Who Wants to Be a Cultural Billionaire?

Tyler Cowen photographed at Mars Bar.Photo: Chris Buck

If you had to pick between dining out in Stockholm or Port-au-Prince, where would you go? Sweden being one of the richest countries on earth and Haiti being one of the poorest, the choice seems obvious. Bring on the reindeer meatballs!

Unwise, says Tyler Cowen, the author of Discover Your Inner Economist, and that’s not because he has anything against eating reindeer.

If the quality of food is the sole mission, Cowen argues, look for contrary indicators. “Iron bars on the windows,” he writes, “and barbed wire on the fences, however bad for the residents or your own safety, are both good signs for the food.” The magic ingredient, he elaborates, is extreme income inequality, which ensures a large reservoir of cheap labor to grow and prepare the food, as well as a sufficient number of rich people who, being rich, must eat well. Voilà, good food in armored establishments. So hold that reindeer; bring on the banane peze!

Not so long ago, economists not named Milton Friedman mostly kept to themselves, impressing each other with their inscrutable theories. Now they’re the pop stars of academia. Spurred on by Freakonomics, the 2005 best seller by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, economists realized that, if only they can learn to communicate normally, they have the tools to explain people’s lives to them. Like, why won’t my teenage daughter wash the dishes?

Among this new crowd of economists, Cowen, a 45-year-old professor at George Mason University just outside D.C., is a cult hero, insofar as he co-runs an influential blog called marginalrevolution.com. You don’t need to be an economist to enjoy it. There are only a handful of posts a day, but the range of ideas is awe-inspiring. Cowen weighs in on everything from “wage compression”—when bosses give raises at a rate below productivity gains—to household pets, arguing that “if you must support the life of either a cat or a dog, choose the undervalued cat.” (Dogs’ friendly disposition increases the odds of their being well-cared for by other people, while the natural diffidence of cats makes them more susceptible to neglect).

What is most pleasurable about Marginal Revolution, though, is the heavy dose of cultural opinion and advice dispensed by Cowen. He is a world-class polymath who whips through graphic novels and 816-page bricks like Africa: A Biography of the Continent, listens to everything from Bach to Brazilian techno, searches out exotic cuisines all over the world, and still finds time to travel to remotest Mexico to update his collection of amate painting. For him, deep immersion in culture defines the good life, and his readers get the vicarious benefits.

With Discover Your Inner Economist, Cowen attempts to put serious economics in the service of self-help. He starts by arguing against money as the prime shaper of human behavior. “The critical economic problem is scarcity,” he says. “Money is scarce, but in most things the scarcity of time, attention, and caring is more important.”

In a highly discursive style, Cowen rockets from topic to topic, covering everything from how to talk your spouse out of buying a warranty on a new purchase (sound economics is on your side, but the cost to marital harmony is likely to exceed the cost of the warranty; so in other words, don’t fight over peanuts) to the reason a Malaysian woman spent 32 days in a glass room filled with 6,000 scorpions (she was attempting to “signal” her status in the world).

Cowen ventures where few economists have gone before; like when he takes on Neil Strauss, who theorized in his best seller The Game that attractive women respond favorably to men who treat them with indifference. Blarney, says Cowen: “A pure ‘hard to get’ strategy fails to satisfy what signaling theorists call—forgive the nerdspeak—‘a separating equilibrium.’ In other words, it does not sort (or ‘separate’) the winners from the losers. ‘Hard to get’ is too easy for the losers to mimic.” The good news for Strauss, says Cowen, is that he’s probably not as big a loser as he pretends to be.

The best sections of the book concern tactics for maximizing one’s cultural consumption, or what amounts to imitating Cowen. He lists eight strategies for taking control of one’s reading, which include ruthless skipping around, following one character while ignoring others, and even going directly to the last chapter. Your eighth-grade English teacher would faint. But the principle here is valuing the scarcity of your own time, which people often fail to do. It works for movies, too—Cowen will go to the multiplex and watch parts of three or four movies, rather than just sit through one. Why wait for a highly predictable ending when a fabulous scene might be unfolding in the movie playing next door? Cowen also offers advice for how to defeat the boredom that, despite our best intentions to be culturally literate, overtakes many of us minutes after we enter an art museum. How do we deal with this “scarcity of attention”? Pretend to be an art thief, he suggests—in every gallery, pick one picture that we’d like to run off with. Sounds juvenile, admits Cowen, but it “forces us to keep thinking critically” rather than daydream about the snack bar.

Cowen’s book does run up against another kind of scarcity. There are not enough economic tricks that distill neatly into interesting advice. When he discusses the techniques for motivating your dentist, like giving them a bonus for cavities well filled, he ends with, “I don’t think I can control my dentist or receive the very best care. By giving up this quest for control, however, I might get care that is just a little better than average.” Is that our Inner Economist talking, or our Inner Beaten-Down Dude?

Whatever good it does for everybody else, Discover Your Inner Economist has already rewarded its author. At the beginning of the book, Cowen discusses the resistance of his stepdaughter, Yana, to washing the dishes. After he and his wife resorted to paying her, “she did them for about a week and then stopped,” he says. “I knew this could happen. I understood that there is such a thing as intrinsic motivation and that if you pay people, you might weaken that. What I didn’t really get was the control issue. That when you start paying people to do a thing, they often see it as control.” Here’s the happy ending: After Yana read the book, she started doing the dishes. For free.

If George Mason University’s Final Four basketball team put the school in the spotlight in 2006, its economics department is keeping it there in 2007. In addition to Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, co-proprietors of marginalrevolution.com, the faculty includes Bryan Caplan, author of the much-debated The Myth of the Rational Voter,in which he argues that the public misunderstands basic economic principles and has a poor grasp of what constitutes its own self-interest. The solution: Let economists run the world!

SEE ALSO: Tyler Cowen’s World of Wonders

Discover Your Inner Economist
By Tyler Cowen. Dutton Adult. 256 pages. $25.95.

Who Wants to Be a Cultural Billionaire?