In an effort to promote ideological and intellectual plurality on campus, I’ve been making a conscious effort to interview public intellectuals, especially those whose ideas don’t get talked about much on campus. Starting conversations about challenging topics, and engaging with work from people outside one’s own tribe is important to learning.
This week, I sat down to interview Dr. Arnold Kling. Kling is an American economist, scholar, and blogger. His blog, askblog focuses on “taking the most charitable views of those who disagree.” Kling is a prolific writer who is well known for writing ‘The 3 Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides.’ Kling has lived a fascinating life going from teacher to internet entrepreneur, to an Othello champion, to an economist at The Federal Reserve. My interview with him (I’m in bold) is below. Enjoy reading!
You’ve been an independent teacher, writer, and Substacker for the last 20+ years. What’s that like? What do you value most about working for yourself, and what do you miss?
I value the control over my time. Any day that I want to just go off and ride my bicycle all day, I can do it. Not having a boss is a big quality-of-life issue. But a lack of institutional resources limits what I can accomplish. Something like fantasy intellectual teams would be more viable if I had a big organization behind it.
You’ve worked a lot of different career paths. What wisdom has this taught you that perhaps other economists would not consider? Which jobs did you find most intellectually satisfying?
I’ve acquired a sense of how organizations actually function. For most economists, the firm is a black box, or a machine. I’ve had a peek inside the black box. By far the most intellectually satisfying periods were when I was working at Freddie Mac and when I had my Web-based start-up, homefair.com. At Freddie, I learned about the intersection between business culture and technology. I also learned that large organizations are very complex. But I learned so much it’s hard to summarize. Similarly, with web-based business was an intense learning experience. The software innovations were just exploding at the time–this was 1994-1999. And nobody knew what business strategies were viable–it was all guesswork, with trial and error. But both the Freddie Mac experience and the HomeFair experience were very stressful emotionally. If you care a lot about your ideas, you run into conflict with people who have different ideas, and that creates a lot of anguish.
Tell me about your book, ‘The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides.’ Has it held up well into the 2020s, what are its self-professed strengths and weaknesses? What inspired you to write it?
I wrote it because I noticed that most political punditry was not oriented toward changing anyone’s mind. Instead, it was trying to reinforce each political tribe’s negative image of other tribes. I think that basic insight has held up. Also, the simple characterization or progressives as obsessed with oppressors vs. oppressed, conservatives as obsessed with the fragility of civilization and the threat of reverting to barbarism, and libertarians as obsessed with the problem of state coercion has held up well. But I did not see the Trump phenomenon coming, which emphasized a conflict between those whose educational credentials make them feel superior and those who resent the college-educated overclass.
You’ve created a Fantasy Public Intellectual League…. What is the purpose for doing this? Tell me more about how that functions!
Well, I tried it, but it probably was ahead of its time. The intent was to change the process by which public intellectuals gain status. Right now, thanks to the incentives to produce clicks, success is correlated with expressions of outrage. I wanted to create measures of careful thinking, such as steel-manning opposing points of view, showing a willingness to change one’s mind, and offering caveats to one’s claims. Then I wanted to get consumers of public intellectual writers to keep track of these characteristics, rather than just mindlessly liking the folks they agree with. The burden of doing the scoring turned out to be too high for me to sustain.
Who are your favorite public intellectuals, and who would you recommend to the college students who are starting their intellectual voyages?
One of my favorites is Scott Alexander, because he is so careful about evaluating research on a topic. Emily Oster does that, also. I am in awe of Razib Khan, who seems to be able to absorb an enormous number of books and other intellectual inputs. Tyler Cowen is another information sponge. Jonathan Turley is someone I do not follow closely, but when I ran the Fantasy Intellectual Teams project, he was one of the best at understanding and respecting opposing viewpoints. Julia Galef is a model of trying to look at an issue from as many sides as possible. Russ Roberts is great at asking Devil’s Advocate questions on his econtalk podcasts. John McWhorter is someone who is trying to change a person’s mind, not play to a gallery of supporters. Yascha Mounk features many different and interesting points of view on his Persuasion substack. Joseph Henrich is one of the most interesting academic researchers. Coleman Hughes is the opposite of a dogmatic loudmouth. Really, there are many great minds out there–you just have to shut off Twitter and go find them.
