Tyler Cowen and Russ Roberts on Nation, Immigration, and Israel
Jan 17 2022

Jerusalem-300x300.jpg Can Israeli society survive the loss of universal military service? Will the deregulation of Israel's kosher supervision spell the end of its Jewish character? And, speaking of Israel, what is it that makes its television dramas so good? Tyler Cowen discusses these and other subjects with EconTalk host Russ Roberts, new immigrant to Israel and unabashed fan of the Prisoners of War miniseries and Homer's Odyssey.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Fazal Majid
Jan 17 2022 at 7:51am

A few weeks ago I went to a Bar-Mitzvah service here in the UK and during the service they had a blessing for the Queen, the Royal Family and the Armed Forces, so that doesn’t seem to be specific to Israel, perhaps it is the US that is the outlier there.

Shalom Freedman
Jan 18 2022 at 8:14am

The background to this conversation is Russ Roberts decision to move over six months ago to Israel in order to serve as President of a small college, Shalem College, devoted to teaching primarily Humanities, and the Western tradition, to what is hoped will be future leaders of Israel. This decision which can be seen as admirable and courageous is discussed by Roberts with a frequent interviewee of his Tyler Cowen of the Wall Street Journal.

Cowen questions Roberts in a sympathetic but not overly informed- about Israel way. For instance, he raises a question about the ultra-orthodox role in Israel while mentioning their claim that they are the single authentic representative of Judaism and preservers of the Jewish tradition. The truth is the overwhelming majority of Israelis including many religious Israelis see the Ultra-Orthodox as an extremely problematic population who, not only refuse to participate in the Army and defense of the country but have had undue influence over the lives of not only other religious Jews but most ordinary Jewish Israelis.

In another misunderstanding there is talk about the Western Wall, and the Temple Mount without any mention of what a source of conflict worship this is. The Islamic world and recently a good share of the United Nations have denied the well-proven role of the Jews in first consecrating this as a holy place.

Here I think there is one more important point to mention about the moving to Israel. However conflicted and divided politically the United States is now, there is since the fall of the Soviet Union no immediate and palpable threat to its existence. Israel as a nation which has been fighting for its existence since its beginning is now in one of its most dangerous periods. Its existence is repeatedly threatened by Iran and its surrogates, including Hizbollah and Hamas. In this sense the move Russ Roberts has made is courageous in that he has moved to a place of far greater danger with the intention of contributing to the well-being of Israeli society and a more humane world.



Ajit Kirpekar
Jan 18 2022 at 7:56pm

I have to say I’m kind of amazed that Russ was able and willing to relocate at his age and place in life.  It certainly seems atypical and something I would personally struggle to do even at half his age.

Jan 19 2022 at 11:11am

I was looking forward to this episode and was not disappointed. Russ, which Hebrew-language podcasts would you recommend for those whose Hebrew proficiency is around your level?

Russ Roberts
Jan 20 2022 at 11:24am

The podcast Learn Hebrew by Word of Mouth is perfect for me. I also like Streetwise Hebrew.

Jan 20 2022 at 6:22am

I loved this conversation.  Having immigrated to Israel 30 years ago, and being a big Russ Roberts fan, I was so excited to hear Russ’ impressions and thoughts.  I wish the conversation had lasted much longer . . . I was really impressed by Tyler Cowan’s knowledge of things Israeli in general, and specifically of Israeli television.  I had no idea that there was an audience for Israeli shows outside of this country. Russ’ answer to Tyler’s question about the concentration of good shows in Israel made me laugh out loud with pleasure.  Thank you.

Mick Wigal
Jan 20 2022 at 10:26am

I’m curious about the quote, “We lose money on every student and we make it up by volume,” in the context of Shalem University’s business model. Does anyone have any idea how this works?

I work in higher education in the U.S., as did my father. I remember about 2 decades ago, my father suggested that his university follow a “Wal-Mart business plan” where they charge the lowest amount possible and try to do high volume.

Russ Roberts
Jan 20 2022 at 11:26am

I was referencing an old joke. Shalem College subsidizes its students. So we have to raise funds via donation. It’s a challenging business model. Always happy to accept any help with the mission…

Comments are closed.


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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: December 23, 2021.]

Russ Roberts: Today is December 23rd, 2021, and today's episode of EconTalk is also being released as an episode of Conversations with Tyler.

I am speaking with Tyler Cowen of George Mason, who blogs on Marginal Revolution, podcasts at Conversations with Tyler. It's his 14th appearance here on the program. He was last here in April of 2021 talking about the pandemic.

We're going to do something a little unusual today. We're going to talk about what it's like to be an immigrant using my move to Israel this year as a way to launch the conversation. As my listeners know, and to let listeners at Conversations with Tyler know, I came to Israel to be president of Shalem College, a small liberal arts college here in Jerusalem.

And, finally, I want to encourage EconTalk listeners to go to our homepage to vote on your favorite episodes of 2021.

Tyler, welcome back to EconTalk.

Tyler Cowen: Russ, thank you very much for having me.


Tyler Cowen: I'm so curious about your new ventures. Let me start with a general question. In the mature economies, why aren't there more new universities? Shalem is in its ninth year. And, how is starting a new university in Israel different from in the United States?

Russ Roberts: Well, we have a very strange business model. We lose money on every student and we make it up by volume. We give all of our students a stipend that covers their tuition and a good chunk of their living expenses. And, as a result, in America, if that were the case--we take no money from the government. It's all private donations. And, we're in competition, we like to think, for the best students here in Israel so they often are on scholarships so we have to match that. That's the business model.

In America, if you don't take money from the government, you usually get less regulation, in turn. That is not the case here. The Council of Higher Education is extremely vigilant in making sure that we keep all of our promises. And, they're very, very detail oriented. Number of toilets, I think is regulated here, per student. So, you can imagine starting a new major is--we've got to their approval. We have to provide the syllabi of all the classes that will be taught in the major. We have to show the faculty that would be teaching in the major, and we have to get a variety of committees to sign off on it. To create a whole college is a major enterprise. The people who came before me did all that lifting, heavy and light.

You know, in America, the challenge, of course, is both accreditation and reputation. You're in competition with existing--like any new entry, you have to compete with the existing competitors. And, in the case of college, brand name is extremely important in America, obviously. People have emotional ties to colleges. I think there are very, very, very few new colleges that are at the highest level. As you know, of course, University of Austin is aspiring to be one of those startups in America, but it's not an easy task. It's hard to do.


Tyler Cowen: So, being a university president, it also has a managerial side. How are you feeling managerial culture as been different in Israel compared to the United States?

Russ Roberts: Well, you know, I don't have a lot of managerial experience. They kind of took a leap of faith on me there.

Tyler Cowen: You managed your own career your entire life.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Oh, tremendous experience. And, that meant managing a very difficult person, actually. So, it's actually quite encouraging.

In all seriousness, the job--I've grown in the six months I've been on the job and on the ground here. It's been a wonderful experience, adventure. We'll talk about what it's like to live here, but to flex a bunch of muscles that I haven't used much or that I didn't know I had, it's a very multifaceted job. There's managing people, there's curriculum, and faculty, and student issues; there's fundraising. It's a fascinating--

Tyler Cowen: Can you be more direct when you're managing in Israel? There's a reputation that Israelis are super-direct. They don't mince words. Like, is that true? And, how does that influence how you manage people? Do you just tell them what to do? Do they tell you what to do? Or, how's it different?

Russ Roberts: Well, I think there's--a lot of my management team at the senior level speak English and are American. So, even though they're Israelis now and they're all citizens of Israel--as I am--they, they bring a lot of their American baggage with them, even though they've unpacked, for sure.

