Hub Dialogue

Solving ‘wild problems’: Author and economist Russ Roberts on how to tackle the biggest decisions you’ll face in life

Arielle Agnelli and Bryan Arvesu head to a photo shoot after being married during a Valentine's Day group wedding ceremony, Monday, Feb. 14, 2022, outside the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, Fla. Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo.

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Russ Roberts, the host of the weekly podcast EconTalk, about his thoughtful new book, Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us.

They discuss the limits of economics, how to approach the biggest decisions we face, and the importance of relationships to human flourishing.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Russ Roberts, the president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and the host of the weekly podcast EconTalk, which has released a new episode with big thinkers and writers every Monday morning since 2006. He’s also the author of several books, including his most recent, Wild problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us, which looks at the challenge of making life-shaping decisions, like getting married, or having children, or moving to Israel, when there’s little analytical evidence to help us.

Let me just say, as a longtime listener of EconTalk, Russ has had a profound effect on the way I think about virtually everything from economics to public policy to what constitutes the good life. It’s a tremendous honour to speak with him about the book, as well as other topics, including his own journey from being a hardcore economic utilitarian, to increasingly living in the mushy yet beautiful world of faith, love, and grace. 

Russ, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

RUSS ROBERTS: You’re very kind, Sean. Thank you for those kind words. Very gratifying. I appreciate it.

SEAN SPEER: What is a wild problem? And how does it differ from a tame problem?

RUSS ROBERTS: So, a wild problem is a problem where data and analytical techniques will not be helpful, and if anything they may mislead us. A tame problem would be how to get from Toronto to Rochester, New York, or even more interestingly maybe to Detroit, where there may be a few more choices. And there’s an algorithm, there’s a route, there’s a recipe. Some problems in life lend themselves to that approach: what to watch on a Saturday night, how to get from A to B. But it doesn’t try to tell you—there’s no app for whether you should go to B in the first place. Why did she go to Detroit? And that’s really the focus of my book: that there are certain problems where apps, data analysis, and algorithms are not so helpful. 

And in that situation, we’re very frustrated because we like certain data. We like the power that modern technology gives us using data and analytical techniques for decision-making. And when it doesn’t apply, I think what most people do is they say, “Well, I’ll just use the same techniques I’ve always used, it just won’t get me as close to the right answer maybe as I’d hoped, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.” I argue in the book that this is frequently a step in the wrong direction. I think great thinkers throughout history who I look at, people like Charles Darwin and others, recognized that in their own lives and acted accordingly.

SEAN SPEER: One of the simple yet profound insights in the book is something like the following: choices about wild problems tend to have dynamic outcomes. They change who we are, and they change our life trajectories. But our minds are kind of stuck in a static mode. We know what we know, and by definition, we don’t know what we can’t know. Do you want to talk a bit, Russ, about this tension between the limits of our ability to project forward and the necessarily dynamic ways in which the outcomes of wild problems manifest themselves?

RUSS ROBERTS: Yeah, as an economist, the way I was trained, and I think the way most people think about big life decisions when they’re trying to do them rationally, they sit in their armchair and they imagine their day-to-day life as say a parent if they haven’t had children before, or as a spouse if they haven’t been married, or in a particular career. And that’s a reasonable idea. The problem is we don’t have enough data to really do that thoughtfully, even in the day-to-day part. The part that I’ve focused on in the book, though, is that beyond the day-to-day there are certain aspects to these decisions that, as I argue in the subtitle, they define us. They determine who we are and who we could become. So, I can sit in my armchair, and I could imagine what it’s like to be a parent. 

I think of the example of a book that describes a young woman who wanted to figure out what was like to be a mom. So, she strapped a robot baby that weighed, I don’t know, 8-10 pounds around her midsection, and the robot baby would wake up on some kind of schedule or erratically and demand food or demand a diaper change. And that allegedly gave the would-be mom, the potential mom, a taste of parenthood. It’s a taste of the downside of parenting. There are worse downsides, but one is certainly one of the downsides of parenting day to day is the fact that children are pretty helpless without us. 

And we spend a lot of time getting them, keeping them alive, literally, and happy, and keeping them from crying and trying to help them go to sleep. That is probably not the most important aspect of being a parent. There are some upsides, by the way. That’s the first smile, the second smile, the third smile, when they walk, when they score a goal in soccer, when they hit a home run in baseball, when they score a touchdown in football, when they get a good mark on their paper in school. These are what I think people think of before—that’s what I would have thought of before I was a parent—about what the ups and downs of parenting are, the costs and benefits, the pros and cons. 

