For the Al: Russ Roberts


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

One of the underlying themes in awarding The Al Copeland Humanitarian Award, particularly in recent years, has been highlighting a virtue or norm that our present society lacks but desperately needs. As Jay wrote, last year’s winner (Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds) demonstrated the “type of courage in the face of illiberalism that we need more of in these times.” In 2015, the winner (Ken M) “reveal[ed] the ridiculousness of people trying to change the world by arguing with people on the internet.”

This year’s nominees have been no exception. Jay’s nominees appear to be using humor and pop culture to restore some sense of morality in a nihilistic age. Greg’s nominee made great sacrifices to honor the truth and expose both the evil of totalitarianism and the corruption of our ruling class. And Matt’s nominee literally saved the world by refusing to follow orders.

My nominee is economist Russ Roberts of the Hoover Institution, host of the popular EconTalk podcast and author of numerous books including How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life. He didn’t save the world (so far as I know), but he exemplifies many virtues and habits that the world needs today.

In an age when talking heads, radio shock jocks, and Twitter twits confidently bloviate about every matter under the sun, and in which self-proclaimed “experts” and technocrats believe they can run your life better than you can, Roberts demonstrates personal and epistemic humility.

In an era in which TV debates consist primarily of shouting over each other while trading insults, and in which college students frequently shout down or even assault speakers with whom they disagree, Roberts consistently engages in civil and reasoned discourse.

In a time when our attention spans seem to be precipitously shortening, when big ideas are expected to be expressed in 140 characters, when “tl;dr” is a supposedly valid excuse for expressing an opinion about something one hasn’t even bothered to read first, Roberts delivers each week a master class in the art of the substantive interview — getting past the talking points’ sizzle and down to the meat of the matter.

In a generation in which social-media navel-gazing has become our nation’s pastime, self-esteem is unearned, and the number of Twitter followers passes as a measure of achievement and influence, Roberts reminds us of Adam Smith’s wise counsel: it is not enough to be loved, we must also strive to be lovely.

And in moment in which we are obsessed with politics and the political has invaded every aspect of our lives, Roberts turns his — and our — attention to the infinitely diverse and fascinating things in this world that we inhabit.

If you don’t already subscribe to his podcast, do yourself a favor and do so right now. (Go ahead, we’ll wait.) Recent topics have included meditation and mindfulness, technological advances and their effect on our lives and culture, income inequality, philanthropy, self-driving cars, the evolution of language, internet bullying, permissionless innovation, and more. He also draws the highest-quality guests, including (to cite a few well-known recent guests in no particular order) John McWhorter, Megan McArdle, Michael Munger, Nassim Taleb, Tyler Cowen, Sally Satel, Martha Nussbaum, Cass Sunstein and many more. He regularly invites guests with whom he disagrees and yet he is never disagreeable. He never asks “gotcha” questions, talks over his guest, or tries to score cheap political points. Instead, he asks insightful questions and gives his guests the space to make their case, pushing back at times but always thoughtfully and respectfully.

Russ Roberts is the teacher and role model we need now. He deserves The Al.

I’ll leave you with two videos he co-created — raps battle between economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek:

4 Responses to For the Al: Russ Roberts

  1. Jason Bedrick says:

    Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share Roberts’ poem, “It’s a Wonderful Loaf”:

    If you look down upon a city with the widest bird’s eye view
    You might wonder how it functions, who takes care of me and you?
    Who makes sure there’s food for vegans, and for carnivores as well?
    It seems like there’s a wizard who has cast a magic spell

    Just think of one small part—who makes sure there’s so much bread?
    You want rye, she wants ciabatta, or make it sourdough instead
    A baguette or a croissant, it doesn’t matter, don’t you see
    You get yours and she gets hers, and I get mine, how can that be?

