My EconTalk podcast with Russ Roberts on *The Complacent Class*

by on May 8, 2017 at 8:31 am in Books, Current Affairs, Economics, Education, Religion, The Arts, Uncategorized, Web/Tech | Permalink

Here is a link to the download and partial transcript, Russ is one of the very best interviewers and of course he is a pioneer in the podcast genre.  Here is one excerpt:

Tyler Cowen: And I think overall academics are among the most complacent of the complacent groups in American society.

Russ Roberts: Fair enough.

There is more…

1 Thiago Ribeiro May 8, 2017 at 8:39 am

They spent over one hour chatting? It seems too complacent. Elon musk would have launched dozens of startups and Trump would have launched dozens of missiles with half this time.


2 priior_test2 May 8, 2017 at 9:33 am

Not that an answer is required, but what is meant by ‘and of course he is a pioneer in the podcast genre.’? People have been ‘podcasting’ at least since this example from WFMU, described as follows – ‘ In 1961 The American Medical Association hired the Gipper for a viral marketing campaign dubbed I kid you not, ‘Operation Coffeecup.’ Doing his part to scuttle the arrival of Medicare Reagan lays down an 11 minute rap explaining how Socialized Medicine can only lead to an America where men are not free. This record was then mailed out to the ‘ladies auxiliary’ (doctors wives) of the AMA in each county.

Was it this little record that kept Medicare from being signed into law until July 1965? Is this why we still don’t have Universal Health Care? Give a listen: Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine ‘

The blog post is 10 years old, describing something that happened 46 years before then – yep, we are still having the same discussion, though it is possible that ‘Operation Coffeecup’ has been superseded, 56 years later.

Podcasting is not really all that new, at least when the concept is applied to attempting to sway public policy debates.


3 rayward May 8, 2017 at 10:02 am

Cowen: “And I think overall academics are among the most complacent of the complacent groups in American society.” I might add the qualifier “tenured academics”, as academics without tenure have nothing to be complacent about. Cowen may have meant the same thing with the qualifier “overall”. Of course, overall America is a very wealthy nation. Overall. [Okay, I’ll admit to the use of “most”, perhaps a more evasive term than overall. Strunk and White would not approve the use of either term.]


4 rayward May 8, 2017 at 10:05 am

To be clear (Strunk and White), the interviews of Cowen about his book have been excellent. Fair enough (whatever that means).


5 Hoosier May 8, 2017 at 10:37 am

Awesome! Been waiting for this one. Love all the TC- Roberts econtalk conversations.


6 BC May 8, 2017 at 11:41 am

Academics’ complacency is a curious thing. As discussed in a previous thread, they should love winning more than they hate losing. Tenure is designed to incent winning over avoiding losing. Yet, something about the way people think about tenure — once you have it, you can’t lose — seems to turn it on its head into advertising that attracts complacent people, people that don’t want to lose. Perhaps, academics respond more strongly to negative rather than positive reinforcement. Maybe, academics would be less complacent if we penalized them for not winning rather than insulate them from losing.


7 JK Brown May 8, 2017 at 1:46 pm

I do believe you wave off the “low-hanging fruit” rationale as to why the first half of the 20th century was so dynamic. It was a very unique time. A new energy source, oil, was coming into commoditization, this sparked new engine and machine technology. A new method of energy transfer and transformation, electricity, was coming into economical use. New methods of long distance communications, as well as transportation were rendering geographical obstacles moot.

All these new technologies and resources sparked innovation in solving long standing wants, desires and problems. And as for government, for most of the period of the first 50 years of the 20th century, government in the US was not very interventionist. This changed in 1930, but initially impacted “big business” leaving small innovators to their own devices. The interventionism on the smaller level didn’t go exponential until the 1970s mass regulatory movement.

This is an observation from 1950, from a book that catalogued “The Big Change” in the US, 1900-1950.

“Is the big and successful corporation its own master, then? Not quite.

“To begin with, it is severely circumscribed by the government. as Professor Sumner H. Slichter has said, one of the basic changes which have taken place in America during the last fifty years [1900-1950] is “the transformation of the economy form one of free enterprise to one of government guided enterprise….The new economy,” says Dr. Slichter, “operates on the principle that fundamental decisions on who has what incomes, what is produced, and at what prices it is sold are determined by public policies.” The government interferes with the course of prices by putting a floor under some, a ceiling over others; it regulates in numerous ways how goods may be advertised and sold, what businesses a corporation may be allowed to buy into, and how employees may be paid; in some states with Fair Employment laws it even has a say about who may be hired. “When a piece of business comes up,’ writes Ed Tyng, “the first question is not likely to be ‘Should we do it?’ but ‘Can we do it, under existing rules and regulations?’ “He is writing about banking, but what he says hold good for many another business. Furthermore, in the collection of corporate income taxes, withholding taxes, social security taxes, and other levies the government imposes upon the corporation an intricate series of bookkeeping tasks which in some cases may be as onerous as those it must undertake on its own behalf. Thus the choices of enterprise are both hedged in and complicated by government. ”
—-‘The Big Change: America Transforms Itself 1900-1950’ (1952), Frederick Allen Lewis

That “big business” now encompasses all business with a small innovative spurt when government was behind information technology in the 1980s and 90s.

