What color is your unicorn?

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Michael Munger on EconTalk's 5... David Mindell on Our Robots, O...

This week marked a significant milestone for us at EconTalk, Russ' 500th episode. To mark the occasion, he invited back his most popular guest, Mike Munger. Despite not having a "topic," the two had a wide-ranging conversation. Now it's your turn. Share your thoughts with us (including Roberts and Munger!) and let's continue the conversation.

1. Both Roberts and Munger told the story of their "intellectual journeys." What's the story of your journey? What economists or philosophers or others have shaped your views? Have those influencers changed over time?

2. What is "unicorn economics," according to Munger (he insists they are real)? Are you or have you ever been subject to unicornian influence (in economics or elsewhere)? Why do you think such intellectual weak spots exist?

3. How many EconTalk episodes have you listened to? Are there any episodes that you re-listen to now and then? Do you have a favorite?

4. OK, what are your thoughts on the EconTalk theme music? To what extent does it matter? (Extra credit if your employ the word "infelicitous" in your response!)

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CATEGORIES: Extras (194)

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Kevin Leonard writes:

3. I have no idea how many episodes I have listened to, but I'm pretty sure I have heard every episode since sometime in 2009 when EconTalk first came onto my radar.

Favorite guests include Vernon Smith, James Otteson, N. Taleb, Larry White (my favorite Econ. prof. when I was at UGA in the early 90's), George Selgin, and of course, Mike Munger.

Keep up the good work, Russ. I am looking forward to the next 500 episodes.

Thank you.

Wendy Van Horn writes:

Congratulations on 500 fantastic episodes, Russ!

I stumbled across EconTalk back in 2006 when I was discovering podcasts and there were just a handful of episodes posted. I have been a fan ever since and can honestly say that I have listened to every singe one - some more than once!

I have many, many favorites, but one that immediately comes to mind as having generated a huge flash of lasting insight for me was "Gordon on Ants, Humans, the Division of Labor and Emergent Order" from 2007. The conversation illuminated how emergent order works and the role of the individual in that process in a profoundly accessible way. I went on to read Dr. Gordon's books (as I have done for so many of your guests) and still marvel at the huge sense of "ah ha" that episode elicited.

I am not an economist, but your work has revealed what a tremendously valuable and fascinating lens this discipline provides for inquiry into human nature. That said, I also love that you are happy to venture beyond economics to explore a wide range of topics and ideas (like interviewing an ant researcher!)

You are an amazing teacher, in the very best, truest sense of what that means. It has been my pleasure to introduce friends and family to the podcast and many have gone on to become fans.

I am deeply grateful for EconTalk and your commitment to the joy of intellectual discovery. I look forward to the next 500 episodes.

With deep gratitude,
Wendy Van Horn

ps - I attended your relatively recent talk in Santa Barbara (where i live) and hope you'll come back!

Russell (not Russ Roberts) writes:

1. For the longest time I thought economics was simply about money/business. Although I never had a high school or college class in econ, I fell in love with it shortly after college when I started reading Friedman, Sowell and Rothbard (since then I've read hundreds of books and even taken a few online intro classes). They've been huge influences. To name a few others who have become favorites over the years: Boudreaux, Roberts, Williams, Hayek, Mises, Bastiat, Smith, Becker, Buchanan, and many others.

3. At some point many years ago I came across Cafe Hayek, and I think that led me to EconTalk. I've read every Cafe Hayek blog post since then and listened to nearly every EconTalk episode (including the ones that happened before I found EconTalk) since then as well. My favorite guest is easily Mike Munger...when I see that Munger is the guest I never wait to listen...I dive right in. Not only are those conversations educational, they're almost always very entertaining and fun.

Alan Obenhaus writes:

1. Congratulations on the 500th episode, and on having a great show rapport and engagement with Mike Munger. My path to EconTalk was reading the book "The Choice" while I was an MBA student at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. The book had such an impact on how I viewed free trade and globalization that I used the framework and quoted liberally from its contents in an ambitious attempt by young conservatives and libertarians to react to the election of Obama by writing a book called, "Reinventing the Right." Speaking of not selling many copies as Roberts and Munger joked in the podcast, I am pretty sure our effort amounted to a few hundred sales to friends and family. While doing my research for my essay in the book focused on free trade, I came across EconTalk and have been listening ever since and along the way have become enamored with the works of Adam Smith, Hayek, Becker, Buchanan, Friedman, and, last but not least, John Cochrane, and Munger. I have EconTalk to think for this journey in autodidact economics and philosophy.

