On a podcast, the economist and blogger Tyler Cowen explains why he quit playing chess, even after managing to win New Jersey’s state chess championship at the age of 15:
“One of the early things I learned playing chess, which I did when I was very young... I was always around people who were better than I was, including at young ages. Just to learn that there will always be people smarter than you was a great lesson to learn early, and a lot of smart people never learn it, but I learned it by age 11 or age 12.”
In a way, I’ve found this quote to be a sort of master-key for learning from his work.
The actual story here, as I’m sure Tyler is aware, is not “there was someone smarter than me, so I quit”. Instead, the story is that Tyler could lose a much bigger game (his free time being spent on an activity with no reward) while seeming to win at a relatively smaller game (a chess championship).
In this sense, Tyler finds that he can “win” the biggest by constantly pushing their formulation of opportunity costs higher up the stack and aiming to maximize leverage over short-term success. Considering this as a philosophy of nested opportunity costs, heretofore referred to as Cowenism, offers insight into his most important work (including CWT) and provides context for many of his statements.
Cowen suggests in “An Economist Gets Lunch” that economic competition leads more directly to quality in ethnic street food than in the type of food usually touted by critics. This is an example of Cowenism, because he teaches you a way that you can win a more global game by surpassing a local game, in this case by focusing on the economic drivers of value as opposed to other’s impressions of it. If you zoom out further, Cowen’s suggestion also promotes his libertarian principles by giving the reader a vivid, zero-to-one example of economic competition increasing their personal well-being.
Many stop here, but the book has a further Cowenist interpretation. In writing a book viewing a quirky topic through an economic lens, Tyler added to his reputation as a libertarian blogger with a large and broadly apolitical set of interests. When an informed Bloomberg reader skims his column on Paul Mccartney years later, he need not consider the motivation of Tyler’s re-interpreting a recent historical icon, or make an effort to place the article in a historical context as he would a critique by a professor of literature. “Oh, that’s the funny straussian economist” does the job.
Where CWT fits in
For more evidence, listen to Conversations with Tyler, or better yet, imagine yourself as a guest on the show trying to convert a listener to your view. If you come on with prepared talking points, you face a style of questioning which emphasizes specific, thoughtful responses and often deep reflection.
If you instead come on with a general thrust through which you frame your responses, Tyler may frame your views right back, perhaps by directly asking how the region you were brought up in influenced their inception. In doing so, he collaborates with you in informing the listener about where your views are coming from.
Well, that’s what you wanted, right? But now the listener sees you as belonging to a location and era, giving your views a broader historical context and thereby stealing some of their present-day rhetorical appeal. Tyler has collaborated with you, given you a platform, and informed the listener, while stealing your ability to promote your views.
The figures who do well on CWT, such as Ezra Klein, Agnes Callard, or Patrick Collison (the latter flipping the format and interviewing Tyler at Stripe’s HQ), usually have successful careers in fields where the framing of complex issues, willingness to play long games, and strategic thinking are rewarded.
Arguably, this is the best case for the adoption and further spread of Cowen’s philosophy: as traditional barriers for attention and influence get ever lower (Ezra Klein started as Wonkblog, Collison a lisp dev), finding paths with high leverage is only becoming relatively more important.
The case against Cowenism is an excalibur argument. If you have no highest truth to recurse to, you are likely to hit a moral crux with no obvious answer. In this case, searching for the “winningest” moral framework can only take you down a few narrow paths, one of which being to simply adopt whatever the market or your peer group values highly. Another approach is to couch your views in moral uncertainty and continue learning, but even Bayesian views can slowly be biased by reading great rhetoriticians or as you interpret world events. This phenomenon is worsened still if you are being recommended rhetoric or world events by a consistent peer group, so it’s ill-fitted to someone who spends most of their time on the internet.
And that’s Cowenism, too