BTW, it is telling that no one seems to have been compelled to catalogue the change in America in the now 67 years since 1950. Why? A lot of the most recent change has been clearing up the below the human interface. Example, apparently people place about 80% of the value of a car in the electronics (which means increasingly the software) rather than the mechanical. That’s much different when a basic engine-chassis was a life changing acquisition as it meant transportation, as well as freeing up a lot of land used for fueling the animal-motives prior to the ICE auto/truck/tractor


8 sdfxx May 8, 2017 at 5:38 pm

What, academics complacent? Snarx aside, gotta love how many prominent “libertarians” collect government checks from public unis and vie for tenure so they no longer have to compete at all for their place.

Nevermind Russ tho, where the hell is that Kasparov convo that was promised last week and how come I can find nothing about the Charles Murray one he mentioned on twitter.


9 Note May 8, 2017 at 7:27 pm

Aren’t those sorts of “libertarians” precisely suited to describe how the public dole effects incentives? Isn’t that the point? Aren’t you aggressively agreeing with them?


10 sdfxx May 8, 2017 at 8:48 pm

nooop. and the word you’re lookin for is “affects”


11 Bob May 8, 2017 at 9:02 pm

If you want to complain about Russ, go after his ultra soft approach to bitcoin, where it seems that he believes every positive claim, since a working bitcoin agrees with his priors very well, and ignores the fact that it’s snake oil tailored to scam libertarians that don’t understand its very weak tech underpinnings.


12 Anonymous May 8, 2017 at 7:43 pm

Justin Fox has something nice today on the evolution of intellectuals into thought leaders:

“A thought leader, on the other hand, “is an intellectual evangelist.” And as with most successful evangelists, most successful thought leaders have to be willing to say a variant of the same danged thing, over and over again, for years on end.

The resulting predictability has understandable appeal to those who book guests for television shows and keynote speakers for conferences — and speaking fees offer perhaps the clearest path to Alexander Pope-style affluence for the modern intellectual. But as psychologist Philip Tetlock documented in his great 2005 book, “Expert Political Judgment,” those who traffic in simple, bold ideas tend to be terrible at understanding and interpreting complex reality.”

I suppose Tyler has been forced to say the same danged thing a few times in this tour. Does it invest him over much in “complacency?”


13 Bob May 8, 2017 at 11:39 pm

The concentration of success in a place like Silicon Valley has IMO more to do with access to venture capital than it is with any other kind of network effect. You’ll find plenty of great people in tech all over the world: You’ll find that the percentage of top conference speakers that live in the bay area is not anywhere near as great as the percentage of software companies that become big successes. This has a lot to do with how, while it’s not hard to have an idea and launch it, to be able to survive having a bigger company enter your space, you want venture capital. Tyler, you might be able to convince some of your contacts that have a good view of both self funded and venture backed technology companies, and can tell you exactly how much easier it is to become a large, successful company if you get the venture capital.To get venture capital you really need an office in SV.

Tyler, his also links well with your idea of religion. You won’t find many people that are part of a traditional religion in SV, but you’ll find that many of the successful, growing firms build cultures that have a lot of religious qualities. You also have good access to direct sources on that one, although you might get better quality responses there if you don’t just go for executives. It’s amazing how many offices in the bay are full of activity at 7, 8 pm, full of people that either think that their company is changing the world, have a big belief in the founders, think that work is the one true good that makes them worthwhile, or have unrealistic expectations on what the average stock option is worth. Silicon Valley, the HBO series, kind of makes fun of this at times, but it’s absolutely real: Behaviors that appear irrational to the majority of us are what builds companies. In a way, it’s a lot like some of us Europeans see Americans that grew in the 60s and 70s, and their love for country, and see a religion: American exceptionalism, fed by delusion.

As companies grow, enough people go in that do not share the religious belief and dedicate their time to wheeling and dealing: Deceiving the decision makers becomes the way to win, people start to see it, become less enamored with the cult, and many parts of the company cease to grow so well: Ask in the right corners of Google or Amazon, and you see entire product lines that can only decline, as the faith is gone: Something similar happened at Microsoft in the late 90s.

I’d love to see Tyler comment on such cyclical, cynical models of the firm. The Gervais Principle, a series of articles in ribbonfarm, are probably the most cited source of this POV in the tech world. I’ve worked at many places where that model felt way too accurate.


14 Brian Donohue May 9, 2017 at 11:49 am

Very good stuff.


15 Barkley Rosser May 9, 2017 at 11:49 am

While there are exceptions, tenured academics do tend to be pretty complacent as they have among the most secure jobs in the US economy, where such security has gone down in recent years.

Which gets back to a problem. Did Russ ask Tyler what Noah Smith did, namely that what looks like complacency may in fact be more about fear, given the slowed performance of the economy, rising inequality, and reduced job security?


16 Tom G May 9, 2017 at 7:52 pm

“This country is becoming less religious. I feel overall that’s to its detriment. I say that as a non-religious person myself. ”
Yes, to the US and the world’s detriment.

Either you believe, or you don’t.

Do you believe in Good and Evil? If yes, there’s a God implied.

If not … why bother with non-complacency. No plan, no justice, no answer to the question “Why am I here?” (… fluke of the universe).

You should choose to find the Good, and believe in the God that helps sustain the vision of that Good.

Too many Dems have switched their belief to one of Gov’t, which historically has always failed, in time.


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