In terms of the staff and the students, there is a directness. With the students, it's quite interesting. They come here when they're typically 23, 24 years old to start their college career. Very different than in America. And, despite having served in the army, they are remarkably young in a certain way. They have an energy and a openness that's very refreshing. The bluntness part I don't sense so much on their end.

In terms of the staff, it's not really an issue, at least I haven't experienced it. What I think it causes though, is a certain hesitation on my part for interaction. I've got the language barrier--for the native Israelis here, I try to speak Hebrew with them to amuse them and they're very kind. And, then we typically end up speaking in English, if it's anything substantive outside of, 'How was your weekend?' And, they are very blunt. Straightforward. I kind of like it. I've gotten used to it.


Tyler Cowen: Now, you're an Adam Smith scholar. And, as you know, Smith and many of the other classical economists, they were worried about the decline of martial virtue in a commercial society with division of labor. And, now that you've lived in Israel, how does this worry seem to you? More justified, totally false, or how do you view it?

Russ Roberts: It's a deep question. I appreciate the flattery of calling me a Smith scholar. I wrote a book on Smith--which, of course, makes me an expert--but I'm not really an expert.

The martial side, the military side here, is utterly fascinating. There's a big conversation going around here about whether Israel should continue with the draft or go to a model closer to the United States of a volunteer army. It's an enormous socializing experience here, for the young people to go through that: it's challenging, difficult, often physically difficult. And, it permeates a lot of life here.

In the way that there are certain networks of college, for example, in America or a private school system that you have a certain natural connection to the graduates. Here in Israel, the unit you were in, the kind of unit you were in, the people that you were in that unit with, I think has a very powerful, lifelong effect.

It has some--it's jarring, often, to an American who comes here. There are a lot of people walking around with their Uzis--their automatic weapons. First time you see that it's a little bit scary. Second time kind of can be okay. You feel pretty--it's kind of comforting. But, it's a part of life here, along with reserve duty and other--we have students who missed the first three weeks of class because they had reserve duty, or they were on some project. And that's intense. It's just very alien to most Americans.

Tyler Cowen: Given the rising importance of cyber warfare, it seems for Israel most of all, should Israel still have a draft? Isn't the future of Israeli security drones, cyber defense, cyber attacks, other advanced weapons? It's a tech story rather than a personnel story. Yes?

Russ Roberts: You'd think so. That may be partly what's driving the having a conversation about a volunteer army. Israel doesn't have the personnel it needs that it had for an army that it would've had 20 years ago. There are a lot of units here where people in them can't tell you what they're in because they're, I think highly classified, highly involved in those kind of cyber security issues. I think it's a big issue for the world. It's going to be an incredible thing to see how this changes warfare in general. But it's a key part of Israel's arsenal, obviously. They've been very successful in using cyber attacks to slow down Iran's nuclear program, for example--at least that's understood, the received wisdom.

Tyler Cowen: But, will the Israeli military plus conscription still over time produce that sense of social solidarity if the military personnel themselves are not in the long run responsible for national security? Won't it become a kind of [inaudible 00:09:39] façade, and at some point fade away or be viewed cynically or not serve its original socially unifying function?

Russ Roberts: I don't know. I don't know. I think there's a lot of cohesion here that we're not--it's a very fractious political environment here, as you know. A lot of political parties. Parliamentary system, no constitution. A lot of yelling in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. But, despite all that, because of, I think, the external threat, there's a lot of cohesion here, whether there's an army or not.

The other part of the army that I think is fascinating is the age of the people in leadership positions, very early in their career. There are people in their mid-twenties, early twenties, who have the lives of a hundred or more people in their hand as they're in their units. And, it creates a different kind of mentality here. I can't say I've sensed it personally, but that's my impression. I don't know what will happen. It's a fascinating question. What will happen to Israeli, just social life, if the army becomes less central. But, right now that's not the case. It's very central.


Tyler Cowen: As you know, better than I do, the Israeli media landscape is very different from the American media landscape, though they overlap. How has that changed your mind about podcasting? How do you view podcasting differently from Israel?

Russ Roberts: It's a lot of work podcasting from Israel. One of the start challenges of moving here is that a huge chunk of my life gets crammed into 3:00 PM to 7:00 PM, because 3:00 PM is kind of the earliest you can expect somebody for a meeting or an interview in the United States when it's going to be 8:00 PM on the East Coast. And, certainly on the West Coast it's even a bigger difference. So, starting around three o'clock, my day tends to get a little more crowded and intense. So, just on a logistics matter, it's challenging.

I don't have a very good feel for the newspapers' world here, but newspapers are much more important than they are in America. They haven't died out. They're not just online. It's fun to walk around on a afternoon or a morning in Jerusalem and see four or five different newspapers out for sale. Even if I can't read all of them, or most of them--and sometimes any of them, because my Hebrew is so embryonic and mediocre. But, they come with a flavor. And, I think that's part of what you're alluding to. They're more like TV in America, right? They have often an ideology and a certain perspective. American newspapers, until recently I would say, pretended they were objective. I think there's less of a pretense lately. But, how podcasting fits into that? I don't know. I listen to some Hebrew language podcasts and my Hebrew's not good enough to listen to the other ones. I should maybe be trying, but--

Tyler Cowen: [crosstalk 00:12:39].

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Go ahead.

Tyler Cowen: You've remarked to me in the past that in Israel baseball seems less important to you. Does podcasting seem more or less important there?

Russ Roberts: That's interesting. Yeah, sports does seem less important. Partly, because the games are on often at 3:10 in the morning here, which kind of reduces my--and I'm not a recorder kind of person. Don't have time to watch them at leisure so much anyway, anymore.

EconTalk doesn't seem less important, but I am surprised at how much I enjoy the challenge of the improving the classroom here. We have an amazing set of teachers here. I want them to be better. We're trying to make the evaluation process a little more sophisticated and less a customer service: 'On a scale of one to five, how'd you like your faculty member, your professor?' Trying to inculcate, inculturate our faculty to certain styles of teaching and expose them to certain ideas. I'm enjoying that much more than I thought I would. I'm much more passionate about it.

I'm a little bit dangerous, Tyler. I'm what's called in Hebrew, a [foreign language 00:13:46]: one who has come upward, who has come up to the land, the land of Israel. And I find my passion for things Israeli and my national identity way out of line with what I thought it would be as a person who's--I've been here many times. I've been here a dozen or so times to visit. I lived here as a teenager for eight months when I was in high school with my family. My dad's company sent him here. So, I sort of thought I knew what it would be like to live here. I knew it wouldn't be the same as being a tourist. But, I've been surprised at how much national pride I have, how I'm not quite as interested in what's going on in America. I thought I'd stay connected either sports, politics--which is just a different form of sports, sometimes. But, it's very different. And I think--you read stories of immigrants who come to America and who are very emotional when they pass their citizenship tests. I feel the same thing here. And, it's been a pleasant surprise.


Tyler Cowen: What in the Torah now feels different when you read it living as an Israeli?

Russ Roberts: In the Torah?

Tyler Cowen: In the Torah. Or the Hebrew Bible, more broadly.

Russ Roberts: In the Jewish Bible? Yeah. No, no, no. I just thought--I'm not sure I heard you correctly. It's interesting. Sitting in a Jewish, a synagogue here on Saturday morning, which I used to do in America, the biggest difference isn't the Torah reading. It's the--it's a blessing for the state of Israel, which gets recited every morning, every Saturday morning in a Jewish synagogue in America. It gets--there's also a prayer for the soldiers of the IDF, the Israel Defense Force. It's much more visceral here. People pay attention. You feel like you're actually saying something that matters and that means something.

