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Tyler Cowen doesn't believe in progress, and he wishes you didn't either

"That we cannot avoid believing in progress may also prove to be our undoing.” 

Tyler Cowen interviews Nate Silver at George Mason University in 2015.
Photo courtesy of Mercatus Center

Tyler Cowen is an author and a professor of economics at George Mason University. One half of the blogging crew at Marginal Revolution, a must-read blog for anyone interested in economic theory, Cowen is easily one of the most engaging thinkers in the country.

He has received a lot of attention for his recent books, Average Is Over and The Complacent Class, both of which grapple with America’s changing macroeconomic outlook. But what makes him unique is the breadth and diversity of his thought. A true autodidact, he’s as comfortable talking about artificial intelligence as he is virtue ethics.

I sat down with Cowen and tossed a series of broad, rapid-fire questions at him. I asked him about Trump, artificial intelligence, the singularity, the perils of progress, and whether he’s worried about income inequality.

Near the end, I played the overrated/underrated game with Cowen, something he loves to do on his podcast, Conversations With Tyler. I got his take on Barack Obama, Nate Silver, Kanye West, Karl Marx, and several other topics, including Game of Thrones.

Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.


Sean Illing: This is one of those shopworn interview questions, but I’m asking it anyway — tell me something that’s true that few people agree with you on.

Tyler Cowen: I once suggested the chance that God exists is one in 20, and many people find this to be an absurd belief.

SI: What are you most worried about?

TC: I'm most worried about the fact that in a number of countries, liberty seems to be declining. Political order and democracy is fraying, and there's a newfound aggressiveness in Russia and China. There's also the collapse of the Middle East, and I'm not convinced we have the international institutions to deal with it.

SI:How worried should we be about Donald Trump's presidency?

TC: My biggest worry from the beginning was that he would damage American alliances and increase the tail risk of a very bad foreign policy event. The data so far, in my view, support that assessment rather than overturning it.

SI: What would you consider the most dangerous idea in human history?

TC: The idea of progress.

SI: What’s so scary about progress?

TC: Well, we're all for progress. It's easy to say the most dangerous idea is evil or racism or genocide or murder, but those ideas tend to persist only when they're packaged with some notion of progress. Progress, for all of its good, brings us new technologies and threats against which we can't deter, environmental problems, biodiversity loss, and so on. That we cannot avoid believing in progress may also prove to be our undoing.

SI: How concerned are you about artificial intelligence?

TC: I'm not worried about AI at all. I think it'll be wonderful. It will take away a lot of jobs that will mostly hurt young, physically capable males. That will continue to be a real social problem. For the most part, though, we'll have better stuff, cheaper stuff, and most people will be reemployed in other vocations.

I'm not worried about the Terminator scenario, if that's what you mean.

SI: So you’re not worried about utility-maximizing machines wreaking havoc in the future?

TC: We'll destroy ourselves long before anything like that happens.

SI: What about emergent biotechnologies? Does the potential to play with human genetics give you pause?

TC: It's very hard to predict what will come out of gene editing. There's a very positive scenario in which people become smarter and nicer and all sorts of diseases are cured. There's a darker scenario in which people become too conformist, too obedient. Either of those scenarios is very possible. I would describe my attitude as cautious.

SI: Do you believe something that you can’t prove?

TC: Most of what I believe I can't prove. I can’t even define what a number is … so how good can you feel about anything you believe?

SI: How do you view the internet and its impact on human life?

TC: The internet is great for weirdos. The pre-internet era was not very good for weirdos. I think in some ways we're still overrating the internet as a whole. It's wonderful for manipulating information, which appeals to the weirdos. Now it's going to start changing our physical reality in a way that will be another productivity boom. So I'm very pro-internet.

SI: What do you think will be the next major technological breakthrough?

TC: If you mean a single thing that you could put in a single headline, I would say self-driving vehicles. But I think a deeper and more important thing will be a subtle integration of software and hardware in way that will change everything and won't have a single name.

SI: Are you thinking here of the singularity or of something less radical?

TC: No, nothing like the singularity. But software embedded in devices that will get better and smarter and more interactive and thoughtful, and we'll be able to do things that we'll eventually take for granted and we won't even call them anything.

SI: Do you think technology is outpacing our politics in dangerous, unpredictable ways?

TC: Of course it is. And the last time technology outpaced politics, it ended in a very ugly manner, with two world wars. So I worry about that. You get new technologies. People try to use them for conquest and extortion. I've no predictions as to how that will play out, but I think there's at least a good chance that we will look back on this era of relative technological stagnancy and say, "Wasn't that wonderful?"

SI: How confident are you that we won’t explode ourselves before figuring it all out?

TC: Well, if you mean that we'll annihilate ourselves, I think the chance of that is quite small. But if you mean the chance of a limited nuclear exchange, I feel in any decade there's maybe a 5 percent chance of that happening.

SI: In your book Average Is Over, you paint a destabilizing picture of our economic future. What does it look like, and who will the winners be?

TC: I view it as a stabilizing picture. It may not be wonderful for everyone, but more and more workers will have to work with information technology, and if you can you'll do quite well. If you can't, it will compete against you and you won't do so well.

SI: How concerned are you about income equality moving forward?

TC: There's zero evidence that happiness inequality is up, and there's a fair amount of evidence that it’s down, and happiness and well-being is what we ultimately care about. So I'm not worried about income inequality.

I worry about how intellectuals react to income inequality, but it turns out intellectuals aren't that influential. Real people are typically not very bothered by this. They care more about how they're doing relative to the people they went to high school with than, say, Bill Gates.

SI: I worry that a growing income gap will produce a concomitant gap in social outcomes, which has a very corrosive impact on the body politic.

TC: I think right now, at the national level, our electoral politics is a disaster, and many people would agree with that. I don't see income inequality as the main culprit. I think it's the culture wars and the struggle for a sense of control and demographics and ethnicity and immigration. These are problems because people think they're problems. I don't think it's an actual problem, but as long as people think it's a problem, it becomes one.

Overrated/Underrated

President Barack Obama

Underrated. I think, as David Brooks wrote recently, we will look back and miss him. There's a sense in which he's treated all decisions with a seriousness and sobriety, which I find noble and elevating for our country.

Nate Silver

Underrated. Nate Silver is famous, and he writes on topics where everyone has their own view. When you do that, people think you're always wrong, and when you are actually, as he was on Trump, people don't give you a break for it. So he has designed his life to be the kind of person who is condemned by others, so that means he almost has to be underrated.

Karl Marx

Right now he’s probably underrated, but for almost all of history he's been overrated. He makes very basic errors in economics. People put Marxism into practice and everywhere it has failed, and it failed in very dramatic, sometimes violent ways. But that said, he's a brilliant and deep thinker. He understood the 19th century in capitalism better than almost anyone.

Kanye West

Underrated. I think Kanye is the musical mind of our time. Every one of his albums is different, original, takes chances. My favorite is the 808 album and then Yeezus.

Milton Friedman

He's both underrated and overrated. I would say by the median, he's way underrated. But by his partisans, he's way overrated.

Game of Thrones

I've never watched the TV show, but I tried to read the book and found that it's way too much effort for what you're getting in return. So I have to say it's overrated.

America

America the country or America the idea? I would say they're both underrated. Right now people think America is a wreck, and in some obvious ways it is. But we overrate the importance of the national stage. We're mostly unaware of the true stories of our era, as they will be written 30 or 40 years from now.

We've become a nicer, more tolerant, gentler nation in many respects. I think there's more wisdom in the country than ever before. We're screwing some other things up royally, but those are so visible, I want to stick and say the actual country and the idea of America are still underrated.

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