But of course, once you’ve had children you realize those are really small compared to the overarching effect on your sense of self. Having children changes who you are, it changes how you see yourself, it changes what gives you pleasure, it changes your whole life trajectory. Not just the fact that certain things are now unavailable and other things are available, but more the texture of your day-to-day life, and not just whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant. You know, a trivial example would be a minivan. Before you have children, you look at a minivan in horror, “Oh my gosh, I don’t want to drive that.” After you have a minivan after you have children, you think, “Can I get a bigger one? Can I get a box here, do you sell any tanks? I like my children to be safe.” So, that’s a trivial example, but I think one that is a little more relatable. 

I think for many decisions in life, these big life decisions that are of this nature, are about your anticipation of what day-to-day life will be like with them. The so-called pleasures and pains of utilitarianism really don’t capture what we really care about and what makes those decisions powerful and important. Part of it is simply to remind you to think about those things. That’s part of the goal of the book. And the other goal is to help you think about if these decisions define us, you might give some thought to who you might want to be when you get older, when you grow as you go through life. What would you like your definition to be? What would you like? What would you aspire to? What might you become? And these are questions outside the field of economics. Economists generally have nothing to say about them. But I think when we think about the life well lived they are at the centre.

SEAN SPEER: If every decision involving a wild problem changes us—that is if we become the accumulation of these choices—is there such a thing as a wrong decision? And is it even possible to disaggregate individual choices from who we become and the lives that we come to lead? Can we, in other words, Russ, really go back and say we made a mistake?

RUSS ROBERTS: Well, I argue in the book that mistake is the wrong word to think about. I think we use that word a lot. You know, an example would be: my parents were lawyers. I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer. I went to law school and hated it. Or went to law school, and I loved it, but when I got to practicing law I hated it. And I think a lot of people have trouble confronting the fact that their anticipated path is not the one that they turned out to experience. The word we often use is a mistake. I made a mistake. I thought I was gonna like being a lawyer, but I didn’t like it at all. I think it’s the wrong word to use. 

One of the metaphors I use in the book is the story of the person coming home late at night from a party, and they’ve lost their keys, and they’re searching under a streetlight, and someone comes along to help them and says, “Let me help you.” And another 10 minutes go by and they still can’t find the keys, and the helper finally says to the partygoer, “Are you sure you lost them here?” And the partygoer goes “Oh no, I don’t think I did, but the light is really good here.” I think a lot of times we’re drawn to where the light is. We’re drawn to where we have a feeling of control and certainty and we don’t like being in the darkness. We don’t like being in the shadows. And I think the opportunity that life affords to go into the shadows, which is the future.

The future is always in the dark, even for smaller decisions, but certainly for these big life decisions. Once you’ve made them you always look back on yourself when you were younger and think “Whoa, whoa, I didn’t know what I was getting into.” I think all of us can use in a way to be comfortable living a little more in the dark. One of the reasons we don’t like to go into the dark is that if it turns out we don’t like where we end up, and we have to confront what we decide looks like a mistake, we’re going to feel guilty, we’re going to be embarrassed. And I argue, it’s not a mistake, because you couldn’t know, you couldn’t anticipate. If you can anticipate what the consequences are and how it’s going to change you, in what sense could possibly be a mistake? That should free us somewhat at least to consider the opportunity to make that leap in the darkness and not feel bad that it didn’t turn out exactly the way we thought. Because guess what? It won’t. 

You know, I referenced I think in the back of the book, I mention it in the text as well, a lecture that Alain de Botton, the author and philosopher, has on the Internet called “You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” It’s a little bit of a tongue-in-cheek title because what does that mean you marry the wrong person? I don’t want to marry the wrong person. But of course, in some dimension, we all marry a person who’s not quite perfect for us. And that’s not settling. That’s reality.

You don’t want to spend your life looking for the best person, the best spouse. I even argue in the book that it’s not even that well-defined. I don’t even know what exactly it means. You have so many characteristics of another human being and what you want the best one? What are you going to do? Add them all up? You’re going to weigh them up in certain ways, intelligence, kindness, looks, and chemistry? That’s an illusion. You gotta make a leap and you’re gonna find someone, if you’re lucky, to grow older with. If you’re really lucky, you can find someone to grow old with. Not quite the same thing. And you’re on a journey together. You’re not going to be able to figure that out in advance. If it turns out differently than you thought it will, it’s not a mistake. Not a mistake. But sometimes you get divorced, and that’s okay, too. You thought the person was going to be a good match for you and vice versa. It turns out it’s not true. It’s human. It’s the reality of life. You go around once. We have lots of imperfect information. It is very hard.