As for the Torah, I think the biggest thing that I felt actually wasn't in services or reading the Bible. It's exploring different parts of the country I hadn't ever been to before. When we first got here, early on, we went up north to the Golan Heights which Israel didn't have access to until the 1967 war. It's still controversial in some quarters, of course. It's a really a stunningly beautiful part of the country. And, you can walk a town called Gamala. Gamala was a Jewish town in Roman times that the Romans destroyed, a little bit like Masada. And, they've uncovered the mosaic floor of a synagogue. There's some houses: the floors and rooms and walls of partial houses are still visible. And it's a very wild part of the country. There's there's big ravines and outcrops. And, then in the distance, you can see the Sea of Galilee, the Kinneret in Hebrew. And, it just felt different that there's a Jewish presence in that outpost in the middle of nowhere that's 2000 years old.

It's--I feel part of something that--now, obviously intellectually, I felt it before I moved here, but moving here and feeling that's very different and being there and standing on that--having that town to ourselves: my wife and I, we hiked to the top. It's a little tiny space. Hard to believe that a few thousands of people lived there. But, it's a crazy, crazy archeological experience to be part of that and other things like it. So, that's what's to me is more special. [More to come, 17:22]

The holiest part of Israel, most people would say, would be the Temple Mount. A Jew would say it's the Temple Mount and the Kotel, the supporting wall of the Temple Mount that the Jews pray out everyday now, if--we have access to it since 1967. And, Jews have been praying there for thousands of years. It's very moving to be there. I'm about an 18- or 20-minute walk from there; and I've been there once since I've been here. In the past, I'd come here every trip. Had to make sure I got to the Kotel and the Old City, and I'm surprised how little I've been there. The sort of work-a-day, suburban--not suburban, but urban--streets of Jerusalem, feel special in a way that doesn't require that past hovering over it. It's just nice to be here.


Tyler Cowen: Now, there's a Great Books emphasis at Shalem, if I understand correctly. If you had a bit more time than you probably have and wanted to choose one or two Great Books--Hebrew Bible aside, of course--to make sense of your time and experience in Israel, what would you pick and why?

Russ Roberts: Well, you know, our students--it's crazy. We're a Great Book curriculum, sort of, but there's so many things we try to cover because we also have not just Western civilization, but Jewish thought and also other civilizations--our neighborhood, the Middle East neighborhood. So, our students read the Jewish Bible. They read the Talmud, they read the Quran, they read the New Testament. And we have a course on Indian culture of civilization and religion as well. So, it gets a little crowded. It gets a little crowded. You're asking me though, what book I would want to read--

Tyler Cowen: To make sense of your own experience in Israel? Which Great Book?

Russ Roberts: Well, I'm a sucker. I think I'd pick The Odyssey. It's about travel, adventures, a sense of home, a very reliable wife who's come with me for this adventure. And, I've been writing about it recently for my next book--Penelope's decision and dealing with the absence of her husband. But, the idea of that book, which I think is just one of my favorite books, the Odyssey, is the idea that home pulls you.

And, now I have two homes. It's a little bit weird. I was born in Memphis, Tennessee. I've never lived long anywhere in the United States. Maryland's the longest. My time in America, when I was teaching at George Mason and later working at the Hoover Institution--which I'm still affiliated with, by the way--18 years of my 67 were spent in suburban Washington, D.C., which is roughly a quarter and certainly more than a quarter of my adult life. And so, there's a certain home there. I have certain friends there. And, now all of a sudden this feels like home. I don't know what Odysseus--he must have had a lot of ups and downs when he was thinking about whether to come home or not--but he came home. So, I think that helps me a little bit. Love that book.


Tyler Cowen: Now, the United States has, I think, about 330 million people, yet there are more Israeli TV shows I want to watch than American TV shows. There's Srugim. There's Shtisel. There's Prisoners of War, there's In Judgment[?]. There's Tehran. There's more. Why is Israeli TV so good?

Russ Roberts: I'm glad you mentioned Prisoners of War, which doesn't get enough--Prisoners of War is in my top five. If I had to list my top five, I'd pick Shtisel, Prisoners of War, The Americans, probably The Wire, and The Crown. Do you have a top five? Keep it real off[inaudible 00:21:01].

Tyler Cowen: Sopranos would be my number one. Srugim and Prisoners of War plausibly would be in my top five.

Russ Roberts: So, Prisoners of War, by the way, is very much about--

Tyler Cowen: Curb Your Enthusiasm. That's in my top five, too.

Russ Roberts: Well, yeah. Kind of a different thing.

Tyler Cowen: Yes. Very different thing.

Russ Roberts: Very different. I mean, what I love about those other ones when they're done well is they're a form of long-form storytelling simply not available to us until now. The closest thing I guess you could have had to it in the past would be a Dickens novel that came out every week. And you couldn't binge-read it. You had to wait for the next installment. I'm sure there's been many Ph.D. theses written about how the impact of that weekly thing affected Dickens's style and so on.

But, it's an interesting question. I have an answer, but I want to hear your answer first. What's your answer?

Tyler Cowen: I think the audience is more demanding and has evolved into an equilibrium where they expect something more intellectually substantive from television, and precisely because it's not economically so viable. The notion that at the margin, you get a much bigger audience by pandering to more people, just doesn't go that far in Israel.

Now, this may change as Israeli shows themselves become more popular. So, I worry about this. But, that would be my offhand answer. Smarter, more demanding audience, plus limited incentives to sell out.

Russ Roberts: That's certainly interesting.

There's some really bad Israeli TV shows that I've enjoyed that take weird and strange turns. I'll mention The Good Cop, Hashoter Hatov, which is really and often in really bad taste and quite amusing, that all of a sudden gets really serious in Season Two or Three. It starts off as this sort of silly comedy. Similarly, The Beauty and the Baker, which is this cheesy--there's an American version of it, too. But, in the Israeli version there's this baker; and he somehow gets tangled up with this movie star, this model. She's a model, I guess, not a movie star. And, you think, 'It's cheap fun.' And, all of a sudden it gets really serious. Their families get involved and it takes these strange and inexplicable turns. And, I'm sure it's partly driven by the economics of the business.

But, I think there's another thing to think about, which is: Jews created Hollywood. Jews have been made good movies for a long time. You know, we're called the People of the Book. We're interested in storytelling. Just a standard thing Jews have been doing for a long time.

Now, why Israelis, per se, are so good at it is an interesting question. It's obviously a function of wealth and the ability now to market those stories to a much wider audience.

But, I think your point about how, you know, subtitles and Netflix allowed that to reach a much wider audience than was available for. It really is kind of a puzzle. They're not particularly designed, I don't think anymore, for of the Israeli market. The real puzzle to me is why they're popular now. Why they're so good. Why do people want to watch a--Shtisel, which is--not much happens in Shtisel and--

Tyler Cowen: It's actual romantic tension. That's the thing with Shtisel and Srugim. In American shows, or even European shows, why don't just divorce or why don't they just go to bed together? Or why don't they just whatever? But in Srugim and Shtisel it's always a question what the boundaries are. And, that's hard to recreate.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. One of my favorite scenes in Shtisel is when Akiva and I think it's Batsheva[inaudible 00:24:44]--she pretends or is actually interested in renting a heater from him. A portable radiator. And, he's just started this business. He's put up a sign around town. It's very entrepreneurial for him. He doesn't have much to do with himself other than art. And, she shows up at the doorway. And it lasts about 30 seconds. There's incredible tension in that scene, romantic and sexual tension. And, it's because they can't--they're not going to do anything. And they're good actors. And so, it's a very powerful scene.

I've also argued, I think part of the appeal of that show--there's a certain anthropological, you know, voyeurism: Here's a culture and a community that's very alien to most people. Including modern Orthodox Jews. It's a very different form of religious Judaism, the ultra Orthodox that they're portraying in that show. And, you know, part of the charm of the show is that: 'Well, they have the same problems we do. They have trouble with their kids. They're not sure whether they're going to make a living.'

And so, that's part of the charm.

