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We are born communicating with other people. So you think communication would be easy and intuitive for us? Right. Our first cry on this Earth, in fact, is a form of communication. And we go through our lives as social animals, learning by interacting with others. And yet so often, whatever else we succeed at, we fail at communicating. And this failure harms every area of our lives, from our relationships to our careers to our own intellectual growth.
I got a sense of the importance of communication in general and conversations in particular when I started the scene and the unseen as I learned the craft. One of the rules I do for myself was that I had to listen more than talk actually pay attention to the people I was speaking with and keep my own sense of ego out of the conversation. Good conversation isn't about showing off how much you know how smart you are or even winning an argument. The interesting thing is that there are so few interview shows around it actually share this philosophy interview shows, especially on TV, but often full of hosts interrupting their guests all the time, which makes for choppy, shallow conversation.
And the main purpose of one isn't to gain insight from the guests, but to catch them in a gotcha moment so they can show off their own superior intellect. This is both rude and toxic. Every single person on this planet knows something that we don't. Every conversation gives us a chance to expand our universe. And that is why when we are in a conversation, our focus should not be on how we talk, but on how we listen.
Welcome to the Scene and The Unseen, our weekly podcast on economics, politics and behavioral science. Please welcome your host, Ahmed. Welcome to the scene in The Unseen. I've been thinking for months that I should ask Russ Roberts on my show, but I hesitated because it felt almost audacious. Russ is the ultimate master of what I try to do, have deep conversations with people that expand our brains and our sense of the world. His podcast, Ican Talk began in 2006, and he has had more than seven hundred amazing conversations on it since.
And it's a marvelous show that's over the years not only given me great insights on economics and politics, but has also shown me the craft of how to have a conversation besides being the original podcast. Russ has also been an economics educator. I first came across him a decade and a half ago through Cafe Hayek, the brilliant blog he co-wrote with Don Boudreaux. He has written a bunch of brilliant books as well and has been a guiding light through generations of people learning about economics and the world around us.
So I finally gathered up the courage to invite him on my show and was delighted when he agreed. What you're about to hear now is a wide ranging conversation across subjects the art of conversation, the nature of morality, our changing political discourse, and, yes, some economics as well. I've had trouble thinking of a title for this episode, in fact, because we covered so much ground. This was one of the conversations that I have most enjoyed on the scene in the ANC.
But before we get started, let's take a quick commercial break.
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Welcome to the scene in The Unseen. Great to be with you, I mean, but was just a great pleasure to have you on the show, because not only are you you know, one of the writers I used to read a very seriously a decade and a half ago for your insights on economics, but you're also one of the early broadcasters, in fact, so early that at that time I didn't really think broadcasting very seriously, but yours was one podcast which, you know, just captivated me for the incredible range of guests and conversations that you've had.
And you've done more than 700 episodes of back, which is, you know, I've just run this is episode 182.
So it's a bit daunting.
But I want to take you a bit further back and sort of ask you about your intellectual journey from the time you kind of started and became a student and got interested in economics by economics and sort of who shaped your views of the world, who were the thinkers, who influenced you and so on.
So we could go as deep as you want. You'll steer maybe and give me some suggestions on where you went ahead with that. But the simple starting point is that I was good at economics. I enjoyed it. I saw it as a puzzle to be solved the way that the theory fit together of consumers and producers yeilding prices and quantities in the marketplace. I found that kind of beautiful and satisfying intellectually. And then I saw that it was a way to think about how to make the world better, a vision that I've now become much more skeptical of.
But when I was younger, it appealed to me deeply. This idea that we could help make people's lives better through economic policy. We can improve certain policies, get rid of others, add new ones, and in theory, encourage opportunities for people to grow financially as well as in other ways. I saw it as a way to think about. What kind of country and where we want to live in in terms of structure, capitalism versus socialism, free markets versus command and control, so all that was very captivating to me and the intellectual influences in those early days, I was much more libertarian, I think, than I am now.
I'm still pretty libertarian, but I was more of an ideologue than I am now. I was very influenced by Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick, those are the two, I would say, big influences of my of my youngest and Ayn Rand, who I am not as nearly as fond of now as I was when I was a teenager. But those are people that got me interested in this idea of liberty, of freedom and particularly economic policy that would allow that freedom.
And that was I went off to graduate school and found a new set of of mentors and intellectual mentors, people like Gary Becker, Deirdre McCloskey, George Stigler, Sam Peltzman. These are people who affected how I viewed economics, how I viewed politics. And then. Interestingly, for me, may be of interest to you, but in in 2003 three, I join the faculty at George Mason and at that point I started getting very interested in the ideas of Hayek, the great Austrian economist, Nobel laureate.
And I spent a lot of the next years thinking about the idea of emergent order, the idea of complexity. And how individual choices get magnified and aggregated into outcomes, and that was another big influence, you know, people like Don Boudreaux there. I learned an immense amount from him about about economics that I just hadn't thought about enough in different ways. And I've many, many colleagues there who who influenced me. But the real change is that in 2006, as you pointed out back in the.
The Pleistocene era, I started econ talk and originally contact was me talking for an hour with an economist who either I knew or was I could talk into coming on the program in the early days. As you know, when you get started, it's a little challenging. And if you build up a guest list, it gets easier.
But I started to talk to my former professors and other people who are doing interesting work and that forced a an immense broadening of my horizons first take to be aware of the the fallibility of my viewpoint. I didn't turn against my viewpoint, but I realized that the viewpoint that I realized that a lot of the reasons that I thought it was the right way to think about the world weren't really the reasons that I adopted that viewpoint. I assumed, you know, I just assumed I had all the best studies, all the right studies, all the good facts.
The other side, they were just wrong. And at some point, probably after interviewing Robert Frank, who looks at the world differently than I do and other people, I start to realize that, you know, this sounds kind of this is embarrassing and it sounds kind of childish and naive, but I started to become aware of my own confirmation bias. And it's reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb at the time, his book, Fooled by Randomness, and that that set me on a path of a very different intellectual arc of of exploring uncertainty, overconfidence, humility.
And similarly, I'm almost done with this travelogue. Essentially, I started I had a set of conversations with Dan Klein, my colleague at George Mason on Adam Smith and his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. And that was another complication to my worldview, because Smith is thought of as this. Free market economists who wrote The Wealth of Nations, which of course he is, but he also has this other book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where he's very interested in our moral sympathies and the fact that we're sometimes act altruistically and what's the source of happiness.
And I started to really open up my mind to the richness of philosophy and and saw by my past training and economics is just a little bit sterile, a little bit too narrow. So in a way, I haven't changed much at all. The things I care about, the principles I stand for, they're pretty much the same. I just have a different way of thinking about them and a willingness to realize that the world is not as open and shut as I probably saw when I was 30 years old.
And so that's really the that's a quick look at what I've been through, how my thinking has changed over time. I'm increasingly interested in philosophy and philosophy is about asking good questions, not about answers, crazily interested in risk and uncertainty, too. I'm always struck by how subtle and challenging it is to think about those topics thoughtfully. The people who are very confident themselves and those areas are dangerous. It really is important to know what you don't know.
So that's what I'm interested in. And at the same time, the country I live in has gone off the rails, become unmoored, discourse has been degraded. So I've been increasingly interested in trying to understand how that happen, you know, what is going on.
And it's not only in America, of course, you know the rise of populism, the really rearrangement of what is considered left and right, what's considered sort of mainstream liberal conservative differences. I'm very interested in how that has come to pass. So that's another set of interviews and topics and reading I'm doing to try to wrap my head around that.
There are a lot of kids I want to pick from. You know, what you just spoke about. And in fact, I'm the first one to look at is, you know, I just finished reading your book, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, which is, of course, a lot of material moral sentiments. And one of the first thing that strikes you that, of course, is that, you know, we can post facto we can think of Smith as an economist, but he was also a moral philosopher.
He was also a political philosopher. He was also an economist, of course. I mean, the practically the founder of modern economics. And similarly, when I was looking at the sort of people you studied with and worked with Ligeti Beko, who strikes me almost as a quintessential 19th century intellectual in the sense that his interests are so wide ranging. He has studied and written on so many different subjects. Whereas if you look at the modern day, my impression of it is that everyone is expected to be a specialist.
You don't have an economist talking about modern philosophy all the way to go. So. Yeah. And how much do you feel that that's the trap for people who are in academic study or maybe over the last few decades that you tend to increasingly specialize in how important it is to then do that kind of Wide-Ranging thinking and studying, which in a sense, you know, you were forced to do by the nature of the conversations you had to have when you go because you're talking to so many disparate people.
But how how important is that? And is it a rare thing?
So that's a really interesting question. I've actually started thinking about aspects of that in the last year or so because I think a lot about what's happened to my discipline over the last 30, 40 years. Economics, it's when I was being trained and in the decade or so after I was came out into the job market and became an academic, the emphasis was was on very high powered mathematics. The people who were respected and and had prestige were the people who could use the most advanced mathematics.
That's changed today, the people who are most respected in economics, the people who can do the most sophisticated statistical techniques to manipulate data and try to understand it.
And both of those are interesting. But what what I've come to realize and to think about your question in terms of specialization, there's a really funny kind of specialization that I think is is the most important one. First, let me react to what you said about Gary Becker. Gary Becker had, as you said, had incredibly wide ranging interests. He wrote on the family. He wrote a crime, wrote a discrimination. He was the ultimate economic imperialist on politics, of course.
