Hello, I’m Ezra Klein. Welcome to “The Ezra Klein Show.”
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I’m never quite sure how to introduce Tyler Cowen. On one level, it’s straightforward. Cowen is an economist at George Mason University. He’s co-founder of the great blog, Marginal Revolution, which I’ve read for years. He’s host of the podcast “Conversations with Tyler,” columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, director of the Emergent Ventures grant program, the author of a bunch of books.
I could keep going, but the ineffable dimension of Tyler is that he’s a genuinely rare form of polymath. He reads about everything, but more importantly for understanding him, he goes everywhere. He talks to everyone. He’s able to appreciate all kinds of things — very, very, very broad- minded guy. This is something we get at towards the end of the conversation, but an important difference between Tyler and a lot of smart people I’ve met is his learning is very embodied.
He doesn’t just think, he goes. It gives him a quality of wisdom that, in my experience at least, is pretty rare. There’s a lot we disagree on: Tyler tends towards the libertarian end of the spectrum. But I always learn from him, always. But the particular reason I wanted to talk to Tyler now is that one of his big ideas is coming, by his own admission, to an end. A few years ago, Cowen wrote what is arguably his most influential book, “The Great Stagnation,” arguing that we were living through a multi-decade slowdown in the pace of technological change.
And that was behind a lot of seemingly disconnected economic and social problems. But now, that is over. Change has sped up. We are seeing rapid innovation across biomedical science, across technology — as he would put it, the internet has come to the core of everything we do. And with rapid technological change comes new dislocations, new disruptions, new problems and of course new opportunities.
And so I wanted to talk with him about the technological moment we’re in, but also about how it relates to something deeper in the way he thinks about the world. For Tyler, economic growth is the central moral imperative. Yes, G.D.P. misses things — in particular, and we talk about this, it misses climate. But G.D.P. also picks up more than you think. It picks up, frankly, more than a measure that is so simple has any right to.
And if you believe the future is as important as the present, which Tyler does, then growth, which is driven by technological innovation, becomes one of the most important moral imperatives we have, at least so long as it is done in a sustainable way. So that’s where we begin this conversation, but you’ll see it is not at all where we end it. As always, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Always interested in your guest suggestions, or just recommendations. A lot of have now emailed me, telling me to play the game Disco Elysium.
And I will try as soon as it comes to the Switch, but yeah, email@example.com.
Tyler Cowen, always a pleasure.
Ezra, good to hear from you.
So, like a lot of liberals, I worry a lot about climate change. I worry a lot about poverty. I worry about more people having good health care. Why should I worry directly about economic growth?
I think of economic growth as one good way to address all of those concerns. So for instance, take poverty. The societies that have partly fixed their poverty problems are those that have seen high rates of economic growth: Japan, South Korea, to some extent China, Singapore, earlier Hong Kong, the United States. There’s not a way to fix poverty that does not center around economic growth.
If you take climate change — like you, I favor a carbon tax, but I don’t quite think we’re going to do it. So we need an extreme degree of technological innovation. That, too, is part of economic growth. If we think of health care, well, the biggest threat recently has been Covid-19. Fortunately, we have some pretty good vaccines. Those are the result of innovation and economic growth. We probably have vaccines coming against malaria, CRISPR against sickle cell anemia — fantastic advances.
And again, economic growth is to some extent behind all of those.
The climate change example bites, though, because one reason I think many people on the left have become more disillusioned with growth is we’ve lived through a long period where we’ve had a fair amount of growth. And it feels that growth has come at the cost of a stable climate. That’s led both to suspicions of — the way we measure growth is not appropriate, but also to a more direct movement against growth, people who call themselves the de-growthers, who say that if we’re going to continue to have a livable planet, we actually need to get off of this belief that the way to a better life is ceaseless material growth.
Well, let’s say you were born into China, right. China has become the world’s number one polluter, including for carbon emissions. But I still think the world as a whole is much better off along the path where China moved from per capita income of about $200 a year to, now, its middle income status. So once that’s happened, we need to fix the problem. But I don’t think we should regret the Industrial Revolution or the use of coal or the rise of China.
But now, we do need to do absolutely everything possible to fix and reverse climate change.
Is G.D.P. a good metric for measuring growth?
It is the goods and services recorded in market transactions over the course of that year. So it is only one part of human life, but if you actually try to correlate, say, G.D.P., G.D.P. growth, with other measures of human well-being, they correlate remarkably strongly. If you ask, where do migrants wish to move to? It is typically, say, the countries with high G.D.P. growth. Where do you wish you had been born into?
A lot of different metrics — where are women’s rights, usually, not always, but usually the highest, again, it would be in the wealthier countries. When it comes to the environment, I think it’s a fairly poor measure, but I think for most other questions it’s often a pretty good and somewhat underrated measure. The other biggest problem with G.D.P. as a metric is it does not properly count either household production or leisure time, and those are real issues.
We can adjust for them, I think, relatively easily. But when it comes to environmental problems, we’re not very good at adjusting for them. We just know they’re very large.
There’s this famous Robert F. Kennedy line, that G.D.P. measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile. And what’s being said there is how clean your water is, what it’s like to spend a weekend with your grandchildren, or with your children, or a nice dinner at your home with friends. And so there are continuous efforts to create a measure that will track the potent intangibles of life more closely.
So you will see happiness indexes like this. The eminent economist Joe Stiglitz led a group a couple of years back trying to create a larger basket of measures that would get at this more closely. How do you assess these alternative measures? Are any of them appealing to you?
I think they’re great. It’s wonderful work. None of them quite capture human well-being either. But there’s a very good paper by Stanford economist Charles Jones, and they correlate with G.D.P. across nations more than 0.9, so they move very closely with wealth. And you can debate which causes which, but again, to consider G.D.P. as simply a metric, it is going to capture some amount of what makes life really valuable — having the ability to relax, be in a lower stress environment, have better health care, have the resources to visit your grandkids, and so on.
So this seems to me to be an important point you’re making about G.D.P., which is that if you look at it as a measure, it’s missing a lot. But for whatever reason, it correlates with those other things fairly well — putting aside environmental issues, which it doesn’t. But a lot of other things you might want in life — you mentioned women’s rights. There are a lot of human rights that are correlated well with G.D.P. for whatever reason. G.D.P. has, at least up until now, been a pretty good tracker of things that it doesn’t actually directly measure.
Sure. I would also stress the point: many environmental variables do correlate positively with G.D.P.. We don’t have indoor pollutants burning so much, which seem to cost people millions of lives around the world. So carbon emissions no, but a lot of environmental variables do improve with wealth.
So I want to turn, then, to the importance of long run growth. And this is central to the book “Stubborn Attachments” that you wrote. And at the core of that argument is your point that time is a moral illusion. What do you mean by that?
I don’t think we should count an event for less simply because it’s further off in the future. So for instance, if we’re going to bury dangerous chemical or nuclear waste, and 100 years from now, it will kill 100 people, I think we should count that as similar to killing hundreds people now. Under some economic approaches, we would discount those deaths by 3 percent, 5 percent, 7 percent. And with that discounting compounded, if the deaths are far enough in the future, they’ll come very close to counting for zero.
I think that is morally wrong. The correct discount rate for that kind of decision is basically zero.
But if you take that seriously, you get into a place that the group of effective altruists who think of themselves as long termers go, which is, because you could imagine the far future having so many tens of billions, hundreds of billions, trillions of human beings spread out throughout the galaxy, anything that you think would create a 0.001 percent of that future coming to pass is just endlessly more important than anything you can do now.