SEAN SPEER: In that vein, why Russ is happiness the wrong way to think about these questions? What’s wrong with happiness, and why is something like flourishing better?

RUSS ROBERTS: Happiness is a funny word. It means a lot of different things to different people. What I use it to mean in the book is the day-to-day pleasure or pain from various life choices. Having children does not particularly make you happy. It makes your life more meaningful and more purposeful if you’re lucky. Doesn’t happen for everyone, so it’s not a no-brainer for everyone. But you don’t have children, because the costs outweigh the benefits. I mean, the benefits outweigh the costs. That’s a Freudian slip because I think in a lot of ways the cost do outweigh the benefits. But most of us who have children, not all, but many of us who have children, wouldn’t change a thing, even though it brings much pain alongside the pleasure. 

It could be that there are more unhappy days as a parent than there are happy days. But happiness is not all there is to life. We search for other things. We search and care about belonging, we care about meaning, we care about purpose. We care about a shared journey, as I mentioned before, and children are one way that we do something rather extraordinary in this life. But I don’t recommend children and parenting for anybody who wants to be happy in the casual sense of that word. So, another way I think of it is happiness is overrated. You know, pleasure is normally construed as overrated. It’s nice, I like it. I’m big fan. Not a prude. But most of the things that really make my heart sing are more important than just momentary pleasures.

SEAN SPEER: You yourself had been forced to confront wild problems in recent years. Your decision to leave your home in America where you had family, professional prestige, comfort, etc., and move to Israel to assume a job as university president for which you had no direct experience, would meet any—

RUSS ROBERTS: Shhh, Sean, don’t tell them!

SEAN SPEER: —would meet any reasonable definition of a wild problem. If typical utilitarian thinking doesn’t apply here, help us understand your thought process. How did you eventually make the decision to go to Israel? And more importantly, Russ, in the relatively short time that you’ve been there, how have you changed? What are the dynamic effects of moving your family to a different country and culture, and taking up a new professional vocation altogether?

RUSS ROBERTS: That’s a great question. I’d been to Israel many times before I took this job as the president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, and I did do some armchair forecasting, of course. I don’t want to suggest you should didn’t try to imagine the day-to-day pleasures and pains. I mean, if they’re really horrific, as I say, in the book, I don’t think I’d have moved to Bulgaria to be part of an unusual college in Bulgaria. I knew it was going to be challenging in certain dimensions, but I really had no idea. And in particular, what I underappreciated was the challenge of moving to a different culture. And that’s despite having visited here, you know, a dozen times or more. It’s been a fascinating experience for me. 

I recently wrote about a very small example of that, where, you know, when you come to Israel and you go to a restaurant in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, the waiter shows up, the waiter takes your order. They bring you the food and you never see him again. They don’t come back and say, “How’s it going?” They don’t come back, “Would you like some more water?” They don’t come back to fill the water. They don’t even come back to give you the cheque in many restaurants. You have to find them, track them down, raise your hand or wave to pay. And the first time this happens, the first ten times that happens, you think, “Boy, the service here is horrible.” Having lived here a little over a year, I become a little more Israeli and I actually enjoy it. And the reason I enjoy it is that like many Israelis, I linger over dinner. People don’t linger so much in America. Special occasions, seeing an old friend. Sure. But here it’s common. People will eat a meal that takes an hour and a half, two hours. And they don’t want to be interrupted by the waiter pretending to be their friend. Israel’s very blunt. It’s a very straightforward culture. There’s not a lot of sugar coating. 

You know, like when I first moved to Israel, my Israeli friends that we made would complain about that when going to America, “Everybody’s always so fake. How are you? I’m fine. How are you?” And I thought, “What’s wrong with that? That’s civilized, it’s beautiful.” Now that I’ve been here a year and a half it doesn’t speak to me quite as much. I’m a little more Israeli. So, I’ve changed in that dimension. I’m sure I’ve changed in others as well. My job has changed me, and my job was much more challenging day to day than I could have anticipated. It’s fabulous. It’s exhilarating. The highs are much higher, the lows are much lower, there are fires to put out and crises to avert and victories to be won. You know, as we tried to make this place even better than it was before I got here, which is pretty fabulous. It’s an amazing, unusual college. It’s the only place in Israel with a core curriculum. So, to answer, those are some of the ways I have changed. 

To answer your question of how I made the decision, I really did see it as a calling, as something I felt I was supposed to do. Some people said, “Oh, yeah, you would have regretted it if you hadn’t done it.” Not really. I had been totally happy in my old job, which I loved, working for the Hoover Institution. I’m still working for the Hoover Institution, I just can’t spend as much time on their stuff as I used to. I would have been happy. I’m not a person who looks back with quote “regrets”, but I felt it was what I was meant to do. 