Also, he was trying to use the tools of economics to understand all those things. So in one sense, he was incredibly diverse, in other senses incredibly narrow, because he forced every one of those areas into the economic lens. And let's digress for a minute. Talk about what that economic lens is. That economic lens is the the idea that rationality. The right behavior is to maximize something subject to the constraints of your situation, so the simplest way to think about this in economics is the economist's view of human behavior.
Is that we try to get as most set the maximum satisfaction out of life, given that we don't have an infinite amount of money. Now, that's a really powerful tool, as it turns out, in a way, it's kind of it's almost a tautology. It's not so interesting it by itself. But economists take that tool and Gary Becker was the master of it and use it to see what insights they can get or what predictions they can get about human behavior.
So just to take one crazy one, that part of the reason Gary Becker got a Nobel Prize is that he said, let's treat the decision to have children the way we treat every other decision. You know, we have children because we enjoy them and then we invest in them. We give them knowledge time and they go out into the world, they might in a primitive society be a literal investment. They might end up taking care of me or working on my farm or, you know, taking care of my old age in modern times.
Know the investment is more to turn them into a kind of person I'm going to like. That would be one way to think about child raising. And what Becker talks about is the trade off between quantity and quality of children. Now, this affects people tremendously. It offends me a little bit now, but I want to make clear what the nature of the offense is, so. What he meant by that was if you want to have children of a certain ability and have them have a certain set of skills to go through life with, in particular, let's say you want them to to be college graduates, we can't have eight kids.
You can't have 13 kids. They're too expensive. So just financially and time wise, not just money time wise also. So what he was trying to explain by that insight, which is trivial but deeply true to some extent. Not the only factor, of course, but what he's trying to explain is that why do wealthy people have more? Nights out at restaurants, why do they have more cars or are they more square footage of house? Why don't they have more children?
They like kids. Kids are things they like. They have lots of money. Why don't I have more of them? The answer is, which is interesting and provocative, is that, well, the more you have, the harder it is to have the level of investment you might want in knowledge and time to have them turn out a certain way. So that's really interesting. OK, that's Beckers. One insight that you get from using economic tools, but you really wouldn't want to.
I think I don't think you want to assume that people sit around and think with their. Getting married, honey, let's make sure we take care of the quantity quality trade off when we decide how many kids to have. Now, Becker was a very wise man. He didn't think that. So people literally did perhaps that they were calculating machines. What he was trying to do is often called the as if hypothesis, saying, well, people act as if they're trying to maximize how much pleasure they get from their children.
So I think that's a very powerful tool. But most economists don't realize in this or I want to get back to your question. I was a long, rambling answer, but most economists struggle to remember that their models of reality aren't the same as reality. I don't think I'm not sure Gary Becker ever made that mistake, but most of us being human, more human, we make that mistake all the time. And you might argue, well, what's the difference?
Not a big deal. But the difference is, is that it start to change how you look at it, human beings and how you look at yourself. And the example I like to use is the dance floor. When you go out on a dance floor with a partner, is your goal. The economists would say, oh, your goal is to get as much pleasure as you can from this experience. You might want to show off or have people think you're a great dancer.
And what Adam Smith would actually say is that when you're out on a dance floor, there's certain rules of propriety, certain rules of conduct that you should live up to, certain expectations. You're not trying to maximize anything. Where you're trying to do is live by the rules. You're trying to be a good person. Now, those two worldviews which are get the most out of every experience versus well, in some settings, you know, I just try to do the right thing.
Obviously, they're sometimes in tension. A lot of times doing the right thing is expensive in some fashion. So we don't do the right things. I don't think you want to argue that the economic way of thinking is irrelevant. It just that it's not the only thing. And so many times economists, I think, forget that. So to come back to your question. About specialization, you know, most economists know very little about other things outside of mathematical theory and statistics, you might think, oh, it's because they're so they don't have time.
And it's not the reason reasons they're not interested, not so interested in art history. They're not so interested in poetry. It's just not that's the kind of person who's interested in math and statistics often sometimes isn't interested in a wider range of things.
So I think the biggest challenge that academics face today in the world isn't just that they're not interdisciplinary. That's one way to to phrase your the point you raise. You know, they don't understand things outside their narrow silo of how they were trained. I think it's more there's a meta understanding there that that's missing, which is we don't understand often as academics how much our worldview is conditioned on the way we were trained. Let me give you an example. You're raised in a household that has a respect for religion and you end up adopting.
Most people do their parents' religion or they leave their parents' religion, which is the other thing that happens. But let's say you keep your parents' religion. The idea that you spend much or any time thinking about whether it's the right religion is almost a zero. It's like it's discomforting you don't want to think about it and you're happy you got a good thing going, you know, that's the way you were raised. There's deep, primal things that are there going on there with family and the transition from childhood to adulthood, the existential angst of being a human being that you don't want to tamper with.
So academics have that same problem. They don't even realize that we're trained in a certain I can't I don't want to repeat the actual people, but, you know, friends of mine, colleagues of mine and fellow economists will write me and say, you know, or talk to me and say, you know, you sound like you're kind of skeptical about fill in the blank. And I'm thinking, well, sure. Are you? And and I realize, no, they're not they haven't thought about it.
I don't it's isn't like, oh, I'm so much better than them. They don't think about I'm talking about the fact that when you're a fish in water. You just don't realize you're in the water, I mean, that's just such an obvious challenge of being a fish and if you're a fish, you don't need to think about it. It's not important. You're in the water. You can't live on land. It's like you're missing a big opportunity that all you're thinking about is the water.
But if you're an academic and all you can see are the studies that confirm your way of looking at the world. You're in water and it's costing you because you don't realize that the world's more complicated, so even super intelligent, high IQ prestige as successful academics that I talk to, they don't spend any time questioning the tools they've been trained in. I mean, that's like saying I think, well, I wonder what it'll be like to live in a thatched hut like most people live in suburban America.
Don't think about that. Shots that much as a I wonder. It's like to live in a yard or, you know, what are it be like to live in to ride a bicycle, to work every day? Well, that's a stretch. Some people do that and they realize, oh, it's kind of fun, but within your academic discipline to turn on it or to be to imagine that there's a richer or more complicated view of the world or that you're leaving out stuff.
And that's another way to think about it. One thing I've been increasingly interested in is this challenge of. Thinking about data and measurability and so much of life is not measurable. Economists don't even think about those things that aren't. It's not like, oh, well, we can't measure that, but we'll keep it in mind. It's out of mind. It's out of sight. My line is dignity's not the data set. No variable called dignity. That goes on a scale of zero to 10.
You know, it's like if I go to a out of work coal miner in West Virginia and say a scale of zero to 10, how much self-worth are you feeling today? And we don't ask those questions. Nobody asked those questions. If you do that, answers don't mean anything. And they vary from day to day. But that's important. Dignity is important. Work is important. It's not just how much we earn. It's it's the work we do and how satisfied we are by it and and how proud we are of it.
And kind just ignore all that success can't be measured. And we say in the back of her mind, well of course we know about that. But after a while we forget about it. And that leads to policy mistakes. It leads to hubris. So that's a really long answer. I apologize. But now this question of narrowness, I think, is much more than just that. We're not interdisciplinary, which most of us are. In fact, you know, George Stigler, another one of my professors at Chicago, said there's only one social science and we are its practitioners, meaning economists.
And that's the way a lot of economists feel. It's like our tools. That's the only way to look at the family. Sociologists don't have anything. They just make up stuff that that's sort of the gist. As another biographical note, Gary Becker was interested in sociology and he realized there's nothing here. Now, there's some brilliant sociologists, but the field of sociology doesn't have an organized series. So I think economics was deeply appealing to him because it gave him a framework for organizing and thinking about the family, about what we would normally call sociology or anthropology.
And it's a powerful tool, but it's not the whole story. And I think Gary knew that. I think a lot of economists struggle to remember it.
And I'm very interested in sort of the question of how we form our belief systems, like when we are young, we're trying to make sense of the world. And suddenly you come across a framework that explains everything and it feels so powerful. It's almost like I use your head as you see everything clearly for the first time. And then that's like a hammer. You apply to every single name. And you you've made the analogy for, you know, a bunch of people have lost a key and they all gathered around a lamppost looking for the key, even though the key is somewhere else.
But the way the light is. Yeah, exactly. You know, and that strikes me as being very accurate. I was sort of saving my acquistion on ideology for later about how one deals with ideologies and thinks about ideologies. But since you've sort of brought that subject up in your book and Adam Smith's you, you quoted Sam Thompson as saying, quote, The universe is full of dots. Connect the right ones and you can draw anything. The important question is not whether the door to pictorially leader, but why you chose to ignore all the others.
Stockwood and you've also you know, you've had another thing on your show. And he wrote this great book called The Three Languages of Politics. Before I ask you to elaborate and quickly sort of summarize that for my listeners, Arnoux argument essentially is that if you look at the three major ideologies in America today, it's not a question of somebody being right or wrong. It's just that they're starting from different first principles. And from that point on, they are completely coherent.
Again, I'll quote from your piece in this where you write, quote, Liberals see the world as a battle between victims and aggressor oppressors. Conservatives see the world as a battle between civilization and barbarism. Libertarians see the world as a battle between freedom and coercion, ostracod and liberals. And of course, you mean the American civil libertarian liberals. I guess we could also call them progressives otherways. You know, you and I would call ourselves liberals, I think broadly.
