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We Are Not As Smart As We Think

A conversation with Tyler Cowen, author of Average Is Over

I follow Tyler Cowen’s co-authored blog Marginal Revolution, precisely because he posts links to numerous articles and provides insightful commentary on an unusually wide range of topics. And the people who provide comments on his comments are worth reading too.

Tyler is a distinguished professor of economics at George Mason University, director of the Mercatus Center, writes the “Economic View” column for the New York Times, and along with Alex Tabarrok founded the online education resource Marginal Revolution University. I also found out he was a gifted chess player in his youth.

His latest book, which has been widely discussed—even by Barack Obama—is Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. In it, he writes about a new kind of economist, who is hybrid researcher plus information analyzer and distributor, describing someone who sounds a lot like himself. You could substitute “economist” with “psychologist” or many other disciplines, and the following statement would probably hold true:

“The economists who favor more intuitive approaches...will become clearinghouses for and evaluators of the work of others. They will translate that work, not just for a broader public but for members of their own economics profession…They will hone their skills of seeking out, absorbing, and evaluating this information….they will have remarkably high skills, higher than those of many Nobel laureates…These Freestyle researchers will be pioneering a fundamentally new way of ‘doing’ economics and a fundamentally new sense of what it means to be an a economist and indeed a scientist…At least for a while, they will be the only people left who will have a clear notion of what is going on.”

I had the opportunity to interview Tyler about Average is Over. Our conversation follows.

JON: Because average is over, below average is over. But how far above average do you need to be to succeed? And on what traits and skills must you be above average on? You mention intelligence or IQ, self-motivation, and conscientiousness, but are there other personal characteristics that might help?


: In the future, and to a large extent today, the most important qualities for job market success will be IQ, values, conscientiousness, and discipline. The more value is embedded in a production process, the greater the destructive potential from having low morale workers around, and markets are starting to reflect this. “Testing well early” is and will be critical as well. The more we measure things, the more critical testing abilities will become. For the very top earners, vision and inspiration are essential. You need those to become the next Steve Jobs, but perhaps not to be the highest paid dentist in Beverly Hills.


What percentage of people is capable of running a small but successful business? Of getting a good knowledge base from higher education? Of mastering a relatively high-paying profession? Of working with smart machines rather than competing against them? For a time frame of twenty years out from now, my estimate is that this percentage is in the range of 15 to 20 percent for the United States.

You mention that in the future, much of our efforts will go towards boosting self-motivation and conscientiousness because those qualities will reap a lot of gains in the world to come. However, how malleable do you think these traits actually are?

How malleable under ideal circumstances? Perhaps very malleable, we don’t know. The work of James Heckman suggests they might be quite malleable if we start very early on influencing people in a particular way. I am not myself convinced by Heckman’s results, but in any case we are not looking at ideal policy, whatever that might be. The better question is how malleable are those traits in the world we live in, where most children do not receive specialized training, scrutiny, and improvement from young ages onwards. I am pretty sure the answer then is “not very malleable.” We all know it is common for various personal traits to be 60% heritable or more.

Note: see link here for the heritability estimates of various personal traits, including intelligence and conscientiousness.

You discuss how women are faring extremely well in colleges and universities because they tend to have higher conscientiousness. What do you think the future will hold for men?

For whatever cultural, social or genetic reasons, across a wide range of variables men show a higher variability of outcomes than do women. Many men are of course highly conscientious. But the least conscientious men seem to be a train wreck. Some of this is violent crime but also mental illness, rebellion, and inability to fit in. Markets are penalizing this. I don’t see this trend about to stop anytime soon. Women, on the other hand, have escaped much of the discrimination they experienced in the past.

Why will it be so important to be able to work with “genius machines” and market yourself effectively in the future?

You’re either working with the genius machines or they are competing against you. Which would you prefer? And why exclude yourself from the largest productivity gains of our time?

Why is our world going to become increasingly unequal? Why will it be a “hyper-meritocracy”? And should we do anything about it?

I see three forces militating in favor of growing inequality: increasing measurement of worker value added, automation through smart software, and globalization. I spell out the exact mechanisms, and the evidence behind them, in my book. I don’t see any of those trends changing or reversing anytime soon.

You mention that unlike humans, computers have no fear of complications or the unfamiliar, so they are readily able to “serve up counterintuitive piece placements and patterns” in chess. Doesn’t this mean humans are not the only ones capable of creativity? Should we be afraid of what computers might one day be able to do?

In chess, computers show that what we call “strategy” is reducible to tactics, ultimately. It only looks creative to us. They are still just glorified cash registers. This should make us feel uncomfortable, whether or not we think computers will ever be good composers of music or artistic painters.

You note: “The age of the mechanical doctor is here, whether we like it or not.” Will the most prestigious job in America eventually be something other than a medical doctor? Maybe some kind of talent manager of geniuses who work with genius machines?

The most prestigious job is already something other than medical doctor, which in relative terms has lost some cache. How about hi-tech entrepreneur? And that is exactly what you describe, namely a “talent manager of geniuses who work with genius machines.” The skills behind being a doctor seem rather mechanical these days, not too different from auto mechanic.

You mention that transformation of the way chess was taught, from human instructors to machines, happened quite rapidly and had little resistance. Why is this one of the world’s most startling educational stories and not part of the national discussion about education?

The national discussion of education is dominated by politics and also by special interest groups. Even the critics and radicals often have their own self-interested agendas. We already know so much more about education than we realize, I would say. Let’s dig into that body of knowledge, which is a kind of low-hanging fruit. Computer games are another big source of knowledge about how human beings can learn effectively.

You talk about how computers will be increasingly be used in dating. For example, being “introduced by the algorithm” and “dating algorithm technology can help us realize the errors in some of our personally generated choices.” Do you think these types of interactions will be unnaturally forced? Or maybe it will be a more precise version of and EHarmony? And if people are increasingly better matched on similar traits, what will this mean for the traits selected for in future generations?

Internet dating seemed “forced” to many people when it first started, but now it is considered quite natural and if anything it is the norm with many socioeconomic groups. I am not sure, however, how good these algorithms will get, at least not anytime soon. Very often their function is simply to get you to act and take some decision rather than none. That is useful too. In the longer run, people might submit their genetic information to their dating sites, but we are still a ways away from knowing how to use such information productively, at least when it comes to romance.

If you could give just 5 key lessons from your book, what would they be?

How about one?: We are not as smart as we think.

© 2013 by Jonathan Wai

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