In particular, I have mostly enjoyed my journey into the world of Adam Smith. Anyone who has begrudgingly taken Economics 101 knows of Smith as the author of the capitalist manifesto The Wealth of Nations and the coiner of the term the “Invisible Hand.”

What may be less well known is Adam Smith’s moral philosophy work in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a book that I got interested in by listening to EconTalk and which explores the “impartial spectator” within us that keeps most individuals from straying too far outside the bounds of acceptable behavior and that guides us towards treating fellow man with love and respect where it is due and reviling and justice for evils done when it is deserved. While Smith may be revered or reviled based upon perceptions of authoring a work that ushered in the concept of impersonal laissez faire economics, Adam Smith was very much concerned with and authored a powerful work on how morality within us prevents the majority of mankind from harming one another, given that gaining the love, respect, and admiration of our fellow man is something that “Providence” (to use a frequently used term of Smith) embedded within us and which most of mankind effectively pursues in their individual interactions with one another.

Thus, I would submit that any serious reader of Smith, and I would argue any defender of capitalism needs to complement their understanding of Smith’s “Invisible Hand” (and Munger’s essay "Everybody Loves Mikey" provides a great effective Cliff’s notes to the tenets revealed in Wealth of Nations) with the understanding of morality regulated by the “Impartial Spectator.” On the former, we are presented with impersonal and at times destructive forces (recall Schumpeter’s creative destruction concept since in this blog I seem fond of terms coined by economists and philosopher) that describes how large and complex systems are most effectively governed by the informal pricing mechanisms required for an economy based upon freedom of choice and liberty, in essence indicating that no government or board of experts could ever match the effectiveness of the pricing mechanism as defined by the free market. Within his Theory of Moral Sentiments, he makes the case for why in our individual interactions and dealings at a micro level should be and in many cases are subconsciously guided by a moral compass. The conclusion of reading both works by Smith is that for a free society to function in the long run, moral underpinnings are essential. The intertwining of the impersonal free market with morality is eloquently articulated with the statement of political scientist James Q. Wilson that,

"Free-market systems require, obviously, certain personal qualities, including trust in those who borrow from you, a willingness to invest (that is, to defer present enjoyments for future benefits), and a readiness to take the demands of customers seriously. This social capital arises from long-sustained competition, from a culture that assigns a high value to making human character decent, and from a political system that refrains from rewarding people for their power rather than for their performance.

Capitalism alone cannot produce sufficient social capital. Culture and government must add their share by giving people incentives to be civil, by rewarding savings, and by encouraging trust. Because culture and government are so important, successfully capitalistic nations tend to be democratic states with a strong culture. This is why democracy and capitalism together make some nations so much richer than others."

2. I really enjoyed the Unicorn concept. I tend to spot these easily on the left, but the dialogue made me think about where my own biases lay and my own tendency to view government as harmful or at least ineffective in all things and the market as a force for good in all things. Indeed, free trade is an example of where there are some harmful impacts to some members of society. The political challenge is those harmful effects are concentrated in interests while the benefits are diffuse, and often to consumers in the abstract. Thus, perhaps sounds policy from government does include some form of job training as transitions and a low relative economic and political price to pay for advancing free trade. And even the best of libertarians such as Friedman and Hayek speak to the potential appropriateness of payments to the poor. Hayek for one would stress that these laws and rules need to be equally applied to all and that what we largely have is middle class distributions going on today, but he at least recognized that such minimal payments to the poor could have a role.

3. I can't precisely pick out a favorite, there are so many, including many with Munger, but I would say I really do enjoy the live shows. I really enjoy the concise and acerbic wit of John Cochrane and his perspectives on health care, so the show featuring him, Lee Ohanian, Arnold Kling, on the Future of Freedom, Democracy, and Prosperity was one of my all-time favorites.

Wayne Trisk writes:

Congrats on 500 episodes. This is by far the best regular podcast on Economics and I consume a lot of audio/video from CATO, Heritage, Federalist Society, & Mises.

3. Came across EconTalk in 2007 & have listened to at least 99% of all the episodes since that time. (Have them all downloaded.) Probably listened to 1/2 of them at least 2 times or more & there's about 50-60 I've listened to multiple times. Munger is an excellent guest & I count those among my favorites.
-Especially enjoyed the extended "companion" podcasts on reading The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

4. Do not change the music! You might consider re-recording a cleaner version but please do not alter/change the intro! As for the show length-- 60-75 minutes is ideal. Overall sound-quality is good & I have noticed improvements over the years.

Mark Stueve writes:

Thank you Liberty Funds and their leadship for inspiring liberty and thought leadership throughout the world. I have listened from Adelaide South Australia for many years.