Well, I think the intuitive implication of thinking about the problem in that way is we should spend more resources to limit what is called existential risk: make sure our civilization does not disappear, pay more attention to, say, weapons of mass destruction or the possibility of asteroids crashing into the Earth. And I fully accept that conclusion. I’ll bite that bullet. I’m on board. Let’s do it.
You have a fun argument in the book, using Einstein to make this point about time. Do you want to talk that through?
Sure. If we think about Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which seems very much to be confirmed, the universe is a kind of frozen, four dimensional block of spacetime, which you could observe as a static thing if you were yourself somehow traveling at the speed of light. And from that point of view, time is an illusion. So maybe, morally, we should be more open to the possibility that time is an illusion. Postponing your visit to the dentist, per se, is not a morally admirable thing to do.
You don’t somehow make your pain count less than the universe just by going later. And perhaps as societies, we are too impulsive and too short term oriented. And which gets back to climate change — right, one of the problems in fighting it is people have been too short term oriented. They don’t want a higher gas bill now, or home heating bill. And we have this problem. It’s not even that far away anymore, but we’re not heeding it sufficiently.
So then the other issue, once you begin to take particularly that view of time, is the compounding nature of economic growth. And what happens to your view of the world when you begin to appreciate that? There’s an old line from the Nobel laureate economist Robert Lucas, where he says, once one starts to think about exponential growth, it is hard to think about anything else. Can you try to lay out as intuitively as you can what it means to think in terms of compounding economic growth?
Sure. Here’s a simple example. If you take the time period 1890 to 1980, if the U.S. economy had grown per year one percentage point less, which sounds like a little, but we would in 1980 have had the standard of living of Mexico, not the United States. So even a single percentage point of growth compounded over time matters a great deal. Take the nation of Denmark — right, one of the best places to live. It’s hard to find years where Denmark grows like China has done. It’s hard to find years where Denmark grows above 4 percent, I think, other than right after wartime.
But Denmark is a very steady grower and they have a long period behind them of growing. And a compounded return typically matters more than people think. I think it’s a cognitive illusion we’ve also suffered under during the pandemic. So Covid-19, if you don’t try to stop it, grows at a compounded rate, very fast compounded rate, especially with Delta. And we’re shortsighted and we don’t see coming just how bad it’s going to get, in that case, fairly quickly.
So that then puts a tremendous amount of weight on even changes to growth that you think might be long term, but that are relatively marginal. So you were talking about a percentage point. And that sounds small, but we often grow at two, three, four percentage points. So it’s actually not small. I mean, that’s a big chunk of our growth. But 2/10 of a percentage point is reasonably small. But in this model, which I think is true, 2/10 of a percentage point, if it were sustained over 20 years compounding, that’s pretty big.
Sure. And sustained over 100 years, it’s much bigger yet. So I think the implication is we should innovate more, devote more resources to innovation, more to investment, and the best bequest we can leave future generations usually is healthy institutions.
Do you think there’s a sharp tension between more growth and addressing inequality?
The biggest inequality is global inequality, right, so there are just billions of people in fairly poor nations. The good news is global inequality actually has been falling for the last several decades. But the major inequality problem is to spread innovations and good institutions to Africa, more of South Asia. And I think the wealthy nations being wealthy on net helps with that endeavor. It doesn’t hurt it. So I think just thinking about growth is the way to get maximum progress on inequality.
Without denying the moral importance of global inequality — and I think you know I agree with you on that — I do want to make two counterarguments here. One is that we are still nation states. And even though I am on the globalist side of the political distribution, I do think it is important to take your own country as having some worth on that. And two, even if you don’t buy that, in a more pragmatic way, if you get to very, very high levels of inequality, I think you destabilize political systems within nations.
And they become, then, more nationalist, more inward turning. Many people see Donald Trump as at least partially a phenomenon of this. And so you can interrupt the ability to think about people outside your own borders, because people inside your borders feel so much like they’re getting a raw deal. So within a country, within America, do you see there being a sharp tension between growth and addressing inequality?
Well, I think that’s a good argument for a social welfare state, that we shouldn’t just send all of our national resources to, say, sub-Saharan Africa. We need to keep on our own course, to some extent. We do that reasonably, but not perfectly well. I think that’s why we do it, in part, is to maintain our own stability. So I agree with that.
Do you think there are parts of our social welfare state right now that should be bigger?
More states should approve the Medicaid expansion would be one instance of that. I have mixed feelings about preschool. I’m still reading the literature there, but I’m probably more skeptical than most people. Cash transfers, I think, have more potential. We give too much aid in kind. It seems the way we give aid has embedded in it too many bad incentives, too many quite high implicit marginal tax rates.
Now, I know that’s not easy to fix. But I feel it can’t be right the way it stands now.
I think that’s right. I think there are certainly ways to fix it, and I think there are a lot of things we could do better through cash than we do through programs right now. Hold a minute on your skepticism of pre-K. I’m skeptical of some of the more expansive claims for the long term returns, the things you’ll hear of $1 coming back with $5, $6, $7 of return. I think may be the very best programs can do that, but you rarely get that level of quality if you roll it out over a country.
But I do think it’s good on net, and I think it’s important for parents to be able to have places where they can send their children. So I’m pretty pro- pre-K. I’m excited that in California, they’re about to add a year of school for four-year-olds. What has made you more skeptical?
If we look at the broader sweep of world history, we find a number of areas where innovation and achievement are simply extraordinary. And I’m not sure what the missing variables are that have caused that, but it seems to me none of those places had pre-K. Might they have been better off with pre-K? I don’t know. I’m an agnostic reading the literature. But it seems to me, ultimately, perhaps the wrong focus. And there’s something about talent clustering that is much more important than pre-K.
But that seems like a weird argument to me. So I think if you look in America right now, and you were going to say what is a place where we’re having a clustering of talent that drives a lot of economic growth. You might say one of the places where I live, in San Francisco, in the Bay Area. And if you look at a lot of the people driving a fair amount of that growth, I assure you, they all send their children to pre-K.
But is that because they simply have the means to do so, and it’s convenient? Or is pre-K what made Silicon Valley to be Silicon Valley? I doubt it’s the latter.
That, I don’t think, is a claim people are making for pre-K. But why would you think that adding pre-K might have made Silicon Valley not Silicon Valley?
I don’t think it would have. But let’s put it this way. Resources are scarce in society. And if the impact on young children is truly very marginal, which I suspect it is, I’m just not sure that’s a priority. Like, should we spend that money directly supporting innovation? It might just be more potent.
Do you think on net we spend too much at the end of life and too little at the beginning of people’s lives?
We spend too much on the elderly. We should spend more on the young. But whether the very, very young is the place to spend it, I’m not sure. It seems to me the key problem is families falling apart, rather than absence of pre-K, per se. And I’m not sure what’s the best way to spend money to limit the number of families who fall apart, but I think I would focus on that problem much more. We have way too many single- parent families.
And I think on the left, there’s still a blindness toward that problem. It’s hard to admit given the rest of their worldview.
I agree that there is a problem in families falling apart. I don’t think we know what to do to solve it. And so I tend to agree with those on the left who say that financial stressors and child care stressors are an important way in which families end up under terrible strain. And it is at least a reasonable hypothesis to try to help them. I don’t think you could completely say this is causal. You know the literature here probably better than I do.