But, I think the other part of the charm is what you're talking about. There's a certain old-fashionednsss there that--people may not want to live that way themselves, but they like watching it, the way they like reading a Jane Austen novel, where the mores of romance are long gone in the past. And, there's a certain innocence, I think, to the characters in Shtisel, which makes it so deeply appealing.

The only other observation I want to make, which I think is so fascinating to me is, it's a show about religious--ultra-religious, ultra-Orthodox Jews, [inaudible 00:26:13] Judaism in the show. You know: they murmur and mutter blessings under their breath, but there's no glorification of, say, the religious experience of the Shabbat. And, they don't make fun of it either. There's no mocking of it or of the attitudes. They're just taken as they are. And, I think that was a genius move by the creators to make that show the way it is.


Tyler Cowen: Which Israeli norm is hardest for you to deal with?

Russ Roberts: Negotiation is challenging. I think it's particularly hard for my wife, who likes set prices. A lot of prices here are just kind of suggestions. They're an invitation to negotiate. And, there are a few settings in America where that's normal. You buy a house or car: you don't expect to pay list price. But you do expect to pay list price for, say, a haircut, or I don't know--a repair or something.

But, a lot of times the price they announce is just like a hint or a suggestion. And, it's very hard for Americans to respond to that.

If you come here and you get off the plane and you get in a cab, I don't think the price--and this happens in America, right? Prices in America, in a cab off the meter, are often negotiated. The cab farer will say something, 'How about if we don't use the meter? How about a flat rate?'

But, in America, you kind of know what it's going to be because you've been in the cabs in America. As a newcomer, you don't always know how far it's going to be you, what the real fare should be. And so, you're kind of vulnerable.

And so, a lot of Americans I know get angry when the cab driver says, 'Let's take it off the meter and pay cash.' They say, 'Well, no, put it on the meter.'

And, and then a friend of mine was telling me--he got yelled at by the cab driver. Like, 'I don't want to put it on the meter.' And I'm thinking, 'But, that's the job. That's the rule. Come on, put it on the meter.'

And, I think that the anger of the cab driver was really just, 'Hey, we're negotiating here. We're having fun. Here's the game.' It's not theater, but it is a game.

And, there is some theater involved because you don't know how the drama is going to end. But, I think here it's a little bit of the fabric of daily life. Right? And, that's a little strange. It takes of getting used to.

I think when I rented my apartment here, I think it was an 8- or a 10-page lease. I had to hire a lawyer. Never had a lawyer for a lease. I've rented a dozen places, 20 places in America. That was strange.

What I do to sign the lease--things I had to do to get the lease done, insurance I bought. Weird stuff that just doesn't happen in America. And, it's all in Hebrew. So, that part's kind of challenging. Anything else? Those are the ones that come to mind.


Tyler Cowen: An Israeli friend of mine suggested I asked you the following question, quote, "Are you tired of being a freier?" Unquote.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. 'Freier' is the slang phrase--I assume it's Yiddish. There's a few Yiddish words--

Tyler Cowen: It sounds Yiddish to me--

Russ Roberts: that get peppered into Israeli daily speech. Not much. Not like you'd think. Because, of course, the early days of Israel was very much a revolt against the Eastern European mentality. Hebrew was going to be spoken here, not Yiddish; and Jews here were going to be strong and proud, not hunched over a book. And, they were going to fight in the army--and there's a certain huge pride actually in that here.

And, as a result, the best slang is Arabic. There's an enormous number of Arabic words that are used daily. I like to tease my Israeli friends that there's no Hebrew word for 'fun'. And, when you tell them that they say, 'Whoa, yes there is: keff [????? --Econlib Ed.]' It's an Arabic word. They had to import it to--it's kind of a cheap shot at the seriousness of life here. And it's not true. There's a lot of vibrancy and people here have a lot of fun. But, there's no native Hebrew word for 'fun'. I blame it on Ben-Yehuda.

But, the word 'freier' is a very, very interesting word. And, it's an interesting aspect of Hebrew nature, of human nature, because it means a sucker. And, some Americans here all talk about the 'freier tax': you know, the amount of money extra you pay because you just don't know what you're doing here. You're just lost. You don't know the norms.

And, I try not to worry about being a freier. I view it as--it's a form of charity. I have a comfortable life. I can pay a little bit extra. It's not a problem. Happy to do it.

But, people worry about it, I think, emotionally. And, I think it's an important part of human nature that economics doesn't have much to say about. The fear that you're being taken advantage of drives a lot of bad behavior on both sides of various transactions if you don't have a good level of trust.


Tyler Cowen: As you well know, a significant portion of the population of Israel is Arabic in descent. What do you think you're learning about those Arabic cultures, living in Israel?

Russ Roberts: Not as much as I'd like to, yet. I mean, I've only been here six months. There's a lot of--it partly depends on where you live, of course--but in the parts of Jerusalem that I live in and walk in near our campus here, there's a lot of Arab Israelis.

Most people don't know this--I don't know it well so I may embarrass myself--but, people who are born within the borders of the Jewish State right now, in the borders of Israel who are not Jewish--Arab Israelis--are full citizens. They get full healthcare, they get to go subsidized to the universities. They vote. They don't serve in the army, which is fascinating. They don't want to serve in the army, incidentally, which I also understand is complicated for them. And, those are distinct from the West Bank in Gaza who are Palestinians. Then there's some special categories of folks who live in East Jerusalem, which is a disputed, more challenging--I don't know all the ins and outs of that.

My wife is going to ulpan. Ulpan is Hebrew lessons. She goes to ulpan three hours a day, four days a week. Twenty-two of her 23, I think, or 21 of her 23 classmates are Arab--Arab Israelis who think their Hebrew is not good. They all speak Hebrew. They speak very good English, but their Hebrew is not good enough, so they're improving their Hebrew because they want to go to a good university. They want to get a good education. They want to be in business. And, they're all young, by the way. They're all in their twenties. But I don't have much exposure to the Arab Israeli population, yet. So, it's something to find out about.

Tyler Cowen: You're both non-Muslims. What is it you think we can or should learn from the Quran?

Russ Roberts: I don't know the Quran. The religious Muslims I have met face to face--as opposed to the ones that are called the cultural zeitgeist of Islam that's in the air in the West--but, the actual Muslims that I have met face to face, you know, I have a lot in common with them. We believe in God. I think they have a very deep, deep faith, which some Jews have, but not all. Even religious Jews, I think, struggle with faith in a way that many Muslims and Christians, for that matter, don't struggle with.

So I think there's something to learn there. I think it's possible--I'm naive. I like to think there's a way that the great religions of the world would get along a little bit better, the followers of those religions--on the ground, face to face, I think we get along pretty well, but not going so well overall, in the outside world. So, there's work to do.

As an economist, I like to think that commercial interaction helps. Do you think that helps? Do you think it's a think trade--what do you think of this view that trade leads to peace?

Tyler Cowen: I think it's been overrated by many of us. At many margins, clearly, it's true. Trade also helps you build up weaponry. Trade can solidify groups within a nation. An overrated proposition, though on average true. That's how I would classify it.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I like that. I'm going to use that. Thank you. I'll [inaudible 00:34:55] you, too.

Tyler Cowen: So, late 19th century Europe had plenty of trade, right? The world was remarkably globalized; and you get World War I; you get World War II. I'm not saying the trade caused that, but you can see it's what you might call a complicated regression.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I agree.


Tyler Cowen: Here's another religious question. The Knesset recently, as you know, they voted to loosen up kosher certification regulations and take away power from a group of rabbis. That's a kind of deregulation. You're a market-oriented economist. Are you happy? Or should you be worried as a religious observant Jew that this could mean a higher probability of some Israelis eating non-kosher food?

Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's a fascinating example. Listeners should know that Shtisel is not the modal family in Israel. The ultra-Orthodox are a percentage of the country and they're a politically powerful percentage because they tend to vote as a block, but there're really all kinds of variations now, both religiously and non-religiously in Israel that are extremely fascinating. There are many Jews here, are secular. Their Judaism is that they live in a Jewish state. Now, there are other Jews who are religious. And then in between that, there's all kinds of stuff happening here that's really fascinating. I recommend the book The Wondering Jew by Micah Goodman that came out in the last few years about what's going on on the ground here in Israel and the amount of religious innovation that's happening and how people who are, quote, "not religious" are connecting to Jewish text; people who are religious or leading more open lives. I think--the tension between the religious and the non-religious here is, is somewhat overrated.

Having said that, some of the source of that tension is governmental mandates that gives preferences for subsidies to childbearing, which--the ultra Orthodox tend to have much, much larger families. Families are much larger here in Israel than in America, generally, secular and religious. But, the ultra Orthodox tend to have the larger families; and they've used their political power to get both subsidies for children, exemptions from army service, and other forms of special treatment that non-religious Jews, not surprisingly, find offensive. So, I don't think the alliance of the state with Jewish religion has necessarily been a good thing.

Many people before me have pointed out that United States is generally a more religious country than Europe. There's no state religion in America. Most of Europe has state religion. The state doesn't do anything particularly well, and it doesn't tend to lead to good feelings about religion and has not over time.

So, when you ask the question: If you take away some monopoly power from the rabbinic authorities here, are you going to get less-kosher food? The answer is: You might get more-kosher food. There's a lot of resentment of the way that the kosher certification has worked here. A lot of people feel that a lot of times a fee is collected and not much supervision takes place. These are nonreligious people who resent that they're paying for something that gives them the certificate they need to serve their religious customers, but don't like the hypocrisy of that system.

It's a fantastic example, by the way, of the natural assumption most people have that when there's a law, it gets enforced. Or, when there's a law, the government does it well. I've had people say to me, 'If we move to a more decentralized system, people won't be able to trust the kosher certification.' Like, you sure each trust it now? When the government has a monopoly driven by rabbinic oversight? A lot of people say it doesn't work so well.

So, I'm excited about the role competition might play in the process. And, I think it'll lead to cheaper kosher food, more kosher food, more restaurants offering certified kosher food that I think will actually be kosher. And, we'll be fine.

Tyler Cowen: Let me give you a perspective I sometimes hear from Israelis, but I'm going to put this in maybe more public-choice terminology than they would use. So, I've heard it argued that secular Israelis, to some extent, free ride upon the more stricter, more religious Israelis who do more to shore up the unity of Judaism or the cultural foundation of the country. And, thus, that as part of the bargain, the more extreme religious individuals have to be given some kinds of political preferences to keep them on board. As you know, decades ago, many of the ultra Orthodox were anti-Zionist, rather than Zionist as they now tend to be.

Russ Roberts: For sure.

Tyler Cowen: So, there is actual pressure where everyone has to be in the Riker-esque winning coalition and things like monopoly power over kosher certification--whatever it's going to be--but you have to give them something. Is that an accurate way of thinking about the Israeli political dilemma?

Russ Roberts: Well, it's not accurate. Might be useful.

Tyler Cowen: Is it useful?

Russ Roberts: I've never heard that quite that way. By the way, I think many of the--there's a wide range of views about what the role the state should be in the country and whether the government should be more sympathetic or less sympathetic to the religious currents here. Jerusalem tends to be a more, quote, "religious" city than Tel Aviv, but there are plenty of Orthodox people and religious people in Tel Aviv. And, there's plenty of non-observant people here in Jerusalem. They tend to have different rules about how Sabbath is kept, in terms of public services; and cultural norms also, of course, play a role.

But, I don't--I don't like that idea. As a Jew, I don't like that idea. As a religious person I don't like the idea that there's this implicit bargain that somehow the ultra Orthodox are carrying the water, the ballast--I don't know what you would call it--anchoring the Jewishness of the country.

It's not even--I don't think it's an issue for most Israelis to think about it that way. I don't think it would come natural.

I think that's definitely Riker-esque, a reference to William Riker, who I got to be a colleague of for about five years at the University of Rochester. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. Very insightful and an incredible twinkle in his eye. His work-- I think you've probably read it, Tyler. He was a applying a lot of economics tools in his day, long before other folks. He's kind of, I think, forgotten among our colleagues, but I like him a lot.


Tyler Cowen: Does living in Israel and being a citizen there make you more or less utilitarian in your moral philosophy?

Russ Roberts: Why would it? Curious. Do you have something in mind?

Tyler Cowen: Well, for instance, the Israeli policies toward hostages--as I understand them, which is imperfectly. But, from what I can tell I admire these views: the notion that if someone takes hostages, you simply have to look at the longer-term calculation and you can't cave to every demand. You need to play it quite tough. That seems to be--

Russ Roberts: Is that utilitarian or non-utilitarian?

Tyler Cowen: From my point of view, it's utilitarian. But, I'm asking you. I'm not insisting you take my point of view. Living thing in Israel: has it made you more or less utilitarian?

Russ Roberts: I'm not much of a utilitarian. I think all of us have some utilitarian impulses. There's certain cases where it's overwhelmingly clear that [inaudible 00:42:56] what--there are too many people who benefit from something or the size of it so large.

But, I think in most of the interesting cases, I think our profession has been so damaged, overall--by our profession, I mean economics--by the Benthamite calculus. I went back and read--'went back': I hadn't read it before I went and read Bentham in the last year. Have you read any Bentham?

Tyler Cowen: Of course. I'm a big Bentham fan, though I'm not, at all, a pure utilitarian, but even on issues such as gay rights or animal welfare or monetary theory or usery laws or tariffs, he's a fantastic thinker and economist. Penal reform.

Russ Roberts: How about the designated hitter [DH]? I mean, you're showing his incredible breadth.

Tyler Cowen: I don't think Bentham wrote about the designated hitter.

Russ Roberts: No. I don't think so.

Tyler Cowen: I disliked it in baseball, but that's maybe a topic for another podcast.

Russ Roberts: It is. But I have to ask: Do you still dislike it? You still anti-DH?

Tyler Cowen: I've become neutral, only in the sense that I've stopped caring about baseball. So, I would be anti-DH.

Russ Roberts: Why have you stopped caring about baseball? You haven't moved to Israel. What's the story?

Tyler Cowen: I've moved other places and it's too time consuming. It's hard to watch in chunks. I think it's a less efficient game than it used to be.

Russ Roberts: They've tried to speed it up. They've tried some ways to speed it up. It's really not the--it's not just the total time. It's everything, right? It's not a game made for the TikTok generation, for sure. I don't mean to imply that you're a TikTok person.

Tyler Cowen: Or even the YouTube generation, right?

Russ Roberts: Exactly. But, going back to Bentham, he doesn't--I haven't read a lot Bentham, but I'm surprised at how little he has to say. He gives you this overarching theory that we can take all of our pains and pleasures. So, it's very important to emphasize this, and it's--the pleasures aren't just physical pleasures. It's not just about gluttony or animal drives. He knows--he understands pride and he understands satisfactions and more ethereal and other kinds.

But, he gets into a problem, which is that, after a while when you start adding them all up, you can't and add them up anymore. They can't really be quantified. And, he was--as far, as I understand, and I'd be curious to your take on this--he never could solve that problem. He was constantly hope--we try to solve it as economists through money. Not literally money, but by putting a monetary value.

So, I'm going to--in the next five minutes, Tyler, and I'm going to say something embarrassing about your past, that I've discovered. And, I could ask you--it's just an example, Tyler. I don't really know anything about--I can't imagine there's anything embarrassing.

