An Interview with Russell Roberts

This post originally appeared on The Finance Buff.

I’ve never met Russell Roberts, a George Mason University economics professor also affiliated with the Mercatus Center and Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. I know him only through EconTalk, a podcast available from the Library of Economics and Liberty. On each episode of the program, a review of which I recently posted, Roberts discusses a topic in economics with a different guest.

Roberts is also a novelist. His latest, The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity (Princeton University Press, 2008), is a story of how prosperity is created and sustained, and the unseen order and harmony that shape our daily lives. He is also the author of The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance (MIT Press, 2001), a novel discussing an array of public policy issues including corporate responsibility, consumer safety, and welfare. His first novel The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protection (Prentice Hall, 3rd ed., 2006) was named one of the top ten books of the year by Business Week and one of the best books of the year by the Financial Times.

As if that were not enough, Roberts co-blogs at Cafe Hayek, is a frequent commentator on National Public Radio programs, and has authored numerous academic publications, and written for The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

As a huge EconTalk fan, I was delighted when Roberts agreed to an interview. Out of respect for his time, I promised him only five questions. But I could easily have asked more. (Actually, I cheated and asked compound questions.) I think we cover a wide range of interesting topics.

The Incidental Economist (TIE): EconTalk began a little over three years ago. What is the story of its origin? What were your expectations and goals for it at the time? How have they changed? Where is it heading?

Russell Roberts (RR): Radio Economics, an economics podcast, invited me to be a host for one of their episodes. People told me it was a waste of time. Reading is more efficient than listening, they said. No one wants to listen to anything for more than two or three minutes, they said. But thousands of people downloaded that episode. I thought, what if there were an auditorium, an arena, really, where thousands of people converged to listen to economics. Wouldn’t I want to show up to talk to that class? So I decided to try it. At first I thought it would be a few times a year. But then I realized that listeners want a weekly dose of economics. So EconTalk became weekly.

We’re on our way to a football stadium of listeners at EconTalk who show up every week, curious to learn something. Knowing they’re out there, I want to show up every week to share a conversation with them. My main goal is unchanged—to help people see how economics is a useful way to think about the world. But the program has changed. I try to talk less now than I did in the early days. At least I think I do.

Where is it heading? I don’t know. I hope to make it better and better. There is still plenty I can do. The recent book club is one example. I’d like to get listeners more actively involved in the process. And I try very hard to get guests with viewpoints that are different from mine. I think those are some of the best episodes.

TIE: You explore economics in several different ways: by podcast, blog, in the classroom, and through your novels. How do these media differ in their capacity to communicate economic concepts? What works well one way but not another?

RR: People are different. Some people like to read. Others don’t. Some have to read. Some have time to listen. Some have great visual imaginations, others are more analytical. Some want a short insight. Some are willing to sit down and listen for an hour or read a whole book. I try to use as many different kinds of media as I can. I’m working on a video right now and hope to do more of that.

TIE: You seem to have made a commitment to spread economic thinking. Why is it important for more people to understand economics concepts? What is at risk without greater understanding? Is progress in this regard being made? How do we know?

RR: I think economics helps you understand the wonder of the world. Understanding the fundamentals of economics (tradeoffs, spontaneous order, incentives, trade) helps you be a fuller human being. It also helps to keep you from being fooled by self-interest cloaked in altruism. That makes you wiser and in theory, a better voter. I wish I knew how to measure progress in economic literacy. One very crude measure, and it is enough for me, is when a listener of EconTalk writes me about something she saw in the news and recognizes it as a “bootlegger and Baptist” story. That is very gratifying.

TIE: Economists seem to have prominent voices and roles these days, even in areas outside economics. Matt Yglesias raised this most recently in a post titled “Prestige Cross-Pollination,” and Ezra Klein called it “a special privilege of economists” in a post titled “The Tyranny of the Economists.” Do you think there is a tendency for economists to overstep the bounds of their expertise? To the extent they do, is it dangerous?

RR: What scares me is hubris backed by the appearance of science. We economists make that leap all the time. It is dangerous but I don’t expect it to stop. I do hope people can learn to be skeptical.

TIE: You’ve interviewed a lot of economists on EconTalk. How has the experience changed you and your view of the profession, its role, and future? Are there any broad lessons you’ve learned that you can share?

RR: Hosting EconTalk has been one of the great intellectual rides of my life, as exhilarating as graduate school. As listeners know, I’ve become much more skeptical of certain kinds of empirical work and much less confident of economics as an empirical science generally. I see it more as a way of thinking, a language, a philosophy for approaching the world. I talk about these issues in this podcast with Robin Hanson. You can also hear it come through in this podcast with Ed Leamer.

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