“Tyler Cowen and Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero” (Two Think Minimum Podcast)

“Tyler Cowen and Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero” (Two Think Minimum Podcast)

Two Think Minimum Podcast Transcript
Episode 017: “Tyler Cowen and Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero”
Recorded on: May 2, 2019

Scott Wallsten: 00:00 Hi, and welcome back to TPI’s podcast, Two Think Minimum. It’s Thursday, May 2nd, 2019 and I’m Scott Wallsten, President and Senior Fellow at the Technology Policy Institute. Today we’re excited to talk with Tyler Cowen about his new book entitled Big Business, A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero. Among other things, Tyler is the New York Times bestselling author of The Great Stagnation and writer of the daily blog called Marginal Revolution. He holds the Holbert L. Harris Chair and economics at George Mason University, writes as a Bloomberg opinion columnist, and hosts the popular discussion series called “Conversations with Tyler” where he interviews leading thinkers for a time. I’m joined also by Sarah Oh, TPI Senior Fellow and a former PhD student of Tyler’s at George Mason. I’ll let Sarah start the discussion.

Sarah Oh: 00:45 Welcome Tyler to Two Think Minimum. Thanks for joining us on this podcast. It’s been almost two years since I defended my dissertation in economics with you as my chair, the chair of my committee and it’s a treat for me to be able to interview you for our program today. I’ll just update you that my dissertation is in a second round of revisions [at a top journal] and I’m finishing it and reading your latest book on big business brings back memories of grad school for me. It reminds me because I helped work on Stubborn Attachments and The Complacent Class, your other two books (I worked on some footnotes). I carried maybe hundreds of library books as your graduate research assistant for those two projects over maybe two years. And just to share with our listeners, I moved maybe a dozen books a week from the library to my car to your office and then picked up the other books from your office to my car to the library. So you do read a lot! I can testify to that. And for this new book, Big Business: A Love Letter to the American Antihero, I just wanted to start the conversation and ask how you see this book fitting into your series of other economics books, like The Great Stagnation, The Complacent Class and Stubborn Attachments.

Tyler Cowen: 02:11 I think this book is going back to some themes I explored in the 1990s. My book, In Praise of Commercial Culture, which looked at the beneficial impact of commerce on the art, that was actually my first book to become really well known, but it was a long time ago and talked about a world somewhat different than the world we live in. But the notion that business and commerce have beneficial effects, it’s been one of the underlying themes in my writing and research almost from the beginning. I thought it in a world with big tech companies and business increasingly unpopular, it was time to turn back to that. And that’s the genesis of Big Business.

Sarah: 02:49 Great. What do you think of the current techlash?

Tyler: 02:55 I think it’s remarkable how much you can publish in an op-ed in major newspaper with a lot of emotion and rhetoric and really no facts or analysis, or considering the other side of the argument. And I think the quality of discourse is extraordinarily low. And I helped in my book to bring some balance into the discussion. Big Tech has significant benefits. For the most part, those companies are not exercising monopoly power, they are not restricting output. They have brought some marvelous developments to our lives. It is not a perfect sector by any means, but I think it’s much, much better than its current reputation in the media.

Scott: 03:33 Before we get into some of the details about that substance, I just want to ask about what you just said. Why do you think that now we do policy by op-ed? Is something different in these last, last couple of years than in the decade before. What’s made real policy analysis less relevant or am I putting too many words in your mouth?

Tyler: 04:02 While I didn’t say that, you may well be true. For some set of reasons, Technocracy has partially broken down. Some of that may be due to the Internet itself that people get too close. I look at their elites and they become disillusioned as Martin Gurri has suggested. I don’t think we know that is true. I think it’s a possible hypothesis. But I think also we have right now a quote, unusual president who uses rhetoric in a very flowery way and drums up people’s emotions positively or negatively, and I think that is made technocracy harder to achieve. And I think waves of globalization and immigration have just raised the overall level of tension in politics in many countries, not just this one. And I’m not sure if the relative weight on all those hypotheses.

Scott: 04:54 Right. And the result is being taken out on tech in particular or do you think we’re seeing this really across the board?