    One’s buying a dozen bagels to grace an impromptu brunch
    One’s using food stamps for a simple loaf to make her children lunch
    No matter the amount we require, no matter the choices we make
    An army of workers has mobilized to fashion the bread we partake

    The farmer who grows the wheat, the miller that grinds the flour
    The baker and all the others who work hour after hour
    They’re all on their own, each one making independent decisions
    But somehow their plans fit together with the greatest degree of precision

    So there must be a czar of wheat and flour, of trucks and of bread and yeast
    To allocate and oversee and plan at the very least
    For the unexpected change. What if today’s not like yesterday?
    It never is, though, is it? So who keeps chaos away?

    Because there’s order all around us—things look as if they’re planned
    Like the supply of bread in a city—enough to match up with demand
    And though flour is used for more than just bread, we never have to fight
    Over where it goes and who gets what. So why do we sleep so well at night

    Knowing nobody’s in charge, it looks like all is left to chance
    Yet in New York, or London as well as Paris, France
    No one’s worried the shelves will be empty, we take supply for granted
    But it’s a marvel, it’s a miracle, the world’s somehow enchanted

    Of course the result’s never perfect, but the system’s organic, alive
    Over time fewer people go hungry and more and more bread-lovers thrive
    And if you’re allergic to gluten, there are sellers who work for you, too
    Your choices expand and what you demand is created and waiting for you

    I have my tastes and you have yours, we each have our own urges
    Yet somehow there’s no conflict, a harmony emerges
    Our dreams can fit together like a quilt that someone weaves us
    But there isn’t a weaver of dreams, reality deceives us

    And here’s the crazy thing, if someone really were in charge
    To make sure that bread was plentiful, with the power to enlarge
    The supply of flour, yeast and of bakers and ovens, too
    Would that person with that power have any idea of what to do?

    Could a minister of bread do even half as well?
    Would there be enough of every kind of bread upon the shelves?
    How could he know how much to make of each kind every day?
    There’d be shortages and surpluses and waste and much dismay

    You might think the job is easy–if the top seller’s rye
    Then for every variety push production up that high
    Then no one’s disappointed, bread eaters will rejoice
    When they see that every bakery is filled with so much choice

    Bread eaters, yes, but “Help!” the forgotten pizza lover cries
    All the flour’s gone to baking bread there’s none left for the pies
    Of pepperoni, deep dish, thin-crust and Sicilian
    You’ve solved the bread challenge, yes, but created another million

    Problems. No problem! We’ll just grow lots more wheat
    But that means less of something else that people like to eat

    Which only makes the puzzle of the harmony around us
    Much more puzzling—this order, this peace has to astound us
    So many things we count on, yet no one’s behind the curtain
    No wizard, no controls, yet the supply of stuff–near certain

    Every morning the bakers rise early to make sure your bread is fresh
    And the world gets more complicated but the plans just continue to mesh
    Every morning the bakers rise early, though not under anyone’s command
    Where in the anatomy textbooks can I view an invisible hand?

    The key to the process is prices and the freedom to shop where you want
    Competition among all the bakers, makes sure that they rise before dawn
    To make sure the bread’s near perfection, to make sure that the buyer’s content
    You don’t have to know economics to know when your money’s well-spent

    We know there’s order built into the fabric of the world
    Of nature. Flocks of geese! Schools of fish! And every boy and girl
    Delights in how the stars shine down in all their constellations
    And the planets stay on track and keep the most sublime relations

    With each other. Order’s everywhere. Yet we humans too create it
    It emerges. No one intends it. No one has to orchestrate it.
    It’s the product of our actions but no single mind’s designed it
    There’s magic without wizards if you just know how to find it

    • Greg Forster says:

      At first I thought this would scan to the tune of “It’s a Wonderful World.” Missed opportunity!

      Edit: Of course it’s “What a Wonderful World.” I guess that’s minus five points for Gryffindor.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    First rap battle was glorious. Second one is undermined by the creators’ bias for Hayek. A rap battle needs both sides to show up.

  3. I just assigned Russ’s excellent “Where Do Prices Come From” essay to my high school economics students. Russ has influenced my economic understanding and teaching for almost two decades and I am most grateful.

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