Book Review: Tyler Cowen’s Big Business, A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero

If it seems like I just wrote a review of a new Tyler Cowen book, that’s because I just did. He’s since written another though. With six months between releases, the Tyler Cowen production function is clearly in full effect.

His latest, Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero is well described by the title. It’s a book that few besides Tyler Cowen might have dared to write. It’s difficult to get laughed out of the room for naivety when much of your brand is knowing more things about more things than anyone. For most everyone else, I suspect it would be received differently. The response I got from tweeting a few of the lines from the book without attributing them to Cowen was a combination of eye rolls and followers mistaking it for satire.

It’s not satire though. Tyler Cowen is quite serious. And he’s insistent on using his eclectic super powers to fill a needed void in today’s intellectual rubric; a credible source of permission for calculated optimism.

Cowen’s last book, Stubborn Attachments told us, among other things, not to be afraid to seek hard truths because we could be trusted to do the right things even if we found those truths difficult to swallow. His newest book tells us that one of those hard truths might be that big business is good for mankind. And we shouldn’t fear a world where we trust in it to play an oversized role compared to other alternatives.

That something reasonably obvious should be a hard truth is some part of Cowen’s point.

The general thesis of the book is that, at the margin, big business is a better influence on society than the alternatives. Government, politics, small businesses and even plain old private citizens all have institutional flaws or introduce risk through the power of obscurity or anonymity. Large corporation, on the other hand, have some mandate to sustain their existence and branding with many public eyes on them. Coupled with the motivation of sustainable profit, this makes them inherently trustworthy. At least relatively so.

The theory is one I can put to the test pretty easily with the natural experiment that’s my own professional experience. I’ve worked in multiple industries, presently in the Silicon Valley based tech sector, and also served 15 years on active duty in the military. I’ve spent enough time on both sides of the private and public sector to advance to roles that granted some level of insider experience. That experience has run the tracks for some telling mental thought patterns.

My gut reaction to the recent reports of war crimes in the community and even more specifically within the command in which I served, was disgust. But it wasn’t surprise. In fact, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened or been reported on more over the last 20 years. That is hasn’t is a credit to the individuals that serve and the unique decisions they make to ensure it doesn’t. Because in reality the institutional characteristics of the military make it an inherently risky organization. It has hard laws on the books that purposely subvert transparency, official positions of discrimination on multiple fronts and tolerates high levels of civilian casualties and even poorly thought out wars that destabilize regions.

In contrast, my gut reaction to the Volkswagen emissions scandal was shock. I know why they did it. I have no idea how.  I certainly don’t think higher of the people at Volkswagen than I do of my brothers and sister in arms. But I do know what it takes to make corporate decisions and execute corporate policy. And it’s really, really, really hard to convince leaders to do anything intentionally corrupt at scale. If for no other reason than it’s impossible to keep one of the dozens to hundreds of people it takes to do it from going public.

No one got a review they didn’t agree with from a manager they didn’t like and just put it out there on Facebook…? Really?

I get to stand and be honored in the bottom of the second inning of every baseball game I go to because I served in the military. The idea of calling in the corporate stiffs for the same level of appreciation would be laughable.

That perhaps the appreciation gap should be narrower than anyone wants to admit is part part of the point of the book.

Few disagree that big business does good by producing the things modern society needs to exist and employing and providing benefits for large swaths of the world. The catch is that we believe corporations can’t be trusted to treat employees, the environment, customers or the general public well if its runs counter to their primary motivation of profit.

Simply adding profit as a motivation enables the public to appreciate and trust corporations less than they do the military, an institution constructed to do things explicitly that ought to make us trust them less. Why is probably a topic for another book. Maybe Tyler can take it on over the first three-day weekend this fall.

This book, like Cowen’s last, is a quick read. It runs through counter arguments like CEO pay, the modern working environment, evil tech companies and the financial crisis. Some of the data points feel overfit to the argument. Part of that is probably the commitment to making it a quick read. More intentionally though, I suspect, part of Cowen’s point is that the media narrative is also overfit. It takes advantage of rare one-offs to weave a tight analysis of profit seeking horribleness. An so the data, even if narrowly selected, is at least as believable as the narrative. And so, at a minimum, perhaps the tiebreaker can be the ubiquitous good that comes from the production of everything and the employment of everyone.

