Is Tyler Cowen the New Charlie Rose?

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Tyler’s begun a new interview series at GMU and his conversations with the first two guests, Peter Thiel and Jeffrey Sachs, are amazing. Available as transcripts, videos, or podcast episodes.

In each conversation, you feel like you’re in the presence of two first rate thinkers in honest exchange with each other about what’s happening in the world. There are lots of insights to take away from each, but the meta lesson for me — especially in the Sachs dialogue — is the level of expertise one develops after years of thinking about the same question. Sachs has been thinking about developmental economics for a long, long time, and the depth of his experiences and views — right or wrong — really comes through.

Some specific quotes. At one point, Sachs says the following, and there’s an interesting back-and-forth about different ways to solve global problems:

I believe that knowledge matters and that the more clarity, the more evidence, the more appropriate an analysis, the more likely we can find a good outcome to things. Many people are cynical. I tend not to be. I’m sometimes accused of being gullible as a result, or being too soft in the face of whatever. But I believe that there’s a way to reach an agreement, typically, among pretty conflictual and often pretty antagonistic actors.

Sachs also is bullish on China:

[China’s rise] is happening. That’s the story of our time. It’s happening.

One and a half billion, two billion people including other parts of Southeast Asia — they’re on an upswing. That’s great. It’s wonderful. It’s the most significant scaled improvement of material conditions in the history of the world in a short period of time. It’s deep. It’s great civilizations, great cultures, great capacity.

In the Thiel conversation, there’s the following:

TYLER COWEN: Let’s say you’re trying to select people for your Thiel fellowships, or maybe to work for one of your companies, or to start a new company with. Just you, Peter Thiel, as a judge of talent, what trait do you look for in that person that is being undervalued by others? The rest of the world out there is way too conformist, so there must then be unexploited profit opportunities in finding people. If you’re less conformist, which I’m very willing to believe, indeed would insist on that being the case, what is it you look for?

PETER THIEL: It’s very difficult to reduce it to any single traits, because a lot of what you’re looking for, are these almost Zen-like opposites. You want people who are both really stubborn and really open-minded. That’s a little bit contradictory. You want people who are idiosyncratic and really different, but then who can work well together in teams. And so, this is again, maybe not 180 degrees opposite, but like 175 degrees.

Later, Tyler reads a question someone sent him that could be summarized, essentially, as what should a person do today to be successful in the modern economy? Peter says:

I’m always super hesitant to answer questions that are so abstract. If there was some general answer to the question, it would almost certainly be wrong. If I give you some general answer, and everybody could follow it, then if everybody followed that answer, it would be the wrong thing to do.

It resonated with me because the “What’s the one thing I need to do to achieve XYZ?” is such a common question I hear asked of speakers and authors.

Strengths and Weaknesses Are Connected

When people seek to define areas of potential improvement they often look to address weaknesses or build upon strengths. But thinking about strengths and weaknesses as independent attributes fails to recognize their inherent interdependence.

One day, while working with Reid Hoffman, I shared with him a self-evaluation of my work, my goals, and my strengths and weaknesses. When I discussed how to compensate for certain weaknesses, he told me, “Most strengths have corresponding weaknesses. If you try to manage or mitigate a given weakness, you might also eliminate the corresponding strength.” And if you try to expand upon a strength, you may also expand upon a weakness.

Reid shared a personal example about himself. He is not particularly well organized. But perhaps his day-to-day chaos partially enables his creativity. Creativity involves connecting disparate ideas. The man is a non-stop generator of ideas — perhaps the unstructured tempo of his life is a positive enabling force. How intensely organized you are and how creative you are may be two opposite sides of the same coin.

Another example from his life: His loyalty and generosity with friends is a strength. Friends are so important to him, and he to his friends, and the stellar results of his collaborations with friends are for all to see. But sometimes he gives too much and sometimes his friends take too much and it pulls him away from taking care ofhimself.

This two sided coin idea informs one of Reid’s classic strategy jujitsu moves: turn your weakness into a strength. For example, if you’re a startup and worry your lack of a track record is a liability to customers, instead of wishing it away, figure out how to turn your newness into a strength when marketing — perhaps it means you’re more agile or more personalized or more responsive.