And you wrote a very interesting piece where you sort of pointed out that, well, of course, this is true, that we are often talking past each other, not to each other, because we don't recognize each other's problems and try to understand where the person is coming from. But you also pointed out that these three tribes, as it were, also have their own sort of blind spots. We stop them from, you know, seeing the world, which I found incredibly fascinating because when I did, my first instinct was, yeah, he he's right about the liberals or the progressives.
And, yeah, he's right about the conservatives when you see the right of the libertarians. But, you know, then one kind of carefully and sees the points that you're making. Any elaborate on that a bit? What are these blind spots? And also, you know, before you get to that, is that something that you have changed your mind over time? Like will you once sort of more dogmatic than you are today?
That's a good question and hard to I'm going to get lost answer here. But maybe you could steer me back if I get in trouble. So let's start with the three languages that comes from Arnold Klein. As you point out in his book, The Three Languages of Politics, a fantastic short read that will. Change the way you look at politics, one of the most influential books on my thinking, you know, those three lenses, those three frameworks, so the the I'm going to call it progressive to keep that confusion from happening.
So progressives say the world is full of victims and oppressor's conservatives say the world is a fight between barbarism and civilization. And libertarians say the world is a fight between freedom and coercion. So let's take an example in the current situation in America, police brutality. The death of Jorge Floyd recently, the tragic death of Jorge Floyd, the progressive, look at that and say black people are victims and the police are oppressors. The conservatives look at it and say being a police man is a very hard job.
Police officer is a very hard job. If we don't honor them, we're going to have a breakdown in order. We're going to have looting and rioting and look like it's happening. The libertarians say the police are doing all the wrong stuff. They're obsessed with the drug war, which causes them to really run amok drugs, it should be a personal choice of an individual, shouldn't be the government's role. Police should stay out of that. And most of these problems would go away.
Now, the irony is, I think all three of those things are true. I think all three of those things are true. I think black people are oppressed in America. I think civilization is a threat from barbarism and I think the government ought to get out of the drug war. That's not what's interesting. What's interesting is that. It's very hard for each of us to see beyond our own lens. And so all I can see when I put my glasses on, if I'm a conservative, is, oh my gosh, this looting is out of control.
We might my house could get attacked. I could get attacked. We need strong police. The progressive look at it and saying, do you know what it's like to be black in America? The libertarians look at and saying, you know, those police have all this military equipment, so every person is seeing it through their own lens and they're not wrong. What changed for me from Arnold's book and other conversations and thinking about is that you got to realize the other side's got some good points.
They're not wrong. They're not right. Not the whole story, but they're not wrong to all three of those I think are correct. And now what do you do? And my point in that essay that you're referring to is that I think each of those views, while correct, has a blind spot. So the case of progressives, I think the victims have no agency. They can't help. They have no options, no freedom. That's absurd.
It's a ridiculous thing to believe. Right. So that lends of course, blacks are oppressed at times and have a tough time. That's true. But to then go so far as to say they have no agency, there's nothing they can do about their situation, it's impossible to make any progress as a black person. America. That's absurd. That's not that's not consistent with the data, the facts, the reality that we all understand. And similarly, the conservative is right that we want to make sure that the people can go safely about their business and and and walk down the street and have good businesses.
But they often don't think that everything's the fault. The police ever make a mistake. But of course they do. They do some terrible things. They're human beings and it's their small portion, perhaps. Does it matter? It should be smaller if we can do it ideally. So the conservatives have a lot of conservative friends that I'm increasingly interested in. Conservative ideas don't say things like, well, there's all this employment opportunity. Not right now, of course, because the pandemic but before the pandemic, they'd say, why all these people in an inner cities in America aren't where are they doing drugs?
Why don't they work? And that's their fault. Why are they getting a job? Let's look at all the employment. If I were black, I wouldn't be like that. I'm thinking, how could you say that? You have no idea what it's like to be black. You're not black and you really think you'd be different. You wouldn't be like them if you didn't have a decent education. If you grew up in a bunch of streets where everything was boarded up, you really think you'd be this.
So? So. The progressives think that poor people have no way to say they're just victims of rich exploiting companies and an eracism. The conservative makes the opposition say, oh, you could do anything you want, it's a free country, why aren't you making something of yourself? The answer is because you've got too many handicap's raises, a bad education, a tough situation, a horrible neighborhood. So the each side has nothing to learn from each other.
But the I think the deeper point. Is that our discourse, which in America and elsewhere now is increasingly tribal, it's increasingly. I'm not just right in you're wrong, it's I'm right and you're a threat, you're a threat to civilization. You're a threat to all people, black people. Each side sees the other as an existential threat. And I learned this from Sebastian Junger, who wrote a beautiful book called Tribe, said, you know, if you think that the other side is is destroying the country, which is what is the case in America right now, the the progressives think the conservatives are literally destroying the country and the conservatives literally think that the progressives are destroying the country.
You're accusing your opponents of treason. And treason is usually punishable by the death penalty in human history, and you start to think about what these kind of attitudes are going to justify and we see it right now. We see in America the media is spiraling out of control because they feel that that the other side doesn't matter which side we're talking about. The other side is is an existential and existential threat to the future of the country is can't last. It's got to either get fixed or it's going to end up in violence.
It's a scary, scary time. So to come back to your original question or observation, that quote from Sam Thompson, one of my listeners or readers, I don't remember whether I got heard from him in an email that beautiful quote about cherrypicking facts. There's so many facts. It's very easy to convince yourself that the facts support your view. Kantai, many people I debate what they actually believe, that a handful of facts means they proved their case, forgetting that sometimes the facts are literally not facts, that there are other facts that contradict their case and they don't even imagine it.
I mean, it's not like, oh, I have a pretty good case and maybe maybe I need to rethink some things. It's like this is open and shut. And so the idea of being open to things, not being open and shut, I think it's really important not it's not that good for your podcast audience. I think they're angry. You are. And the more confident you are, you then gather around you, your choir of voices that will reinforce your attitudes.
And I just don't want to be part of that. I think that's a mistake. I think that's wrong. And I think that's part of the problem. Everybody's in their own silo right now of of of reinforcing their own views. And the Internet's really good at that.
And just thinking about it strikes me that what we are probably seeing today is an intersection of a particular way in which we are hard wired, coming together with the way technology has evolved. And I'm sort of going to, you know, forgive me if I ramble, but I'm going to quote from Adam Smith Material Moral Sentiments as I try to sort of elaborate on this word. Schmitz's called the chief quote of Human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved Stockwood, which in a sense almost banal.
Obviously, we're all seeking validation. We are hardwired to seek validation. And what's happened in modern times is that earlier, when the Theory of Moral Sentiments was written, obviously it was written with a small group of people in mind, which is your family and your friends and the people you know personally. And we also evolved at a time that we knew very few people. We didn't have access to billions and billions of people. So our instincts evolved accordingly.
So when we seek validation from a small group, you know, there is those sort of the benefit of posturing is a little less because they will be with us long enough to see through that. And we aren't being able to pursue it at scale to so many people. And what technology has done is that it becomes very easy to go online to find an echo chamber of people who happen to believe whatever frame you view the world through or whatever worldview you have.
And then the incentives are aligned not towards having conversations with people who might behave differently with you, but towards raising your status within this little group. And increasingly, the way to do that is to get more and more shrill, whether you're attacking the other side or whether you're signaling your own virtue or whether you're attacking people on your own side for not passing, you know, a specific purity test. And therefore, you know, Cass Sunstein used the phrase group polarization for what basically happens.
And it's interesting that you kind of started your podcast and your great blogosphere hype when you go to that. We don't go through, you know, back in the day before things became so bad, like I think this is really happening, maybe post Twitter, really taking off post and then that things have gotten so polarized and ugly. So what was that journey for you like of you first seeing all of this evolve, making sense of it, and then in a sense, you are part of the circus, right?
You are on Twitter. Yeah. What are your thoughts on all of this? So does it make you despair? Yeah.
I want to add one thing to your very nice summary of where we are right now. And I think the. Especially relevant comment given the title of your program, the scene in the Unsane, so what we see. Is the Twitter mob cancel culture, the descending anger of people on a particular individual who has violated some norm of civility or civility, a norm of the right way of thinking?
So that's what we say. And we're having a conversation about that right now in America. There was a recent letter signed out of Harper's magazine about criticizing council culture. Fascinating sociological moment in America because. The people who signed that letter were very diverse politically. And that meant that there were some people who signed the letter who you're not supposed to like, and some people rescinded their signature because they said, oh, I didn't realize so-and-so signed it. I saw that that this person signed it.
And I think she's OK. But what I realized, oh, my gosh, so-and-so signed it. I'm sorry. I'm off. I'm out. So that's on the table right now. That's what's being talked about. That's what's seen. But I think The Unseen is what's more interesting right now. And it's always more valuable to point out or more fun to point out what's not obvious. You know, we just had a conversation about the three languages of politics.
I chose to talk about police brutality. As an example. You could take what's amazing about Keeling's insights or you can apply to almost every issue. It breaks down that way. I was a little bit uneasy mentioning George Floyd on your on this program was like in the back of my mind as a sort of nagging fear. What if I make a misstep and I say something that's politically incorrect? And somebody takes that out of context and puts it on Twitter and accuses me of being a racist, like that's no fun.
