The last time reason caught up with economist Tyler Cowen for a long sit-down interview was in 2003, just after he'd published Creative Destruction, a wide-ranging and compelling argument for the cultural benefits of globalization. An occasional contributor to reason, Cowen debated the American Enterprise Institute's James Glassman on Social Security privatization in our pages in 2005 and advanced a "leave-it-alone" argument so convincing that Glassman changed his stance on the matter. Cowen has also written about the negative effect of public subsidies on the French film industry for us (check those articles out here, and go here for reason's review of his influential In Praise of Commercial Culture).
The 45-year-old George Mason University economics professor has a new book out that mixes self-help with hardcore economic thinking. Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist is rightly drawing rave reviews for its mix of high-end theory and practical advice. New York magazine recently dubbed Cowen, who co-runs the popular Marginal Revolution blog, a "cult hero," and The Washington Post just wrote up Cowen's advice on finding memorable ethnic food on the cheap.
reason editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie interviewed Cowen via AIM on August 9. What follows is an edited transcript of their session, with timestamps and irregular capitalization left alone to preserve the immediacy of the exchange.
reason (8:31:35 AM): give me the one-sentence summary of your new book.
Cowen (8:32:18 AM): "Economics is everywhere, and understanding economics can help you make better decisions and lead a happier life."
reason (8:32:31 AM): I've been paying my 13-year-old son all summer to cut the grass, but he hasn't been doing a very good job. what am I doing wrong?
Cowen (8:33:38 AM): Perhaps he feels you are trying to control him. If he accepts the payment for the grass, what next? You pay him to get better grades, or not to smoke pot? (Given that this is reason, perhaps you pay him to smoke pot!) He fears control, and so he rebels against that control by not cutting the grass.
Economists love to talk about incentives, but the bottom line is that people hate being controlled or manipulated, even when done through voluntary institutions. This is one of the most important tensions in capitalism.
reason (8:34:16 AM): it's good to know that he's not just lazy...
Cowen (8:34:55 AM): He's probably not lazy at all; he would work hard for a lawn-care firm, I bet, to get a bonus. He knows they won't try to control his social life.
reason (8:37:34 AM): you're going to speak on capitol hill today. you write that money can't buy love. it's too bad you weren't able to reach out to sen. david vitter (r-la.) before his troubles. why can't money buy love?
Cowen (8:39:22 AM): Money can attract potential partners, at least on an initial basis if you have enough of it. But paying for love just doesn't work. The very act of payment takes away the love and also suggests a control or asymmetry. You also can't pay your kids to respect you.
reason (8:39:35 AM): have you ever paid for sex? has anyone ever paid you for sex?
Cowen (8:40:41 AM): Never ever ever. The idea isn't at all appealing to me. I'm a male who's traveled a lot alone, including in Asia and Cuba, I might add.
Nor have I sold!