Warm regards

Mark Anderson writes:

I too thought economics was just about money, until I heard an interview w/ Sam Peltzman on a now-defunct podcast. That led me to Econtalk about five years ago--and what a revelation that's been: the power of incentives and self-interest, the power of culture and emergent order, and the genius of the marketplace that perpetuates greater things than can be designed. This last is what I most appreciate--hardly a day goes by that I don't marvel at what was once to me the most mundane and commonplace. I give great thanks for that. There is no greater gift.

I've listened to most episodes, and I listen to most more than once. (The first listening for content, the second for detail.) Then I'll return later, as one will with a good book, and with every reading I gain understanding appreciation. (I may have set a record listening to Barry Ritholtz for content and Yuval Levin for his articulate intelligence--and of course, every episode of Roberts and Munger.)

Russ Roberts, then, has probably done more than anyone to help me see a different world. I've also learned that careful listening and a respectful attitude towards those you disagree with gives you the best opportunities for an engaging debate. Don Boudreaux for his articulate and illuminating writing, and Mike Munger for his accessibility, his intelligence, and his wit.

And please, don't touch the music. It's a Pavlovian thing.

Happy Thanksgiving!

With warm regards,

Mark Anderson
Seattle, WA

Nick Noyes writes:

Congrats on 500 episodes.
Great choice of Mike Munger for #500.
Please don't change the music, and yes, caught all the cultural references surrounding that bit of the conversation. But must confess I was disappointed to hear that BNL were less than gracious about your prospective use of their If I Had A Million Dollars' intro. Another idol falls to earth.
Here's wishing you another 500 and a 50-yard seat at AT&T stadium!

Zagreb, Croatia

Russ Roberts writes:

Nick Noyes,

Didn't mean to suggest BNL was ungracious. It was the legal team who is in charge of things and who went by the standard rules. It's just not a very flexible procedure. Such is life.

Jarrod writes:

2. Over the past few years I have found that I have a lot of unicorn beliefs. I have Econtalk to thank for pointing a lot of those unicorns out to me.

3. I've listened to all 500 episodes however I'm sure I've forgotten/missed most of he important points now, maybe I need to go back and re-listen to them all. :) Yes please!

4. I like the music! I think it would sound funny if it was anything else. As others have mentioned I have also noticed improved quality over the years in audio and Russ's quality of questions.

Bill writes:

Terrific episode. When I taught International Trade, my students and I benefited greatly from Russ' THE CHOICE. My first exposure to Russ' thinking/writing was a Wall Street Journal piece called IF YOU'RE PAYING, I'LL HAVE TOP SIRLOIN. One of my favorite Munger essays is UNICORN GOVERNANCE.

Amy Willis writes:

Wow! We are humbled and overwhelmed by these responses...Thanks to Russ for such dedication, hard work, and good cheer, and especially, thanks to all of YOU, who are listening so regularly. YOU are OUR inspiration. Gratefully, Amy

Joseph Yau writes:

Thanks Russ! I can't say how immensely my life has been enriched by your and your guests' insights.

Luke J writes:

1 and 3. In 2004 I read Henry Hazlitt's "Economics in One Lesson," which began my econ intellectual journey. Later I took courses at a community college, and one episode of Econtalk was assigned listening. It was Russ's 2007 conversation with Bruce Yandle on the Tragedy of the Commons. At that point I was hooked, and fortunately found the 2006 episodes not long after (Russ, you have come a long way in your skills as a podcaster).

2. My unicorn is definitely the free market and capitalism. I am hyper-sensitive to the "warts" pointed out by non-believers.

4. I subscribe to three podcasts: Freakonomics (that has upbeat theme and mood music), In Our Time (that has no music whatsoever), and Econtalk. Perhaps the divided opinion on your music is due to the wide audience you have. I like the music as it is, but I won't stop listening to Econtalk just because you change it.

Tim Burns writes:

Thanks for Econtalk!

It brings some cheer to my Monday morning when I see the new episode released. I think Econtalk is a testament to human flourishing and how technology can improve lives in ways that are hard to measure.

2. Great concept - I really like it and it plays to my love of strawberry flatulence). Munger neglected to mention that the unicorn is also excellent at camouflage. It can stealthily enters an argument as an insidious premise. This, combined with their power to have exactly whatever properties you need means you can't, Friedman-like, out-argue a position by granting a unicorn as a premise.

3. Around 300. I've often thought that this is far, far more than the number of lecture hours I had from any of my university profs...

