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Check out my full Q&A with economist Tyler Cowen below!
Time is running out. Between right now and Monday, Memorial Day — tomorrow! — all free subscribers can purchase an annual subscription for $49 or $4.90 a month. That’s a deep, deep discount from the current annual price of $70 or $7 a month.
For that price, you’ll get three essays a week (currently you get only one), Q&As with fascinating thinkers (currently only paid subscribers see these), and a Saturday recap (which typically also has fresh content).
Among my recent essay topics:
The prospects for geothermal energy
The new Space Age that few Americans know about
Forget about Left Wing and Right Wing. How about an Up Wing America?
Why AI is finally ready to supercharge the US economy
5 reasons why I still believe in my New Roaring '20s thesis
DALL-E: Did picture-generating AI just make artists obsolete?
Among my recent short/sharp Q&As:
Economist Tyler Cowen on innovation, China, talent, and Elon Musk
Technology journalist Kevin Kelly on the case for optimism
Existential risk expert Toby Ord on humanity’s precarious future
Economist Erik Brynjolfsson on the AI economy
Author and Bloomberg columnist Virginia Postrel on economic dynamism
Hayekian urbanist Alain Bertaud on the future of cities
And because you took the time to read this far, I’m giving you my entire recent Q&A — previously available to paid subscribers only — with economist and Bloomberg Opinion columnist Tyler Cowen. Among his many books are Stubborn Attachments, The Complacent Class, Average is Over, and The New York Times bestseller The Great Stagnation. Cowen’s new book, co-written with Daniel Gross is Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World. Enjoy!
1/ Is the US doing a good job in both attracting talent and cultivating native talent?
We're doing a worse job attracting talent than we were doing, say, a decade ago because we have cut back on legal immigration. So that has been a major self-imposed blunder. We're doing a wonderful job attracting talent in the sense that we have a lot of American companies that are very famous and have a lot of soft power and people around the world want to work for them. So some things in the private sector, we're getting quite right. Other things in the public sector, we're getting quite wrong.
2/ Are you confident in the ability of government to reallocate talent geographically? There are plans to create tech hubs around the country. Do you think government can do that?
I am fairly skeptical about a lot of those plans. If you look at the original Silicon Valley, it evolved fairly organically. Now, government played a key role early on by funding the defense sector in the Bay Area. From that you have developments with semiconductors and chips and all kinds of technical abilities. But it wasn't a bunch of people sitting around like, "Oh, 27 years from now, we're going to have Facebook and Google." Quite the contrary. It was very poorly understood that the internet would become a thing. Government is most effective when it wants to achieve something else, and then as a byproduct those resources are commandeered by people for other creative ends.
3/ I could easily imagine someone asking you, what major should my kid pick in college?
Well, I would volunteer to speak to the kid, but for the most part, direct advice is not that useful. I would say your kid should think about: Could he or she have a better peer group than is currently the case? And to work very hard on developing a wonderful small group of intellectual collaborators. Then does your kid have the best mentors he or she might have? And to work hard on that. Then the answer about major over time should fall organically out of improving those processes. I don't think there are many people, if anywhere, I could just speak to and say, "You, chemistry. You, economics."
4/ You've written about productivity growth and economic stagnation, and there was a buzzy paper out recently called "Additive Growth," which seemed rather skeptical about the possibility to accelerate innovation-driven productivity. Is acceleration possible?
The ability of the social sciences to predict future rates of productivity, like future demographics, is fairly weak. I'm fairly certain, as I've written in numerous places, that looking back on the last 40 to 50 years, rates of productivity growth in America have been lower and slower. But we had this miraculous thing: the mRNA vaccines. You can even read the New York Times in late April, 2020. They polled a bunch of experts and the most optimistic person says it's coming in four years' time. Obviously, we had it in less than a year. So I am optimistic. There's more talent in the world than before. The vaccines were this phenomenal breakthrough, a surprise to many people. So we need to keep up that level of effort and involvement. But I think we're going to fix malaria, maybe sickle cell anemia. For a lot of areas in the biomedical space, you just read about a large number of promising developments, that it does seem we're on this verge of a quite remarkable age.
5/ If it turns out that the 2030s are not like the high-productivity 1930s, and if it turns out that the 2020s are not like the high-productivity 1920s, what do you think went wrong?
That we lost our mojo; that we didn't keep our focus. If you look at the vaccines, we had those done by Operation Warp Speed — pretty much an independent institution. Not captured by the NIH or NSF or anyone else. Everyone felt a sense of urgency. We were willing to let corporations make a lot of money from this. … We could lose those attitudes very easily. It's quite possible. But we did it once very recently. And you just see so much talent in the biomedical space. I think there's at least a 60 percent chance this will keep on rolling and it will be one of many future developments that will just really impress us — not in all economic sectors, to be clear, but biomedical is a big deal for our lives.
6/ Can the US be a dynamic, innovative society with stagnant or very low population growth?
I think you do better when you have higher population growth. But we have enough talented people that, yes, I think we could do remarkable things — even with zero population growth. We're lowering our chances. … [And] it depends how your population is growing. If it's taking in of immigrants, that's a much better way of having your population growing than just having, say, the parents who are least well-equipped to bring up their kids having more of them.
7/ Is a world with cheap, clean, abundant energy a significantly better world?
I think we need not only cheap, green energy, but we need to stop fossil fuel–producing energy over some time horizon. I know we're not close to being able to stop it now. So my fear is we get a lot of great new green energy and a lot of fossil fuel is still pumping carbon into the atmosphere. That's a much tougher problem to avoid. Just on innovation per se, I'm extremely optimistic: Electric cars are way ahead of where I thought, those exponential cost declines for solar and wind, way ahead of what I expected 10 years ago. But people confuse that with solving the problem. So I don't know if we're going to do it.
8/ What have we learned about the strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese authoritarian, state-capitalist model over the past few years?
They're making huge unforced errors with zero-COVID policy. They cannot keep omicron and later variants out of their populations, and they're playing a game of whack-a-mole. They're wrecking their economy. Their latest retail numbers are terrible, and there's no end game in sight. And all along, they had actually a contract signed with Pfizer for mRNA vaccines, and they wouldn't do it because apparently they were too nationalist and wanted to fix everyone with Chinese-made vaccines, which are far, far worse. Also with Putin's Russia: autocracy this year is looking much worse, and that revision in our attitudes is long overdue. I'm not surprised by any of this.
9/ What economic view or opinion of yours has been changed the most by the pandemic?
I thought we would today have a much higher rate of unemployment than is the case. Obviously the labor market is quite healthy, and I thought the enduring effect of the pandemic would be much more persistent. So I was quite wrong about that. That would be my biggest error, I think. A lot of my predictions were not so bad. I think I predicted 700,000 people would die. That was too low, but it's not so far off. I thought we'd have vaccines by the spring of 2021. Few people predicted that. That basically was right on target. I didn't think we would do as much stimulus as we did. It turns out we did too much, but the early bits that we did worked out pretty well.
10/ I think about a society where an MSNBC commentator calls Elon Musk a "not-so-bright billionaire." Is it a bad sign if the entrepreneurs in society aren't valued?
It's a bad sign, but I think most actual Americans like Elon Musk and admire what he's doing. Our media class does not. It's a bad sign about them, but he's pretty popular. It's partly how he gets away with a lot of the stuff he does. Americans, to me, are still not a class of people who hate billionaires. When Donald Trump claimed he was a billionaire, the response from the Democrats was not, "You're a billionaire and you're evil." Their response was, "No, you're not." That's a good sign, right?