I took a chance to talked about it. That's so dangerous. But. I think the unseen that's important in this council culture moment. Is the thoughts that we have and the words that we say that we either push back down those thoughts because, oh, that's trouble, I'm staying away from that or quiet burnout say that because that's a minefield. Better to be safe. And what that does is it destroys discourse. It destroys conversation. Kind of like I would just to be this is a crude stereotype.
Probably shouldn't say it. Stereotypes are troubling. You get in trouble for stereotypes, but I'll use the difference between, say, a stereotypical Upper-Class British gentleman and somebody from let's call it a Mediterranean culture. Could be Israel or Greece or Italy. So. In the British salon drawing room, certain things aren't talked about. Certain emotions are not expressed. Everything is a bit. Restrained. Could even say it's civilized in the Mediterranean culture, everything's out on the table.
People are yelling at each other, calling each other names sometimes. Now, those are two different ways of living. I think the you know, the there's some middle path that's the right path where you have an authentic conversation, but you don't necessarily tell somebody everything you're thinking, right. Civilization, I think, does require some forms of restraint. But if you go too far in either direction, you're going to destroy the opportunity to learn. You're going to destroy the opportunity to live vividly.
So I feel like we're heading certainly in academic life in America. We're heading toward a world where a bunch of things are not on the table and can't be talked about. In fact, I just saw somebody tweeted this morning that if there are any differences between groups, that's racism. It's all it's all because of racism. Can't be anything else. You see statistical differences by race. All of it's racism, so that's a beautiful example, tragic example of what we're talking about earlier with the blind spot and somebody respond to that.
Like what? I mean, there's no agency. There's no ability. Nobody has any responsibility. Everything as a result of other people maybe think about that. Ultimately, that's dehumanizing the people you're supposedly caring about. But that's where we're going. If we're not careful, we're going to head to a world where you can't raise those other possible explanations. And once you do that, you stop learning. You're in religion. I like religion, by the way.
You probably know I'm a religious person. I'm Jewish. I think religion's great. I'm a big fan of it. I think it helps you organize your life. And it's it's powerful and it gives meaning. And I like religion a lot. I don't think it belongs in academic life. Needs to be that is that supposed to be something different? And as it tends toward religion, I think we're heading toward a world where knowledge is not going to be created.
We're just going to have priesthood. That's not good.
Yeah. And I also do this weekly podcast called Concentra like cohosted with the Friend. And our latest episode we just drop today. We're recording this on July 16th. It's called The Economics of the Chilling Effect, where, you know, we speak about exactly what you just spoke about, that, you know, the incentives are now aligned for people to shut up. So they might be a silent majority that disagrees with the vocal minority. But, oh, my God, you're not going to speak out because like, you know, in white the bomb up on yourself, which is.
No, you know, incredibly worrying for our discourse. We'll take a quick commercial break now. And I'm looking forward to continuing this conversation when we come back.
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Welcome back to the scene in The Unseen, I'm chatting with Russ Roberts about his intellectual journey, about his podcast Econ. Talk, and about these strange times that we find ourselves in. You know, one of the themes that has sort of interested me, not just at the level of, you know, what's happening to our political discourse, but also while trying to kind of understand the craft of podcasting and just, you know, introspecting on the ways that it's changed me, the way I sort of relate to the world.
And that has to do with the subject of communication, how we talk to each other. Like one of my favorite knowledged, Simenon had once said, quote, The fact that we are I don't know how many millions of people get communication, complete communication is completely impossible. Between two of these people is to me, one of the biggest tragic teams in the world. Stuccoed. And, you know, while I was going through a book about Adam Smith, I found it very interesting about how you brought up the theme of communication and a context in which it's not usually brought up, which is from his famous quote, from the world of nations about the butcher and the baker, where he wrote, quote, It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner.
But from their regard to their own self-interest, we address ourselves not to their humanity, but to their self-love and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages. Stop quote. And then you're go on to see as a commentary on this quote, the idea that other people care about themselves is generally a good thing to remember if you want them to do something for you in return. Stockwood and it's kind of interesting that, you know, when I teach a writing class also in one of those sort of themes of communication there is that very often we communicate as if the only purpose of communication is to express ourselves and, you know, to see what we have to say without thinking of the other person and what value or communication or writing as it relates to them.
And obviously, while doing the podcast, which is a long form interview podcast, and I've only done it for three years, not 14 years like you, one of those sort of areas of communication, I realized, was that, you know, the biggest job that you can fall into when you're interviewing someone is to make it about you. Instead, you have to learn to just take a step back and listen. And you've described you know, you wrote a piece for you, you know, to go from Jordan Peterson's 12 rules and you wrote your own 12 rules.
And the first of them was about how you have to enjoy seeing I don't know and not listen to others may lead to, you know, respond to whatever they are seeing with what you want to say, but actually step back and try to understand. So, you know, and this is something that kind of has a dual relevance. One is obviously the personal one. But when you started podcasting, you know, what was the sort of attention you started paying to the new thing that you would at any level, intellectually or otherwise, be a different person if you never done the podcast?
Did having all of these conversations make a difference?
Well, we talked earlier about the intellectual impact on me. I think there is a personal impact that I think you're getting out with these insights about conversation and your observations, because when I think about something I don't think I've ever thought about, which is. And it's also prompted by that George Simenon quote. I've never thought about the fact that we don't think about it, how to be good at conversations. I can't think of a any format. Or any parenting idea that where we teach people or ourselves or accept instruction or practice conversation in our minds, we don't need to because that's what we do all day long.
We talk, we talk to people, we listen listenings involuntary, right in theory, but hearing is not or the vice versa you can hear, but you may not be listening is a better way to say it. So here's something that's the most essential part of being human. One of the most, if not the most, the ability to to be one of those to two of those people on the face of the millions and billions who are trying to share ideas.
And it just something that happens. We're so good at it. We don't need to practice it. But what's not obvious is that maybe we could be a lot better. And I think one of the things I've learned from can talk and I think I still have a lot to learn, even though I've done it for 14 years, is how to have a good conversation. And the reason I say that is that I've had a handful of conversations in my life that I've never forgotten.
We all have those. If we're lucky. It's a big number relatively. But we also know that there's thousands of conversations that never dent our consciousness again. They may be below the surface, of course, but they're literally you could bring them up consciously and they had no discernible impact on your thinking or behavior. But then you have the ones that are unforgettable, the ones that are transformative. And you can ask yourself, how do I have more of those?
And nobody talks about that. Maybe I'll write a book of it and how to how of talk. I'm sure there are such books, but it's interesting to me that they're not like bestsellers that everybody knows about. And so you got to read the books like, you know, men are from Mars, women are from Venus. A lot of people like to talk about the fact that men and women have different conversational styles. And I think men, if they're sensitive, understand that, that they probably should talk to women differently and they talk to their male buddies and women if they're sensitive, understand that if they want to be effective as as a partner, spouse, friend, that they might want to talk differently to men than they talk to their women buddies, friends.
But this whole idea of how to talk and how to talk effectively is really does come back to this Adam Smith issue, which is. You know, I think I've read about it in that book, I've read about it a few other essays, a lot of times she puts on your personality, of course, but a lot of people just like to talk. I like to listen. And the idea that they're in it comes back to the metaphor I used earlier of the dance.
I mean, the conversations, the dance. So if I'm a dancer with a partner and all I'm thinking about are my moves, not much. I'm not a good dancer. So I think the the opportunity to certainly be a better listener, but more than a better listener, to be a more engaged conversationalist is an art that we really could get a lot better at. I know that my favorite interviews, any kind of talk are the ones where there's a magic that doesn't happen often enough, where we just have one for me just now, this idea that we don't get train of conversation.
That to me is the high point of this conversation because I hadn't thought about that. And the only reason I thought about, as you said, something that stimulated it in me. And I think when you feel that in a conversation, the novelty, either of your insight you didn't have before or an inside of your fellow conversationalist, that's what you really feel, that delight. That's possible that a good conversation. I think most people think of conversation as people taking turns talking.
It's not what it is, that's a mediocre conversation. It's better than people talk at the same time or one person doing almost all the talking. But and it sure as a host, you're letting me do most of the talking. I try to give my guests respect. And for that you're giving me, which I appreciate. But I think there are a handful of times in my life where I've been able to step back and remember that it isn't all about me.
And the more I do that, the better conversation I have, the more alive I feel, the more I learn. So I think there's a lot to be said. There are a lot to think about.
And I'm just thinking aloud here. What do you think? It could then be said that becoming better at conversation, which I think will be defined as being more mindful of the other person and not just being, you know, engrossed in ourselves or becoming better at conversation would make us better people and have a modest impact in the sense that, you know, I go back to count the philosophy you've referenced in your book and Adam Smith work on the second categorical imperative is all about not treating another person as a means to an end, but as an end in themselves.
And what happens is that very often if you're in conversation, but you're obsessed about what you want to see in your point of view, and you're not really listening, you are treating them as a means to an end, as a vessel into which you empty your thoughts or whatever. But if you can learn that sort of mindfulness and regard for the other person where you're really listening and taking in the views and trying to, you know, open your own mind through that, then possibly you're fulfilling that categorical imperative.
And I mean, I don't know if I'm taking this thought a bit too far. Oh, no.