But one thing that is very clear in it is families are more stable as you go up the income distribution. And of course, you could say that’s because there’s something different about people up the income distribution. But another thing you could say is that families up the income distribution have the money to spend to reduce stressors on their life. And that certainly seems intuitively true to me. I know it’s harder for my wife and I when we lose child care for a couple of weeks because of a pandemic or something else. It’s not good for our relationship.
And so I tend to think it is at least a reasonable approach to try to extend more of that ease further down the income ladder.
I would gladly read a paper that tried to show that. I’ve never seen such a paper succeed. It may be out there and I don’t know it. I don’t think it would be obviously consistent with the time series evidence. And you’d have to sort out causality. But it’s not obvious to me that, say, pre-kindergarten for children will help keep families together.
I don’t think I would necessarily make a big argument for pre-K on that score, but I might for things like a basic income. It’d be interesting to see. I mean, you could — there’s an argument that would go the opposite way, because it gives people freedom. And I tend to be a little bit more agnostic — if people want to take that freedom, then I tend to think they know something about their lives that I don’t, and their marriages that I don’t. But a world with less want seems to me like a better world for marriage, but maybe I’d be proven wrong.
I tend to think basic income would split up more families — again, in some cases, optimally. So if the husband is beating the wife, right, you want the family to split up, typically. But I think we still need other ways of achieving the end of doing more to encourage dual- parent families. And I agree, we don’t know how to do it.
Let’s go back to drivers of economic growth. Speaking of things we know work: if Tyler Cowen had the magic wand and you could put in place a couple of policies in this country that you think would add to our long- run growth, what would be at the top of your list?
Well, improving how we do science funding would be very close to the top of my list. I think we’ve seen during the pandemic that a lot of our science funding is good at long run tasks, but quite sclerotic and slow to respond, just as the F.D.A. has been. So if you look at the N.I.H., or the National Science Foundation, they should have done much more rapid repurposing of funds to fight Covid-19, for instance. So they’re too bureaucratic, and I think we should set up some new agencies and start from scratch, as the UK is doing, and have more dynamic models.
So that would be close to the top of my list.
What does it mean to have a less bureaucratic agency for funding? You’ve gone into the guts of this. We’re going to talk about things like fast grants and emergent ventures in this podcast, which you’ve set up to push faster scientific funding, and to find talent. What have you learned about what is wrong with the scientific funding process, which would not be obvious to somebody just hearing that it is bureaucratic?
That even during an emergency, most decisions are not made very quickly. Accelerated funding from the N.I.H. still can take four to five months, and that’s during a pandemic where every day counts. And agencies have their procedures. And we’ve seen this also with the C.D.C. Every part of our government that has responded to the pandemic has been sailing along on its previous procedures.
And there is something in some East Asian governments where you have — people in government sit down at a table and show a willingness to do something creatively, more or less on the spur of the moment. And a lot of those governments succeeded with that. And we don’t have that. Our government is geared toward other purposes. So I think to help science, we need, at the margins, to fix that.
I agree with that. But let me offer a push, which is something I’d like to see you address more here. You’ve been, for a lot of your life, part of the broad libertarian movement. You, of course, have your criticisms there. But you are part of it. You’re at the Mercatus Center.
And one thing I know from covering the government is it part of the reason things are bureaucratic and slow moving and you have to file everything in triplicate and things get checked over and over again and it’s way too cautious, is that there has been for decades and decades an organized effort on the part of libertarian and right- wing institutions to embarrass the government if it funds anything that can be made to look silly or that ends up failing, like Solyndra, that ends up seeming to people like a waste of money.
And it seems to me that if you want this faster, more agile, more risk- taking government, you also have to somehow quiet these players looking to point out every failure, because being too afraid of failure makes you too afraid of quick processes. I think an advantage for you in fast grants is you’re not really worried about anybody looking over your shoulder and yelling at you. So is there something that the libertarian movement and the right need to take seriously here in the way they’ve impeded government operations?
Oh, absolutely. I think they’ve screwed it up rather badly. And I’ve argued the same with arts funding. Now, I’m not sure there should be federal government arts funding through the N.E.A. in this country. But if you’re going to have it, you want it to take a lot of chances. And the earlier N.E.A., before it was under so much scrutiny, had less money, less bureaucratic procedures, probably did a better job funding the arts, had a higher hit rate than the later N.E.A.
And the idea that you’re going to rake them over the coals for funding Mapplethorpe or Andres Serrano I think has made it much worse, and more bureaucratic. And they’ve ended up sending too much money to the states. So I’m fully on board with that criticism, and I think it applies to other areas as well. We need to have a greater tolerance for failure. And right wing and libertarian critics of government I think have missed that point for a long time.
How do you fix this? Because it is easy to see from the right wing and libertarian perspective that if you want to push a smaller government agenda, or you want to win elections, then, of course, you want to point out things where what the government does doesn’t work. And you could also say from a point of ideal political theory, you want critics of the government so the government doesn’t make bad decisions.
And yet when you run that cumulatively over the entire process, you end up getting this paradoxical — everybody’s unhappy with the government, because it doesn’t take enough risks, it’s too bureaucratic. And simultaneously, it’s always under fire. So how do you change the culture of government criticism, not so it goes away, but so it is healthier, it is criticizing the right things.
Much of it is a time horizon problem, to get back to our earlier discussion. So you can win some points in the short run by criticizing government mistakes, but it’s still true that if our government had more dynamically responded to the pandemic, we would have a much smaller government in America going forward. We wouldn’t have needed as much money in stimulus or as many interventions. And libertarians, small- government conservatives would be closer to getting their way if they had not complained as much at some earlier point in time.
So I think it’s been a self-defeating enterprise. I’m not sure I have an effective way of persuading people. I try to do so by example, or willing to say what I really think. But I’m not pretending that my view is winning the day.
When you put scientific funding at the top of the growth agenda, is it fair for me to draw from that you think the fundamental driver of economic growth, at least in a country like America at this point, is technological innovation?
That may just be restating the conclusion. I think at the margin, what we need to be better at is spotting and identifying talent. And that’s actually the subject of my next book. But I don’t think capital, in many cases, is the binding constraint. There’s a lot of venture capital out there, but identifying, finding, motivating and mobilizing the people who will do more strikes me as what we’re failing at. And you can think of that as the other side of the coin of what you called income inequality before, right.
If you think income inequality is too high, you must in some way think we’re not doing a good job finding talent.
I’m going to go back to talent in a bit. But before we fully leave the topic of government and government regulation, I pushed you on the place in this where I think libertarians and conservatives miss the harm they’re doing. Push me on the place where liberals do. What do liberals need to realize, or take more seriously, about the way the government could accelerate innovation and growth, but that we are impeding it from doing so?
I’m not sure liberals is the right word. I think of myself as liberals — I would include you in that, to be clear. But I think the fault lines now lie in a different place. But that aside, I think it needs to be recognized that no process really is fair. And complaints about unfairness should be taken very seriously. But they’re applied very selectively, and as blunt ideological weapons. And processes you see on the left, I think, are not fairer than those on the right.
And to realize how much it’s become like a tool of a new left leaning, coastal, well-educated power elite to invoke fairness to strike down people, movement, ideas that that elite just doesn’t like.
I see where you’re going on some of the broader cultural issues, but give me an example within the science conversations we were talking about a moment ago.
Well, many people in academia have become canceled, right. That would be an extreme example. I suspect the greater loss is those who would never become canceled and simply take fewer chances. Not all of the canceled people are scientists. But I see it within universities, where I live, that there’s a fundamental shift in terms of practical, de facto freedom of speech. It’s much lower than it used to be.
