In an effort to promote ideological and intellectual plurality on campus, I have made a conscious effort to interview public intellectuals, especially those whose ideas are not discussed much on campus. Starting conversations about difficult topics and engaging in the work of people outside of one’s own tribe is important for learning.
This week, I sat down to interview Dr. Arnold Kling. Kling is an American economist, scholar, and blogger. His blog, ask the blog focuses on “adopting the most charitable opinions of those who disagree”. Kling is a prolific writer who is well known for writing “The 3 Languages of Politics: Speaking Across Political Divisions”. Kling has lived a fascinating life, growing from teacher to Internet entrepreneur, to Othello champion, to economist at the Federal Reserve. My interview with him (I’m in bold) is below. Good reading!
You have been a freelance teacher, writer and sub-stacker for over 20 years. How is it ? What do you enjoy most about working for yourself and what do you miss?
I enjoy controlling my time. Any day I want to go and ride my bike all day, I can do it. Not having a boss is a big problem with your quality of life. But a lack of institutional resources limits what I can accomplish. Something like fantastic intellectual teams would be more viable if I had a large organization behind it.
You have worked a lot of different career paths. What wisdom have you learned from this that perhaps other economists would not consider? What jobs have you found most intellectually satisfying?
I acquired an idea of how organizations actually work. For most economists, the business is a black box or a machine. I peeked inside the black box. By far the most intellectually satisfying times were when I worked at Freddie Mac and when I had my web-based start-up, homefair.com. At Freddie, I discovered the intersection between corporate culture and technology. I have also learned that large organizations are very complex. But I’ve learned so much that it’s hard to sum up. Likewise, web based business has been an intense learning experience. Software innovations were exploding back then – that was in 1994-1999. And no one knew which trading strategies were viable – it was just guesswork, with trial and error. But the Freddie Mac experience and the HomeFair experience were very stressful emotionally. If you care a lot about your ideas, you get into conflict with people who have different ideas, and that creates a lot of angst.
Tell me about your book, “The Three Languages of Politics: Speaking Across Political Divisions”. Has it held up well in the 2020s, what are its self-proclaimed strengths and weaknesses? What inspired you to write it?
I wrote it because I noticed that most political experts weren’t geared towards changing anyone’s mind. Instead, he was trying to reinforce the negative image of each political tribe from other tribes. I think that basic idea held up. Furthermore, the simple characterization of progressives as obsessed with the oppressors against the 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 indeed resisted. But I didn’t see the Trump phenomenon coming, which has focused on a conflict between those whose degrees make them feel superior and those who want the college upgrade.
You have created a Fantastic Public Intellectual League…. What is the point of doing this? Tell me more about how it works!
Well I tried it, but it was probably ahead of its time. The intention was to change the process by which public intellectuals acquire status. Currently, thanks to the incentives to produce clicks, success is correlated with expressions of outrage. I wanted to create cautious thinking measures, such as opposing views, showing a willingness to change your mind and offering caveats to one’s claims. Next, I wanted to get consumers of public intellectual writers to keep track of those characteristics, rather than mindlessly liking the people they agree with. The burden of scoring turned out to be too great for me to bear.
Who are your favorite public intellectuals, and who would you recommend to college students who are starting their intellectual journeys?
One of my favorites is Scott Alexander, because he is very careful in evaluating research on a topic. Emily Oster does that too. I am in awe of Razib Khan, who seems to be able to absorb a huge number of books and other intellectual inputs. Tyler Cowen is another information sponge. Jonathan Turley is someone I’m not close to, but when I led the Fantasy Intellectual Teams project he was one of the best at understanding and respecting opposing points of view. Julia Galef is a model who tries to look at a problem from as many sides as possible. Russ Roberts is good at asking questions of Devil’s Advocate on his econtalk podcasts. John McWhorter is someone who tries to change a person’s mind, not play in front of a fan gallery. Yascha Mounk presents many different and interesting perspectives on his Persuasion sub-stack. Joseph Henrich is one of the most interesting university researchers. Coleman Hughes is the opposite of a dogmatic loudmouth. Really, there are a lot of great minds out there – you just have to shut down Twitter and go find them.
