Angus Colwell

Glorious and bracing interrogation of the world’s smartest people: Conversations with Tyler reviewed

Eavesdrop on a very clever man asking interesting people some tricky questions in unorthodox ways

Glorious and bracing interrogation of the world's smartest people: Conversations with Tyler reviewed
The unsettlingly polymathic Tyler Cowan, with proof that he does find time to eat. Photo: Susan Biddle / The Washington Post / Getty Images
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Conversations with Tyler

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Tyler Cowen is a man who leaves you at once in awe and perturbed. He is the Holbert L. Harris chair in the economics department at George Mason University, and the co-host of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution. But his intellectual interests are staggering in scope, enough almost to unsettle. He is a true polymath. He embodies the American work ethic. He goes through ‘five or ten books a day’. His Marginal Revolution blog is not for the faint of mind: up to five emails a day. Tyler pops into your inbox to show you a new study he’s found (‘which words do men use more than women?’), tips for getting better at watching films (‘get a mentor!’) or news from Norwegian sex resorts. He recently confessed that the only thing he’s not really interested in is geology (still, he said he’s fascinated by the role of the Massif Central in French history). You wonder how he has the time to eat, though he is also an acclaimed food author who has written dining guides and runs his own ‘ethnic dining’ blog.

His views? He has described himself as a ‘state-capacity libertarian’ — he’s incredibly pro-growth, favourable towards immigration, and a supporter of same-sex marriage, as well as a fan of state-led ‘megaprojects’. It sounds slightly esoteric, but state-capacity libertarianism is the ideology that could have reigned supreme in the UK had Dominic Cummings’s stay in Downing Street been longer.

How does one man have all this intellectual energy? Perhaps it’s the lack of booze. He says he’s ‘with the Mormons’ on alcohol, and thinks it would be better if we all just didn’t drink: we’d be a smarter species for it. His podcast — Conversations with Tyler — is certainly not one to be listened to hungover. Unlike the gentle meanderings of other intellectual discussion shows such as In Our Time, this podcast is a one-hour-long bracing interrogation of some of the world’s smartest people by one very smart man. Miss ten seconds to a daydream, and you’ve fallen behind.

The format is very idiosyncratic — Cowen stresses that these are the conversations that he wants to have with his interlocutors, not the one that he thinks we want to hear. There are no formalities: in the last episode, with the financial historian Sebastian Mallaby, he kicked off the show with ‘do the observed high returns to venture capital funds constitute a counterexample to the theory of efficient markets?’: obviously a question we all ask the cosmos regularly.

Given the amount of information it offers, Conversations with Tyler initially struck me as the kind of podcast I wanted to extract intelligence from: to fast-forward to the end with the knowledge in my head without a real care for the journey. But over time, I have come to adore Cowen’s style of questioning and his gloriously unconstrained relationship with his guests.

Take the episode with the author and sometime Spectator contributor Andrew Sullivan. Cowen had been asking Sullivan about his HIV diagnosis and the gay community: the opening to the show was sensitive and contemplative. Sullivan said that he found himself more candid with his gay friends, more rude, at ease in a way that he isn’t with straight people. Ever the utilitarian, Cowen responded — as we all would — ‘taking a hetero person such as myself, if I want more of this element at the margin that you have with your gay friends, what’s the needed input to produce that?’ It is this — a wickedly precise question in a frankly hilarious lexicon — that makes the show so compelling. Cowen is a master of positing a scenario: instinctively conservative, he asks: ‘If you took the 200 most woke people in San Francisco and gave them more influence all over the world, doesn’t that make for a better world?’ It’s a way of asking a critical question that sidesteps tribalism.

Many of the episodes border on the impenetrable. I have not found myself gravitating towards ‘Pierpaolo Barbieri on Latin American FinTech’. But scroll down the list and there is a quite fantastic range of guests: Garry Kasparov, Peter Thiel, Jordan Peterson, Margaret Atwood, Slavoj Zizek and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

While some may listen to it with their stock portfolio’s interests in mind, I have ended up getting surprising life advice from surprising sources, such as General Stanley McChrystal (‘if you go looking for trauma long enough, you’ll find it’). Particularly brilliant was the artist David Salle on how to develop taste: go to a flea market, buy the cheapest vase, and eventually — as it’s sat there in your kitchen — you’ll make distinctions and realise what you don’t like about it.

In an age where the judgment of an imagined audience is ever present, Tyler Cowen’s lovable lack of care for the listener is refreshing. This podcast is simply about listening to a very clever man ask interesting people some tricky questions in unorthodox ways. It’s just nice to eavesdrop.

Written byAngus Colwell

Angus Colwell is a freelance editorial assistant at The Spectator.

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