And it’s fine to say, well, you shouldn’t have the freedom of speech to say whatever offensive thing. But the long- run result of that is there’s simply less free expression and exchange of ideas. And you have a bureaucratized culture of trying to push a whole agenda, which even if you think role models are very important, in essence has bureaucratized and paralyzed the universities in this country and made them less effective.
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I want to talk about what happens when the rate of technological innovation does slow down. Tell me the thesis of your 2011 book, “The Great Stagnation.”
“The Great Stagnation” argued that the rate of productivity growth in the United States had declined since 1973. When that came out, it was considered radical. I think it’s now the conventional wisdom. But I actually think probably at this very moment, we’re getting out of the Great Stagnation, most of all in biomedical areas, which I see as extremely promising, and most concretely represented by mRNA vaccines.
So since I did the work for that book, it seemed to me the priority to get a higher rate of economic growth was to figure out what are the binding constraints, why we’re not innovating more, and do more in those directions. And I’ve actually tried to do that in my life with writings, but also with actual concrete projects, like Emergent Ventures and Fast Grants.
Tell me more about your view that the Great Stagnation is ending. I think that people can look out over the landscape in technology and see that a lot of things appear to be emerging all at once: mRNA vaccines, cryptocurrencies, A.I. If you simply read the headlines, you see a lot of this. But why? What is different? Is this just things that were there 10 years ago finally coming to fruition? Is it a different constellation of political forces? What do you think is the driver behind a sense that technologies that were ideas are becoming realities?
What I said in 2011, in the book “The Great Stagnation,” I still think is broadly correct, that the turning point really was the internet. But it takes longer to put the internet to good use than you might think, and that we had been overrating how much the internet already was doing for us and underrating what it will do for us in the future. So just having greater exchange of ideas, a broader, more global, more diverse scientific community, more rapid exchange of ideas, nearly universal access to computing power through, say, cloud computing — all that has mattered a great deal.
And I think you see, with vaccines in particular — you mentioned the role of women. Women have played a remarkably significant set of roles in the development of those vaccines. Katalin Karikó, originally from Hungary, being the number one example — but, like, the lab for the Novavax vaccine, which probably is still coming out, that’s been mainly women. So better mobilization of talent and really putting the internet to use.
And I’d add to that, if you look at CRISPR, which is one of the really hyped spaces in biomedical research, I mean that’s coming out of a lab from Jennifer Doudna, from Emmanuelle Charpentier. Separately, and there’s, of course, a lot of tension between these labs, but from Feng Zhang. And you so you see there too quite a big value from the fact that we’re expanding whose talent can be seen and nurtured and used in the sciences.
And this may intersect with the internet. So if you have a Jennifer Doudna or a Katalin Karikó, women all across the world know about them in a very vivid way because of the internet, so fame is less local. It’s easier to find role models with the internet, whether it be based on gender, personality type, how tall you are, whatever it might be. So that’s possibly an underappreciated benefit of online life.
What technologies that you think will come to fruition in the next, let’s call it, 20 years, are you most excited about right now?
Well, we’ve now seen quite a few years with green energy — solar and wind power — of consistent cost declines. And it was not obvious 10 to 15 years ago that those cost declines would be so consistent. So there are still big issues with integrating those technologies into an infrastructure where power needs to be continuous. But I think we’re way ahead of schedule relative to what had been expected.
Electric cars are, way ahead of schedule, partly because of Tesla, but not only, relative to what people thought even five years ago. Right, look at the Tesla share price then compared to now. So I think green energy is another area. I wouldn’t quite say the execution is there completely. And you need it to be fairly complete to win that battle. But again, we’re ahead of schedule.
I want to talk about a few of the technologies that are coming and get your thoughts. I don’t want to do you do on your show, overrated and underrated, but just your impressions of where we are, and particularly what maybe people aren’t thinking about in these spaces. But let’s start with artificial intelligence.
I don’t think artificial intelligence is a single thing. It’s a bunch of highly diverse systems that you build that have some common properties. We use it now, it works already. I think the consensus view on A.I. is more or less correct. I don’t think A.I. is going to destroy or take over the world. I do think it will bring a lot of social problems and unfairnesses, but in the longer run, it’s likely to be a very, very good thing.
A very good thing for what? What is one problem you think we have right now that A.I. could solve?
A lot of jobs are meaningless or repetitive or frustrating, and A.I. will take over more of those jobs. And in the longer run. But again, with serious transition issues, the quality of jobs will be better. And many tasks will be performed for us. If I want to put something on my calendar, which I still do myself, the amount of time I spent writing on that is pretty awful. And pretty soon, there’ll be a Siri- like device where I can just talk to it and it will be done. And that will make my life clearly better.
It has struck me for years that it is testament to how pessimistic our political imagination is that when we talk about A.I. automating a lot of jobs that are repetitive, a lot of jobs that are dangerous, a lot of jobs that are frustrating, what we see in that is mass unemployment and loss of human dignity, as opposed to moving closer to a post- crappy job utopia.
Well, look at the Industrial Revolution. So it depends when you date its start, but under some plausible datings, it takes several decades before it really leads to higher real wages in Britain. So it’s easy enough to imagine that A.I. could give us the same result in North America, maybe even likely. And ultimately, you have to decide, do you want to stick at your current standard of living, which in fact will decline if you don’t grow due to people chipping away, taking rents — right, bickering with each other.
Do you want a declining standard of living, or are you willing to move forward? And A.I. is going to be done anyway. If you imagine a world where China has incredible A.I. and we have stuck with sending emails to each other, to me, that is going to become a very ugly world. Right, we’re not just holding steady.
I agree with all that. And I actually agree with the more pessimistic take on how it will probably play out, with a long transition time. But the point I want to make here is that there’s nothing inevitable about that. It could be that we have — particularly once A.I. begins throwing off a fair amount of money — there are a lot of ways you can imagine, if we had a fast form of politics, that could use that to make people much better off.
And you see some of these ideas out there thrown around now. I’m not a big fan of universal basic income as an answer for A.I., but I think there are a lot of ways you could change the tax structure, change redistribution, et cetera. But it strikes me that one of the tensions in our technological conversation is that we don’t believe our politics will — and we’re probably right in not believing this — but we don’t believe our politics will adapt to new technologies quickly enough to make the transition smooth.
I fully agree. We should and we probably won’t.
I read a long piece by my former student, Eli Dourado, on geothermal power. It struck me as intriguing, consistent with political economy in the sense that the people who now make money on energy could be the ones who make money from geothermal power. And they might support a lot of activity in the area. That might be important. I don’t feel I have the expertise to judge its feasibility. And I’m not sure anyone can.
We know geothermal power works in places where it’s easy to access, like Iceland, right. That’s a no brainer. But could it be more universal? I think we don’t know yet. I would say probably undervalued, but highly speculative.
Fourth generation nuclear, these smaller nuclear reactors that can be spread much more widely.
I tend to think those will work. They will probably be most important in parts of the world such as Africa or maybe Vietnam. I do worry about security issues connected with them. Once you have so many of them, and they’re small — you know, they’re not expensive enough to really protect them very well. But I think it will probably happen, and it will be very green, and on net, probably a good thing.
