The recent article by Joseph Salerno on the “libertarian” academic star Tyler Cowen, and especially Peter Klein’s comments regarding Cowen’s opinion of NASA, have awakened in me recollections on Cowen and NASA that I will explain below. It was almost 30 years ago that I met Tyler Cowen at the 1990 General Meeting of The Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) held in Munich. The MPS was founded by Friederich Hayek after WWII to bring together those intellectuals who still believed in free societies as the rest of the world followed a socialist path. Robert Higgs wrote about the founding, history, and influence of the MPS here. You can see Cowen on the list of participants, that I highlighted as I met people there. This was my first and only economic/social science meeting I ever
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The recent article by Joseph Salerno on the “libertarian” academic star Tyler Cowen, and especially Peter Klein’s comments regarding Cowen’s opinion of NASA, have awakened in me recollections on Cowen and NASA that I will explain below.
It was almost 30 years ago that I met Tyler Cowen at the 1990 General Meeting of The Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) held in Munich. The MPS was founded by Friederich Hayek after WWII to bring together those intellectuals who still believed in free societies as the rest of the world followed a socialist path. Robert Higgs wrote about the founding, history, and influence of the MPS here. You can see Cowen on the list of participants, that I highlighted as I met people there. This was my first and only economic/social science meeting I ever attended and my first visit to Europe.
What I vaguely remember was an enjoyable conversation with a very bright and very nice person. I should add that everyone I met there was very bright and very nice to me. I don’t recall how he looked, and his appearance now does not seem at all like the person I had talked to. This lack of impact on me is not because of Cowen, but totally due to my poor memory and perhaps the related effects of jet lag and open bars at the MPS events.
In the years following the meeting I did follow some of the intellectuals I had met there (I shook hands with Milton Friedman) including one couple who became close friends. But as for Cowen, I don’t remember much. Perhaps only an article by David Gordon in 2013 that gave this background on Cowen’s career in his description of Walter Grinder, who was working from the Koch-dominated Institute for Humane Studies, to promote a “Rothbardianism with manners.”
His new policy took over an idea from Friedrich Hayek’s famous essay, “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” though I doubt that Hayek would have endorsed the IHS application of his ideas. Hayek stressed that new social movements first gain adherents among top-ranking theorists. The majority of intellectuals, the “second-hand dealers in ideas,” then popularize and simplify what they have learned from these thinkers, passing the product on to the general public. Grinder and others in leadership posts at IHS concluded that they should concentrate on elite universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton in the United States, and Oxford and Cambridge in England. If students could be recruited from these universities or, if already sympathetic, admitted to their programs, success was at hand.
Grinder placed particular emphasis on Tyler Cowen, a brilliant student who had been interested in Austrian economics since his high school days. Cowen enrolled in an Austrian economics program at Rutgers, where he impressed both Joe Salerno and Richard Fink with his extraordinary erudition. When Fink moved to George Mason University, Cowen moved with him; and he completed his undergraduate degree there in 1983. Grinder considered him the next Hayek, the hope of Austrian economics.
In accord with the elite universities policy, Cowen went to Harvard for his graduate degree. There he came under the influence of Thomas Schelling and gave up his belief in Austrian economics.
After he finished his PhD in 1987, Cowen was for a time a professor at the University of California at Irvine, and he used to visit me sometimes in Los Angeles. I was impressed with his remarkable intelligence and enjoyed talking with him. But I remember how surprised I was one day when he told me that he did not regard Ludwig von Mises very highly. Here he fitted in all-too-well with another policy of Richard Fink and the Kochtopus leadership. They regarded Mises as a controversial figure: his “extremism” would interfere with the mission of arousing mainstream interest in the Austrian School. Accordingly, Hayek should be stressed and Mises downplayed. (After the collapse of the Soviet Union, which led to new interest in Mises’s socialist calculation argument, this policy changed. The mainstream, though of course continuing to reject Mises, now recognized him as a great economist.) The policy was strategic, but Cowen went further — he really didn’t rate Mises highly.
Cowen eventually returned to George Mason University as a Professor of Economics. He is said to be the dominant figure in the department. Because of his close friendship with Richard Fink, who left academic work to become a major executive with Koch Industries and the principal disburser of Koch Foundation funding, Cowen exerts a major influence on grants to his department.
In his article, Klein related a conversation he had had with Cowen about NASA.
This is actually Cowen’s long-held view. You may remember his 2014 article “The Lack of Major Wars May Be Hurting Economic Growth,” which echoed the Mariana Mazzucato position that government spending is the main source of technological progress. I remember a friendly argument with Cowen some twenty years ago about NASA, which he insisted was an example of benevolent government intervention. I brought up the standard counter arguments—theoretical (how do you measure benefits and costs, including opportunity costs?), empirical (lots of case study evidence suggesting widespread waste, fraud, and long-term negative effects on the direction of science and technology), and deontological (is it okay to coerce people to support transfer payments that they see as against their self interest?). He wasn’t buying it. Space exploration is just so cool that the usual arguments don’t apply.
I recently listened to Cowen do an interview with Eric Weinstein on his Portal podcast.
Cowen has a very irritable monotone voice, almost as if it was computer generated. I couldn’t take all 138 minutes but I did catch his pleading against conspiracies in general and the Epstein case in particular (about 33) that substantiate Klein’s description of his debate style of responding to a plethora of evidence simply by not buying it.
Sometime during the late 1990s I saw a presentation by the entrepreneur and aircraft designer Burt Rutan. My brother is a pilot and confirms that he is a legend in aviation circles. Rutan is most famous to the general public for the design of the Voyager, which in 1986 was the first plane to fly around the world without stopping or refueling and his suborbital spaceplane design, SpaceShipOne, that won the Ansari X-Prize for the first private organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. If there were ever a film biography of Rutan, John Wayne would have been perfect to portray this larger than life figure. In the presentation I saw he provided great experiential evidence that eviscerated the role of NASA in the development of space flight, or rather the nondevelopment, from a quasi-libertarian standpoint. He compared the explosion of innovation in the early development of airplanes compared to the languid retrograde motion of space travel. Afterall, the boys from the bike shop beat the government sponsored project in the beginning. Now there is a lively competition in the development of suborbital space tourism. I could not find an equivalent of the presentation I saw on the internet but I did find this 2012 presentation that gives a sense of, but is not so pointed or complete, as the one I witnessed.
Maybe if Cowen watched Rutan he might alter his position on NASA, but I doubt it.