I think it's a deep truth. I think it's really incredibly important. I want to raise a variation on this issue. Which seems to be in the unrelated but it's not, which is silence. You know, I talked to. Ryan Holladay about Marina Abramovic, the performance artist, where she did this. Exhibit performance where she would sit where I think was eight hours a day. And strangers would sit three feet across from her and stare and look at her, she would look back at them.
No talking, so though, for eight hours a day or so, she didn't talk at all. And she engaged visually with another human being without words, which should be the most boring thing in the world. And, you know, people lined up overnight to be one of the people to be able to. She did this for months, by the way, which is also extraordinary, that incredible performance of stamina and devotion. But on the surface, this is like what, stupid?
This is like a really just an enormous waste of time. What's the point of looking at somebody for 15 minutes or half an hour? You don't talking. And yet many of the people who she sat across from would just cry. Because they were seen right, it's not so I think it's a very interesting thing in the English language we talked about hearing versus listening. There's also watching and seeing or looking and saying, so I look at you, and that makes you feel good because you're being looked at, but I can look you in a way that makes you feel seen and I can look you in a way that doesn't convey that, you know, there's a I'm going to give you a bizarre digression, but it speaks to me.
I was watching. This is so tawdry. I mean, I was watching a clip from the Academy Awards a couple of years ago when Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga sang the song From A Star is Born called it's called The Shallow. And in the movie, it's a it's the best to my mind. It's I didn't like that movie at all. I thought it was horribly flawed. But but the first forty five minutes is unbelievable and it's great. And the best moment that movie for me is when Lady Gaga, who's been trying to start her songwriting career, is invited to come on stage.
Just a little throwaway thing in the middle of a concert and sing the song that I think that she's written. And she's a very good actress and she conveys unease and nervousness. And over those three minutes, she becomes more confident and the most to me, the greatest moment in that is that there's a moment where Bradley Cooper looks over at her. And has pure joy that the audience loves her. And he loves her, too. You know, that's part of the show, part of the idea that movie is not saying anything.
He's not saying, oh, you're doing great, just looking at her. But the way he looks at her and he's a great actor, the way he looks at her, tells her it's worth a thousand words. So they recreated that. That recreated they also sang that song at the Academy Awards. And the most entertaining part of that to me is the way they look at each other. They're actors. They're obviously that might not be a real moment of human interaction.
But the reason it moves us is because we recognize the emotion and importance and humanity of being seen and being paid attention to. And that connection is so precious. So I think it's a deep part of morality. And I think, you know, to tie back to what we're talking about before, I think being able to see the challenges of people in difficult situations, whether it's their their safety or their the way they move through their neighborhoods or their economic challenges or hardship, if you don't notice, I say you're not a full person.
It's not enough to notice them because we don't always have a solution or a way to make it better. Obviously, it's tricky, but that's starting place, right? It's a starting place now.
And I'm going to come back to morality. But just to take a small digression, you know, first of all, that's a lovely song. And if you go on YouTube but, you know, I haven't seen the film, but I really got into that song because it are some great cover versions of it on YouTube by different talented people. So it's like, yeah. So you should search for some of those is won by a bunch of schoolkids, some school choir, which is quite difficult to get from the show notes, in fact.
But what got me thinking was also the moment that you've pointed out that Bradley Cooper looks across at home and he's happy for his success, that she's singing and the crowd is into it and she's happy for her. And in your book, you quoted Good with as saying that every time a friend of mine has some kind of success or part of me dies.
And it also and I was a horrible, horrible, terrible thing to say a couple of decades ago, a friend of mine said exactly the same thing to me.
And it was while reading a book that I realized that that guy was quoting, although it wasn't the sort of sentiment.
But, you know, because I am perhaps, you know, using the hammer of the economic way of thinking a little bit too much, the economic concept that came to mind was of, you know, Zero-Sum games that at that moment in time when Bradley Cooper looks across at her, the world is not a zero sum something to him. Her success doesn't take anything away from him, you know, unlike good with those sort of zero sum view. Yeah.
And it strikes me that, you know, we evolved our brains evolved in prehistoric times where we lived in small tribes and there was tremendous scarcity. So it's possibly natural for us to view the world in a zero sum way with somebody else doing well affects our own opportunity and therefore we feel kind of resentful of that. But it's not, you know, in modern times, it's completely irrelevant because we live in a world which is of largely positive sum.
But I had a question to ask you, which I have earlier asked people, and it's more a question in an Indian context, but I'm still interested in seeing what you think about it, which is that I think the economy is good, despite what we had once commented in 2000 or something, that in China people tend to have a positive mindset towards interactions. In India, it's more that they have a zero sum mindset. They're out to kind of exploit the other guy.
And there's a quote from your book on Adam Smith, which, you know, I just sort of you're referring to, you know, Smith's usage of the film. Lovely. By which you mean he means somebody worthy of being loved. And Yoko discord. How do you create loveliness? In some cultures, it's as if a memo went out saying, God, there's a sucker born every minute. All you have to do is find such people and exploit them in other cultures.
A memo seems to have gone out that says could be a decent human being. It's okay to make money, but keep your word and don't exploit people in distress codebase. And my sort of question here is that one sort of theory I have for why India is this way, for, you know, why the such a common tendency is to try and pull a scam to try and exploit somebody is the institutions that we choose of in our economy. Most independents where we had a very statist system, where the state controlled everything and gave permission for everything, and therefore there was a culture of rent seeking everywhere to get anything done.
Like I grew up in the 80s and the 90s and I saw the change that at the 80s to get anything done. You know, getting a telephone would take seven years and you'd have to pay somebody for it. And that mindset, which was in our institutional arrangements, creep into the culture. And it's not necessarily something inherent in the culture and issue. Me thinking aloud, I don't have any sort of I haven't done any studies or surveys on this, but what would you think of, you know, culture being shaped by institutional arrangements in such a way?
Does that make any sense to you?
Yeah, I think that's a fantastic insight. I'm going to try to see what I can if I can riff on it a little bit. But I wanted actually, I want to add one thing you said about zero sum and conversation and the success of our friends, because I never thought of as another nice thing I don't think I've thought of before, which is I think we think of conversation as a zero sum game, because if you're talking, I'm not talking.
It's just a fixed amount of air time, right, and that ignore is that our dance of back and forth creates something more than just the transcript of my words. In your words, just alternate. And I think I think that's really that whole idea that you're getting at with culture is is enormously important. In particular, I'm thinking about you know, I just wrote a book called Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman, and there's two versions of it in English.
One's called Everything Flows. One's called Forever Flowing. It's it's a terribly imperfect novel. You know, he died before he could finish it. It's a sort of mishmash of beginnings, of a novel mixed in with some essays on the Soviet. Character, an essay on Lenin and Stalin, but it's an incredible read and I recommend it, it's dark. It's a book of despair to me. It's a must read about the modern world.
And one of the the things that you're talking about that comes to mind is how if everybody has to wait seven years for a telephone. Yeah. You want yours first. I got to cut in line. I don't want to wait seven years. I got to get ahead of you and you getting ahead of me. Because if I don't, by the way, you're going to get ahead. Somebody else is going to get ahead of me. So that whole way of thinking is so destructive that that zero sum.
And the point is that in some areas of life, it is zero sum. And so that's a tragedy to think about. Right now, we're in the middle of this pandemic. I've been appalled at how badly the American economy has performed and in the following sense. So be very careful what I mean by that. There's still some shortages of stuff, how do we understand that as the greatest economic engine, the productive capacity of the United States is enormous, and yet we're struggling now the no mask shortages anymore.
You know, there were in the beginning and I think most of that was due to laws against prices being allowed to move freely. But there's just some weird products that have some funky natures to them that everything's taking longer. And that's just unusual. Right? The idea that that. Oh, and in the beginning, by the way, you know, the CDC Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization said, oh, masks don't help. And people say, oh, yeah, well, they're just kidding.
They're saying that because they're afraid people are going to buy masks. Well, that's horrible because they were suggesting it is a zero sum game. If you buy a mask on the street, you person who lives in a house, a doctor who desperately needs it, whether you do will get it. And the economist answer is, well, let's let the price rise and let the people willing to pay the most get it and not economists. Well, that's horrible.
They you mean there aren't enough to go around? It's a zero sum game. And you're saying the people with the most money should get it. And that's not what The Economist means, what the Economist means is that it's not going to be a zero sum game if you let the price rise, going to get a lot more mask's if you allow it to be profitable, to make masks. And I think that whole mindset of the way of thinking about the world is extremely important.
And it has ramifications way beyond how you treat the person who's get whether you bribe the person who put the telephone in quicker and because it changes this.
This whole interpersonal interaction that we're talking about, these day to day interactions that are really the essence of life, you know, the essence of life is is small things. It's not that big. Most of the time, we're not doing big things. We're talking to our wife, talking to her husband, talking to our children, talking to our parents. And if you have an attitude towards those interactions, that's what's in it for me. That's not as good as it world.
I don't think where you're wondering how it all fits together and to sometimes step back, that whole idea of stepping back, you know, come back to Bradley Cooper in that scene. He steps back, he lets the spotlight shine on Lady Gaga and which is the whole thing is kind of funny because Lady Gaga is kind of like created the spotlight. But she's an actress in the movie and she's not famous. So there is some you know, the fourth wall of the movie gets kind of transparent at that point.
