers GDP; a new paper in defense of high frequency trading; and, at intervals between the entries, a couple dozen links to other interesting items that he has read.

Cowen does other things as well. He is the director of the Mercatus Center (Latin for markets), an increasingly high-profile Washington, DC, think tank with a hefty payroll, operating under the wing of George Mason, and offering “to bridge the gap between academic research and public policy problems.” He writes a monthly column for the Sunday business section of The New York Times. He is the author of several popular books:  In Praise of Commercial Culture (1998); What Price Fame? (2000); Creative Destruction:  How Globalizations is Changing the World’s Cultures (2002); Good & Plenty: The Creative Success of American Arts Funding (2006); Discover your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist (2007); and, most recently, The Age of the Infovore: Succeeding in the Information Economy (2009, originally published as Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World).

Infovore tells the story of how Cowen came to believe that the pattern of compulsive processing of information about the economics of culture that he displays could be described as autism or its milder form, Asperger’s Syndrome. A reader had gently inquired if the habitual organizing and categorizing he displayed could be signs of the cognitive disorder.  He thought not – at first. An “[U]pper class white male who all his life felt like he belonged to the dominant group in American society was suddenly faced with the suggestion that he could be part of a minority, and a very beleaguered minority at that.”

The exchange triggered a train of self-examination, however, which led to the conclusion that, yes, he probably was somewhat autistic, or, more politely, neurologically diverse, but that the constant ordering of information in which he and others along the autistic spectrum habitually engaged was (mostly) a good thing.  It might reach “baroque, extravagant extremes,” as in the case of the five-year-old boy who spent his day reading railroad timetables. Even so, such behavior represented “a path toward many of the best rewards in life and a path toward creating your own economy and taking control of your own education and entertainment.”

Thus The Age of the Infovore is an extended meditation on creating “inner prosperity” – Buddhism, perhaps, for those with too great a propensity to over-organize their experience of the world; education for those with too little. There are other books around on what the Internet means for the way we think – Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky is one; The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, is another; and I still like The Economics of Attention in the Age of Information, by Richard Lanham. But Cowen’s is the one that examines the costs and benefits and coping strategies of being Temple Grandin or Sherlock Holmes.

The miracle, then, is that there is a text, with Alex Tabarrok, Cowen’s former student and now fellow GMU professor. No slouch himself in exposition business, Tabarrok is somewhat more traditionally focused than Cowen, but not much.  The textbook contains several of the pedagogic innovations by which authors seek to differentiate their products, including a more comprehensive treatment of catching-up and cutting-edge growth than is usual in an introductory text (more on that some other time).  The faintly libertarian air throughout – “the case for exporting pollution and importing kidneys” and various counterarguments is examined with special zest – probably justifies the joke that the sensibility of the book is “Masonomics.”   But basically it’s just another good introductory text.

For a good newspaper profile of Cowen, see this recent article by Michael Rosenwald  in The Washington Post. Cowen has been on my mind recently because of the swipe that reporter Jane Mayer took at the Mercatus Center in a widely-read article in a recent issue of The New Yorker.  Mayer is a terrific reporter. It was she who broke the story of how interrogation techniques, copied from Chinese methods in the Korean War, simulated as training during the Vietnam War to equip American soldiers to resist as captives, evolved into the methods employed thirty years later to break prisoners’ will to resist at Guantanamo Bay.

But Mayer was unconvincing in her characterizations of the Mercatus Center as little more than a cat’s paw for the wealthy and conservative Koch brothers, of Wichita, Kansas, and Manhattan. The interplay of money and ideas, right and left, is always interesting, and Mercatus’ output after 25 years is due for a thorough and independent audit, but it is hardly all the Kochs’ doing. If anything, Mercatus appears to have avoided some of the pitfalls that have made the Hoover Institution such a dependable source of irritation to Stanford University.

In short, keeping up with Tyler Cowen on a regular basis resembles drinking from a fire hose. No everyone is so infovoracious. If you wanted to review your economics some other way, for example, with a tightly focused journalistic perspective on how the big ideas in economics fail to fully capture the complexity of the world itself, you could try that Little Book of Economics: How the Economy Works in the Real World by Greg Ip.

2 responses to “The Fire Hose”

  1. As an academic economist, I am always on the lookout for web based sources and blogs that can bring current real world problems, analysis and commentary to my students to provide applications and examples of the abstracted concepts presented in texts and lectures. Since most economic policy recommendations are subject to sometimes contentious dispute, to say nothing of the correctness of hypotheses, I have tried to point the students to a variety of sources, only requiring that intellectual honesty be the criterion for selection. I define intellectual honesty, firstly, as no explicit bias, such as libertarian or leftist, and secondly, blogs that appear to adhere to the view of the world captured in a comment that I once heard, more or less as: “that is an interesting question, let me think about it. But first I need to know how to think about it”. And that is the reason we go to school, to learn the paradigms that others in the past have discovered are useful ways to think about how the world works, rather than to seek to impose on the world how we feel (as opposed to think) it should work.

    Tyler Cowen’s blog “The Marginal Revolution” was one of those blogs I examined as a possible recommendation to the students. But having spent considerable time reading it, I decided against it. Basically, Cowen comes across as a dilettante – prolific, unfocused and superficial, and not of much use to learners of Economics. His considerable education is arguably a waste. I instead point my students to Krugman and Mark Thoma of EconomistsView. I will venture that most economists have never heard of him, much less to say that he has risen to the first rank of economic celebrity.

    Your comment on the New Yorker piece: “But Mayer was unconvincing in her characterizations of the Mercatus Center as little more than a cat’s paw for the wealthy and conservative Koch brothers, of Wichita, Kansas, and Manhattan”caught my attention.

    The problem self confessed libertarian economists have is that such a self identification immediately raises doubts about their intellectual honesty. Having engaged in debates with them, I can certainly confirm that the doubts are well placed.

    The problem they face is that their ideological agendas make it very difficult for their writings to be published in peer reviewed journals because their propositions tend not to be evidence based, but a priori suppositions. Feeling shut out of serious journals, they have found wealthy patrons, such as the Kochs, to fund libertarian “think tanks” such as Mercatus, Cato and numerous others. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of thinking going on in these places – just policy positions that serve the interests of their patrons. Mayer’s characterization is spot on. Intellectual prostitution is not too strong a phrase to describe much of their writings.

    Serious think tanks are places like the Brookings Institution, the Urban Institute and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, to mention a few.

    Worse, the libertarians establish faux economic journals such as the Economic Journal Watch, also with a strong association with George Mason University.

    No doubt that Mayer’s statement: “The Wall Street Journal has called the Mercatus Center “the most important think tank you’ve never heard of,” and noted that fourteen of the twenty-three regulations that President George W. Bush placed on a ‘hit list’ had been suggested first by Mercatus scholars” is accurate, as we now live the consequences of the Bush decisions.

    Might I suggest a little investigative journalism to tally up the consequences?

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