Tyler: 05:04 Yes. A lot of institutions, there’s lower trust in them, not just tech. It’s all about big business, that is less popular than it used to be. Organized religion is in decline. I sometimes say jokingly, the best argument against tech is to see how social media themselves have influenced the coverage of tech. And it could be that paper such as the New York Times, they’re writing articles in essence to be spread as a meme on social media. And that means something more emotional and less analytical. I do in fact think that is maybe the best argument against big tech is how it ends up creating itself unwillingly.

Sarah: 05:47 I guess more optimistic news today. The BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) came out with the productivity statistics that American workers increased productivity by 3.6%. So that’s a question for you about The Great Stagnation and productivity levels and our economy. What do you think about our productivity measurements and do you think American productivity will increase?

Tyler: 06:18 Well, that’s the first good productivity measure we’ve had in a long time. I’d like to see ideally five-year moving averages. It’s common you get one or two good quarters with a lot of data series and then they go back to normal. But keep in mind in the The Great Stagnation, I always predicted the great stagnation would end, it would end within our lifetimes. I’m certainly not ready to say on the basis of this one number that it’s ended now, but look, whenever it does end, there’s going to be your first good number at some point. So there’s a chance things have taken a turn for the better. You shouldn’t think your hypothesis is going to be true forever. I think American productivity will indeed at some point make a comeback. I very much hope it’s now.

Sarah: 07:03 There have been some recent studies, I think the Vanguard economists are studying productivity trends and saying that well, we’ll see a big increase through what material science and biotech and computing that we haven’t seen yet. It’s just pent up. Do you have any thoughts on that? Is it mismeasurement or free goods?

Tyler: 07:30 I don’t think it’s mismeasurement. If you look at quantity behavior, labor supply, investment behavior, the measurement of quantities matches what we would expect from slow productivity growth. And we’ve had a slow recovery and people have felt that. So I feel that’s a consistent picture. I would tell you if you just sort of read magazines or look at Twitter, you’ll think there were so many phenomenal new developments in science. They may be real in the realm of science, but most of them have not come into our lives. In the last three years, life expectancy in the United States has fallen slightly that I find astonishing. We will have a real productivity turnaround when that number is rising at an above average rate, but that is not quite yet.

Scott: 08:14 That’s interesting to compare with. To put it in perspective of your book, of your newest book. On the one hand, we’re seeing lots of great things from tech and big business. But on the other hand, you’re also saying that we aren’t seeing as much fundamental a change and improvements as we might think.

Tyler: 08:40 Yeah. The productivity of the super firms has been pretty marvelous and in my view, what our economy needs is more super firms. They also pay higher wages, typically offer a better benefits. So I think business should be more like business. I think there is a very significant and largely true critique of business in this country and that’s that it is not innovative enough and too bureaucratic. But the critiques you’re hearing of business, that it’s too monopolistic, that it controls our government that is basically evil, it’s all cheating, corruption and fraud, the financial sector is out of control, big tech is destroying our privacy and so on and so on and so on. Those, as I argue in the book are mostly either false or at least greatly overstated and that’s where I’m trying to bring back balance. But it’s absolutely true in this country- we just don’t have enough very high productivity firms. The tech sector of course being a huge exception.

Scott: 09:31 What sorts of policies do you recommend going forward? Or often it’s things that we shouldn’t do going forward.

Tyler: 09:45 In my book, I don’t recommend many policies. I intended it to covered business, but I’m happy to address that. I think we should make it easier to build in America’s most productive cities. First and foremost, the Bay Area not only that would help upward economic mobility, but also help companies to grow. I would deregulate many, but not all sectors of the US economy. I would be tougher say on carbon emissions. I think at the state and local level, there are simply far too many impediments to actually building infrastructure. People are calling for a $2 trillion bill and so on. I think we first need to make it the case that we have infrastructure costs, say in line with those of western Europe. And right now it just costs much, much more here, say to build out a subway line than it does anywhere else in the world. So I would start with those.

Scott: 10:38 That’s interesting. We think of Europe as being more, maybe bureaucratic isn’t the right word, but more regulatory than we are. But you’re saying that at least with infrastructure, it’s the reverse.

Tyler: 10:52 For the most part, that’s correct. It takes us longer. The second avenue subway line in New York, they started planning in the early 1970s. They just opened it last year. I mean, my goodness, there’s a lot of things to build here in terms of infrastructure can cost 2x or 3x what it would say in France or Germany.

Scott: 10:52 Why is that?

