The Portal: 'Ideas come from the internet,' with Economist and Blogger Tyler Cowen

I didn’t really turn on this episode of The Portal planning to do a post about it. Honestly I’ve been listening to Tyler Cowen here or there for so long he’s just like a comforting blanket of well contained, thoughtful calm.

The joy of listening to Cowen is that he just has this gift for seeing the variable everyone’s ignoring and guessing at ways that a neglected variable or two can yield unintended consequences. I was just going to listen to Cowen do his calm economist thing and enjoy his and Weinstein’s wild and widely read scholarly asides and just hope a few nuggets fell into a part of my memory that might hang on.

Then Cowen said this:

“There’s no longer heterodox or orthodox any more. Ideas come from the internet, whether everyone likes that or not,” Tyler Cowen told Eric Weinstein on his podcast, The Portal, episode 16, “The Revolution Will Not Be Marginalized.”

Which is close enough to the mission statement for this whole site that I felt like it needed to be logged in text because these sorts of thoughts remain somewhat hidden in audio and video files.

Cowen basically argued to Weinstein that our romantic notion of influential insiders and ignored outsiders is somewhat dated. That is, it’s not true any longer that to be taken seriously you need to have a tenured seat at a university, a government appointment or a job at the Brookings or Cato Institutions.

He chides Weinstein a bit because it’s obvious that his interviewer feels that way, to some degree (and Cowen is right). The feeling of outsiderness just comes from what Cowen refers to as a “status hangover.”

The truth, as Cowen sees it, is that a lot of the best outsider thinkers (he names Gwern and Slate Star Codex as two top of mind examples) have come to wield influence commensurate with their talent.

“They’re not like quite the outsiders any more,” Cowen said.

Winning the internet

Just in case you don’t know, Cowen writes a blog with another economist named Alex Tabarrok, called Marginal Revolution. Both of them are economists at George Mason University.

My only complaint about their blog is it’s hard to keep up with. Those two dudes bang out so many good posts that even just kind of following along is quite daunting.

Anyway they started the blog back when blogging was new and they just kept at it. They didn’t get lured onto other social media strategies or walk away from blogging when the shine wore off of it. As Cowen says: there were a lot of economists who were blogging at one point and now they’ve all shifted to sniping at each other on Twitter.

Cowen jokes that he doesn’t think it’s improved the discourse for his profession but it’s certainly left the road wide open for him and his partner to dominate the economist blogosphere.

So here’s the lesson of Tyler and Alex, the DC suburb boys:

They had the advantage of starting a blog back when a blog was the only game in town, really. That’s not true any longer. Social media sites have built in network effects, which means the right content can grow an audience much faster.

But you’ll always be a sharecropper on someone else’s website. Starting a blog is slower road to success, but you will continue to own all of it pretty much no matter what (unless internet service providers start getting very weird).


Completely unrelated to all of the above: If you love music, the last hour or so of this episode is amazing (starting around 87 minutes in). I had no idea that Cowen had such complex and subtle ideas about music. He apparently hears things in The Beatles that I’m just not subtle enough to hear.

Which, don’t get me wrong, I love the Beatles, but he talks about certain songs as having complexity to them that never ceases to impress him and they are songs I have heard a hundred times, but I’ve missed it.

And it’s not just the Beatles. They talk about a lot of music here. I listen to a lot of music myself and I really enjoy it, but I don’t think my musical palate is especially refined and it’s always fun for me to listen to people who can hear more than I can try to describe what they are listening for.

These guys do it. It’s great.