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Conversations with Tyler


The Mercatus Center of George Mason University – a libertarian focused American University- has recently initiated a fascinating series of interviews with interesting people titled conversations with Tyler.

“Tyler” is Tyler Cowen; an economist at George Mason University, a blogger at the excellent – where he writes on everything from game theory in basketball to  micro and macroeconomic analysis to libertarian philosophy and even reviews of Haruki Murakami novels – and most recently author of Average is over which considers the impact of automated labour on employment, income inequality and wider society.

Peter Thiel, the silicon valley entrepreneur, and Jeffrey Sachs, a world regarded development economist, have been the first two guests. I have found both of them to be intellectually stimulating as Tyler Cowen has asked interesting questions and ranged far and wide on subjects as diverse as Thiel’s view of globalisation, Sach’s view of Paul Krugman (not rated highly) and their favourite novels; for Sachs: Dr Zhivago and for Thiel: Lord of the Rings and The Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (no I had not heard of it either).

Unsurprisingly I recommend both conversations highly and am waiting with anticipation for those to come. I thought I would share my own highlights from each interview.

Peter Thiel

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Why do you have an appetite to live longer, and what’s your life’s mission? Have you fulfilled your life’s mission yet?

PETER THIEL: I think it’s somewhat independent of a life mission. I actually think life is something that’s worthwhile in and of itself. Death is kind of a bad thing, in [and] of itself, so even if I was adrift and had no sense of what I was doing at all, I would still all else being equal, hopefully prefer to live a lot longer.

I always think it’s very odd how weirdly strange the anti-aging, life extension idea is. I always think, “Why would people think that you would need a life mission or some extraordinary reason to want to live longer?” Part of it goes to these very strange psychological ways we deal with mortality, through a combination of acceptance and denial.

The value on life in and of itself and not necessarily for any grand purpose or “life mission” strikes me as profoundly true and potentially searching vaingloriously for such a mission is a trap people can fall into in terms of their own well being. Perhaps Thiel thinks this way because of his own strong Christian beliefs.

Jeffrey Sachs

Sachs has been heavily critical of the 2013 book Why Nations Fail which I blogged about here. I felt  the book went some way towards explaining the impact of good and bad institutions or ‘extractive’ and ‘inclusive’ ones on the prospects of a county albeit without really explaining the rise of China and without considering other factors.

While institutions still matter for economic growth, I think Sachs is right to criticise a one size fits all approach to understanding the world. He explains his more holistic approach as ‘differential diagnostics’ adapting the methodology applied by his pediatrician wife when talking to patients.

Here is an extract where Sachs explains the approach of differential diagnostics and criticises the economic profession for taking a blinkered view:

JEFFREY SACHS: . . . “It depends. Let’s hear your problem. Oh, you’re in a desert, you’re here, you’re this . . .” No, when it comes to the child, it could be something as normal as a common cold or a something as devastating as meningitis.The purpose of a differential diagnosis is two things. First, it is of course to try to get to the core reasons so that you can make a proper prescription based on a proper diagnosis. Second, it’s done in a way that you’re minimizing serious risk.

The first question always that my wife asks is, “Is the baby’s neck stiff, or do you notice that?” Because that’s one of the symptoms of meningitis. If the mother answers that way, the next point is “I’ll meet you at the emergency room. Don’t stop. Just go.” Because it could be something that is fulminant and life-threatening immediately. If it’s not that, then it can go on for an hour.

But by the way, it’s not just an hour of questions. It’s an hour of sequenced questions down a decision tree, and it’s fascinating to watch. I wish as economists we had those basic skills inbred. I certainly didn’t learn them, and it took me a long time of seeing lots of “patients” to see that one needs that same kind of approach.

That’s what I mean by differential diagnosis. Why it’s so annoying to me, the one explanation fits all viewpoints. Because now I’ve seen a lot of places, a lot of crises, a lot of challenges. One of the things that I discovered was how poor our profession is at times in having that sense that the problem that you saw over there is not the same as the problem that you’re seeing here.

Transcripts of the two interviews are here and here.

Here are the two video interviews:


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