Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Are Tyler Cowen's Observations on Economics about as Good as His Observations about Basketball?

Tyler Cowen has one of the most interesting minds of modern day economists. I think he is the most Keynesian type thinker in the business. I do not mean this as necessarily a compliment.

By Keyneisan type thinker, I do not mean in the sense that he follows Keynesian economic theory in some hardline fashion, but rather that his mind works like Keynes. He observes things in a different manner than do most economists  (Indeed, in a different way than most people for that matter). When he comments on these observations, it transfixes many. Especially since it often suggests a much deeper understanding of a topic than those around him.

In an interview Hayek said of Keynes:
And, you know, I don’t want you to get the impression that I underestimated him as a brain; he was one of the most intelligent and most original thinkers I have known.
But in the same interview, Hayek also said of Keynes:
 As a man with a great many ideas who knew very little economics. He knew nothing but Marshallian economics; he was completely unaware of what was going on elsewhere; he even knew very little about nineteenth-century economic history. His interests were very largely guided by aesthetic appeal.
I think what attracts so many to Keynes is his convoluted way of saying things along with a tendency to throw in an occasional observation that few others have spotted.

Because they recognize the interesting observation, they spend most of the time trying to understand the convoluted part of the writing, However, if you have a strong mind and willing to pull Keynes' writing apart, you realize that although he was very smart, he really only understands things at a surface level. Hayek took the time and fully understood this about Keynes. I think it applies to Cowen as well. Cowen is very observant, tending to present in a convoluted manner, but if you understand the subject Cowen is discussing, you realize that although he observes interesting facts, it is at a very surface level.

I will use an example of a Cowen tweet, today, about basketball. I will use the comment from basketball, so that we don't get into debates about economic theory and understand more the point I am trying to make about Cowen's thinking.

Cowen tweeted this today, quoting from an in-depth ESPN analysis of the Mavs-Thunder playoff series:
"Dirk [Nowitzki] is the toughest cover in the playoffs, which is remarkable for a guy who can't move."
Now this is way down in the ESPN analysis, so Cowen had to go deep into the report to find it, and to an outsider is a very interesting observation that Cowen picked out. Hey, a slow white guy is somehow tough to cover. It looks like Cowen has locked on to something very interesting here. But, if you really know basketball, this observation about Nowitzki is a very surface observation. Real insiders who know the game, know it is not about speed.

I direct readers to a book written almost 20 years ago, in 1993, Those Who Love the Game by current Boston Celtics head coach  Doc Rivers. In the book, Rivers has an extended discussion of how difficult it was to play against Chris Mullin. Mullin was as is Nowitzky, a very slow white guy on the court, but, as Rivers relates, it was Mullin's ability to stop and go, and change speeds that made it difficult to defend him.

So while Cowen's pulling of the quote about the observation about Nowitzki would be interesting to many and offer up a bit of mystery as to how and why Nowitzki is doing what he is doing, those who have a truly deep understanding of the game, would never bring this up. It's understood and been understood for a long time.

Here's more of Cowen surfacy comments that probably comes off as deep:
the old bin Laden reminds me a bit of the old Bobby Fischer, sadly for Fischer.
What does Cowen really know about the "old Bobby Fischer" or the "old bin Laden"?

It's more interesting to ask what will happen with the Pakistani stock market, not the S&P 500.
Another interesting observation, but is there really any depth to it?

A hotel's own web site is usually the worst Google link for finding out their actual phone number
More interesting surface stuff, where I am pretty sure he is completely wrong. I randomly just checked the Sofitel Hotel in NYC, the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco and the Days Inn, South Beach and was able to find the phone numbers in one click. What the hell is Cowen talking about?

I fully believe Cowen does the same in his economic writings, but he does it in a more Keynesian convoluted style of writing. Maybe some day I'll dig into that, when I really want to fry my brain through all sorts of twists and turns and false bottoms that lead, I'm suspecting, to nowhere.


  1. Related:

    - Cowen used to talk about how the Spurs already were or were going to be the best team in NBA history.

    - Cowen appears to have an opinion about all forms of ethnic food and rates restaurants often on a single meal.

    - Cowen appears to be a nice and smart guy with interesting things to say and puts out so much web content it's understandable there's plenty to criticize.

    Btw Henry Hazlitt's line by line analysis of Keynes' General Theory is spectacular.


  2. I don't mean to defend Cowen, but Twitter posts are really not the place for in-depth, serious writing.

    That being said, I used to read Cowen's blog, and came away with much the same impression. There were some topics that seemed interesting on the surface, but the analysis was very much lacking. And over the years, Cowen has demonstrated less and less economic understanding (or maybe more "mainstream" economics understanding, and less analytical content).

    On the other hand, I've found his GMU colleagues, Don Boudreaux and Russ Roberts, who blog at Cafe Hayek, to be far more analytical and introspective. They find interesting topics and view them from an economic perspective; as opposed to Cowen, who uses economic buzzwords and jargon to make things seem topical.

  3. He reminds me a bit of Judge Joe Brown.

    Brown delights in using convoluted sentences and unnecessarily big words to befuddle the people who appear before him in court. To the educated mind, however, he just seems like a show-off who is reaching at most times.


    Normal way of saying something:

    "Your car hit my fence. You should pay me."

    Judge Joe Brown

    "The vehicular mechanism in question did indeed do significant damage to the items also in question that require financial recompense. In addition, it is obvious to me that you need to act more like a man."


  4. I agree completely! Cowen is a type that plagues every field. He uses obfuscation to pass off ignorance as great insight in a Zen-like manner. Remember the sound of one hand clapping? To shallow people that sounds deep. But it’s just silly. Intelligent people only laugh. But there is a huge audience for obfuscation as insight, although it’s mostly on the left. Obfuscation substitutes for depth for those who have no depth. Keep up the good work!

  5. Convoluted indeed! I see it now.

    His superficial writing makes his ideas unintelligible in his unique Cowen way of alluding to these ideas by not alluding to them at all. It is brilliant.

    When my six year old writes "I want to go to Target to buy a truck" I will not leave it at what it says, but will harass my son for playing me the fool, thinking I will elevate his trite words for his clear use of diction alone. I will call him out for his obfuscation!

  6. Sad to say, but Cowen is a polymath, a speed-reader, and a tolerable writer with an amazing ability for recall. He has been become a prominent contemporary economist as a result. The problem is that he has never learned how to use his gifts for the good, à la David Gordon, and has instead auctioned them off for use of the Kochs.

  7. Tyler Cowen himself admits, in his book "Infovore", that perhaps he has some traits of autism, which includes, as he himself says, "superior abilities for spotting details in visual pictures".

    I confess I find him a tour-de-force, a whirlwind, and I can barely keep up with what he writes. Leaves me sort of dizzy.

    What we are witnessing here is someone ahead of his time. Soon enough, there will be a paradigm shift in human consciousness and most everyone will think like him. The capacity for "deep reading" (a la Sven Birkerts) will be a thing of the past and twitter postings will pass for philosophic thought.