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Why you should listen to EconTalk


EconTalk is easily one of the smartest podcasts available on the internet. I was reminded of this as I listened to host Russ Roberts interview economist Robert Frank about his book Success and Luck wherein the author asks how much of success can be attributed to hard work and good character and how much to good fortune.

 The discussion begun with a personal account by Frank of his good fortune that medical services arrived to attend to him after he suffered cardiac arrest during a tennis match.

 Coincidentally two car accidents had occurred near the tennis centre to which ambulances had been discharged, one of the accidents did not prove serious so an ambulance was able to peel off and tend to Frank.

 From there the discussion spun off into consideration of Frank’s proposal for a comprehensive progressive consumption tax.

Personal anecdotes to illustrate wider points relating to guests’ theses are a common feature of EconTalk. I think they prove a useful tool to introduce big ideas.

EconTalk runs for approximately an hour and the episodes are released on a weekly basis – in somewhat banal fashion Roberts signs off each episode by saying, “talk to you on Monday”.

 I don’t seem to be the only EconTalk fan out there. Last year, Quartz rated EconTalk the best business/economics podcast of 2015.

Roberts reported, in the 500th episode of the show, that his podcast averages 40,000 downloads inside the first week of each episode’s availability- this is an impressive feat for a podcast which offers pretty detailed intellectual fare. Not the sort of stuff which usually gets hearts racing.

 Listen to an EconTalk episode and you will be better informed about a particular issue, market or series of ideas. That’s all you need to do to stimulate your mind but there are also links provided to articles, academic papers and other podcast episodes for those who want to delve deeper.

 Emergent order –the structure which emerges spontaneously through the self interested decisions made by individual market participants under a system of free exchange – has become almost a clichéd phrase for Roberts who subscribes to a classical liberal or libertarian philosophy.

 The hidden order behind markets is a popular theme for Roberts and it has featured in interesting discussions ranging from markets for organ transplants, the second hand sneaker trade and cyber currency Bitcoin.

Roberts also delves into political philosophy in discussions such as this one with Yuval Levin on his book The Great Debate. That book traces the essential ideological fissure between left and right to debates between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine during the French Revolution (I reviewed it here).

 Some of my personal highlights from the many EconTalk podcasts I have enjoyed (and certainly learned from), are episodes where Roberts interviews his ideological opposites.

 Examples include interviews with Capital in the 21st Century author Thomas Piketty and a recent discussion with University of London academic Will Davies on his book The Limits of Neoliberalism.

 Some episodes also touch on topical issues such as this stimulating recent interview Roberts did with economist David Autor on his paper “The China Shock” which looks at the impact of increased trade between the US and China on American workers employed in those industries most exposed to global competition.

 What Roberts does well when interviewing those he disagrees with is, while he explores explicitly where differences of opinion exist and why, he explores where commonalities may lie and ensures the conversation stays constructive.

 When dealing with subject matter in the political and philosophical realm, this is no small accomplishment. Beliefs are held tightly and conversations can devolve into shouting matches if not carefully explored with respect.

 Roberts’ approach means listeners cannot help but come away better informed from EconTalk episodes. And where there is debate, EconTalk listeners will have a pretty fair representation of both sides of an issue.

 In a recent interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, blogger  Tyler Cowen said “if you make consistently smart content on the Internet, whatever form, there is an audience there.”

 EconTalk represents an example of that consistently smart content. Have a listen sometime.


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