My best argument against Cowen’s point is that profit seeking as a rule of law is something more fragile than the inherent rights of man that other organizations claim as a first principle. And so slippery slopes abound. I’ve watched groups slide right down them and nearly take me with them. But they’re far less dubious than most imagine when skimming the sensational headlines. And they’re rarely, if ever, repeated. It’s hard to shake the image of Alan Greenspan in front of Congress in 2009 telling us that the trust he had in free markets was more limited than he had thought though. And so there’s some fear that one day we’ll wake up and have been duped again.

That still seems considerably lower a chance than the guy who painted my house that insisted that I pay him cash because he didn’t want to pay taxes that go towards funding the schools my kids go to or the first responders in our neighborhood. We all have some version of that story of our own. While the stories of corporate malfeasance tend to be things that happened to someone else less real.

Such is Cowen’s point.


Most Favored Nation

Last fall, economists Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame), Peter Cohen, Robert Han, Jonathan Hall and Robert Metcalfe published a paper on their findings of the analysis of the car service provider Uber X’s customer interactions from 2015. All 50 million of them. And they found something startling. Uber X’s ability to provide on demand transportation through flexible pricing and scheduling created $2.9 billion of economic surplus for Americans in 2015. Which means that because of how Uber X works, Americans spent $2.9 billion less on getting from point A to point B than they would have had Uber X not existed. And those Americans were therefore able to spend that money on something else, mostly in America so that other Americans could make more money.

That’s a hell of a finding. That’s roughly what it took to run the entire city of San Diego during the same period. But, it’s actually the second most interesting thing in the paper. What was more interesting than creating $2.9 billion out of thin air? It’s what actually told the team that bit of information—an actual demand curve, the first ever real demand curve ever seen.

Now, anyone who has taken introductory economics understands that the first day of class, the professor stands in front of the room and draws two curves. A supply curve. And a demand curve. And then he/she goes on to pontificate how perfectly they operate, all things being held constant. And if you’re lucky he/she might jump right into the power of comparative advantage and the magic it unlocks in free trade for mankind. So when I heard Steven Levitt say that they’d never actually seen a real live demand curve, in the history of mankind demanding things and supplying them, I nearly drove my car off the freeway and into a ditch, dooming me to contribute first hand to more economic Uber X surplus.

I recovered though. And I stayed on the road. And it started me off on a bit of a journey. I wanted to understand how the hell economists actually have a job.

Well, a little less than a year later after swimming in the work of people like Paul Krugman, Peter Thaler, Dani Rodrik, Jeffrey Sachs and Tyler Cowen, I’ve learned a few things. One is that I like economics. Who knew. The other is that there’s really two kinds of economics. There’s actually way more than two in real life. But for the sake of a reasonably short blog that someone might actually read, I’ve picked two that showed up as patterns in the work.

The first kind of is the one almost none of us actually encounter, unless we’re economists. It’s what I like to call, “academic economics.” Often delivered by a bearded gentlemen in a corduroy sport coat with those leather things on the elbows, academic economics believes in many things, but one thing absolutely. Context matters. When a professor stands up in front of a class and gives a lecture, two things are always present. A laundry list of assumptions. And a model. And it is common knowledge that assumptions change, as do the utility of the various as-sundry economic models. And if someone actually asks a question, like is free trade good? The answer is always, well that depends. And the things it depends on are about a billion situational factors about a time, place, culture, region that one could form an opinion out of. Very few things are answered absolutely and permanently about broad things like global trade or capital markets.  Lots of theories come about. All of them start with “it depends”.

That’s “academic economics”.

The other kind of economics is the kind that we all hear about all the time. It’s what I like to call “public policy” economics. And it’s ubiquitous. Public policy economics is usually is the less interesting economics elected official or a think tanks deal in. It rears its dismissive head when a bunch of economists who spend at least some of their time saying “it depends” in the classroom start saying something very different when asked questions like “is free trade good” in front of congress. They say things like, of course it is. Everyone agrees. And then they recommend policies in support of it.


Because, like just about anything, economics is not free from the risk of infection of politics. And “It depends on your assumptions” is really hard to put on a bumper sticker. Or a meme. And it’s even harder for stiff smiley politicians to talk about. Because most of them don’t have a ton of depth on the subject. Even the great Winston Churchill, once in charge of the British economic policy as Chancellor of the Exchequer was admittedly lost, claiming that his economic advisors were “speaking Persian”. And from a political perspective, those Persian speaking economists need to make sure that everyone understands that free markets rule and government intervention or protectionism is evil, lest we go and break the economy permanently with something draconian like a tariff. Never mind any of that thinking that economist Jeffrey Sachs calls, differential diagnosis. The considering of unique situational factors to be critical to an economic policy recommendation. All that thinking and considering nonsense is for the classroom. Politics renders it less useful in the light of day.

