Pioneer Interview: Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen is an American economist and professor at George Mason University, where he holds the Holbert C. Harris chair in the economics department. He also hosts the economics blog Marginal Revolution. In 2011 poll by The Economist, Cowen was included in the top 36 nominations of "which economists were most influential over the past decade".

Tyler is also a Pioneer Expert.


Hi Tyler! Tell us a little about yourself in a sentence or two.

I am a Professor of Economics. I run a research center, try to build my school into an intellectual center, and direct various projects (most of them online), catalogued at marginalrevolution.com. I’ve tried to redefine what the career of an economist can be. Often I’m known as a polymath or infovore.”

How old were you when you decided to do what you’re doing right now?

Ages 13 to 14. For a while, I pondered being a philosopher. But soon, I realized that was less practical than studying economics. But I still view myself as somehow sitting between those two disciplines.

What were you like back then? Tell us about a day in your life.

I would wake up before seven, read the New York Times, walk to school, suffer through the day, do enough work to get A minuses, leave school at 2:46, and then come home and read as much as I could for as long as I could. Or hang out with my few smart friends, two of whom also went on to become professional economists. We had a great group.

Who were you in high school?

Recognizably the same Tyler Cowen. But back then I liked listening to Bruce Springsteen, and today not so much. My perspective today is much less nation-centered. I also have much broader and better taste in food — not just hamburgers and pizza.

What’s a decision that seemed small at the time, but led to a big impact in your life today?

Meeting various people who led intellectual lives and seeing and learning that this was possible.

What “happy accidents” did you have in your youth? Things you didn’t plan on doing that lead to a positive outcome?

My path has been pretty linear. I have always felt in control, arguably a bad thing! Yet it is true. I thought that the compound returns from learning in a steady environment could be really high, if only I would stick with it.

What are some behavioral mistakes you made early on in life?

I was always too impatient. But that also helped me get things done, and I meant I did not really waste many days. Arguably, I should have spent more time cultivating contacts at Harvard when doing my Ph.D. But would that really have put me on a better path? Hard to say.

If you were applying to Pioneer today with a fresh project, what would you make?

Something like Pioneer itself?

If you became really good at something (physics, programming, art, music), how exactly did you first get hooked?

Learning is fun. I found that social sciences are a good vehicle for learning things all the time. That got me hooked. It made my travel more salient, and it enriched the time I spent with music and the arts. It helped me make sense of people, too. All that at once. That was a pretty potent brew, and it still is.

What are some weird things you worked on or did as a teenager?

These days, what’s weird? I play chess intensively for four years, ages 10 to 14. Then I studied economics for the rest of my life. Arguably I was less weird as a teenager than I am today. What’s weird is that I haven’t matured into a less intensive course of study.

What books, movies, or music do you like?

Favorite books are Moby-Dick, Proust, Bleak House, and Shakespeare.

Favorite movies are Scenes from a Marriage, Rear Window, some Kubrick, Tarkovsky, and The Empire Strikes Back, and don’t forget Asian cinema.

Music? Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart and Brahms. Indian classical music, performed live. Classic rock, the usual stuff starting with the Beatles.


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