On an individual level, if you worry that you’re not a good writer make a point to be great on camera and with video. You aren’t a fast thinker? Be known as deliberate, careful, detail-oriented. And so on. Here’s a good post on how to re-frame other limitations as potential strengths.

Bottom Line: Find the silver lining of strength in every weakness and remember that strengths and weaknesses tend to be connected — you cannot eliminate one without the other.

See my full essay 10,000 Hours with Reid Hoffman: Lessons on Business and Life for lessons and insights from Reid.

Markets vs. Central Planners, An On-Going Series

A great little vignette from Don Boudreaux about humility and markets.

I remember back in the late 1970s or early 1980s when I first noticed that still water began to be offered for sale in single-sized bottles. I was convinced that this product would fail. “Who would pay for still water in single-sized bottles when still water can be gotten for free out of water fountains and water coolers or at zero marginal cost out of faucets at home?” I reasoned. Whether I reasoned rightly or wrongly, my prediction proved wrong. Reason, you see, is a wonderful and necessary tool, but also one of limited power. My reason could not reveal to me the preferences of millions of other people. My reason could not reveal to me the ambitions and the creativity of entrepreneurs. My reason could not reveal to me the details of an open-ended future in which people are free to spend their money—as consumers, as producers, and as investors—as they wish.

Had I been a government planner in the 1970s or early 1980s—a planner with the finest training, the highest integrity, and a most intense desire to serve my fellow citizens well—I would have counseled against directing society’s scarce resources into the production and distribution of single-sized bottled still water. My reason would have assured me of the prudence and correctness of my decision. And if I were such a government planner whose diktat would have been heeded, no one would ever have learned that my decision stunk.

That markets work better, in all their chaos, than smart, well-intentioned central planners, is in one sense quite counterintuitive.

Questions About Life from Jonathan Safran Foer

What’s the kindest thing you almost did? Is your fear of insomnia stronger than your fear of what awoke you? Are bonsai cruel? Do you love what you love, or just the feeling? Your earliest memories: do you look though your young eyes, or look at your young self? Which feels worse: to know that there are people who do more with less talent, or that there are people with more talent? Do you walk on moving walkways? Should it make any difference that you knew it was wrong as you were doing it? Would you trade actual intelligence for the perception of being smarter? Why does it bother you when someone at the next table is having a conversation on a cell phone? How many years of your life would you trade for the greatest month of your life? What would you tell your father, if it were possible? Which is changing faster, your body, or your mind? Is it cruel to tell an old person his prognosis? Are you in any way angry at your phone? When you pass a storefront, do you look at what’s inside, look at your reflection, or neither? Is there anything you would die for if no one could ever know you died for it? If you could be assured that money wouldn’t make you any small bit happier, would you still want more money? What has been irrevocably spoiled for you? If your deepest secret became public, would you be forgiven? Is your best friend your kindest friend? Is it any way cruel to give a dog a name? Is there anything you feel a need to confess? You know it’s a “murder of crows” and a “wake of buzzards” but it’s a what of ravens, again? What is it about death that you’re afraid of? How does it make you feel to know that it’s an “unkindness of ravens”?

— Jonathan Safran Foer, from his writing on the side of a Chiptole cup. At that Vanity Fair link are Toni Morrison’s and Michael Lewis’s two-minute entries. Worth reading.

Unintended Consequences of Messing with Complex Systems

Ecosystems are complex. When you try to intervene and “fix” one discrete part of an interconnected ecosystem, you’ll likely incur unintended and unpredictable consequences elsewhere. An ecosystem can be a biological community; it can also refer to a large company or even an entire economy. I love Arnold Kling’s metaphor of a country’s economy being like a rainforest. It’s a metaphor that should humble any policymaker who thinks he can simply turn a knob here or a knob there to shape economic outcomes.

In a recent episode of Econtalk on free market environmentalism, there’s an interesting story about wolves in Yellowstone. When wolves were taken out of Yellowstone park, all sorts of weird things happened. A very cool 5 minute video summary (with some beautiful imagery) explains.