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From my interview archive: economist and Marginal Revolutionary Tyler Cowen (2008 and 2009)

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

I don’t remember exactly how I first found Marginal Revolution, but I’ve read it longer than nearly any blog in existence. Part of that owes to the fact that, unlike many if not most of the blogs I used to read, it actually remains in existence. More of it owes to my unflagging interest in the distinctive mind of one of Marginal Revolution’s two founding bloggers, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen.

As you might expect, Cowen writes primarily about economics, and I discovered his work just as I started getting into that subject myself, but you don’t really need to care about economics to get a return on keeping up with his blogging: over this past month alone, he’s also posted about George Steiner, new Italian fiction, artificial intelligence, tennis, grip strength (unrelated to tennis), spiders, the appeal of Ireland, robot stage actors, empiricism, emotions, how to give a talk, Indian curry stain removal devices, American sexual frequency estimation, satellite-radio payola, Monteverdi’s madrigals, a rising chess star, and the political effects of self-deception.

That list might make Marginal Revolution sound like one of those projects “about everything” that you’re not even supposed to think about launching in the 21st century’s hyperspecialized #content landscape. Usually that kind of generalism indicates a fatal lack of focus by its very nature, but Cowen has somehow always matched breadth of subject with clarity of thought, which creates its own kind of high consistency. That may owe to his tendency to see the world thorough an economic lens, especially in his signature “Markets in Everything” posts, and it comes in for especially good use in his writing about food, whether on his Washington, D.C.-area Ethnic Dining Guide or in a book like An Economist Gets Lunch.

That one came out a bit too late to record an interview about on The Marketplace of Ideas, but by that point I’d already talked to Cowen, who now hosts an interview podcast of his very own, twice on the show. Both conversations got into his methods for consuming and thinking about culture, in edible form or any other. Not long after the second, I borrowed another of Cowen’s signature post formats, the recommendation-soliciting “bleg” (blogbeg), to prepare for a visit to New Zealand, my first trip — and really, really not my last — off the American continent. One of the comments in reply came from the Marginal Revolutionary himself:

Eat fusion cuisine in Auckland and Wellington, Malaysian and Burmese food, fish and chips (of course), lamb, forget the beef and chicken 100 percent. Don’t order them once.

I very much like Napier. Do “quaint” things, like shopping for tea cozies. Try to rent a cabin for a day or two away from a city. Drink their wacky fruit juices. Go for walks. Don’t expect too much culture or good art to look at. The Pacific materials in the Auckland museum are superb, however.

Good advice, it turned out!

Though I haven’t had another chance to interview Cowen since (Notebook on Cities and Culture never having made it to a D.C. Season), I’ve done my best to adapt his habits of mind when traveling, eating, watching, and reading elsewhere. Anyone who has come to the conclusion that Los Angeles is his “favorite city in the whole world” and that Apichatpong Weerasethakul is “the most enduring director of our time” will, at least for my purposes, come to other highly relevant conclusions as well. He’s only written a little about Korea (“There are so many coffee shops here.  But why?” he asked in 2012), though he has undertaken a longstanding quest for the ideal bibimbap. Next time he gets here, I’d be glad to introduce an additional data point or two.