Blogging the Bookshelf

Blogging my bookshelf – one book at a time

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“Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist”, Tyler Cowen

August 24th, 2009 · No Comments · Economics

Synopsis: The greatest economics writer in the blogosphere switches medium to offer an extended treatise on the use of economic principles to improve the non-economic aspects of your life. Utility is maximised.

My Take: Tyler Cowen’s blog, Marginal Revolution, is hands down one of the best blogs on the ‘net.  Not because he is the best economist online today (Greg Mankiw, Dani Rodrick, Paul Krugman, Steven Levitt and Gary Becker/Richard Posner would all have claims here), but because his personality is so perfectly suited to the medium.  Instead of producing worthy and dry pieces of brilliant economic analysis, Cowen’s approach to Marginal Revolution is that of a cultural Bower Bird; collecting and displaying fascinating titbits from both his professional and cultural interests.  The New York Times describes Cowen as:

a world-class polymath who whips through graphic novels and 816-page bricks like Africa: A Biography of the Continent, listens to everything from Bach to Brazilian techno, searches out exotic cuisines all over the world, and still finds time to travel to remotest Mexico to update his collection of amate painting. For him, deep immersion in culture defines the good life, and his readers get the vicarious benefits.

Cowen successfully translates this eclectic mix of rigorous classical economics and cultural diversity into the literary world via “Discover Your Inner Economist”. In DYIE, Cowen takes a more in-depth look at his cultural preoccupations through the prism of economic analysis and with an eye to maximising utility. As he puts it:

“Economics developed out of a recognition of the fact that many things worth having don’t just fall into our laps in the course of our everyday lives… The real purpose of economics is to get more of the good stuff in life.”

Cowen’s overarching insight into our cultural lives is illuminating. For him:

“The critical economic problem is scarcity. Money is scarce, but in most things the scarcity of time, attention, and caring is more important.”

Once you accept that there are limits to most people’s (ie non-professionals) interest in the arts and capacity to pursue this interest, the question then becomes how an individual can most efficiently maximise their enjoyment of culture within these constraints.

Again, Cowen’s insights into how one could go about this are both useful. Take his approach to art appreciation. Cowen begins by acknowledging the relevant constraint:

“Our time and attention is scarce. Art is not that important to us, no matter what we might like to believe… Our love of art is often quite temporary, dependent upon our moods, and our love of art is subservient to our demand for a positive self image. How we look at art should account for those imperfections and work around them. “

Keep in mind that books, like art museums, are not always geared to the desires of the reader. Maybe we think we are supposed to like tough books, but are we? Who says? Many writers (and art museums) produce for quite a small subsample of the… public.

So how should we go about maximising our attention and making most efficient use of our time:

“In each room, ask yourself which picture you would take home – if you could take just one – and why? This forces you to keep thinking critically about the displays. If the alarm system was shut down and the guards went away, should I carry home the Cezanne, the Manet, or the Renois? In a room of Egyptian antiquities, which one caught my eye? And why? We should discuss the question with our companion.

To put it crudely, we must force ourselves to keep on paying attention. Ranking the pictures focuses our attention on our favourites. It also focuses our attention on ourselves, which is in fact our favourite topic….

At the end of the visit, ask which paintings stuck with you. Did you find yourself thinking back on the Munch, the Pollock, or the medieval tapestries? A week later ask the same question. Then go read about those artists or that period. That is a more useful procedure than reading about art in advance.

We should view paintings repeatedly, but especially after we have spent time with other artworks. The best way to understand one art museum is to go see another art museum with a related but not identical collection.

As someone who has always diligently tried to broaden my cultural horizons at every opportunity, it resonated with me that ironically, the best way to do so was to narrow your initial focus in a new direction and then expand from a beach head of new knowledge. It’s also liberating to see how this isn’t simply a lazy or selfish approach to high culture, but rather a utility maximising approach to cultural enlightenment.

Highly recommended for anyone wanting to enrich their cultural life.


“We must ignore the carping of the sophisticates. Well-educated critics may claim that pictures cannot be ranked, value is multidimensional or subjective, or that such talk, represents a totalising, colonising, possessive, post-capitalist, hegemonic Western imperialist approach. All of those missives are beside the point.

When it comes to the arts, dealing with the scarcity of our attention is more important than anything, including respecting the artists.”


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