Who do you often disagree with who you consider brilliant?
Tyler Cowen expresses a lot of ideas that sound outlandish. I think he hopes that some of them will turn out to be right, even though not all of them will. I often disagree with his ideas at first, but then sometimes I change my mind. Andrew Sullivan expresses himself fervently, and when I agree with him, I like that. But I do disagree with him on some things. He and Jonathan Rauch overstate the negatives about Donald Trump, in my view. Conversely, there are those who understate those negatives, but I don’t have any strong Trump supporters among my mental list of great minds. Rauch and Sullivan are on that list, and they both frustrate me at times, and I have written about that, particularly about Rauch.
Do you have an economist rival, competing for your niche?
Maybe Noah Smith? There is another one who sometimes impresses me with insights and at other times frustrates me with smugness. I would say the same about Matt Yglesias.
A lot of the most interesting economists I see are at some point affiliated with GMU (for example, Stringham, Caplan, Hanson, Boettke, Roberts, etc.). Why is that?
My sense is that sometime in the late 20th century GMU became a haven for Austrian economics. This attracted a number of heterodox and libertarian thinkers, folks who were more intellectually entrepreneurial than the typical MIT grind. I think that Tyler Cowen played a very big role, because he has strong instincts about who will be both original and productive. My guess is that his opinions about who to hire and who not to hire were the key to building that community.
What do you think is not taught enough of in economics to college students? What do you think universities teach too much of?
Not enough about all of the implications of complex specialization. It isn’t just 2×2 comparative advantage. I have a book, “Specialization and Trade”, that tries to do that. Too much reliance on the production function, which aggregates all different sorts of occupations into labor and all sorts of tangible goods and intangible resources into capital.
What is the crisis of abundance? Why does it matter? Can anything be done?
If you arbitrarily restricted medical care to only those procedures and therapies that were available in 1975, health care would be pretty good, and we could easily afford it. At the margin, we have added a lot of treatments without corresponding improvements in health. I’m not saying that we should ration health care so severely, but I think that promising people unlimited access to medical services without having to pay out of pocket sets us up for a lot of over-use of resources for diagnosis and treatment.
What does being highly successful at an intellectual board game like Othello do to one’s thoughts? Cowen comes to mind as another blogging chess libertarian. Do board games have an effect on the type of economist one is?
I think it can help you appreciate that in a game like that, luck plays essentially no role and the status hierarchy is extremely fair. You can then use that to think about whether in other realms of life, such as business or academia, how does the competition for status become less rigorous?
You made an intellectual journey over time to libertarianism… Why? To someone less libertarian than you, what would you say to encourage them to be more libertarian? To someone more libertarian, what would you say to tone down their extremism?
I think that working in business had a lot to do with it. You appreciate the high ratio of the unknown to the known. In academic economics, you write down a known demand curve and a known supply curve. In the real world, everything is much fuzzier than that. And if the people inside the business cannot write down their demand curve but instead have to fumble around, how can you expect government officials to know enough to fix policies correctly? So I start to worry not about making the optimal decision, but about which process evolves more effectively–the market process or the government process. And I soon decided that the market was better at experimenting, evaluating, and evolving in a world where the ratio of unknown to known is high.
Libertarians have to appreciate that in a complex world, there is a lot of need for governance. Some of it comes from private entities, but some is best done by monopoly governments.
What do you think about rationalism? Objectivism? Austrian economics? Which fringe intellectual movements do you like most? Which ones do you think are fruitless?
Not sure what you mean by rationalism. If you mean the intellectual approach of Scott Alexander and Julia Galef, then I like it a lot. It may not even be fringe. Jonathan Rauch advocates something like it, for example. Rand’s objectivism feels too dogmatic and certain to me.
Austrian economics is good on the ideas of economic complexity and roundabout production. Instead of taking all information as known, it emphasizes the economic discovery process. Austrians have a better appreciation of public choice issues. Ironically, the one thing that Hayek got the Nobel Prize for–Austrian business cycle theory–holds little or no appeal for me. To be relevant, I think Austrian economists need to immerse themselves less in Mises and more in the world.