SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")
STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. It is summer - time to go outside, get yourself to the beach with a towel and your SPF and your beach read. Here at THE INDICATOR, we, of course, love books about economics. Traditionally, though, those have not been thought of as ideal beach reads. So we have decided to try to change that. We reached out to one of our very favorite economists, voracious reader, professor at George Mason University and host of the excellent podcast "Conversations With Tyler," Tyler Cowen. We figured if anybody could pick out some great economic reads for the beach, it would be Tyler. Who does not want to bring economics to the beach?
TYLER COWEN: No one that I know.
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) I believe that, yes. After the break, Tyler makes a case for bringing economics to the beach and gives us his top picks.
Tyler Cowen, economist at George Mason University and reader extraordinaire, first question - are you a beach person? Do you go to the beach?
COWEN: I don't go to the beach willingly. Occasionally I'm dragged to the beach.
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Willingly.
COWEN: But when I go to the beach, I do read. I can assure you of that.
VANEK SMITH: Oh, OK. OK, so you - do bring economic texts to the beach?
COWEN: Well, I would say all texts are economic texts, but absolutely.
VANEK SMITH: Wait. All texts are economic texts - really?
COWEN: Well, virtually all. They're about human beings making choices, right? That's what economics is - scarcity, trade-offs, incentives. What book doesn't have that in it? It's in Jane Austen, right? It's in the Bible. It's everywhere.
VANEK SMITH: So we asked you to pick just a few kind of economic beach reads that you'd recommend for people this summer. And what did you pick?
COWEN: Well, I have three picks, and they all have to do with the world right now. I think the world right now - the good things are really getting a lot better, and the bad things have been getting worse, so it's a very confusing world. It means actually...
VANEK SMITH: Yeah.
COWEN: ...You have a greater need to read books. But my first pick is by the wonderful author Walter Isaacson. And the book is called "The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, And The Future Of The Human Race."
VANEK SMITH: This is CRISPR, where you can kind of go in and edit genes, like, potentially take out things you don't want, maybe put in things you do.
COWEN: That's correct. So if you've been vaccinated with an mRNA vaccine, well, how did that come about? I would say it's about, how is the world of biomedicine changing that we're seeing so many major advances at once? A vaccine against malaria - probably on the way. A way to engineer mosquitoes so they don't pass along dengue - probably on the way. Why is all this happening now? That to me is what this book is about. It's about the very best side of our current world.
VANEK SMITH: Oh, what do you mean the very best side - like, the innovation?
COWEN: Innovation and, in particular right now, biomedicine, which literally is saving our lives. And advances in the sciences tend to be clustered, as we know from history, right?
VANEK SMITH: Yeah.
COWEN: Whether it's mathematics, economics, things come in groups. So why is that? Why is biomedicine now doing so well? I think it has a lot to do with computation and information technology and also, in this case, mobilizing the talents of women - right? - not just male scientists. Nothing against the male scientists, but if you look at the vaccines, it's striking how significant a role women have played in that history or in CRISPR.
VANEK SMITH: Oh. I don't know. Is it, like, a good read? Is it - like, as far as beach reads go, can you - I don't know - have, like, a pina colada while you're reading it?
COWEN: Walter Isaacson is one of the most consistent authors. He has a book on Steve Jobs, which I loved, great book on Leonardo da Vinci. You can just pick it up and read it no matter what your background. So it is definitely a beach read, a pool read, whatever you want to call it.
VANEK SMITH: OK, that sounds like a great recommendation. What's up next?
COWEN: Some more good news. And this is a book by Eric Berger, who is both a journalist and a meteorologist. And it's about Elon Musk and SpaceX. And it is called "Liftoff: Elon Musk And The Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX."
VANEK SMITH: I remember the early days of SpaceX. They were not smooth.
COWEN: Not smooth at all. But here's the framework in which I view this book. So I grew up in the '60s and '70s. I was 7 years old when we put a man on the moon. I stayed up late to watch it. I had such high hopes.
VANEK SMITH: You did?
COWEN: And then it all went away, and now it's come back. And who brought it back? Elon Musk. This is the story of how it came back.
VANEK SMITH: It's interesting to me that it focuses on the early days of SpaceX because they are so rocky. So, like, what lessons did the early days have?
COWEN: Well, Elon Musk himself knew how important the early days were. Here's to me the most striking anecdote in the book. Elon Musk personally was a part of hiring the first 3,000 employees at SpaceX because he knew you needed the right kind of people if they were going to pull this off.
VANEK SMITH: What was he looking for?
COWEN: People willing to take risk, think outside the box, people who believed in this as a mission, that it actually could be done and could succeed.
VANEK SMITH: So any other recommendations for the beach or pool?
COWEN: Well, there's a third book, and it's - I wouldn't quite say it's pessimistic, but it's more about chaos. And it is by Neil Ferguson. It is called "Doom: The Politics Of Catastrophe." It's about how chaos has come to our world, how we cannot help thinking about chaos. We are prepossessed with doom. Ultimately, I actually think it's an optimistic book about how we manage to get through it. But I think we have seen with the pandemic, with some things that have happened in our politics, just much more volatility than what we had been used to. And we need to cope with this. And this is a very good book to read to get you in the mindset of how to cope with this extreme mix of, like, very good and very bad news.
VANEK SMITH: So what is the best way to deal with doom? I mean, doom happens, I guess, whether or not you're expecting it. It does come around, as it has this last year.
COWEN: You know, Ferguson is a historian. And as you might expect, he says the way to deal with doom is to read and understand history. So this book...
VANEK SMITH: Oh.
COWEN: ...Is in part that history, but its general lessons are methodological, and how we think about these crises is shaped by how we understand our past. So it's looking at those narratives. And, of course, plagues are not new in world history. We somehow forgot they existed.
VANEK SMITH: Is there an anecdote that stuck out to you in "Doom" that made you see something happening in our modern world a little differently?
COWEN: Well, what I find so memorable in "Doom" is how much in the early stages of the pandemic and actually still now, we were frozen like deer in the headlights. So the anecdote is an anecdote of doing nothing. And now, as you know, in this country, still many, many people are not vaccinated. And yet these new variants...
VANEK SMITH: Yeah.
COWEN: ...Are coming, and we're freezing like deer in the headlights again. And you'd think, wow, we would have learned the lesson by now. But we haven't. And to figure out why we haven't, that's what the Ferguson book is good at.
VANEK SMITH: So there is a silver lining - is that maybe we can get better at it.
COWEN: Maybe we can get better at it. Maybe we can muddle through with what we've got. We always have in the past. But expect a rocky road.
VANEK SMITH: Well, I feel, like, very, very prepared for my economic beach trip. But I did want to ask, because you are so good about seeing movies and exhibits and everything, if there was, like, anything outside of the medium of books that - I don't know - you've especially enjoyed or would recommend for people this summer.
COWEN: Well, I went to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It was so packed. You know the rooms every museum has where no one goes into those rooms?
VANEK SMITH: Yeah.
COWEN: Those rooms were full. So just the collective excitement at being in the museum again - I would just recommend you all go out and enjoy this with your fellow citizens and soak it in. There will never be a time for museum-going like there is right now where everyone is into it. It's wonderful. Whether it's the National Gallery or wherever you happen to live, that's what I'm recommending you all do.
VANEK SMITH: Well, Tyler Cowen, thank you so much for talking with us today.
COWEN: Thank you, Stacey.
VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Dave Blanchard and Darian Woods. It was fact-checked by Michael He. THE INDICATOR is edited by Kate Concannon and is a production of NPR. Happy reading.
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