You know, I don’t like virtual reality myself. It makes me dizzy. I don’t like the way I have to hold my neck. I feel I’m too fidgety and too restless. I’m not the person for it. That’s probably a misleading bias. I would give it a 50 percent chance of the metaverse taking off and Mark Zuckerberg being right. But I just have to say, at an intuitive level, I rebel against it. I want to go to my Beethoven concert and read my book and fidget, not do virtual reality.
This is one of those technologies that seems to me like it will feel like it is underperforming forever, until all of a sudden the correct generation and application and computing power come together, and we end up in the virtual reality world. And I think people like you and probably me are just going to be too old for it.
Absolutely. I fully agree. So I give it a good chance, but I know it’s not for me.
Yeah, it is frustrating watching the technologies that are going to make me look and feel out of touch happen.
For the first time, we have them. I’ve made it to age 59 where I can do every new thing that comes along, and that’s pathetic in a way, right? Oh, I learned how to drive a car in the 1970s. I drive a car today. I haven’t had to learn anything new at all — pathetic. But that’s finally going to be different. I will feel obsolete at some point. And I will applaud and be smiling the whole time.
Well, speaking of feeling obsolete: crypto technologies, blockchains, the whole world of an internet built on more verifiable forms of ownership and identity.
Well, I had been a skeptic for quite a few years. But I am slowly being converted. And I would say most intelligent people outside of crypto still underrate them, because they don’t get it. It’s clear to me now it’s not a bubble. It is consistently attracting talent. Even with advances in normal payments technologies, the interest — extreme interest — in somehow using blockchain and crypto to make financial transacting and also borrowing and lending better, there’s just so much force behind it.
To me, it just looks very much like something that is going to succeed and be significant. So I think too many people have the Paul Krugman attitude, like it’s all a scam, it’s a bubble. But I think it’s past that stage. It looks like it’s for real.
I want to double click on something you said there, which I think is interesting as a heuristic, and has been one of mine on crypto, too, which is using the clustering of talent in an area as evidence of whether or not it is going to succeed. Not just through the idea of — maybe that area is attractive to talent, but through the idea that where talent clusters, they will figure out a way to make it succeed. Can you talk about watching talent as a way of forecasting?
Crypto talent comes from all over the world, which I think is phenomenal. Crypto talent is often so positive and so creative. I think Vitalik Buterin in particular is just one of the most important thinkers today.
Vitalik Buterin, being a co-founder and the leader of Ethereum.
Ethereum, yes. When you’re in on crypto conversations, they have an excitement, a positivity, that you just don’t really get elsewhere. And a focus on building things, doing things — and I’ve just seen that now so consistently. That’s what’s converted me. The “can you fully articulate the actual use case?” Maybe I’d get a B- or a C+. But I’m bullish on it. Moving to using more crypto will involve big disruptions to our financial institutions.
We won’t be ready for it. We’ll do it poorly, just like with many of these other breakthroughs in world history, but I think it’s going to happen and probably should happen.
Let me ask you about my point of skepticism on crypto. I am not skeptical. And I wrote a big piece for the Times about this recently, that the underlying technology is going to be quite important as the internet continues to evolve. What I am skeptical about is that it will remain in any real way decentralized. I think the tendency online is for technologies that start out as, apparently, a great boon for decentralization, to centralize. People like things that are convenient. They like having a lot of things in one place.
I suspect that crypto is going have a — if it matures in the way people want it to, once again, a huge number of centralizing middlemen-y big companies that end up being the winners. Do you think I’m being pessimistic on that?
I don’t know if that’s pessimistic or optimistic. I think there will be both centralized and decentralized crypto. I’m not sure in what ratio. I suspect centralized crypto will be considerably larger, but decentralized crypto, if only as an alternative, could still be incredibly significant, because it will limit and constrain what centralized crypto can do, right, in terms of sort of implicitly taxing your users or customers.
You talked about biomedical advances as a place where you’re particularly optimistic right now. What are some of the technologies in there? If you were breaking down the things you are specifically watching or seeing in the applications that come to you, where would you direct our attention?
Well, I would start with this point that the energy and talent I see in the area is to me more persuasive than any particular theory I hold about biomedical technologies. But I think vaccines already are obviously much better than they were two years ago. Possibly, some people overrate CRISPR. I don’t know, I hear different back and forth on this. But I think just the dedicated notion that the world is full of these public health problems — we’ve made incredible progress in the last 20 years just distributing things we already had, say, to Africa. And that’s in the numbers. That’s, like, a fact. And we can just keep on doing it. And we’ll do it with new things. The amount of dedication, resources, organization, talent devoted to that absolutely sways me. And I see those as the biggest advances likely to come in the next 20 years. And malaria and dengue are two major culprits there, and I think those will crack. HIV/AIDS, harder for me to say.
Longevity research, I think, now should be taken seriously. The world has woken up, that maybe we can boost life expectancy at a rate higher than what usually has been the case. And again, you just see things coming together. And computing power being brought to bear on biomedicine in a very significant way, I think, is the difference maker.
I’m going to frame this as a technology — the Chinese system of government.
It is a technology. And I think that’s a very insightful way of putting it. I think up until recently, it has worked remarkably well. And it should be considered a major technological innovation, like an oppressive kind of autocracy but combined with extreme public opinion polling and only very selective crackdowns. But we always wondered if it was stable, right. And now we see much more centralization of power in China.
And possibly, it’s flying off the rails. We’re not sure yet. But this is one thing I watch very closely. It may be a self-destructive technology.
How about liberal democracy?
I’m a huge fan of liberal democracy. I worry it’s in more danger now than it has been, but people I see on Twitter I think exaggerate this danger. Most of its history, it’s looked and felt ugly. If you go back to, say, the late 19th century, it was just all mud slinging and lies and misinformation. And we may be returning to an era like that, but souped up with the internet. It makes me nervous, but ultimately, I think it’s more robust than what you hear on Twitter, but probably about as robust as what the average American thinks, which is that they in fact believe in it.
And I’ll add this one in too, and I don’t want to frame it as the Indian system of government, because it doesn’t quite seem to be that to me. But something within the Indian set of cultural and educational and immigrant network layer of their society seems to be quite important. And so I’m curious how you’d put that.
Indian-Americans, I believe, have by quite an amount the highest per capita income in this country. Indians in Canada, highly successful. I think this is underrated. We’re on the blossoming of a new era of Indian artistic, economic, scientific — all sorts of creativity. I’ve even set up a separate part of Emergent Ventures called Emergent Ventures India that is just considering applications from India. And it’s run by Shruti, who works with me. She is herself from India.
And I would go very long on Indian talent. I’m not sure I’m bullish on India, like as a stock market or nation or polity. I would say I have mixed feelings there. But again, I think India today is like Germany or central Europe in the late 19th or early 20th century, just amazing things will come of it.
A point you’ve made to me — and I think you’ve made this on your blog — is that the success Indian-Americans have had navigating the highest level of America’s corporate culture, and at this point, with Kamala Harris, the highest level of its political culture too, is quite unusual. And that there is something that is allowing a very high level of cultural fluency and cultural passing back and forth from India to America. What do you think it is?
One can think about the level, or one can think about the change. If I think about the level, you could say, well, Indian metaphysics, the influence of Hinduism, the influence of Buddhism much earlier in Indian history, have enabled this kind of conceptual flexibility in Indian cultural matrices, even for Indians who are, say, not themselves Hindu. That broadly makes sense to me.