Tyler: 10:52 There’s a very good Vox article trying to explain this. I think it’s mostly because we have so many overlapping jurisdictions and so many veto points that it takes so long and then you have these cost overruns and the project needs to be restructured and you can’t get things done before interest groups get their claws into it and it just becomes a huge bloody ugly, slow mess with high costs all around.

Scott: 11:36 I mean, I would imagine the piece of that that differs from Europe is the overlapping jurisdictions. Do you think that’s the key difference?

Tyler: 11:48 It depends where you mean in Europe, of course Germany has some federalism, but there were clear lines who can say no to what often. One thing I would add, infrastructure means many things to many people. But some kinds of very new infrastructure we’ve built out pretty well. So the ability to make a cell phone call from almost anywhere, that actually has gone pretty quickly. So we’re worse at physical infrastructure, I would say.

Scott: 12:18 Whereas cell phones in this case, are not a physical infrastructure here?

Tyler: 12:22 Some of it’s physical, you need towers and relay points, but it’s a relatively easy on the physical side compared to say, building a Hyperloop between Los Angeles and San Francisco, which will probably never happen and maybe never should. But should we have high speed rail in the northeast? Of course. Is there any imaginable way of ever getting it done? No.

Scott: 12:44 What barriers are Silicon Valley firms in particular are facing? I mean, there’s this current headwind that you talk about in the book and headwind is understating it. They’re being accused as the cause of almost every problem we have.

Tyler: 13:06 There’s talk of breaking them up, of imposing huge penalties on them, privacy legislation that’s essentially impossible to follow. So it remains to be seen what will done, but the level of regulatory uncertainty they’re facing is enormous. And I do think we will do a lot against the tech companies. Probably all of the above. I don’t know that they will lose the antitrust suits, but I think at some point some of them will be brought.

Scott: 13:35 Who are the likely winners in such cases? Not whether the firms themselves will win or lose, but who does anybody benefit from this?

Tyler: 13:47 I think there are very few winners. It could be they have rivals or potential rivals who will find the way cleared. Just as when we distracted IBM with antitrust suits earlier in the 20th century that helped other people in the computer sector perhaps. But consumers will be worse off a business as a whole will be discouraged for innovating, and just like swapping in one set of companies for another, to me that’s not a net gain per se.

Scott: 14:16 Right. I hate to feed into our sort of general anti-trade rhetoric but it also seems like Chinese firms, it would help them pretty significantly if US firms are hamstrung.

Tyler: 14:33 That’s certainly possible. Probably the strongest effect in foreign markets. I’m not sure how much we’ll try and use tech firms into America anyway. But that’s true, if you think of there being a global battle to see who’s tech firms will be supplying basic services, we should want the US to win. And right now we’re distracting the attention of the senior management and not helping them in any way whatsoever. Imagine setting up a company that offers an amazing product at zero price and never restricting output, but doing everything possible to give away your product and have it spread. And everyone uses the product and actual users in fact love it. And now these companies are our biggest villains? I do think there is a legitimate privacy issue which we should try to address. I don’t dismiss that, but that’s very different from the kind of repeated, almost hysterical anti-tech sentiment we’re seeing in a lot of the media.

Scott: 15:33 Yeah. As an economist, it is hard to get our, get my head around that. Usually if we want low prices, higher quality and higher quantity, but those seem to be bad things these days.

Tyler: 15:44 There was an article today by Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times, an op-ed, just Uber is the embodiment of evil. It shows how wrong Silicon Valley is. The article never mentioned consumer surplus from Uber Rides, doesn’t even consider it, and doesn’t mention the fact that the people who took jobs with Uber probably considered those jobs to be better than whatever else they could have done or they wouldn’t have taken them. It’s like the simplest of economic observations. It barely even qualifies as economics and he couldn’t bring himself to admit or confront those two points. I think it’s the kind of malpractice, it’s a kind of a opinion page of malpractice.

Scott: 16:16 Do you think it’s intentional that he recognizes those arguments but doesn’t want to acknowledge them or that people just see the world in a different way.

Tyler: 16:34 I suspect it’s the latter and any process at a media source, there’s editors and different things happen and the author doesn’t control the title and it can be hard to speculate. But still one can look at the final output and feel something has gone quite badly wrong. And that’s the case here.

