Discover Your Inner Economist I give it 2 stars

Tyler Cowen’s blog is endlessly entertaining. He’s an economist with a real gift for lateral thinking, plus insane passions for travel, ethnic cooking, music, and books. It’ one of my favorite blogs, because most days he’ll post something either worth cooking, worth reading, or worth thinking about. His latest book is an awful lot like the blog. So why was I so disappointed?

Because it’s an awful lot like the blog. So much so that many passages are adapted more or less directly from a blog entry. (Or vice-versa, but either way I feel robbed.) He can’t stay on any particular topic for more than four or five paragraphs, the range of subjects is astonishing, there’s absolutely nothing systematic about the presentation (and barely anything orderly), and most of the arguments have the same half-baked, lunch-conversation style as the blog does. I love it in blog form, but in dead-tree form, it gets tedious quickly. I read over a dozen passages out loud, but learned almost nothing Cowen hadn’t already exposed me to.

Cowen’s a fox; his blog is a fox blog; his book is a fox book, too. I bought the book expecting he’d show his hedgehog side; isn’t that what academics do in books? But no, it’s a fox book, too. (That’s a bit of a relief, as compared with some of the unpleasantly hedgehoggy pop-econ book out there, some of which Cowen takes a swipe at in this one.) Now, I like fox books, too: the Mimi Smartypants book is a recycled collection of blog entries, and I like it just fine. But she doesn’t pretend that it’s anything more than what it is. Whereas Discover Your Inner Economist (mistitled: it really should be Nurture Your Inner Tyler Cowen) has chapters, and the occasional claim about an overarching theme. Lies, all lies! What he has to say works much better in blog form. Go read the last two years of his archives, and you’ll save some money and have a more enjoyable time. (Plus, that way you get actual recipes. Tasty ones, too.)

In conclusion, I’d reveal the address of his secret blog, except that he hasn’t posted in over a month, so it’s not as though I’d be letting you in on any big secret.

(1) Tyler Cowen is a hedgehog: he has one rule that he applies to everything. He discusses many subjects, but always with his one underlying understanding of the world. Larry Solum has a nice explanation of the actual fox/hedgehog distinction, and how it’s misused by many legal academics—or, just read Berlin’s essay, which is great.

(2) The link to Tyler Cowen’s “secret” blog is on Wikipedia. Nice!

Agh, the HTML tags didn’t work—no links!

Ok, here they are:

Larry Solum:

Tyler Cowen:

Isaiah Berlin:

The idea that Cowen is a hedgehog comes from Dani Rodrik, who claims that the “gut instinct of the members of the [hedgehog] group is to apply a simple supply-demand framework to the question at hand.” I don’t buy it. Cowen is obsessed with his personal motto of “everything good is undersupplied,” but that’s too thin and ambiguous an idea to make him a hedgehog. (I wouldn’t say that “be excellent to each other” or “plastics” are prescriptive enough to make a hedgehog either.) Rodrik’s lumping of Cowen, De Long, and Becker as hedgehogs as opposed to say, Stiglitz and Krugman as foxes seems incoherent to me. When you look at the whole range of topics they take on, Krugman has made a great reputation as a hedgehog who can relate everything to the awfulness of the Bush administration. Cowen remains a fox.

Well, my idea that Cowen is a hedgehog comes from me, based on my reading of Cowen’s blog, though I take it you are referring to Rodrik’s first best/second best economists distinction. Working in that framework, I don’t think Cowen has more than one idea—in fact, I don’t think most first best economists do. All of Cowen’s reasoning boils down to incentives and supply/demand. He doesn’t have different theories that he applies to different situations. (Epstein thus is a classic hedgehog, though he writes in many areas—I think Solum makes this point as well.)

When Rodrik says Krugman is a fox, he doesn’t mean, I think, to classify Krugman based on his op-eds for the NY Times, but rather on Krugman’s actual work as an economist.

Let me add, as an amendment and expansion of my prior post: as I haven’t read Cowen’s book, and don’t style myself an expert on Cowen, I can’t make a strong argument that he is a hedgehog and not a fox, though his blog certainly strikes me as hedgehoggish. But your original post doesn’t make sense unless you were misusing fox/hedgehog in precisely the way that Solum describes. People who are foxes don’t write books that show their “hedgehog sides.” Simply having a thesis doesn’t make one a hedgehog. Whether someone writes on a blog or in a book should have no relevance at all to whether he has a great underlying belief or not.

Berlin: “[T]here exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance.” And: “[Hedgehogs] seek[] to fit [a vast variety of experiences and objects] into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.”

And, describing Tolstoy: “Tolstoy’s sceptical realism…spring[s] from an agonised belief in a single, serene vision in which all problems are resolved, all doubts stilled, peace and understanding finally achieved.”

Fair enough. Perhaps I think that Cowen is a fox because his organizing principle doesn’t strike me as even remotely coherent.

I also tend to think Solum is wrong to call Sunstein a fox; Chicago breeds hedgehogs.

I couldn’t agree with you more about Chicago.

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