But when you look at the change, like, well, India was all that in 1970, but we didn’t see a comparable outpouring of talent. So maybe it’s some kind of multiplicative model, where seven or eight things all have to go right at the same time. And now, they’re all going right at the same time: the internet, greater value for English language, a sense of aspiration, India having enough wealth, India having good enough internet connections. It’s probably that connected to all these broader, earlier synthesizing Indian cultural influences.
It’s easy to look at technologies, both physical and digital, and think about their positive application. But I want to talk about the negative version of this, too. We are on the cusp of a world in which much more destructive weaponry becomes much more widely available. And I’m thinking here in particular to A.I. drones and drone swarms, to synthetic bioweapons, where you’re going to be able to create it seems to me very, very dangerous kinds of bugs at pretty low cost.
What does that do to stability and survivability in the world?
I don’t think we know. I mean, historically long run predictions about warfare, no one has made good ones. But it’s by far my biggest worry. But my biggest worry is still nuclear weapons as owned and operated by actual governments. We’ve come close in the past to having nuclear accidents. As nuclear weapons spread, their new owners may or may not have good procedures or good data at hand as to whether or not it’s a flock of birds or an attack from some other country.
And it’s simply by far my biggest worry for the world that we’ll have a nuclear war and set ourselves back a very long period of time, and possibly not even quite recover from it. In terms of what we should do, helping immature nations with nuclear capabilities have secure data systems — I would give those away for free, and help them if they will accept that help.
There are, at this point, a wide range of imaginative dystopias to choose from. You have movies recently like “Ready Player One,” which is a virtual reality dystopia. You have all kinds of discussion of A.I. dystopias or nuclear dystopias, “Brave New World” dystopias where we’re all on designer drugs that basically narcotize us. What form of dystopia strikes you as likeliest in the next 100 years?
That geopolitical order will erode and you will have more parts of the world becoming like, say, Ethiopia and Nigeria seem to be becoming now. And the number of manageable nation states will shrink. And more of the world will live in a very painful kind of chaos.
When you say, like, Ethiopia, Nigeria seem to be becoming now, what are you saying there?
Well, there’s a civil war in Ethiopia, right. Now, I don’t know how that’s going to play itself out. But that’s a big deal. And keep in mind, what, two years ago, the president won a Nobel Peace Prize — Prime Minister, rather. And everyone was touting Ethiopia, 10 percent growth, model of industrial policy. I was myself optimistic. And look at it now. Nigeria, the extent to which kidnapping has gone up and the central government does not really control much of the territory of the country is disturbing.
You see this in weaker form in Mexico. Haiti seems literally not governable at this point. It almost doesn’t have a government at all. And the notion that that could spread to more countries — say, Brazil, would be another possible example where it could spread — strikes me as the biggest danger.
We talked very briefly about existential risk earlier. What do you think is the probability that humanity has effectively destroyed civilization, or quite a bit of it, within, let’s call it 200 years.
It’s higher than people think. So my best estimate would be we have, I don’t know, another 700 or 800 years ahead of us. And then there will be some kind of very significant destruction. It might even come from outside: solar flares, asteroids. It’s striking to me that it’s not obvious aliens have visited us, though possibly they have, right. The skies are not full of alien spaceships. So it must be really hard to just keep your civilization going. So that means we probably won’t either.
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I want to move back to more prosaic questions of the U.S. government. And something I’ve definitely noticed in your writing and thinking since the Biden administration took hold is a frustration with parts of it. What worries you most in progressive economic thinking right now?
I wouldn’t say this is an economic issue. But look, if you take the progressive left, all of them believe firmly in democracy. And I’m fully convinced this is 110 percent sincere, right. But yet, they hold a view that the party that wins half the time is so vile, or so corrupt, or so evil, or so wanting to control women’s bodies, or so racist, or fill in the blank — that it’s just completely morally intolerable. And I don’t think those two views together are stable.
So the right wing has a bad set of views. But in a funny way, they’re consistent. So they think it’s awful if the left wins, but they’re skeptical about democracy, anyway, a lot of them. So it sort of, like, fits together as one whole. So to really believe in two- party competition and think that different points of view reflect different values — and you may not agree with the other values, but the people you disagree with are not some long list of very negative adjectives — I see that as the major problem for the left.
They only believe in a democracy where they are winning all the time, and morally cannot stomach any other notion. And that to me is very concerning. So I worry about that more than, like, the government spending too much money, though I think they have spent too much money. But that, to me, is really my main concern.
It’s funny. Two things occur to me about that. One is that you keep telling me that polarization is over, and it’s overrated. But then when I ask you what’s going on in economic thought, you give me an answer that is a very high level of concern about what would get called affective polarization.
Well, I think the progressive left is not the majority. It’s not the majority within the Democratic Party, as we see from Biden, of course, being president. I think most Americans and voters are, broadly speaking, pretty centrist and agree about a lot. And we see that in the stability of policy, including across Trump and Biden. But a lot of particular institutions, like academia, like a lot of newsrooms, I absolutely think they are becoming more polarized.
And the progressive left, as a splinter group, it’s still significant. And it’s a significant generator of ideas. And I think it’s generating ideas that don’t let us be comfortable with democracy where both parties win. The right is equally bad on this, just to be clear. The right is often anti-democratic. That might even be worse, but it’s certainly equally bad. So I don’t mean to let them off the hook at all.
Well, when you say equally bad, we have some pretty big examples in recent years just of — I mean, I would say the Trump administration was different in its quality towards government and in its basic sentiment towards the foundational norms you need for liberal democracy then the Biden administration. There was violence after the election. I think —
Absolutely. Worse than usual.
Yes, so I do think equally bad is understating it.
But I think if you take the right and the left as a whole, they’re better understood as an interacting system rather than, like, one versus the other. And I think the dynamic right now is fairly negative in some parts of society. But again, the average American, I’m not sure it’s so terrible at all.
So that’s I want to pull you back to economic policy, because what I’ve noticed from you is a pretty deep frustration not just with the amount of money being spent, but particularly some of the ideas that have not just taken hold on the real left, but within the Biden administration, like antitrust, where they’ve broken pretty radically from recent administrations. They’ve appointed into key positions really important thinkers in the new, much more skeptical model of progressive, antitrust thought.
And I think you’ve been pretty concerned about where this will go. So when they worry about bigness, what do you think they’re missing?
Well, I think the F.T.C. for instance, has been a trainwreck under the current leadership. To be clear, I work and write for Facebook, just to issue that disclaimer. But I thought this before I did, they put up a very poorly argued antitrust suit against Facebook. A Democratic judge threw it out, basically indicated it was not to be taken seriously. I think there’s a kind of grudge there. But it gets back to my broader worry about the progressive left.
If you think you’re living in a democracy where half the time an unacceptable party is winning, you need some other theory of what has gone wrong. So it used to be, like, campaign finance was what was broken. But you don’t hear about that anymore at all, because now it actually helps the Democrats. So one of the new theories about what is broken is it’s, like, misinformation. It’s big tech. It is the information ecosystem.
I don’t think there’s really great evidence behind that either, but I think the economic views are being shaped by this, like, obsession that the other side is so terrible. There must be something deeply wrong with what’s going on. And people will look at different sources of what is wrong. And right now, big tech is the villain.
So that’s interesting, because I don’t take tech’s influence on politics as the core of the antitrust case. You mentioned the F.T.C. — the new head of the F.T.C. is Lina Khan. Lina Khan came to prominence by writing about Amazon, and whether or not Amazon should be broken up. Whatever you want to say about Amazon, they are not at the center of the left’s view about how big tech is influencing politics. The views about Amazon are much more economic.