But, suppose I knew something about you and I said, 'You know, Tyler,' before the show I said, 'If you don't,'--I'm thinking of saying this--'How much would you pay me not to say it?' And, I'm not going to collect the bribe. So I'm blackmailing you in that story.

And, the way economists use the utilitarian framework is: Everything is a form of that calculus.

So, the view of the Grand Canyon, is that a monetary transaction? Of course not. But, we can ask the question: how much would you pay to be able to continue to see the Grand Canyon for the rest of your life? How much would you pay for your children to be able to see it?

And, that way I can trade that off, in theory, against other things and create a scale.

And, the problem with that scale, of course, as every good economist know and many bad ones don't, is that the scale depends on how much money you have. It's not a real scale of pleasure and pain. It's a scale for me.

So, my ability, then, to compare my costs and benefits to yours is, I think, zero.

But, as economists, we don't like that. We want to aggregate. We want to be able to say, 'This is a good policy because the net gains are positive,' or, 'This is a bad policy, the net gains are negative.' Do you agree with that? I think it's horrible.

Tyler Cowen: I would put it this way: Insofar as we can aggregate, and to make a choice, a policy choice, you have to aggregate in some manner, but I think we aggregate by making moral judgments about different kinds of wellbeing. And, in this sense, utilitarianism is parasitic on non-utilitarian moral theories about which pleasures and pains we count and for how much, and even how we understand what pleasure is. There's not a simple physiological definition as a unidimensional measurable variable.

So, it's all, to me, parasitic on pluralistic moral value theory. Which makes me not a Benthamite. And I think Mill [John Stuart Mill?--Econlib Ed.] understood this about Bentham. Bentham's utilitarianism is the weakest part of his philosophy. But I think he's a wonderful thinker. And, if you read more of him, you'd be very impressed.

Russ Roberts: Okay. I'm going to let you create a reading list for me. Not a very long one, Tyler, though. Give me 25 pages to start with that I may have missed.


Russ Roberts: I want to just go back to that for a second, if I could. And, since it's my program.

Tyler Cowen: Sure.

Russ Roberts: Well, it's not really. It's ours, today. I'm semi-host today.

But I want to ask you this: When I think about marriage--my advisor was Gary Becker, his theories of marriage, his mathematical models of marriage. Do you think it's a reasonable thought to compare two people as potential mates for yourself, oneself?

In other words, if you marry--let's suppose a person is considering two different spouses and you choose one and they're willing to marry you. And, as economists we say, 'Well, there's revealed preference. You picked the one you thought was better for you.'

How would you begin to conceptualize what 'better' means in that context? And, I think the risk--and I think that the easy way to think about it is more fun. Fun, broadly defined, meaning: day-to-day life will be better with this person than the other person. That's my expectation.

And, I think that's a bizarro--and the more and more I've thought about this--I'm happily married, but this book I'm writing next called Wild Problems is about these kind of challenges. Is it really a meaningful statement, in the sense that there are so many different aspects of marriage and life and all kinds of choices are made like this, that aren't about just what it's like to be around them? It includes things like pride; it includes things like sense of purpose, includes things like meaning.

You know, when I take a job, obviously I don't take the job that pays the most, necessarily. I take the job that I think will be the best, meaning a mix of non-monetary and monetary benefit.

There's a really a meaningful statement, if one job gives me a huge amount of pride and the other I'm kind of embarrassed about. And how do I--do I really think I can trade those off and put a number on those? Ultimately, a lot of the Benthamite calculus, to me, is about this under this idea that we could put a scaler, a single number, after we've aggregated everything up. And I think that's kind of a fool's game.

Tyler Cowen: Here's how I would put that tension. With so many choices, including having kids, you're choosing what kind of person do you want to be. Which is fine--

Russ Roberts: Exactly.

Tyler Cowen: identity. But, once you have two different possible persons you could be, two or more, which of those gets to do the ordinal choosing? That's indeterminate.

And, that's another reason why I think pure utilitarianism, whether of the cardinal or ordinal variety, is self-undercutting. It needs to pull in values from outside of the utility itself.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, and that's the--we talked about this on the program with L.A. Paul, talking about the vampire problem. Right? Before you are a vampire, it looks pretty grotesque. After you are a vampire, it's fantastic.

And, what I'm suggesting in my new book is that, 'Well, it might be fantastic.' And so, her conclusion is the rationale is ill-defined. Mine is, 'Yeah, but I don't want to be a vampire. It's kind of gross.' I don't care how fantastic I think it's going to be. And, it might be--you get to live forever, I think, if you play your cards right.

I just think we bring in other, as you say, value systems into that calculus, which makes it--I like that phrase, undercuts it.


Tyler Cowen: I have a very easy question for you now.

Russ Roberts: Okay.

Tyler Cowen: If there is a conflict between the ethnic religious identity of Israel and the democratic nature of Israel, what philosophic standard do you apply to resolve that conflict? Easiest question of the hour, right?

Russ Roberts: Yeah. You just flip a coin, I think.

I talk about that in the book, also, by the way. There's a beautiful poem by Piet Hein where he says--and I've heard other people say this--'You flip the coin so that you'll know what to root for. And, that tells you what you really want.' Piet Hein was a great science-thinker, mathematician. So, here's this guy saying, 'Oh yeah, flip the coin so you can find out what your gut is really hoping for and use that to make the decision.' And I read about--that's part of what I'm interested in this book about.

But, I want to think about--I think there's a--it's a really interesting tension that you're identifying, especially for a religious person. I don't want to live in a theocracy, Jewish or otherwise. I'm a big believer in competition to make the world a better place--under some constraints, of course. You know--Israel has--I don't know? was it 30 years ago?--30 years ago everybody knew that Israel was going to struggle to stay a Jewish state because birth rates were low among the Jewish population. They were high among the Arab Israeli population. And, soon Israel would be in this weird predicament of being a Jewish state where the Jews were a minority. People did not foresee the fall of the Soviet Union and the influx of millions of Russian Jews into Israel.

So, Israel really kind of avoided the existential threats that would require a very, very non-democratic response. But it's not a democratic place like America. Any Jew can come live here if they can prove that they're Jewish; but much harder, if you're not. I'm a big fan of open borders, but I do want there to be a Jewish state.

So, there's an inconsistency there, for me. That's somewhat troubling, but I'm happy to maintain the ethnic religious character that you referred to as a Jewish state.

I have to say that: it used to be when I was growing up, 'Oh, that's pleasant. It's nice to have a Jewish state.' In the last 10 years, the last five years, I've actually thought there really has to be a Jewish state. We're living in a world where antisemitism was unimaginable 20 years ago, is now increasingly common or not surprising. And, I think it's scary. The so-called Jewish question--what's the Jew's role in the world, when they're a citizen of another country?--it's back. And, hard to imagine. I'm shocked by it.

Are you surprised by that? I know it doesn't touch you the way it touches me or my children, but are you surprised that antisemitism is actually--people get killed for being Jews in the United States? It's weird. Didn't expect that, didn't think it could happen. Doesn't happen very often. I'm not paranoid about it, but it's surprising it happens at all.

Tyler Cowen: I would just say I have worked very hard over the last 20 years to try to root out recency bias and my expectations so fewer bad things surprise me than used to, is how I would put it. Because, if you look at broader history, right, it's a pretty common event, as are many other bad things. And, we suffer from recency bias. We think what we've seen over the 20 or 30 years where the centrality of our own growing up happened is somehow special, but it's not.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Tomorrow will be like yesterday--until it isn't.

Tyler Cowen: Yes.

Russ Roberts: I'm curious. I got way over-excited about Theranos and way over-excited about driverless cars. Is that the same phenomenon? Meaning, all the hype and excitement that this was different, that they'd solved this problem, that there was going to be this new world. I'd call more of an optimism bias. I wanted to believe that we'd solved, improved, transformed. Did you fall prey to that?

