Jan 30, 2018

My Personal Moonshot

Tyler Cowen Holbert L. Harris Chair of Economics at George Mason University

Rather than talk about moonshots we might take collectively, let me go small scale and lay out the "moonshot" I have tried to take with my own career.  My goal is to be the economist who has most successfully used the internet as a platform to foment broad enlightenment.

As I see it, the internet is changing everything, and most intellectuals (and also businesspeople) still are underestimating the import of this reality.  That's bad for me as a consumer, but it gives me an edge as a producer, namely the competition is limited.  This advantage is heightened by the fact that academia does not reward internet communication per se.

My method has been to invest in as wide an economics and intellectual product line as is possible, often with co-authors and co-creators (Alex Tabarrok and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University most significantly). 

The overall portfolio includes:

  • Marginal Revolution (blog, post every day for 14 years)
  • Marginal Revolution University (ranked second among YouTube channels in economics education)
  • Twitter (@tylercowen)
  • Talks on YouTube, often resulting from talks I gave publicly
  • Conversations with Tyler (podcast with transcripts)
  • "Trade" books, one about every two years (not quite an internet product, at least I hope not!)
  • An economics principles textbook, micro and macro (includes a frequently used on-line portal; by the way, I give Alex most of the credit here).
  • Columns, often on economic policy (for the Bloomberg terminal and website, twice a week)
  • Responding to the emails I receive (an underrated and relatively influential activity)

My view, or at least hope, is that these diverse outputs exploit two synergies.  First, my work in any one of these areas publicizes what I am doing in the others.  Second, what I learn from each task boosts my productivity in the others.  Overall, I think of these activities as a kind of collective intellectual blitzkrieg. 

I will step out of my modest demeanor for a moment and suggest that relatively few people can construct and manage such a broad portfolio, and so this gives me some kind of competitive advantage or "moat" in the world of ideas.  My moonshoot, in essence, is trying to push as hard as possible on that advantage with this blitzkrieg.

For the most part, this effort is not directed toward persuading people of any specific conclusion.  Rather, I wish to give them a window into how I think (and collaborate), mostly because I find this communication enjoyable.  I learn so much from it myself and meet many interesting people along the way.  Of course, I am de facto often trying to persuade people of particular views and facts, if only because specificity is required to illustrate more general truths about how to reason and think. 

Overall, I would say I believe in the value of individual liberty more than do most of my intellectual peers, the importance of economic growth, and I focus on status relations in society as a means of understanding discourse.  I also assign great value to travel, studying the classics, and reading widely outside of economics, to round out the list of common themes. 

Teaching my students is also very important, including face to face instruction and mentoring.  That said, I view the above activities as teaching innovations as well.  In my admittedly biased view, on-line education, as a broad concept, is much further along than many people realize.

I've tried to structure most of these ventures to be relatively low marginal cost, although for Marginal Revolution University that is less the case.  Low cost production is a good way to keep outputs close to the original intellectual vision, as I once explained in a journal article with Alex.

By the way, I love it when people describe writing a blog, or writing on the internet, as "popularizing" economics or something similar.  That is a sign they don't understand what is going on, that they don’t understand there is such a thing as “internet economics,” and also a sign they will not be effective competition.  It's really about "the internet way of writing and communicating" vs. non-internet methods.  The internet methods may or may not be popular, and may or may not be geared toward a wide audience, so they are not the same as popularizing.  One point of the internet is to find an outlet for super-unpopular material.  What's important right now is to develop internet methods of thinking and communicating, and not to obsess over reaching the largest possible numbers of people.

I find it rewarding to pursue this vision because even low-level success implies a much larger and smarter audience than I ever thought I would have given my expectations growing up.  I don't feel much risk of downside, and thus my morale and energy levels remain high.

I won't ever reach the moon, but planet earth is interesting enough.

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