And I also take that to be a likelier place you’re going to see action. Similarly, on Facebook, I think that if anything were to happen, it would be more like preventing Facebook from acquiring things like Instagram in the future. Now, you’re somebody who’s written a book that — I think it was subtitled “A Love Letter to An American Anti-Hero,” a book all about how great big business is. So I would have thought you’d be more worried about a left that has lost, in your view, an appreciation for the benefits of big firms and what they can bring to economic growth.
Oh, absolutely. And you could say the same about the right wing. The right wing is often more anti-big tech than the left is these days. They’re suspicious of companies that have so many left wing workers. I would just say, suck it up. If you don’t like it, start your own social media network. I think there’s part of the Democratic Party, you see it, say, in Elizabeth Warren’s Twitter feed. It’s marketing a kind of red meat to the left, which really flies only because there’s this very general sense of just, big tech is bad.
And it’s fed to people also through media outlets which are often competitors with big tech, and often losing. I don’t think it’s going to finally stop what has happened in the world of tech, but I think it’s a sign of a kind of underlying rot in the world of ideas on both the left and the right. That the right could spend decades saying, well, markets are contestable, or if you don’t like it, do your own thing, or go somewhere else.
And now, it’s all about market power, and monopsony, and they kick you off YouTube. And what about this? And where can I talk about ivermectin? To me, it’s a sign of an intellectual corruption.
One thing that strikes me about this argument as somewhat circular is that — to your underlying point, that many of the people most engaged in politics have, and I may be more sympathetic to this view, but nevertheless have developed a more apocalyptic, existential, high stakes view of political competition, and a much more dire view of their opponents. While I don’t believe disinformation is as big a political or even social media problem as some others do, I do believe that dynamic is a pretty big social media problem.
And it is, to some degree, the centrality of things like Facebook, of particularly Twitter, in elite political discourse, and those then feeding into cable news and the rest of the media, that have both perceptually and then through that, in reality, increased the stakes and the heat of competition in American politics.
I agree, that concerns me. But I do still see that most American voters agree on most issues. And that’s a bedrock core of stability. And putting aside style, and the fact that Trump was racist and encouraged insurrection, and all these like terrible, terrible things, like, past two sigma event terrible — actual policy, when people say, you know, Biden is Trump’s second term, it is not entirely crazy.
Trump spent $2 trillion on stimulus. Biden spent $1.9 trillion, basically the same. Trump started withdrawal from Afghanistan. Biden did it. Whatever you think of those things, you can find many areas where they’re doing broadly similar policies. Again, that the rhetoric is different matters greatly. And I get there’s a whole bunch of issues, especially on social welfare, safety nets, where the Biden people are different.
But it is in many ways more similar than different, I would say.
Well, one thing to add to that hypothesis — and I would not do the strong version of this argument, but I’ve definitely toyed with the weak version of it — is one, Donald Trump did pretend to be much more progressive on social insurance. He did say he’d give health care to everybody. He did say he’d raise taxes on people like him.
And then similarly, he followed through a little bit more on trade, but if you think about his broader Buy American agenda, you really could look at Trump as having tried to co-opt certain ideas from the left, particularly the more labor liberal left, proved unable or uninterested in actually turning them into policy. And Biden came, took a bunch of that back, and also added China into this.
And both because of the nature of his coalition and because his administration is interested in turning ideas into policy, is doing a lot more, at least on those levels, than what Trump did.
And Biden on China policy, which, like, might end up being the most important policy period, seems pretty close to Trump. He hasn’t gotten rid of the tariffs, right. There’s differences, but the idea of turning a focus to China, less with the Middle East and Afghanistan. He’s kept the Abraham agreements that Trump managed to get through. Again, a lot of continuities, some good, some bad.
So tell me, then, why you believe polarization is past its prime as a political problem, because I would say in this conversation, you’re feeling to me more worried about polarization in certain cases than I am.
I’m not sure our views are so different. What you call polarization, I re-describe as weirdness. So I think discourse in most ways has become more weird. There are more radical views out there in every direction. This has good sides and bad sides. The good sides are we are more innovative and much more able to think about futures very different from the past. The bad side is we’ll have to manage with futures that are very different from the past.
So I think there’s just going to be a lot more volatility. And volatility is a way forward, as it has been in the past. But again the transitions can be hell to live through. That’s, like, my basic prognosis. When I use the word polarization, I think of something like 2011, where, like, there’s Obama, those forces want more government. There’s the Tea Party, they at least claim they want less government. And everything is a kind of full- on scrimmage, with one set of linemen pushing against the other.
And someone wins or someone loses, but it’s always the same battle again and again and again. And I think we’re out of that world. I think we’re into the weird world, which maybe worries me more. But it’s not polarization, per se, like, like a right wing or left winger could have any view on Afghanistan right now. And it’s actually not that easy to predict.
Let me take the other side of this for a minute, because I think that I would disagree that our world has gotten weirder legislatively. So what I describe as polarization in this respect is a set of forces, an ecosystem of forces, that when an idea comes to the fore in politics, when it becomes like the idea that we are dealing with in politics, it tends to push disagreement, even where that disagreement might not otherwise exist. Now, the good part — and I always want to say there is a good part — is it allows disagreements that do exist to come to the fore, which otherwise can get very suppressed, as we saw, for quite a long time in American politics. But one of the places where I think you underrate these forces is that you note often that there seems to be substantial overlap within the public on policy matters. And I think that’s true.
And what I would note is it has become very, very hard to bring policies that the public might even agree on in the first place into the political system and maintain that agreement. So there are places where you can do it by ricocheting back and forth. But it was fascinating, I would say — to what you’re saying about Biden and Trump, there is a little bit more continuity between them than you might imagine, but that also, nevertheless, allowed levels of discord that were quite dramatic.
And if you look at how the political establishment is relating to Afghanistan, as you say, that was something begun by Donald Trump. But sure enough, you’re not seeing a lot of Republican support for Joe Biden biting the bullet and continuing through with that policy. So I’m always interested in the ways that polarization can act as a pressure to push disagreement, where there actually could have been a space for agreement.
Whereas at other times, when there’s less polarization, I think if you’re looking at what happens in Congress, there was more space for weird coalitions, and for the parties to do things that were unexpected. If they could find zones of agreement, then they could start doing a lot of positive sum transactionalism within that zone of agreement, and come up with something which maybe isn’t what I would have done, but would have been creative nevertheless.
Sure, but our politics now, it’s more radical, it’s more creative. It’s more volatile. We’ve had a lot of policy change happen, and the losing side ex post will complain even if they’re completely flip flopping. But just when I think how to model the world, I don’t see polarization as the starting point for my model. For me, its weirdness in the realm of ideas intersecting with rule of the median voter in the realm of actual policy.
Which is maybe somewhat different from yours, but I think part of the difference is just use of words.
Well, I think also part of the difference is — if you’re looking at the realm of ideas versus the realm of Congress — so I think I agree with you, that the realm of ideas has become a lot weirder. And I guess I’d ask you why. Why do you think the realm of ideas has become weirder?
People like to say social media. But I wonder, what I see is America since 9/11, something here fundamentally has changed. And it was set off by being attacked in such a brutal, unexpected and unprecedented way, that struck at the very heart of our systems of governance. And I think psychologically, in part as a nation, we’re still recovering from that. And we had this era of several decades of remarkable calm and normalcy, and everything felt great.