Tyler Cowen: Well, I think you were right to be excited about driverless vehicles. They're not going to revolutionize the world tomorrow, but I think that will happen within our lifetimes in a significant way. Theranos, I just wasn't paying that much attention to. I have become successively less skeptical about longevity research. I would say that. But, I think it's a long slow haul and a tough slog. So, I don't have a utopian vision there, but I think there's so much talent now, working on those problems, we'll make some progress on them. Those would be my two responses.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's hard to know. I was just surprised that--there were so many smart people and I just got swept up in the excitement of so many smart people who said, 'Within three years, we're going to have driverless cars; 35,000 lives saved because there won't be any deaths on the highway. True, there might be a few more pedestrians kill, but it's going to be a huge advantage for improvement in human life.' And, I think the technical problems there turned out to be quite a bit more daunting.

And, I think a different kind of bias is we just sort of assume that technology and focus will solve anything. And, often it does amazing. Amazing. Getting a vaccine in a weekend--that was a great moment of human achievement. But, so many things turn out to be harder.


Tyler Cowen: Let me ask you another super-easy question. Let's say we think that under current circumstances, a two-state solution would not lead to security either for Israel or for the resulting Palestinian state. Many people believe that. Let's say also, as I think you believe, that a one-state solution where just everyone votes would not lead to security for a current vision of Israel or even a modified version of it. And, let's say also that the current reliance of the Palestinian territories on the State of Israel for protection, security, intelligence, water, many important features of life--

Russ Roberts: Electricity, yeah--

Tyler Cowen: prevent those governing bodies from ever attaining sufficient autonomy to be a credible peace partner, guaranteer of its own security, and so on. From that point of view, what do we do? So, we're not utilitarians, right? We're thinking about what's right and wrong. What's the right thing to do?

Russ Roberts: I'm going to use an expression from the Talmud--to answer something on one foot--because you can't stand on one foot for very long. So, it just means--some people, it means you got 30 seconds. There's some baseball players who could probably stand on one foot for an hour or two. But, it usually means--so you want me to answer on one foot? And, of course, there's no answer. I mentioned Micah Goodman a minute ago, for his book The Wondering Jew. His other fascinating book is called Catch 67, which explores the contradictions and inconsistencies with different world views toward the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in an incredibly thoughtful way. I recommend that book. It's the best book you can read about what's going on here politically and intellectually and emotionally. It's a phenomenal book.

Part of his insight is: it's wrong to look for a solution. If I remember the book correctly. I read it quickly. But, you know: think about ways to live with it. Think about ways to make life better. Think about ways to move toward a improvement rather than fixing it. And, I think the American foreign policy establishment has spent the last decades just trying to, quote, "fix it." And, it may not be fixable. It's hard to admit that as a, quote, "rational person." It's hard to admit it as a person who lives here.

By the way, I should just mention people have written me in the last month saying, 'Is it scary here? Would you be afraid to raise your children there if you had young children?' It's an incredible place to raise children. Children here run free without fear. They play in a way that American children used to be allowed to play. I played that way growing up. It's still true here. There's very little crime on the streets, very little street crime, very little theft, very little burglary, and so on. But, there is threat of terrorism. So, you're much more likely to get stabbed in Jerusalem than you are in New York City. But, of course it's not common, thank God, at least not right now. But, it's serious. And, then you got Iran; and as I alluded to earlier, it's a tough neighborhood.

So, I think it behooves--if I may use the word that's out of fashion--it behooves us all to think about ways to both reduce the security threat to Israel and to improve the lives of the people who, of course, in the West Bank and Gaza and elsewhere who--they're not very good democracies, even though sometimes there are elections. I don't necessarily believe that the person on the street there is being--I don't know what their attitudes are. They can't give an honest answer out of fear. So, I wouldn't rely on survey data. I think there's certainly a lot of people in those parts of the world, our neighbors here, our cousins, who just want to lead a normal life and have a better life for their children like most people aspire to.

So, how do you improve that? I would love to have more commercial interaction. Although, I agree with you that trade is not a panacea. Or does that mean it is a panacea? I can't remember. I have trouble with that word. But, I think there used to be more commercial interaction between the Palestinian population and Israel, because it was more peaceful. And, now that the threat of terrorism is there, Israel has walled off it's borders to those neighborhoods in those parts of the world--Gaza--because it's scary. And that's a tragedy.

And, they live horribly there. It's a very tough place to live, Gaza. Egypt's not very nice to them either, by the way. They have closed the border with Egypt.

So, I think the challenge is to find ways--I don't think it's--the real problem right now is that Israel doesn't have a negotiating partner who thinks that Israel has a right to exist. Hamas doesn't recognize Israel's right to exist. It's hard to imagine a two-state solution with that.

So, how do you improve things along the way? I think you look for ways to do some commercial interaction.

I think the other thing is, reminds me a little bit of--I'll say it this way. This is the Middle East. There are cultural norms here that are not the same as in America. I think a lot of Americans have no understanding of that. Certainly, American Jews don't. I don't think American negotiators understand it so well, probably. The role that pride, face, dignity plays, as opposed to, say, quote, "narrow self-interest," narrowly defined. I think it's much greater for those other intangible things.

Personally, I'd like to see Israel try a different kind of move toward normalcy. But, I also understand that I'm naive and have only lived here six months and have very little thoughtful to say about that, that I would want anyone to pay attention to, because it's a different neighborhood than where I came from in Maryland. And, it's not easily understood. And, what might be seen as a generous gesture in Maryland might be seen differently here and vice versa. Something that's harsh in Maryland might be seen very differently here. Israelis have their own cultural baggage, not just that they're part of this Middle Eastern culture that they share to some extent with their neighbors: Israelis are very proud of their self-reliance.

I'll tell you a story. I once--again, I've only been here six months, but this is an old story. It tells you something. I'm flying out of JFK [John F. Kennedy Airport]. I have to get to Israel to visit one of my kids who's studying here for the year. There's a special program for the parents and small window for me to get here in time to enjoy the program with my son. And, JFK is--every flight is canceled. It's snowing. Just this relentless, hour after hour, blanketing the city. And, I leave Midtown Manhattan to go to JFK. And my flight on El Al, the Israeli airline, is still not canceled somehow. But, the cab can't go faster than 20 miles an hour. There's no one the road. It's like--the cab's the only car on the road. It takes us about 45 minutes or an hour to get to JFK at 20 miles an hour.

And, I get to the desk to check my bags and they ask me the security questions, which El Al does differently than anybody else. And, they take my bag! And I get to the front desk to get my boarding pass and they say, 'Can I help you?' I said, 'Yeah, I'm on flight such-and-such.' And, I said, 'We're not leaving tonight, are we? We're not really going to fly in this. I mean, this flight's going to be canceled.' I mean, I'm two hours early, right? And still it's going to keep snowing the whole time.

And, she looks at me and she says, 'You know, our pilots, they're all from the Israeli Air Force. And, the rule here is it's the pilot's call. They can decide they're uncomfortable flying and cancel flight any time.' She said, 'As long as the airport's open, we're going to fly. Because those pilots, they're going to fly. They're confident that they can fly through that storm.'

And, there's something beautiful about that. Something scary. I was really excited because I wanted to get to see my son. But, I was thinking, 'Mmmm--I don't know if that's always my mentality.'

That's the Israeli mentality: 'We'll get it done. We'll take care of it. It'll work out.' And, it's a pretty--we're joking a lot--not joking--but we're talking around these issues of bluntness and this culture here, but there's a vitality and national pride here that's so missing in America these days.


Russ Roberts: And, I'm very worried about the future of America. It's a different set of worries here, but they're not bad worries relative to what America's dealing with, it feels like. Are you optimistic about the future of America, as a country?