Something interesting is actually happening in economic politics right now though. When it comes to foreign trade specifically. Free trade appears to be the only thing anyone can agree on any more. Everyone hates it. Except economists that is. None of the politicians, at least the ones running for president, appeared to be big fans of our current trade agreements. Not the Republicans. Not the Democrats. And not whatever President Trump is. Bernie, Hillary and POTUS 45 all campaigned on pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the trade agreement that lowers barriers to trade for 12 Pacific nations not named China.

There’s another interesting thing too. None of the American people like our free trade agreements either. In fact, they never have. Survey after survey after survey of Americans and others all say they hate liberalization of free trade. They feel like it takes their jobs away. And forces them to do other things they weren’t trained to do. And lose money.

And they’re right. It often does. It’s not the only thing it does. It also gives us cheap goods that make that loss of income a little easier to bear. But the masses, this time, aren’t wrong about what’s happened to them over the last 40 years. How not wrong is up for debate of course.

Even your most ardent free trader admits, that though free trade creates overall economic growth, it comes with the cost of income redistribution and labor shifts that are big damn drag for a lot of people, particularly those at the lower end of the skill curve in the labor force. In fact the negative impact for those that lose out on the redistribution is about 50 times (also Rodrik’s number) more significant than the overall gain. Redistribution isn’t loss though. Someone else gains that fifty times. And even a little more because free trade does promote economic growth. But right now, in America, it’s really hard to ask the middle and working class to take more hits.

This is probably a good place to point out that two of the assumptions the “it depends” answer actually relies on is political climate and state of the workforce. Ours right now elected Donald Trump to be president. We may not have a model for that one yet…

Free trade didn’t create the loss of manufacturing jobs in America. Or the equality gap between low and high income Americans. Increased productivity that outpaced demand and a shiny new modern China over the last forty years are probably the main culprits, free trader or not. But it’s not helping fix our equality gap right now either. And when the executive action to scrap something like the TPP is wedged between building walls, deleting EPA data from government web sites or the wholesale repeal of healthcare, it’s easy to start to scream opposition to it as we develop a new political dynamic that says that Trump is bad=anything Trump does is bad. I think what we’re seeing though, is an interesting realignment.

The idea of free trade and the aim of reducing government intervention is an idea that really began to come to life under Reagan with the neo-liberalist movement. The free market fixes all ills and moves man forward. The government is bad and can only hurt things. The development of income inequality in the decades since and the certainty of its existence has thrust us into a different debate. The debate has shifted the argument from free trade vs. not free trade to how to deal with the fallout of free trade, without breaking the benefits of it. It sounds much less aspirational. But that’s where we are.

Right now, the developing party line for liberalization of trade is that free trade moves the world forward and helps global inequality, at some cost to inequality within nations of wealth. And the most appropriate action isn’t protectionism. It’s a stronger social safety net at home for the American worker. Which sounds like it evolves into a good old fashion conservative vs. liberal argument. But it’s really an argument about where government intervention is most appropriate. To protect our internal economic development through protectionism? Or to compensate the American worker through government social measures in return. You’ll note, keeping government out of it is no longer on the menu. And that’s new in America. Or at least new again.

So who’s right?  Well it depends…remember? It depends on about a billion different things. Things like exactly what the rest of Trump economic policy looks like. It depends on whether or not the election of an unknown agent leads to catastrophe of domestic or global proportions. It depends on whether or not Mexico breaks off diplomatic and economic relations with us. It depends on whether or not our commander in chief gets impeached for refusing to sell his businesses or fondling an unsuspecting intern. It depends on so many things that the only real thing you should be sure of is that if someone tells you pulling out of the TPP without certainty is a bad/good idea, than they are full of “fake news.”

Wait and see on this one. Keep a firm watch on the other stuff that is far more scary right now. Pulling out of that trade deal isn’t downright nuts. (there’s a bumper sticker for you) Not the way building a magical symbolic wall in 2017 is. Not the way pulling the plug on ACA without a plan is. So resist the urge to oppose for opposition sake. There’s plenty of meat still on the bone for that one.