2023, Books, Non-Fiction

GOAT: Who is the Greatest Economist of all Time and Why Does it Matter? (2023) by Tyler Cowen

This is a “generative book” by the economist and blogger Tyler Cowen. I am not capable of evaluating it as a new idea as I did not make use of the GPT-4 chatbot or the other AI tools. I have not had particularly great experiences using ChatGPT and I didn’t quite see the point. (Clearly I missed the point.) So I’m evaluating this as a book.

I am very familiar with Cowen’s writing style as a subscriber to Marginal Revolution for some years. Though I don’t align with his politics a lot of the time (and even more so with his co-blogger) I find the blog useful and full of information. But I don’t love Cowen as a writer and I find that to be one of my biggest problems with this book. Cowen regularly veers between assuming too much knowledge on the part of the reader and assuming little knowledge. He does this when he blogs and he does it in this book. If I concentrated enough, I’m sure I’d find the patter there but I don’t care enough so I haven’t. It’s a quirk I don’t love and I think it effects the quality of his writing. (I also think he likes being coy a little too much when he blogs and that does come across occasionally in this book.)

Perhaps a more fundamental problem is I don’t think he ever quite makes the case for why this “GOAT” conversation matters. I know why it matters to him, and I know why he thinks it matters to people who care about this kind of question, but I really don’t know why the rest of us should care. I don’t think he makes that point well. I spent a decade of my life going back and reading older writers from the past to learn where ideas come from and I learned that, mostly, I didn’t actually need to be doing that to think about the world today. If I was working in a particular academic discipline, that would be another story but I’m not.

I find the whole approach quite idiosyncratic, which is to be expected given it was inspired by The Big Book of Basketball. But I don’t mind it. It’s certainly accessible and one way of surveying the people Cowen thinks are the greatest economists of all time.

I really like how much time and credit he gives to Mill. Mill is extremely underrated in general and Cowen’s defense of him here is right up my alley. I do think he does a good job of giving these guys their due. Certainly better than some would have done.

But the structure itself is odd. He claims you can read the chapters in any order but I read them in the order of the PDF and found the middle diversion into less quality candidates oddly located. Whatever the thought-process was behind that decision, I couldn’t figure it out.

And that brings me to the final complaint, which is one I suspect he isn’t worried about given how he wants readers to use this with GPT-4 LLMs. But this book just doesn’t feel fully edited. I have never read his other books but I suspect they are in better shape than this, with fewer typos and more overall structural coherence. There are acknowledgements that imply this wasn’t just his own work but, reading it, it often feels like it’s a brain dump with a little bit of organization thrown in.

I’d read The Worldly Philosophers instead if you’re looking for a good introduction to major economists of the past. (Though you’d have to find something else to read about Friedman and Hayek.)


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