Macmillan Learning Author Spotlight: Dr. Tyler Cowen

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Dr. Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics and Director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, is the type of person who knows what he wants to do and then accomplishes it. At a young age, he knew he wanted to study economics and become a successful economist. Now he is consistently recognized as one of the top economic and political thinkers of our time. More recently, Dr. Cowen wanted to be the first person to publish a book with AI. Earlier this year, he also achieved that goal. 

Macmillan Learning recognizes that the success of our textbooks and courseware is in large part due to our outstanding authors, many of whom are distinguished professors and academics at some of the most reputable colleges, universities, and institutions around the world. Dr. Cowen is perhaps one of Macmillan Learning’s most accomplished and impressive authors. We recently sat down with Dr. Cowen to learn more about his background, interests, and accomplishments–both related and unrelated to the field of economics. 

 

Dr. Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics and Director of the Mercatus Center, George Mason UniversityDr. Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics and Director of the Mercatus Center, George Mason UniversityDr. Cowen knew that he wanted to become an economics professor at age thirteen. Remarkably, he made his childhood dream come true. “I consider myself largely self-educated,” he said. “I’ve always been motivated to read, and learn, and explore my interests.” Those teenage interests included reading the works of Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, two economists who had a big influence on Dr. Cowen’s own approach to economics. 

“Smith and Hayek were more focused on thinking about the world as a whole rather than limiting their thought to the field of economics,” he said. Their influence on Dr. Cowen’s approach to economics is recognizable in his writing, teaching, and in his passion to continue learning just about almost any topic. 

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

How does Dr. Cowen think is the best way to learn? Talking and writing. While his formal education includes earning his Bachelor of Science in economics from George Mason University and his PhD from Harvard, Dr. Cowen firmly believes that he’s learned most when having to write or talk about the topics that interest him. “When you have to consider how to communicate and explain concepts or ideas to other people,” he said, “that is when you learn the most.” 

Dr. Cowen’s graduate students will tell him something similar. They’ll say to him, “Well of course I learned something from your course, but I really learned from having to teach your book.” By this, his graduate students don’t mean that they are learning from Dr. Cowen’s textbooks, which in this case are largely for introductory undergraduate courses, but that they need to be able to share the book’s content in a way that the students can understand. Or as Albert Einstein is quoted as saying: "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." 

For someone like Dr. Cowen, who has taught most economics courses that you could imagine, communication is exceptionally important. “In the spring,” he said, “I’ll be teaching a graduate level course on the history of economic thought.” It’s the first time Dr. Cowen will teach such a course, for which there is already great interest and a long waitlist. Nonetheless, he’ll be prepared and well-equipped to teach the course, for he previously researched and published a book on the same topic. 

Dr. Cowen always enjoys when he is able to use his own books in his courses. “Especially for the introduction to economics courses,” he said, “there were not great books on the market–adequate, but not great–and I used them. But, when using my own books, the students can feel it’s me somehow.” It’s this unique situation in which Dr. Cowen’s students get to know the author of their textbook that allows them to truly understand their instructor’s passion for and dedication to teaching. 

Dr. Cowen’s relationship with his co-author, Alex Tabarrok, also greatly improves their students’ experience with their textbooks. “I’ve been working with Alex for over 33 years,” Dr. Cowen said, “and after all of those years, I can still speak about him with affection in my voice.” Dr. Cowen firmly believes that their face-to-face relationship as colleagues in the same department for more than three decades is a significant reason that their textbooks are better than competitor books. “Whether working on revisions for one of our textbooks, or needing to exchange ideas about another shared project, all we need to do is walk down the hall to each other’s offices,” Dr. Cowen said. 

Communicating with the TikTok Generation

Dr. Cowen is a prolific writer, and textbooks such as Modern Principles of Economics, Modern Principles: Microeconomics, and Modern Principles: Macroeconomics are only one genre of writing in which he’s published. He has also published dozens of popular nonfiction books and journal articles; is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Bloomberg View, among other publications; writes entries often on his and colleague, Alex Tabarrok’s, blog, Marginal Revolution; and he has even published an Ethnic Dining Guide for the Washington D.C. area. 

“I like writing in all genres,” he said, “and I feel like the style of textbooks shouldn’t be that different from other, popular nonfiction books.” Dr. Cowen believes that textbooks, like trade books, need to start with compelling examples that grab the reader’s attention and hold it. “More textbooks need to be written that way,” he said, “especially today with the generation on TikTok and Instagram.” Dr. Cowen views the social media giants as his biggest competitors. “You have to interest your students immediately. If not, they’ll click, tap, and swipe to find on their phones what they’re searching for,” Dr. Cowen said. 

Dr. Cowen knows more than one way to keep things interesting for his students. In addition to his written publications on a plethora of interesting topics, Dr. Cowen also hosts his own podcast called Conversations with Tyler. The podcast is free and there are transcripts for each episode. “Many of the episodes feature prominent economists such as Larry Summers, Paul Krugman, Raj Chetty, and Claudia Goldin,” he said, “but there are also many episodes with other people such as Mark Zuckerberg, Margaret Atwood, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.” 

“The podcast features whomever I want to speak with and whoever is willing to speak with me,” Dr. Cowen said. With more than 100 episodes, Tyler has covered topics ranging from Irish and British history, to ornithology, to daily life in Nairobi, Kenya. “It’s a lot of work for me,” he said, “to keep up with these people and the work they’re doing in their fields.” Dr. Cowen says that the conversations on the podcast are not inherently about economics, not analytically at least; the topics are rather a kind of economics conducted anecdotally or culturally. 

Much of Dr. Cowen’s work can be thought of as innovative and ahead-of-the-curve, and his most recent book publication is a project of the future available to readers in the present: the first book published with generative AI. “It’s titled GOAT: Who is the Greatest Economist of All Time and Why Does it Matter? I started writing this book during the pandemic–with chapters on Hayek, Smith, and other names that would not surprise-and include my views on why these people are important economists and thinkers,” he said. 

The book is certainly the first of its kind, and Dr. Cowen believes that it is the future of publishing. “Actually, I would say that it’s already the present,” he said. An app was built for the book that is integrated with ChatGPT and other AI platforms, so that readers can ask questions about the book, about economics, about the author, or anything they would like more details on. “If readers want to know how Paul Krugman would view something differently, ask the app,” he said. “If they want a summary of a chapter, ask the app;” he added, “it’s like an all-purpose universal tutor for the reader.” 

One question the app may not be able to answer–if you’re curious–is Dr. Cowen’s food recommendation for the holiday season. Having visited over 100 countries, including eleven visits to China, seven visits to India, and more than thirty visits to Mexico, Dr. Cowen has tried food from all over the world, and he speaks proudly of the restaurant scene where he lives in northern Virginia. “The best people to ask for food recommendations are always travelers,” he said with a smile, “like people who sell textbooks.” Dr. Cowen’s advice: next time you receive a visit from a Macmillan Learning sales representative, ask them for their food recommendations.