Sarah: 16:52 That reminds me of your Stubborn Attachment book, which I read maybe a dozen times as your assistant. I really know that book well. But the main point I got out of it was that economic growth, it really should capture our imagination far more than other policy concerns because the returns on growth enabled solutions that were not available before. So if you can get to economic growth, you can find policy solutions for their problems. So what do you think it takes to produce economic growth? Why is it so hard to find good ideas lately? And maybe if you could talk a little bit about your moonshot projects that you’re doing, like Emergent Ventures.

Tyler: 17:38 Well, you asked me before about policy changes. Obviously I would like to see those done, what I discussed, but I think at least as important as a cultural change that people see science as more important, they feel a greater mission to innovate, become entrepreneurs, promote the advance of science. Government can have a positive role in that, but mostly we need to do that as American citizens. And the respect science held in the post-World War II era was much higher than the respect or interest that attracts today. So that would be my single biggest recommendation. And that’s a tall order to bring that change about. One thing I’m trying to do on my own, you mentioned my Emergent Ventures project. That’s my attempt to reform philanthropy.

Here at Mercatus, we’ve raised about $4.25 million dollars and we’re inviting people to submit proposals, which we’re not allowed to exceed 1500 words in length. And the process for considering those proposals has literally zero bureaucracy. It is only one person. That person is me. I read them and usually I Skype with the people or meet with them. Then there’s a decision, with no bureaucratic costs involved. Obviously we will end up funding a number of things that simply do not pan out. But we’re taking a lot of chances. We’re looking to fund things, I mean, I, in fact, am looking to fund things that no one else will fund. We’re funding a lot of young people giving them travel grants, aid to meet mentors, career development, people doing projects in tech and science. I’m very hopeful. We just announced our fourth cohort if winners and we’re now supporting I think 19 or so people with more to come and I’m hoping we can de-bureaucratize philanthropy and that’s my small step toward doing so.

Sarah: 19:31 That’s wonderful. What have you learned so far from the applications? There is like a distribution of really good ideas and maybe some ideas that could be better flushed out. How do you make that decision or weigh what makes a good project?

Tyler: 19:50 I think we have a generation of people who are really good writers. Probably that’s because of the Internet. It’s one thing I’ve learned. Other people who have applied are actually quite sincere. I believe I’ve learned that a lot of the best applications are people who hadn’t really known of me or the project in advance, but they were kind of one or two steps removed. I’ve learned that a lot of the talent we’re funding is either women or minority groups or multicultural in some way without us having to make any effort whatsoever. So the notion that there really is a lot of untapped talent out there that we’re not finding, I feel that view of mine has been confirmed. I’ve learned quite a bit.

Scott: 20:35 You said that you funded, or that your best applications, are from people who are a couple of degrees separated from you. Why do you think that is?

Tyler: 20:58 I’m not sure. So if I take the people who sort of know me, a lot of them are either already highly successful and thus they’re not eligible or don’t need to apply, or they like to read me, but maybe they’re not that ambitious in some way. And maybe my immediate audience is bifurcated in that manner. It’s hard to tell, you never sample it. But the people, those people know is where for me, a lot of the untapped talent is being found. Like just one or two steps removed. Like, “Oh, I’ve heard of you or I read something by you once,” or “I listened to one of your podcasts” but not like, “oh, I read everything you do.” The best applications are coming from the somewhat removed people.

Scott: 21:43 This reminds me of your food blog actually, and the things you’ve said about it. I don’t think you’ve used those words, but you recommend people at nice restaurants pick the dishes that they’ve never heard of, and that the best restaurants are not the ones where everyone goes. Maybe they’re completely different reasons and there’s no parallel at all.

Tyler: 22:13 Get out of your status quo bias, get out of inertia. Maybe I was worried when I started I would just get applications from people who are like already connected to funding sources I knew, but that hasn’t been the case at all. A lot of it’s been from people that were not looped into any other group or a source of money. And a lot of it, very young people. We just made a grant to someone who’s a junior in high school. Brilliant guy.

Scott: 22:36 Wow. I’m sure this differs by project, but what do you look for, for outcomes?