It's taking. Is that Lady Gaga who who's a nobody but that whole idea of stepping back of him saying, I won't let her get the glory that I wrote a story. I don't know if you've seen it called The Story of My Life. And, you know, I think we see ourselves as heroes, stars of the show now, the movie, the movie version of my life. I'm the main character. Right. And I suggested that essay that it's really useful to think of yourself instead of being the star of the show as more of an ensemble player, you know, one of the cast.
And if you can put your head in that space rather than, hey, spotlight over here, if you put yourself in that space, you're going to be a better parent, going to be a better friend. You're going to be a better spouse. You're going to be a better conversationalist. It's just interesting talking up your observation about being hard wired. We are built that way. Most of us most of us aren't built to step back. We're built to step forward.
And you could argue that what civilization is about is figuring out ways to encourage people to those institutions you're talking about to encourage people to step back. Now, it's complicated.
Yeah, I'm sort of going to go back to the question of hard wiring and helping mitigate that. But before that, you know, my listeners keep asking me about interviewing in the out of the interview and so on. And there's a great quote from you that there's a great passage that you've written that I just want to read out for their benefit because I couldn't agree with it more, I think is profoundly insightful of your right. Could take the most basic human interaction conversation.
Everyone knows people who talk too much about themselves hogging the conversation and taking more than their share of the time. It's harder to notice sometimes you are a person. She likes to talk about ourselves. We like to make our points. We have so much to say. How many times do you answer the question in conversation and wait for another? Instead of asking the person you're talking to about herself? How often do you listen for understanding rather than waiting for the other person to finish so you can make another point or tell another story?
How would an imaginary spectator judge your conversational style? Imagining an impartial spectator can help you turn the conversation into more of a dance and less an exercise in taking turns a dialogue rather than competing monologues, quote. And of course, by impartial spectator, you're invoking Smith himself, who sort of used it. I want to sort of come back to our hardwiring because, you know, I thought that's always struck me in one way in which, you know, humans are unique is that it's turned out by accident that our hardwiring allows us to fight.
It says we are the only species which is always trying to mitigate the way we are wired in different ways. We might be wired to care about ourselves and to be tribalistic, but we learn. And of course, we have competing instincts as well. And we are wired in a bunch of different, contradictory ways. But a lot of the ways that we consider harmful to tribalism, the sort of selfishness we learn to mitigate that culture, we build these norms.
This is what we should do if we go to a restaurant. Even if you're never going there again, we will because there's no self-interest. It's just a normative thing. We vote in elections because it's a normative thing and a lot of the sort of the growth of humanity, especially perhaps since the Enlightenment is figuring out ways in which nature can mitigate nature. And of course, it often reinforces nature as well. And, you know, I had, I think, until a few years ago, naively assumed that this is an inevitable process, that we continue fighting this battle and sort of winning it at the arc of history will go in a particular good direction, whether it's towards liberty or towards justice or whatever.
But, you know, in modern times, you know, we discussed earlier in the show how the tribalistic the discourse has become so polarized, no one's talking to each other anymore. Everyone's talking past each other, you know, without speaking names. You look at the politics in your country or the politics in my country and. Suddenly you feel like the world is going backward very fast, so how do you look upon this? Because I just feel profoundly disillusioned that I thought, OK, this is like the defining battle of our species will be die hard waiting and all these different reasons and suddenly the worst aspects of it are getting reinforced.
Boy, I don't know. I'm not sure I have anything to say about that. Know, I think a lot about my own hardwiring. It's weird. We're hardwired as a species, but I get a few special things in my brain and you have different special ones in yours that aren't the same as mine to overcome. You know, we were all we all have our own. Everybody's flawed, but our flaws are all a little bit different. We have we share some common flaws.
But, you know, we get our own dose of it, our own variation, our own style of floor.
And I I've been thinking lately about this. It's I don't have an answer. Your question. I mean, this might just be off the deep end, but I've been thinking lately about my two selves, the self that's hard wired and the other self. So to give a simple, simple version, it's five o'clock, maybe it's five thirty. I'm going to be eating dinner pretty soon, but I want to eat something just. I don't know why I'm not hungry, really, but my my head says grab a handful of peanuts or eat a banana or what it really wants is a bowl of ice cream.
But I'm not I'm not that depraved, but my mind. A set of habits that I've developed over time of snacking, so go for it. There's one level or so we're talking about this overcoming our hard hardwire, that's where I'm trying to get at. At one level I can say, oh. I have an urge for food that's not really hunger based, but I eat it anyway most of the time. Right. Weird.
I'm aware that I'm doing something I don't really want to do, but I do it anyway. But being aware is a starting point. That's a good thing. But sometimes trying this new trick or I say that's not me, this is a very common theme in Buddhism, I see it in Judaism as well, certain thematic ideas of the sort of split cell. And when you can step it goes back to the impartial specter a little bit. You can step outside yourself and say, oh, I don't want to be that guy that's snacking or I don't know.
It's a trivial example. I don't want to be that guy who gets irritated. Let's take something that gets that annoys you, not not an injustice, something just annoys you might be traffic, a habit of a friend to something. It gets on your nerves and you take if you step outside yourself, you go like, well, that's stupid. That's not a sport. Why is it bothering me and how hard that is to do? Why is that so hard?
So I really think. I think that I like to say that being grown up is learning how to be aware of those things and fight against them. And I think now to come back to a more serious part of your question. Institute and to add it, bring it back to the question of a minute ago, institutions, in theory, can help you become more civilized. Or they can push you the other way, and right now in America, maybe in India, institutions are pushing us away from civilization.
And the problem with institutions is they're not design. They emerge. You can't just say, I want to fix that or stop that institution. You know, a better way to say it is there are certain norms of behavior that have become standard that those are bad norms. And then how do you reverse them? And a lot of people have been writing some depressing but I think thoughtful quotes. I don't remember where they're from, who said it, but they're basically things like it might take centuries to build up a habit of a culture.
You could destroy them in a month and you can't build them back in a month, takes another few centuries. I feel like we've torn down a lot of useful things recently like that InterAction's. So I'm very worried about that. I like you. I used to be much more optimistic about the arc of history today heading towards justice or truth or civility. And, you know, my new my new quote, which is a depressing quote, is The veneer of civilization is thin, not that much separating us from from a much darker set of behaviors.
And I think, you know, depending on what circles you travel in, there's a there's a naiveté about about the security of the world we live in and how persistent and. Reliable it is a lot of this could go south, this pandemic's exposing a lot of problems like that, certainly the response. And in America, this these issues of race are very much in flux of how they're going to where they're going to go, I don't know where they're going to go or more importantly, the national narrative.
What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean? What is the American narrative? And there's more than one. And when you don't share one and you don't respect the other person's narrative, it's hard to have a country. So those are things that bother me. But really come back to your other question, I think. Just at a personal level, it's just really hard to overcome our hard wiring, being aware of it, as you say, is sort of remarkable human trait.
No squirrel squirrel thinks, you know, I really should meet that bird food. That's for the birds. He gets on that bird feeder with zeal. He is so excited to be on that bird feeder. That's the squirrel. We don't want to be squirrels. We want to be human beings. And yet we got a squirrel side that's pushing us that way all the time.
And one could argue that another tree that we have, which other species possibly don't have. And you've devoted a chapter to this straight in your book on Adam Smith as well, is that of self-deception? You know, there's a great quote by Smith from Ethereal Moral Sentiments where he sees the violence and injustice of our own selfish passions are sometimes sufficient to induce a man within the breast to make a report very different from what the real circumstances of the case are capable of authorising stuccoed and slightly all issue language.
But, you know, the broad sense is that we are constantly deluding ourselves and tangential question, are we deluding ourselves to the extent that there is no free will, but we behave as if there is?
Well, I can't I don't have anything useful to say about that.
But but this side of the free will debate you fall into. I tend to be on the pro freewill side, you know, what's the joke? Of course I believe in free. Well, I don't have a choice, but I think I think that's that's some truth in that joke. Obviously, we certainly feel like we have free will. We know that feeling because, you know, I mentioned the snacking challenge. There are times in my life when I say no to a snack.
So it means it's it's possible. I don't fully understand what those times are or how to get more of them. And it could just be that those are just moments when there's a set of chemicals going on that I don't control, but it feels like I control them for sure. And I lost the track of what your first part was.
I kind of began to ask a question and did in an aside. So I kind of finish the rest of the question, which is, you know, Terry, that I've had is that to be good at anything is necessary to be self delusional because otherwise we don't begin doing something because we suck at it and therefore we never get good at anything because we don't read enough to learn from practice. But that's Innosight. But my question is that, you know, to your long intellectual journey that has taken all of these decades and you mentioned about how you grew intellectually through the conversations you had on equal of the more than 700 episodes.
Looking back at yourself, do you think that there are times where you were so delusional in some way or the other and you kind of managed to take a step back and now you look at things differently? I'm sorry. It's no, no, no, no.
I understand. And I think the I see my dark side on Twitter when someone says something that I think is wrong and I jump to announce that it's wrong and I fail to see if it's taken out of context, if it's or I retweeted something and then later realized that was a terrible study that I want to re tweet that. Oh, because it confirmed my attitude toward the epidemic. That's why. So I think it's we all have this self-delusion problem.
You know, I can't I won't get the quote right, but. Smith says something like Bold is the surgeon whose hand does not tremble when he operates upon himself, that that is, you know, I have a code I love.
Read it. Smith says Gote is a bold surgeon, they say, whose hand does not tremble when he performs an operation upon his own person and he is often equally bald, who does not hesitate to pull off the mysterious veil of self-delusion, which covers from his view of the deformities of his own conduct.