Tyler Cowen: I would put it this way: I'm increasing optimistic about economic issues, technological issues, and even American democracy, contrary to most people. But, I am increasingly worried about the possible collapse of geopolitical stability, in places such as Taiwan, Ukraine, parts of Africa. So, I'm not sure if I'm optimistic or pessimistic as a whole. I'm relatively optimistic about North America compared to the rest of the world, for sure--

Russ Roberts: Hmm. Yes, you are. Wow--

Tyler Cowen: Because it's geopolitically secure, right?

Russ Roberts: You mean because it can't be invaded. It can't--

Tyler Cowen: Not readily--

Russ Roberts: It's harder to invade. Yeah.

Tyler Cowen: It has enough of its own resources. Right? If we were cut off we would, in different ways, manage.

Russ Roberts: Of course, we could destroy ourselves from within. I'm now putting my American passport--I'm still an American citizen, also--with the way: we could destroy ourselves from within. Are you worried about that?

Tyler Cowen: I always are you short the market? And, they never say, 'Yes.' There's a lot of hemming and hawing, but I think it's become a kind of protective fallacement to over-worry about American democracy, because people feel angst about the content of what it's producing--which, a lot of that I would agree with. But, I think it will continue. And, American democracy has looked and sounded ugly for most of its history, getting back to recency bias--

Russ Roberts: Great example--

Tyler Cowen: And, maybe it sounded better in the 1980s and 1990s, but for American democracy to be lunacy is in fact part of our history.


Tyler Cowen: Let me close with two final questions. One is super-easy. The other is very hard. The easy question--

Russ Roberts: Can I have the easy one first?

Tyler Cowen: Sure.

Russ Roberts: And, maybe we'll run out of time.

Tyler Cowen: It seems to me Israel faces a pending, or even current, shortage of unskilled labor; and is also committed to the idea of being a Jewish state. And, countries like Switzerland that I never thought would take in a lot of outsiders have done so, because it makes economic sense. So, how will Israel address this question? That's the easy one.

Russ Roberts: That's the easy one. Oh, great. Oh, no!

Tyler Cowen: Is everything going to be robots and driverless cars? But you don't believe in those anymore. So, who does all the work?

Russ Roberts: I think robots are pretty powerful. But, yeah: we're not going to have driverless cars for a while. We're going to still have drivers.

You know, I think that--again, I'm a newcomer. There's a lot of debate here that I've not been paying close attention to before I arrived about immigrants from other countries. There's a lot of people here from Asia who do some of the jobs that Israelis don't want to do at market wages here. And, there's people from Eritrea and other places. And, it's really a national identity issue--right?--that the Israeli people will work out through their really complicated, and not so perhaps robust democracy. Pretty robust. It's 70 years now which is pretty amazing. Heading towards 75.

But, I think it's a bit of a fallacy. I know you don't subscribe to it but a lot of people do, that: 'Well, if, if we don't import workers to do those jobs, no one will do them.' And, that's not true. What'll happen is, if you have something of a market economy, the wages rise. And they become more attractive to the native population. Immigrants aren't needed. And, some of the things, if the prices rise so much, they won't be done anymore. People won't want them at those higher prices it would take to pay for those services.

So, I don't think it's a--there's a temptation always to look for the efficient solution, the one that's financially wise, but there are other aspects. And, I think--you know, Brexit and other decisions that populations are making in the modern world are a view that there are things more important than money. And I don't think that's ever going to change. I think, as I've said before: A good economist understands that; a bad economist focuses on it.

I mean, episode--I don't know when it's coming out--it might come out before this. I think it's now coming out. I can't remember. I think it's before this, with Megan McArdle on Roger Scruton's book, Where We Are, which is about the role that place plays in our emotional wellbeing and in our heart and our decision-making. And, I think those things are really important; and people care a lot about them. Especially here, in Israel. Their connection to the land, their connection to their country, their sense of identity that we alluded to earlier that I think is extremely important here: So, why not let Israel make the decision? They might be willing to pay a price. Israelis might be willing to pay a higher price for a bunch of stuff to have it done by Israeli sources or not get done at all.

America's got that same issue. Right? It's the same challenge. A lot of people like the idea of inexpensive food. Fruit and vegetables picked by inexpensive labor. Home repairs done by inexpensive labor. All immigrant, often illegal, perhaps. And, a lot of people like that. A lot of people like what comes with that, which is: more interesting life, more interesting types of people. But, some people don't like it. And, the fact that they're going to pay a higher price for some things that doesn't surprise me, that they're willing to make that trade-off.

Tyler Cowen: Okay. And, here's the hard question, and it's hard because you actually have to solve it. In your new job, what is your next task?

Russ Roberts: Oh. Well, that's an easy question, Tyler.

Tyler Cowen: But, you have to do it. That's much harder than the others.

Russ Roberts: Oh. I don't have to do it by myself. And, I don't have to pretend I understand something I don't understand, like preventing warfare among people who've been fighting for a long time, tragically.

The thing I really have to do is that in, about one hour, we have our first gala dinner here of alumni, which we haven't had because of COVID. It's a amazing thing right now in Israel, right? This is December, 2021. We've closed our borders to the United States, which means that my youngest son can't come visit us for winter break like he planned to. A lot of people can't come to their kids, their grandchildren's life-cycle events. And, until I'd say about a month ago, when omicron was just a glint in somebody's eye--or throat--people here were living a totally normal life. I mean, it's just totally normal.

We have these mask mandates, which--on the buses, you're supposed to wear a mask. Even the driver is not wearing his mask. Excuse me, they're all wearing it. Nobody is wearing it over their nose and mouth. Very few. The older people are, generally, but the younger people either wearing it under their chin, maybe a little over their mouth, but not their nose.

And, I think with omicron, the level of anxiety has risen here, some. I assume it's risen there where you are as well. But, we've got a gala dinner tonight and, and, and there's going to be 125 alums at this place. We've only had five years of graduates. So, that's the first thing I'm doing. But that's not really your question.

What am I doing that I can share that's not too secretive or important? I'll tell you another thing we're doing, which is glorious. Leon Kass is our new Dean of Faculty.

Tyler Cowen: Right.

Russ Roberts: And he's convened a--he's 82. Taught the Great Books at the University of Chicago and St. John's for over three decades, often with his wife, Amy--who has passed on, but who was an incredible teacher, also. And, Leon is just an incredible visionary, educationally. And, one of the thrills of this job is sitting in on the Faculty Colloquium, which he started; and listening to my colleagues, my faculty members--I like saying 'my'-- our faculty members talk about a text that they love. And, we have a faculty member, Assaf Inbari. He's a great Israeli novelist. At least I hope so. I can't read his books--they're in Hebrew and they haven't been translated yet. But, they're popular, I think, among the right people.

And, anyway, he taught a class last--a week and a half ago. And he chose a poem by Yeates. And, the poem was "After a Long Silence." And, I'm a Yeates fan. I love Yeates. And, I picked up this poem and I looked at it and I thought, 'I have no idea what this poem is about.' It's trouble. And, then I read again before the colloquium, get anything out of it again. And, for 90 minutes we studied it with other faculty members from all different departments. And, I got some light. A lot of light, actually. It's a beautiful poem. It doesn't have much rhythm to it. The rhythm is disjointed. There's some lines that are iambic pentameter; some aren't. And, Assaf said, 'This is Yeates. Don't you think he did that on purpose? You don't like the rhythm of the poem? Maybe you ought to think about whether this is part of the poem.' So, it was an amazing, glorious experience.

That's that's my ˆfavorite thing about working here--that, and going to choir practice with the students here and pretending I can sing. And I'm looking forward to seeing them tonight. It's kind of a cheap ducking of your question, but it's the best I can do, I think.

Tyler Cowen: Russ Roberts, thank you very much.

Russ Roberts: Thank you, Tyler.