Tyler: 22:46 It really depends on the nature of the grant. One recent grant we gave to two researchers at Dartmouth and they are building a data infrastructure, which will basically contain information on every Indian town or a village. So it would be possible to do a Raj Chetty-like study, say of Indian Mobility, what causes it, what arms it, that will take awhile to build. What I look for from that exact project and that it’s used by the Indian government to somehow make India’s economic policy better. But you know, some of the others, you give a travel grant to a 17 year old, you just look that they did the trip and got to talk to a lot of people and had their career trajectory changed, but they might not do anything important for 20 years. So there’s a lot of suspense involved but very long time lags. But the whole purpose of this project is to pick things where some of the time lags are too long for foundations to consider because there are creating quarterly, yearly reports. They have boards are donors asking what are you doing, what are you doing? And here there’s really latitude to think a as long-term as might be effective.

Scott: 24:02 Is that true for yourself and for running the program or do you have to try and spend the money by a particular time or can you fund good things as they come? And it lasts as long as it lasts.

Tyler: 24:16 I fund projects when they come, and the fund lasts as long as it lasts. There’s no staff I have to pay for. I don’t draw any salary from it. I’m not trying to keep the thing going because of some private benefit I get, so I’m truly free to choose what I think are the best projects.

Scott: 24:33 Wow. That’s great.

Sarah: 24:37 Yeah. I guess a related, but a little bit different, question is this. I’ve heard you say that “podcasts are like the new education.”

Tyler: 24:48 And we’re funding a bunch of them, yeah.

Sarah: 24:50 And podcast can educate in very effective ways, like millions of people through the Socratic method, through conversation. What have you learned through your “Conversations with Tyler” series about dissemination of knowledge?

Tyler: 25:10 That no matter how smart you try to make something, if it’s good, there’s always a huge audience out there for it. That prior to, blogging and Twitter and podcasts, that just people producing content assumed audiences were a bit stupid. And that’s a gross underestimate of what people want to consume. I’m not saying everyone all wants the same thing, but the market for super smart stuff, smart people is just enormous. And that’s the main thing I’ve learned that if you just put something out and try to make it as smart as possible, as good as possible, I’m not saying you’ll always succeed, but to the extent you do that, it will do very well. There’s no problem on the audience side whatsoever.

Scott: 25:58 What do you think is missing in podcasts? There are so many on so many topics. Are there areas that you’ve seen that you think people aren’t discussing? Why don’t we stick to economics I guess, or other things you were interested in?

Tyler: 26:16 Well, what’s missing is my time to listen to them all. But you know, we just funded a new podcast venture by Jennifer Doleac, in Texas and hers is a law and economics podcast. Looking at actual empirical papers, on law and economics; how can we reduce crime or how can we reintegrate offenders back into civil society where she has researchers on the show talking about what they do in a smart way. She’s a great host and certainly knows the material and that’s only had two episodes in the last two weeks, so it’s too early to say how it’s doing, but I think it will become very influential in actually shaping policy toward crime. And I think for every area in economics, there should be two or three podcasts, with different points of view are emphases. Right now I don’t think we’re close to that. So, you think of telecommunications, which you all know better than I do, I’d like to see a half dozen good economics podcast there. As far as I know, we’re not at that point.

Sarah: 27:21 Yeah. From our experience, we’ve been doing Two Think Minimum, our podcast, for about a year now, maybe a year and a half, with 16 episodes. The production costs are pretty low. But what you really need are interesting people to interview and good questions to ask.

Tyler: 27:42 And dedicated hosts.

Sarah: 27:44 Yes. And dedicated hosts and topics that are relevant and important. I personally listen to like a dozen different podcasts and sometimes I think to myself, wow, I’m learning more than I did in school to my ear from experts in a very concentrated manner. And so I agree. I think podcasts are like the new education.

Tyler: 28:14 And all that time we used to waste like commuting at the gym. You can actually fill it all in with something that’s really quite good or maybe great.

Scott: 28:22 That’s actually- you think that that’s all additional time? I don’t know what the right word for it is, “found time” or something, that it’s not coming out of something else?

Tyler: 28:34 Correct. Arguably, the single biggest tech advance of the last 10 years is mobilizing people’s spare time and filling it. Not always with something good, I might add. But you never have to be doing nothing no matter what. Even if you’re driving. So, you’re waiting in line. Well, people do different things with their mobile devices. Maybe not all of it’s good, but it’s remarkable what you can do and it can be something quite great.

Sarah: 29:03 Do you think or productivity measurements capture that time?