Who do you often disagree with who you consider to be brilliant?
Tyler Cowen expresses a lot of ideas that seem far-fetched. I think he hopes some of them will be right, although not all of them will. I often disagree with his ideas at first, but sometimes I change my mind. Andrew Sullivan speaks fervently, and when I agree with him, I like it. But I don’t agree with him on some things. He and Jonathan Rauch overestimate the negatives about Donald Trump, in my opinion. Conversely, there are those who downplay these negatives, but I don’t have strong Trump supporters on my mental list of great minds. Rauch and Sullivan are on this list, and they both frustrate me sometimes, and I’ve written about that, especially about Rauch.
Do you have a rival economist competing for your niche?
Maybe Noah Smith? There is another who impresses me sometimes with his ideas and at other times frustrates me with his smugness. I would say the same of Matt Yglesias.
Many of the more interesting economists I see are at some point affiliated with GMU (e.g. Stringham, Caplan, Hanson, Boettke, Roberts, etc.). Why is that?
I have the impression that at the end of the 20th century, GMU has become a paradise for the Austrian economy. It attracted a number of heterodox and libertarian thinkers, people who were more intellectually enterprising than the typical MIT grind. I think Tyler Cowen played a really big part, because he has strong instincts to know who will be both original and productive. I guess his opinions on who to hire and who not to hire were key to building this community.
In your opinion, what is not taught enough in economics to students? What do you think universities teach too much?
Not enough on all the implications of a complex specialization. It’s not just a 2 × 2 comparative advantage. I have a book, “Specialization and Commerce,” which attempts to do this. Too much dependence on the production function, which aggregates all kinds of labor professions and all kinds of material goods and intangible capital resources.
What is the crisis of abundance? Why is this important? Can we do something?
If you arbitrarily limited medical care to only the procedures and therapies that were available in 1975, the health care would be pretty good, and we could easily afford it. At the margin, we have added a lot of treatments without corresponding improvement in health. I’m not saying we should ration health care so severely, but I do think that promising people unlimited access to medical services without having to pay out of pocket leads us to overuse resources for diagnosis and treatment.
How does being very successful in an intellectual board game like Othello affect our thoughts? Cowen comes to mind as another libertarian chess blogger. Do board games have an effect on what kind of economist you are?
I think it can help you understand that in a game like this, luck is essentially irrelevant and the status hierarchy is extremely fair. You can then use it to ask yourself if in other areas of life, such as business or academia, how does the competition for status become less severe?
You took an intellectual journey through time towards 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 mitigate their extremism?
I think working in business has a lot to do with it. You appreciate the high ratio of the unknown to the known. In university economics, you write a known demand curve and a known supply curve. In the real world, everything is much more blurry than that. And if the people inside the company can’t write their demand curve but instead have to fumble around, how can you expect government officials to know enough to properly set policies? So I start to worry not about making the optimal decision, but about which process is moving the most efficiently – the market process or the government process. And I quickly decided that the market was better for experimenting, evaluating and evolving in a world where the ratio of the unknown to the known is high.
Libertarians must understand that in a complex world there is a great need for governance. Some come from private entities, but some are better managed by monopoly governments.
What do you think of rationalism? Objectivism? Austrian economy? Which marginal intellectual movements do you like the most? Which do you think are unsuccessful?
I don’t know what you mean by rationalism. If you’re talking about the intellectual approach of Scott Alexander and Julia Galef, then I like it very much. It might not even be bangs. Jonathan Rauch advocates something like this, for example. Rand’s objectivism seems too dogmatic and certain to me.
The Austrian economy is good at ideas of economic complexity and roundabout production. Instead of taking all of the information as known, it focuses on the process of economic discovery. Austrians have a better appreciation of public choice issues. Ironically, the one thing Hayek received the Nobel Prize for – Austrian business cycle theory – appeals to me little or not at all. To be relevant, I think Austrian economists need to immerse themselves less in Mises and more in the world.