Tyler Cowen on Stories
By David Henderson
Commenter Ken B’s positive comment on Tyler Cowen’s TED talk motivated me to watch the whole thing. I agree that it’s excellent. The talk is about 15 minutes long and moves along at a good pace. The basic message: don’t be seduced by stories. Stories are oversimplifications of a much more complex and messy reality. I agree.
Tyler also makes a point that I make in classes and in talks: think on the margin. Whatever point you’re at now, don’t throw out your whole life and your whole way of being. There are reasons, some of them good, for why you are the way you are. (Of course, he, and I, are talking about normal everyday people here. If you’re a modern Hitler or Stalin, then, yes, please do throw out your whole life.)
One part of it left me wanting more. At about the 7:45 point, Tyler says:
I used to think–I was within the camp of economists–I was one of the good guys, and I was allied with other good guys and we were fighting the ideas of the bad guys. I used to think that. And probably I was wrong. Maybe on some issues I was one of the good guys but on some issues, I finally realized, “Hey, I wasn’t one of the good guys.” I’m not sure I was the bad guy in the sense of having evil intent, but it was very hard for me to get away with that story.
I’m guessing that the “I was probably wrong” was mainly about the fact that the guys with the bad ideas were not bad guys. I get that. I don’t think most of the people I argue with are bad guys. I think that most of them simply have bad ideas.
So I thought the point of his “throw out the good vs. bad” idea was that we shouldn’t just assume that people who disagree with us are bad guys. But then Tyler seems to go in a different direction when he says, “I wasn’t one of the good guys.” So it seems as if he’s keeping the “good vs. bad” theme but saying that he, Tyler, was bad.
So was Tyler a bad guy? Probably not if, as he seems to mean, we define “bad” by evil intent. It would be much easier to know what he means if he told us one or two instances in which he realized he “wasn’t one of the good guys.” What were the instances and when he realized that he wasn’t one of the good guys, what did he realize he was?