Yeah, we don't like to see those deformities or we revel in those deformities and we become dysfunctional because we see ourselves as failures. That's a tough road to navigate. We don't want to be overly confident, but we also don't want to have such low self-esteem that we can't be effective. You talked earlier, about a minute ago about the challenge of I would call it the challenge of ineptitude. You start off playing an instrument or learning a language or almost any skill, as you point out.
And I've been playing a lot of chess online at chess dotcom, just that kind of gives you a score for, you know, it's bad enough that, you know, there's winners and losers, pretty much a zero sum game and chess, but they give you a score so you can see how how am I doing, which seems like a good thing. That's like, oh, my gosh, I lost that game. I, I had checkmate.
I missed it. And I lost eight points. It's like, what do you do? What's wrong with you? Why are you doing that to yourself. So I think it's very hard, very hard for us to. You know, to suffer through the feeling of inadequacy that comes when you tackle something new and we were afraid of those things, we're going to deal with that. Why would I want to? Why would I want to feel bad about myself?
So we shy away, goes back to earlier conversation about inappropriate remarks and cancel culture. I don't want to be seen as one of those people. I better keep quiet. And similarly, I don't want to be seen as incompetent. I better not try to do that because I'll just be bad at it. And that kills growth. That kills exploration. That's a terrible handicap. You know, I should not fool myself and go try out for the National Basketball Association, the NBA.
I'm five foot six and sixty five years old. Don't have much athletic ability, so that would be it smart to not be a pro, to be a professional basketball player, but. It's fun to get a little better at chess, I'm kind of enjoying it, but, you know, for a while I had a really low score. My kids laughed at me. So it comes back to that the observation that you quoted of mine where I said, don't be afraid to say I don't know what you are comfortable saying.
I don't know. It's very liberating. And similarly, we're talking now about the comfort of saying I'm not that good at that. We don't like to admit that to ourselves. Sometimes it's false modesty. So then, of course, we're really good at it and we just say that to try to look modest. But there are a lot of things I do badly that I still enjoy and I love the progress and the getting better part of it. I think that's an important part of the human enterprise.
So I think that's a really interesting insight that we don't like to be reminded of our own failures at incompetencies. You know, one more thought. I'm sorry I'm rambling, but the you know, there's this really interesting idea of the imposter syndrome. You know, this idea that people are going to figure out that you don't know what you're doing. None of us know what we're doing. You know, we're all impostors to some extent. We're all brave.
We're all wearing this armor to keep us from being revealed of our true mix of of imperfection and. That's a bad way to go through life, and I understand how hard it is to be revealed that your true self, like Smith says, but most of us could use a little more of it. I think it's probably a good thing.
Yeah, I play a lot of chess dotcom as well, though, under a pseudonym and a girls are what they are. So I get hit on a lot as well by Indian boys. And a couple of thoughts before I sort of move on to the great sociological insight, though, right? Because how else would I get that insight? And one is that therefore it kind of strikes me thinking aloud. The self-delusion might actually in some ways be an if you're not hardwired with it, how do we cope with the complexity of the world and the complexity of whatever we try to do?
And there's also something called the Dunning Kruger effect, which, you know, looks to me as one of the ways, of course, is that people who are incompetent don't know enough to know how incompetent they are. So they think they're better than they otherwise would be. But the other side is that people who are extremely good at the image, because it's so easy for them to imagine that it must be easy for others also. And they are probably the ones more likely to suffer from the imposter effect.
Know sort of what you said about who kind of brings me to my next question, because I sort of see the worst side of myself on Twitter as well, where somebody will say something so rude or so stupid or so outrageous that I kind of, you know, these days I try to stop myself from tweeting reactively and you don't just let go. And the interesting thing there is that the cost for someone entering that kind of conversation, the person who's making the tweet or trolling me or calling me names or whatever, is literally zero.
There is practically no cost there as well. Typically in the real world, you enter the conversation, there is a cost to it. And part of what enables it is technology and the access to gadgets that we have. Which brings me to a related question. But before that, another Adam Smith quote from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Auberger Smith writes, And this is two hundred and fifty years ago and he could be talking about cell phones, quote, How many people ruined themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility?
What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All the pockets are stuffed with the conveniences they contrive. New pockets are known in the clothes of other people in order to carry a greater number of stockwood. And my question here is that it strikes me that in a sense, we are shaped by our gadgets. For example, know neuroscientists have found that every time we are in deep concentration, it's going to work and we are distracted by something.
It takes, you know, more than 20 minutes to get back into that state of deep concentration. And because we are surrounded by distractions all the time, because we are seeking out the dopamine rushes of the Twitter notifications and the Facebook likes that, we are constantly in a state of shallow concentration and therefore where we could once pursue deep learning or deep conversations. We now have to make do with shallow knowledge where we'll pick something on social media or react to a headline.
And, you know, if you're interested in a subject, quickly scan the Wikipedia page rather than read actual books. And this shows through in our conversations. And my question is, as an educator, which is, you know, a part of your persona, we haven't really explored enough today and maybe we'll leave it for another day. But as an educator, do you find it change the way people learn? Do you see that in your students, for example?
Is that another competitor for their attention, along with what you or what your teaching, does it make a difference to how we accumulate knowledge and learning?
I don't know. It's a deep question, right? It's hard to know. Hard to measure those things. I think education's part of the issue. The other part is the conversational part. You're talking about the fact that you and I are having this conversation. I think it's very high quality, by the way. I'm really enjoying it tremendously. You asked me to be on your program for two to three hours, and I thought, that sounds horrible.
Two to three hours. That's too long. But I'm really enjoying it. And one of the reasons I'm enjoying it is that my cell phone is on airplane mode and I have not looked at it since we started talking. That doesn't happen in real life anymore. I don't talk to anybody for an hour without looking at a cell phone. I'm looking at what I do on a contact. But outside of these kind of conversations, when is the last time in my casual life that I go that long without looking at my phone?
It's not that often now I keep the Jewish Sabbath. So for twenty five hours a week from sunset on Friday to dark on Saturday, I do not look at my phone, so I have to add that footnote and I think that's very valuable. I encourage people to keep a Sabbath of technology of some kind. It's a lot easier to keep it though. If you think it's part of a servant of the divine. It's hard to do. It's just sort of a habit you've adopted in my experience anyway.
But now that degrades that that constant checking on. I've turned out most of my notifications. That's not what distracts me. It's just the phones being there. So, you know, we talk at different times about, oh, I should put my phone away during dinner. I don't I don't consult my phone during dinner, except that's not 100 percent true. Right. Sometimes we'll be talking about something and some questions will come up and I'll just Google it or real quickly, but I'll check the weather out because I wonder what's going to be like this week.
What should we do instead of just saying, I'll check the weather later, I check it now. It's hard to wait. Right. Delayed gratification of that kind has become very difficult. And what if I forget what if I don't check the weather when I'm done talking about it later? Like there's no consequence to that at all, really? Ever. I'm going to check it when I'm about to go out. I don't know whether to take the umbrella or the thicker coat or whatever.
It's a whole thing is kind of silly. It's a compulsive addiction. So I think to come back to our earlier conversation about conversation, I think what technology has done is it's made it some of the conversation. It's harder and it's made some easier. Like we wouldn't be having this conversation if it weren't for Twitter and Zoome and podcasting and iTunes and all the things that came before this on my headset. And it's extraordinary amount of technology that's making the quality, by the way, you and I are looking each other on.
Zoome muted while we're recording this on Zen. Kastor And you think about what a gift that is that we can interact visually ten, twelve thousand miles apart. That's extraordinary. So, you know, but the optimistic side of me says that norms will emerge that about how to use our phones and how to interact with technology that will help make it better. But it's it's a real mixed bag, there's no doubt about it.
And how do you think this will impact education in the long run, make people because of this pandemic, people are now getting so much more used to resume classes, for example. And I know they're just being on Zoome for a couple of hours. It's just more exhausting than, you know, being somewhere in person. Yeah, it's very hard.
I think the real problem with Zoom right now and remote education like this is the you know, when you were in a class of 50 people, 100 hundred people, and there's let's call it just a webinar, you're at a webinar, you're not in a normal Zoome call of, say, four or five people at a meeting. You're listening to somebody who's teaching something. How many people are actually listening with anything close to 100 percent focus? Everybody's checking their email.
Oh, but not that much. It's OK. I didn't check it that much. Mean, that's a big problem. You know, when I give a lecture in person, I know when people are paying attention or when they're not. I know when they're daydreaming. They're not checking their phone. Usually in a lecture I'm given either rude or they're actually interested. But I know what they're paying attention. Even if they're not using their phone, they could still be not paying attention.
I can feel it. A good speaker knows when they've captured the attention of the audience. And in classes today, almost nobody's paying attention, really full 100 percent full attention, engaged. It's really hard to do. And I, you know, for us as one of many participants. So I think that's got a lot of limits right now. You know, when I lecture in educational programs, I ask people to turn off their phone, but people say, well, I want to take notes on my laptop.
Well, OK. But that's really hard, really hard. Take don't on your laptop and not go check the weather. Email, Twitter. Instagram, whatever. I think it's a real challenge, so it's interesting, again, technology has so much potential, I think, to to allow large groups of people to learn from great teachers. And yet we've not really figured that out. So I think mainly it's degrading education right now, not enhancing it.