4. Keep! I agree with Mark Anderson on it's Pavlovian nature.

Arde writes:

Great podcasts! Wonderful job!
3) I have listened to around 200 episodes. Here are the ones that have influenced me the most:
- Duggan on Strategic Intuition (2007). This is how I started listening to Econtalk. I thought I try one episode and see if this show is for me. I really enjoyed Duggan's insights on management and intuition and decided to check out for more.
- Zingales on Crony Capitalism. I was a supporter of free markets, but at the same time felt that something is not ok with the big bonuses for financial sector, extreme salaries for lawyers etc. This confusion was resolved thanks to this episode. I remained a fan of Zingales ever since.
- Yuval Levin on Burke, Paine and the Great Debate. I knew little about history of political philosophy, and actually forced myself to listen to this episode (I was more interested in economics). Levin was so good and inspiring host, he made interested to learn more about this fascinating topic.
- Arnold Kling on three languages of politics. This is so true. I see it working so often. The conservatives, libertarians and progressives really do (mostly) communicate the way Kling suggest. This can be useful for both – to understand better your opponent and to manipulate them in accepting your ideas.
- Scott Sumner on Interest Rates. Most people think that supply and demand curves is trivial stuff, yet so many commit the mistake of reasoning from price change. Thanks to Sumner for pointing out this again. I have noticed this mistake so many times often in writings done by professional economists. I pay attention not to commit this mistake myself.
- Pete Geddes on prairie. I thought that if I ever visit the US, I would go to New York or California because these are the most popular tourist attractions. However, after this episode I have a strong wish to spend some time in prairie. Must be beautiful, no?
- Otteson, Smith, Dan Klein, Roberts on Adam Smith. I did not know much about Adam Smith except the invisible hand and greed is good clichés. Thanks to these hosts I learned how deep thinker he was. Moral Sentiments (+Roberts book) is on my "to read list".
- James Tooley, Elisabeth Green, Doug Lemov, Pritchett, Hanushek, Ravitch. Very insightful podcasts on education. I learned so much from each of them, I do not know which one to emphasize most.
- Admati on Bank Regulation. I remember this as a very good and educative podcast, which helped me to clarify some issues on banking. Want to read her book, to learn even more.
Acemoglu – I always felt that mainstream economics with its formal models lacks important part of how real life works. After this podcast (and having read the book), institutions is the first thing I look at, when I think about development problems.
- Munger because his episodes are fun.
- Burgin, Boudreaux on Hayek. I did not know anything about Hayek, but learned so much. Thanks to these episodes I try to apply his insights to some of the real world situations.
- D.G. Myers. I remember this episode, partly because it was a very sad topic. But also I visited DG Myers website and learned a lot about literature. I wish I had the time to read all the books (and reviews) that he suggested.
-Barofsky/William Black – strengthened my dislike to bail-outs and mistrust in banking regulation. Good lesson in public choice. Learned again how mainstream economic models are insufficient to describe what goes on in real world. In addition, Black and Barofsky seemed brave men as well, which is also very admirable.

Jonas Kölker writes:

Thanks for a great 500th episode, and yay on bringing Mr. Munger back—I think I'm not alone in saying that he's my favorite guest.

I've listened to all the episodes, and I've listened to some episodes more than once. Favorite guests are Munger, Epstein and Caplan, with very honorable mentions to the late and great Christopher Hitchens.

Favorite topics are the Austrian school, natural experiments (e.g. POW camps and Chilean buses), constructed markets (e.g. Kidneys and Food banks), political philosophy and its history. Most listened episode is probably Chilean Buses.

Intellectual influences: Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, Thomas Sowell, the EconTalk parade of guests and various lectures from the Mises institute.

I try to listen to perspectives different from my own (this used to include the average opinion of EconTalk guests, and it was EconTalk which swung me around to liberalism in the enlightenment sense). Every now and again I spot a giant unicorn in the living room (which I take to mean an appeal to a simple-sounding solution without sufficient arguments being provided for the efficacy of the proposed solution). Most of the time, though, I either spot a difference in values or I fail to understand the factual claims. I try to also spot unicorns among people who are more in agreement with me (most notably myself), but I don't see quite as many on the other side. Does this mean I'm right, or that I'm subject to confirmation bias, or both?

The music is awesome!

Walter Clark writes:

I think Mark Anderson above, expresses exactly how I feel, here's Mark's best paragraph:
Russ Roberts, then, has probably done more than anyone to help me see a different world. I've also learned that careful listening and a respectful attitude towards those you disagree with gives you the best opportunities for an engaging debate. Don Boudreaux for his articulate and illuminating writing, and Mike Munger for his accessibility, his intelligence, and his wit.

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