And we all thought that would just continue and get better. And the rest of the world would be end of history. And learning that’s all wrong, I think, threw us for a major loop. And we’re just processing that. And we don’t have the intellectual tools to process it very well. And then, also, social media comes along. So we’re going to try out every possible means of processing that and generate immense weirdness. And everyone puts together their favored mini coalition.
I guess I think that’s where we’re at, that it started somewhat before social media. Social media now carries and intensifies it. That would be my model.
Something that you are particularly good at is taking good advantage of a weird realm of ideas, rather than getting too wrapped up in any one of them. So I guess I’d ask your advice for people in benefiting from the weirdness of the idea space right now, as opposed to finding it either overwhelming or an invitation into a kind of conflict where you lose the ability to learn from the other weird ideas in competition with the one that you just came to like.
Well, I would say, have friends from all sorts of different idea groups, even if you really don’t like those ideas. And if you have a list of, oh, I won’t have a friend, you know, who’s a Nazi — like, fine. I don’t have a friend who’s a Nazi. But starting to make that list is actually, I think, a bad thing to do. Have diverse friends. And try yourself, to write. When you write out ideas, you realize the imperfections in your own thinking.
And be open to critical feedback. And just never stop writing. And even, if you have the time, write out views you don’t agree with. Try to steel man them. Just do that very often and very regularly. And visit different cultures. Travel a lot. Try to understand them. Try not to complain too much about the complaining, as I put it. So it’s hard to complain about the complaining about the complaining without yourself complaining.
But spend your time building things, doing things, meeting people, going places. Don’t get too much into the complaining, about the right, about the left. Like, whatever you’re going to complain about, a lot of it will be correct. But it’s making you less productive and I would say stupider to be too much into the complaining, if I may complain about the complainers.
In general, I think you’re a very good appreciator of things. It’s an unusual strength you have. And I want to try to model something that I think you just gestured at, but I want to see if it’s correct. For a long time, I used to chuckle to myself a little bit when you would come back from a place you would just visited and write out your seven rules for finding the best food in a place you had just been for six days, or the way to find the best art.
It struck me at the time sometimes as quite intense pronouncement. And then over time, I came to think it was a habit you had for trying to figure out how to appreciate things, that you were creating kind of on the fly little models about how to find the good in something where you could just complain that it was hard to find the good food, or hard to get where you were going. Is that part of it? Is that part of your writing, that you’re trying to figure out little models for how to ask how to appreciate a thing that might otherwise be intimidating?
Absolutely. And I call it cracking cultural codes. And cracking cultural codes is one of the best things you can do to spot talent in people who are not just exactly like you, or you went to high school with them, or you have the same worldview.
So give me a sense of how to do it. And I’ll give you one that has been on my list forever. I just have an extremely weak appreciation for classical music. And this one should be easy, because there are a lot of resources. It’s not like I’m going into something where you can’t find any literature. But at the same time, I’m intimidated by it. It doesn’t naturally connect to me. But I want to have an appreciation for classical music. I’m a literate person, and I feel it’s important. Where would you tell me to start if I’m trying to crack the code of classical music?
Especially once the pandemic has receded — but to go see some concerts. Where you live, the San Francisco area, is a wonderful place to be. Concerts of different kinds, also recitals, not just the Symphony Orchestra. But I think people typically learn things really well through either mentors or small groups of peers trying to do the same thing. So you may or may not have time for that. But if you can do it, it’s the best way.
But there’s also a lot to be said for repeatedly hitting your head against the wall. I spent 20 years trying to figure out Indian classical music. And I feel finally, I got it. And now, to see an Indian classical music concert is the thing I want to do most of all. And I didn’t have a mentor. It was just — I kept on trying, really, not just for three or four years, but for well over a decade. And maybe by year 17 or 18, I came about it by listening to contemporary classical music that had Indian-like influences, by listening to microtonal music, by listening to Sonic Youth.
I tried everything possible. And, like, finally, it all clicked. And there’s some things, whether it’s Shakespeare or Beethoven, like, you know it’s pretty good, right. So I would just say never give up.
Something that struck me in that answer is you’re known as a pretty omnivorous reader, but you didn’t say go read a book. You said go to the concert. You said, go find other people. You said earlier, go travel. You’re a pretty experiential learner, actually.
I try to be, right. It’s hard, because you can’t be everywhere all at once.
But what is the difference between putting yourself in the place of the thing happening, and simply trying to access it cerebrally?
I mean, in a funny way, books are overrated, right. They can be vivid, but often they’re vivid in the same kind of way. And what you remember the most, or shifts your world view the most, often, it’s events, right, or people you’ve known. So a lot of very smart people maybe overinvest in books, under invest in travel. And just, like, putting your body out there in some sense, that we as humans are creatures of the body, and to take that very literally and very seriously.
What can I do with my body, with respect to this question, is always worth asking.
That’s a wonderful question. And so then I’m not going to end by asking you for three books, after you just said books are overrated. But I will ask you for three pieces of classical music I should listen to.
Well, for me, I think Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas are a kind of peak of the classical canon. Literally every one of them is wonderful. There are just so many fantastic recordings of them. You can’t go wrong on Spotify. And just to learn each and every one and compare different versions, Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. And then a bit more difficult would be the last five string quartets. Quartet Italiano is my favorite version. There are fewer amazing recordings of those, but Opus 132 in particular.
And then most of the famous classic music by Bach and the best known operas of Mozart, I think — some of humanity’s great creations and you can never exhaust them. But also go see them in concert. If you can, visit where they came from. Befriend people who love them, not just sit there with your earbuds on. Make this a thing of the body.
And then one more on a thing of the body, you’re a voracious traveler. Obviously, it’s hard to travel right now, but when people can again, where are three places they should go that they don’t think of, that most of us don’t think of.
It’s not hard to travel right now. I was recently, two weeks in Mexico, which is easy to get into and out of. I was a week in Oaxaca and a week in Monterrey. I’d never been to Monterrey. I loved the place. It was physically beautiful, Mexico’s most business oriented city. I’m flying tonight to London, and from London will go places. We’ll see where those places will be, probably southern Ireland, where I haven’t been before.
Now, is a great time to travel, if, of course, you’re vaccinated, and yes, do get your tests and so on. But you can see things now that you will never have a chance to see in your life, often in bad ways, to be clear, but sometimes in wonderful ways, like St. Mark’s Plaza in Venice, but more or less empty of tourists. So I would say the imperative to travel has never been stronger — again, conditional on absolute, 100 percent precautions being taken.
But give me your three places that you think people should travel to that they don’t rate highly enough?
Mexico, Mexico, and Mexico. First, you can go from just about any country. Second, it is inexhaustible. Third, it is affordable. Fourth, most of it is actually easily safe enough, even though the terrible stories you hear are true, but they’re usually geographically concentrated. I think I’ve done 31 trips to Mexico in my life. I’m never bored when I go there. And just think about, like, where are you now? Where can you go? At the very least, you can go to Mexico and just keep on going.
Try to learn some Spanish. The food is amazing. People are very warm. There’s an incredible sense of the dramatic and the tragic there. And my goodness, you will never stop thinking about Mexico once you start going. And I mean, not just in Cancun.
Well, you can listen to Tyler’s podcast, “Conversations with Tyler,” while you’re on the plane. Tyler, always great to have our conversations. Thank you.
Thank you, Ezra. [THEME MUSIC PLAYING]
“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Jeff Geld, Roge Karma and Annie Galvin. It is fact checked by Michelle Harris, and original music by Isaac Jones. Mixing by Jeff Geld.