Tyler: 29:08 No, but I don’t think that’s enough to put us back into a productivity revival, but I do think it’s significant. And we will get even better at it.

Sarah: 29:21 Maybe we’ll see the results and in 20 years or something. Here at TPI, a lot of us have studied in California. I have, Scott has, Tom has. You’re starting to work more with entrepreneurs in San Francisco lately, what do you think the east coast has that Silicon Valley doesn’t have in terms of ideas or resources and what would you like to see more of in the culture of D.C. that exists in other places that are producing new inventions?

Tyler: 29:54 Our blessing is also our curse. We have a greater sense of realism than they do, but I’m not sure it always helps us. They’re much more ambitious and have a far greater belief and the notion that things can change that getting something is not impossible. But that said, I think they make a lot of mistakes or they’re just wrong about many things. A lot of them think like, oh, human beings will live forever within a century. That strikes me as highly unlikely. And I hardly know anyone around the DC area who believes that. We’re much more like, gee, can we even get the fiscal financing of Medicaid to work a little better? That seems hard enough. So there’s some how these two like opposing poles in American thought. New York is now more irrelevant and one pole is the Bay area and the other is Washington D.C., and you somehow need that creative tension between both of them. But I would say, Bay Area’s way ahead of D.C. at the moment. We’re kind of nutty and they’re doing amazing things.

Scott: 30:54 Why do you say New York is no longer relevant?

Tyler: 30:58 Well, I grew up in the 1970s near New York and the immense dominant impact of New York on American culture then, and indeed the northeast was really quite striking. There’s been a big population shift to the southeast and somewhat to the west. People care about different things. Tech is more dominant. I know there’s a lot of tech in New York, but it’s somewhat secondary to what’s been created in the bay area and a lot of what New York is wonderful for, dance, museum exhibits, I think are less culturally central that in the past. Writing novels, reading novels, those things have declined in relative importance. Maybe I’m not even totally happy about that, but New York, is that a cultural low point. It hasn’t been culturally this insignificant since, maybe the early 20th century and this is a city that’s like never been wealthier, not been this safe in a long time. It’s like working okay enough, but I think it doesn’t matter that much right now.

Scott: 31:59 Do you think that’s true globally? Has any city replaced it in terms of cultural influence or are those aspects of culture just no longer as important to us?

Tyler: 32:12 No longer is important, but I would say the most important and influential city now by far is Beijing. Again, not always for the better, but it’s not even close. So much happens there. And nowhere else can compare even like by a factor of two.

Scott: 32:30 What are the implications of that do you think?

Tyler: 32:34 That we’re a bit of sleep, that China is transforming the world again, always in good ways. They have decided to unify their political and economic and cultural capital. In the long run, I believe that is a mistake, but in the short run it can give you more power and reach. And that’s what we’re seeing now. We’ll see how much stability they have and how much robustness. I prefer the more decentralized American system, but China does have its own methods of decentralization, which has helped them grow. We’ll see how important Beijing becomes, but it’s been such a shift, a city that was irrelevant is now the most important in the world. We really all ought to give that a lot of thought and also tried to get there as quickly as we can.

Scott: 33:20 It used to be, well and its still is the case, that the rest of the world benefited from innovations that happened here and, and vice versa through spillovers, knowledge spillovers and so on, should we expect similar spillovers from innovations in China or Korea or even cultural innovations like you’re talking about? Or is there something about the Chinese system that keeps some more internal to China? Will world or the U.S. not benefit as much from innovations in China’s as the reverse, or is that just, or is that wrong? Do we also benefit from it?

Tyler: 33:58 I think we will with time and I mean a very short time horizon. So I think in biomedicine and AI, we will benefit a lot from them. It’s possible they beat us to true quantum computing. Quite a good chance of that, we’ll have to see there. Something like payment systems at the retail level. They’re already way ahead of us. We’re too screwed up to be able to copy them, I guess, eventually I think we’ll come around, but not in the next five years we’re stuck in this bad equilibrium and they swiped QR codes and the whole thing’s over and half a second and I’m there trying to like jam my card and chip it to the machine and it won’t work. And then I tried to slide it in, my goodness and I’m like, why aren’t they back in China? Didi, in many ways is more effective than Uber. But Uber learns from Didi and Didi guided start from Uber. So we’re seeing a lot of back and forth. I’m very bullish about this. I don’t like how much surveillance they do and I hope we don’t learn too much of that. I fear we might.