Having said that, in the pandemic, it's been a lifesaver, a world saver, to be able to continue to interact with people. If you think about forget the gains of information and knowledge that people have been able to to use to reduce the the worst effects of the pandemic, but just the ability to still stay connected to other human beings. I mean, I don't think we can imagine what it was like to be part of the plague in medieval times where you couldn't leave your house.
And remember when you were stuck in your house, there wasn't any Internet, so you didn't know what was happening anywhere else. I think I found so interesting about the pandemic is that we don't know when it's going to end. So it's giving us a tiny taste of what it's like to be in a war, in war. You know, you can lose, but even if you win, when's it going to end?
When we get normal life back, what can I go out at night? You know, where the bombs are falling and, you know, death is lurking. You want it to end and you could deal with it better. He said, OK, it's horrible right now, but in six weeks it's over. But it's not. We don't know when it's over. We don't know what the last day is. So that's really, really hard. Now, put yourself in medieval times and the plague.
Natalie did not know when it's going to end. You've got no access to information about when it's going to end. You're just sitting holed up in your house worried about your kids dying. And you have you're cut off from almost everything. So that's just I mean, that's just really. That's tough. So technology has helped us get through this a little bit, but that uncertainty is very hard for us, I think, as human beings now, you know, we're almost at the end of the two hours, which should promise me so I won't take much more of your time.
A bunch of final questions. You know, as an educator, especially teaching economics, I guess one of the challenges you must face, certainly a challenge that I face when I write about these subjects is that so many of the ideas we talk about are so counterintuitive, like the positive sameness of the world, like emergent order. You know, we tend to we are again wired to think of what Adam Smith called the madam system, that you can plan everything from the top down.
And if you had to pick sort of one idea which you can implant into everybody's brain as a hard wired idea, what would that be? And if you could take out a little bit of hardware and everyone's brain from what they already have, what would that be? I don't know the answer to that, it's a good question. You know, there are some core ideas in economics, emergent order being one of them. The idea that not everything that you see in the world around you is the result of somebody's scheme.
That's super counterintuitive idea and what you've appreciated. You start to see it in a lot of places that you wouldn't otherwise notice it something trivial like the noise level in a restaurant, like why is everyone yelling, if we can we all just quiet down or traffic? You start to realize this isn't somebody's fault. This is just how things are set up right now. An example would be we spent a lot of time, you and I, in this two hours talking about.
Discourse, conversation in political discourse, in particular for a good chunk of our conversation, and we didn't I don't think we talked enough much about. Explicitly about the media. But the media is off know doing all this weird stuff right now, advocacy, ideology, weird, different time, I think it's very destructive. Why why don't they just stop doing that? The answer is, well, all the incentives are lined up to make them that way.
So don't get mad at them. Understand it. See if you can think of ways to change the incentives. Try not to make the incentives work on you. Try to step back from them when you can. We talked about the dopamine you get from crushing someone on Twitter or whatever. Recognize that that's not a great thing to be incentivized by, even though you do have that incentive. So in terms of economic ideas, I think that idea that there are things that emerge without anyone's attention is probably the deepest inside of economics that.
I've tried to help people understand as best I can. I don't know what else I what I take away, I don't have an easy, quick thought on that.
In fact, I had an episode on the importance of emergent order and everything with Matt Ridley called The Evolution of Everything, including that from the show notes my penultimate question. I just have a couple of more questions. My pertinent question in your book, you quoted from the Talmud where you said, quote, It is not up to you to finish the book, but you are not free to desist from it. Stop. Good. And I get the sense from your work, from listening to econ talk, and I know that much of econ talk, whatever the motive behind it might be, much of you going broke just feels so much like a labor of love that all you just know should be truly grateful for it.
It's like it's being driven by a sense of omission. You know what drives you now and how has it changed from what used to drive you in the past? You know what what drives you to do this?
Well, I get paid. I mean, I'm I talk is a Project of Liberty Fund, which is an institution organization in Indianapolis that publishes great books that are often forgotten, like David Ricardo and Adam Smith, and works on the American founding and law and economics. So it's not like it's a charitable endeavor. I don't want people to misunderstand that, but it is a labor of love, like all good work can be. It's a strange thing because every Monday, an hour or so of my conversation gets put up on the Web, a conversation with another person.
And a lot of people download it compared to, say, five, ten years ago. But I don't know how many. Listen, we're going to have technology soon. I hope that'll help me figure that out. But even if they listen, I don't know if they're really, as we've been talking about, pay attention. We don't know how many of them grasp or engage with or absorb the information. And so I have this weird relationship, which you have to with tens of thousands of human beings on our planet who are used to hearing me for an hour, a week, week in, week out.
And I've never met almost I've met hardly any of them. So they know me. They feel close to me, which is interesting. We have no real relationship, but they feel close to me, which occasionally they send me an email and I feel it, which is beautiful. But most of what I'm doing with this kind of talk, I can't it's the same talk about the scene in The Unseen. I can't measure it. I can't grasp it.
I'm just you know, it's kind of like we send out these signals to other civilizations on other stars, other planets, other so other planetary systems. We don't know if anybody is listening to be nobody else. Maybe there's nobody out there could be. There's all these people laughing at us or enjoying it, but it's too far away. They don't get it till after we've died. I there's a little bit like that is a strange, strange, beautiful thing.
A radio is the same way where you're writing a book. It's not much different. Right. I know thousands of people bought my book called How Out of Space Could Change Your Life. I know at least one person read it carefully is famous Amit Varma. But that's just all I get. You know, get a lot more than that. You know, my dad my dad passed away this past March. And I've been thinking about him a lot, of course, over the last few months.
He loved to write authors letters, and it always amazed him that they wrote back. And they would often it's not like he did it relentlessly, but he did it sometimes. And he would write poets and novelists. And sometimes he would point out things that they did their work they didn't agree with or he thought they were making a mistake. There's an error. And he wanted to let them know. And I just want to tell me that he loved their work and they would often write back.
And I always thought and he often thought, isn't that strange? Why do they bother? Write back, write me back. And the answer is because somebody read it. Somebody read my book. Oh, I got to write back. What are you talking about? Because you're otherwise you're in the dark. You don't know. And so I think that's just really interesting. You know, my dad had a letter from Robert Penn Warren, one of my favorite poets, one of my favorite novelists.
That's so cool. But why would Robert Penn Warren write my dad? Because it was a human interaction, it was a chance to have we're talking about a conversation, not email the letter, not that talk, but something that's just so insightful and even moving.
A final question before we end this conversation, which I also enjoyed so much, is that, you know, sitting now in 20/20 with vision that is anything but 20/20 even, you know, there is so much uncertainty all around and you can see what's happening to politics to disclose to what media, as you pointed out, to what education, you know, if you were to look forward to the year 2030, what gives you despair and what gives you hope?
You know, I don't have as much as much hope as I. As I used to always be much more optimistic, part of my optimism used to be because of the institutions we talked about that help things work well, and that would be.
You know, free markets, all those institutions are being degraded right now in America, so that's very concerning. So I will little less optimism, I guess. I fall back on the James Buchanan quote, the great economist who said that I look to the future. I'm pessimistic when I look to the past, I'm optimistic. And what he meant by that was like right now, like you're saying, we're troubled times. It seems really scary. Don't know where we're headed.
Very unclear. There have been such times in the past. And we got over them. We got through them. He would pick up when I heard him say that. I think he talked about the 1930s. That was depressing. You had a monolithic communist state, the Soviet Union, that was wicked, that did horrible things to its citizens. You had a rising Nazi regime in Germany, which would lead to both of us together, would lead to tens of millions of deaths.
There was a Great Depression, a worldwide thing that the United States at a point was twenty five percent. So things got better. So one argument says things usually get better. So I fall back on that. I fall back on the idea also that if you live in a moderately free society, as we both do, we're blessed. We're not in North Korea, we're not in Cuba, we're not Syria. Those are tough places. But in our you know, you and I are talking a lot about the tragedy of the current political situation, the lack of civility, the distraction of technology.
It still remains the case that I'm going to have in a few minutes. My wife and I are going to have lunch and I can smile and we can laugh and we could share each other's company. And you and I are having this conversation not quite as good as the one I'm going to have my wife and me. But it's been a special conversation that everything takes place in the political realm.
Not everything takes place in Washington, D.C. Not everything takes place on Twitter. Still plenty of places where you can let your heart sing and you can dance and you can't dance on the dance floor right now. So well with the pandemic. But I can put on the shall I dance plenty in my living room, in my underwear if I want it now. It's just it's plenty good things left in life. So it's easy to get depressed about the state of the world's.
Probably better to focus more on your own. Smaller corner, your own garden, keep it clean, let some things grow there and not try to solve all the world's problems, even though it's tempting. You and I probably think we ought to be trying, but got plenty of problems at home to work on. Work ethic does better. Enjoy lunch with us.
Thank you so much for coming on the scene in The Unseen. It's been a great honor for me.
It was great. I loved it. Thanks for having me.
If you enjoyed listening to this episode, you can follow us on Twitter at Econ.. That's Countercoup one word. I will link to his podcast, his website and his books in the show notes. You can follow me on Twitter. Amitava my Amitay Artemy. You can check out the writing that I mentioned which I conduct online at India and go dotcom slash security registration's for the August. Batuz will open soon. You can browse the archives of the scene in the unseen and seen unseen.
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