Ezra Klein, Tyler Cowen, and appreciation

September 15, 2021

I've been listening to a lot more podcasts over the pandemic, particularly on long walks, or when I'm wandering the mountains around my house, looking for interesting stones.  (More on that at some other time.)  I've found a number of wonderful podcasts, and maybe one day I'll do a thorough recounting here.  In general, though, I find it most useful to hunt and pick through them--not to listen to everything a podcaster does, but to only the ones that pique my interest right away.  And if it doesn't work, if it doesn't catch you, turn it off and move on--there are a million more out there.

I especially (but not exclusively) enjoy the interview/conversation format, where two or more people, well-versed in the topic at hand, and ideally in one another's opinions, engage in a conversation on something of common interest.  Even when they have radically different opinions, it can be illuminating.

I suppose I've been paying attention to Tyler Cowen for a long time now, at least fifteen or more years.  He's one of those people who was grounded in economics, but economists these days don't really think there are any boundaries to the topics they can investigate.  (This is a good thing and a bad thing about economists, imho, and very much an annoying thing, too; but again, that's another post.)  I find the range of stuff he's interested in very illuminating.  In the past few years I've grown more wary of him, as I have gotten more exasperated with the kind of economistic logic that refuses to see things like racial identity as operative in their own inquiries, and in general the libertarian position has grown more and more tiresome to me.

So I was a little suspicious when I started this podcast between Ezra Klein and Tyler Cowen.  But I am happy to say that it was a very worthwhile thing to listen to. Much of what Cowen said, I found exasperating, and some of it obviously--OBVIOUSLY--wrong, but some of it was annoyingly insightful in ways that I have thought distantly related thoughts as well; and the final peroration, about how to appreciate things better and to attempt to focus on resisting the tendency to complain, struck me as both wise and for myself very therapeutic. 

The most immediately irritatingly interesting thing he said, to my mind, was the point he makes that the idea of de-legitimating your political opponents is a bipartisan endeavor.  Yes, yes, I know, the forms of de-legitimation are quite different; no one is accusing the GOP of secretly running a child sex cult.  And there is a LOT of evidence, imho, of radically anti-democratic energies taking over the GOP.  And there is no Charlottesville, and there is no 1/6, on the Left.  And there is no row of "elder statesmen" on the Democratic side who are arguing that the Democratic party has been taken over by anti-democratic forces, as GWB and others have said about the GOP.  And, and, and.  The radical asymmetry between the parties makes any kind of "both-sidesism" ludicrous, and the typical GOP "whataboutism" reply to these sorts of critiques is obscene and self-deceptive.

All of that is true.  But Cowen has a point that people--even on the left--can sometimes confuse their moral opposition to rival members of the political community with their political legitimacy, and suggest that because their moral views are so abhorrent (they are!), they are naturally not politically legitimate.  We saw some of this in the shock of 2016--it was not just that the election was lost, but that the victors were so clearly deplorable, that their deplorableness seemed to de-legitimate the political victory they had won.

Now, to be clear--I think in a normal liberal-democratic political system, it's important to be able to lose, and accepting loss is part of what marks the health of that system.  And it is arguable--I would at least entertain such arguments--that we are not in anything like a "normal" liberal-democratic political system right now; so our opponents are really our enemies.  (They certainly seem to think of everyone who is not them as an "enemy.")  But it is also noteworthy that we continue to conflate a moral position with a political one, I think.  That is all.  I don't agree with Cowen's overall view or even maybe this particular conclusion; but I find him provocative.

Apart from that, Cowen's final few moments of reflection, about refocusing your life on appreciation and away from complaining, were also a highlight for me.  I very much want to do this as well.  I will probably go back to those moments in the podcast and listen again, after I've had a bit of time to process.

That's all for today--be well!  Don't complain (and as TC says, try not even to complain about complaining).  Focus on what you can appreciate, what you can value, what you can build.

Rock on.