Sarah: 34:58 Which brings us back to, I guess technology policy. It seems like the march of technology is towards AI, surveillance, and just larger companies that have more data, so how does that tension work out? We’re competing with China on technology and yet there’s cultural fear or trepidation towards more data-centric living.

Tyler: 35:28 I’m very concerned with the privacy issue, but I feel it’s not that well understood or discussed. So first, the main infringing on privacy for most people- your friends, your colleagues, people who know you- they’re not the big tech companies. Yes, Facebook has this weird zip file, all the stuff they know about you algorithmically, but that’s smart actually accounts for the privacy violations we suffer from in the real world for the most part. I worry much more about facial surveillance and the loss of privacy and physical space than I do in terms of data. My privacy concerns in life, Google, Facebook, Apple, they’re just not that high on the list. So I would like to build in stronger privacy protections. I haven’t seen a good bill, which does that in an effective way. It seems to me the EU is GDPR is mainly protection for incumbents and doesn’t in fact protect much privacy. Single best thing we can do to boost privacy is just to make it cheaper for more people to move from the countryside to cities and populous suburbs. That’s by far the dominant effect and people care, oh, privacy, this privacy that, but they don’t look at actual privacy and what we can do to increase it.

Scott: 36:45 You said you worry more about a loss of privacy of the physical space, well maybe I’m wrong, but does that mean you would tend to support restrictions on biometrics or is that not at all what you’re saying?

Tyler: 37:03 I would consider selective bans on facial surveillance in public spaces. So I do think there are plenty of places where you might want it. Someone entering the prison for instance, or medical facilities or mental health homes. I don’t want to ban it outright, but I would seriously consider major restrictions on its use. The idea that you walk to the airport and they know who you are and you’re checked into your flight immediately. I get that that’s convenient. But to me it’s dystopian and Orwellian and I think if we go down that path, we will regret it.

Scott: 37:38 So that actually focuses government surveillance.

Tyler: 37:44 But some of it’s private sector too. I blame both parties here and China has gone way too far in this direction and I worry we’ll end up copying them. If you walk into the 7-Eleven and they know it’s you and they like text you a coupon, that sounds innocuous. It probably is, but there is some kind of slippery slope and I think we should give this further thought and discussion and possibly choke the whole thing off.

Scott: 38:12 Interesting. That is a sort of dystopian place to stop.

Tyler: 38:30 But let’s be cheery, the opportunities in the world have never been greater. Including for Americans.

Sarah: 38:30 I’m going to ask one final question. Okay. So you’ve been blogging on Marginal Revolution for maybe over a decade–

Tyler: 38:41 Sixteen years, believe it or not. Yeah. Wow. Almost.  

Sarah: 38:45 Maybe almost daily. You’re an early blogger–

Tyler: 38:49 Not almost daily. Please. Daily, every single day.

Sarah: 38:53 Okay. So, yes, you’re definitely an early blogger and in the early day was people were skeptical that it was like a legitimate form of intellectual discourse and distribution of ideas. But now it’s definitely normal. What are some of your thoughts about your readership? Do you follow like how many international readers are reading your blog and what have you learned? What do your readers right to you?

Tyler: 39:23 No, I don’t really follow stats. There was a while, not long ago, we had like 50,000 readers a day. Probably it’s still around that I don’t actually know. I feel I have the best audience in the world. I just tried to write as smart a level as I can and hope to attract smart people and don’t really care about sort of pleasing the audience per se. And you sort of, you get what you deserve and you never really quite know. But there’s a lot of very well-known people who read us and I plan to keep on writing for as long as I possibly can. I have no plans to quit ever. Like, why not do it? It’s they are, it’s sort of- had you told me as a kid, this was possible, it would have been some kind of dream I couldn’t have fathom door believed and now I can do it. So I’m going to do it.

Sarah: 40:10 Great. That’s awesome. Well, we’ll, I’ll keep reading or blogging and enjoying it. And your food blog, it’s still live. I actually looked it up and you had a post from a few weeks ago, so that’s fun too. Well, thank you so much Tyler, for your time.

Tyler: 40:25 Okay, thank you. I look forward to the next time I see you. Take care. Bye. Bye.

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