Over the last few years, if you’re an EconTalk listener you will know, I’ve become less interested in economics, more interested in philosophy, more interested in the life well lived, more interested in education. And here’s an institution that’s trying to use a very different model than the standard college model here in Israel or even in the United States. Small classes reading great books together and what I call fearless open inquiry. Where can you do that? Only about a handful of places in the world, tragically. 

And so, this just seemed like it would speak to me and to have an impact on a country, Israel, that I love, and to be able to help produce a generation of thoughtful leaders who’ve had a college education that I consider a real education rather than the acquisition of a credential. How could I not do it? So, I didn’t do it because that was gonna be fun. It’s not much fun, but it’s rewarding, and it’s deeply gratifying. My life has a more feeling of purpose than it had before. And Jerusalem is an incredible city. We’re doing okay. 

SEAN SPEER: You anticipated my next question, Russ. A core element of your book reflects something that, as you say, listeners of your podcast would be familiar with which is the growing distance between you and your past economics training. What have you come to conclude are the fundamental limits of economics as a way to think about the world? And perhaps more importantly, why do you think, Russ, that you’ve come to this conclusion at this stage in your life?

RUSS ROBERTS: I’m gonna forget to answer that second part, probably, so you’ll remind me. But if you asked me about the limitations of economics, I love economics. I was trained at the University of Chicago, which, if anything, sees economics as a religion that can be applied to anything not just financial decisions or purchases or careers or the economy, the stock market, but rather all of life. A professor of mine, George Stigler said “There was only one social science, and we are its practitioners,” meaning economists, “because we can model in everything.” And most of my life, I felt that was true, most of my professional life. And I still think there’s some truth to it. It’s a very powerful toolkit, the economists’ toolkit. But at the heart of that toolkit is a couple of things, I think, that are limitations. One of which is that all pleasures are comparable. 

So, there’s some amount of pleasure you can give me for giving up a different kind of pleasure. My mom’s got a 90th birthday party coming up. It’ll be in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s a long way from Jerusalem. I’m gonna go and I’m gonna miss some things that are going to happen here. So, suppose I said to myself, “You know, it’s a lot of trouble to go to Memphis, and I’ll just stay here, it’ll be more fun.” Like, how much more fun would it have to be to not go to my mom’s 90th birthday party? And my answer is, there is no amount of fun. I should go to my mom’s birthday party. 

Now you could say, “Oh, but that’s fun in a different way. You’re getting fun from honouring your mother, doing the right thing.” And you could argue that, takes all the predictive power out of the economic model and certain dimensions, most of it. I just think it’s very useful that instead of thinking about it as it’s more fun to go to Memphis than not go, rather sometimes you do what you’re supposed to do, you do what you think is the right thing, the ethical thing. Sometimes you do it, because your values, your beliefs, they’re what guide you and should guide you. If you go on a case-by-case basis, you’re always gonna do the easy thing and you’ll regret it and look back on it with shame and embarrassment and regret. So, I’m going to the party. 

So, that’s one example of how I think economics—I mean, in economics you can build a model that says you should go to the party, but if you’re not careful, economists will argue that “Yes, there’s some amount of fun that would have been so much fun you wouldn’t have gone.” And I don’t think that’s the right way to think about it. Unless you want to say there was an honour my wife was receiving, in which case I might decide to stay here for that rather than go back to Memphis. It’s just two infinite values conflicting: honouring my wife and honouring my mother. What was the second part? Oh, as I have gotten older, what was the second part of? I’m older.

SEAN SPEER: Why your thinking about the utility of economics has evolved at this stage in your life?

RUSS ROBERTS: So, great question. So, I gave you one example of why I think economics has limitations. The other reason I have come to appreciate is that there are a bunch of really important parts of life that, this idea of trade-offs, which is at the heart of economics is very powerful, it’s not so useful. And that was why I just gave you an ethical commitment that is part of who you are. Economics really struggles to deal with belonging, it struggles to deal with dignity, it struggles to deal with shared journeys, shared activities with other people, like friendship and marriage. Yes, there are economic models of those issues. They’re a bit sterile in the hands of most economists. 

So, for me, in the last, I’d say, seven years, roughly somewhere around 2015 when the world changed, certainly in America where I was living at the time, issues that had been important were suddenly unimportant. Issues that have been ignored suddenly came to the forefront. So, all of a sudden, people didn’t care so much about the bread and butter, monetary and fiscal policy issues that economists specialize in. All of a sudden, what it meant to be an American, or Canadian, or an English person became at the front. What it meant to be part of a tribe, that sense of belonging. 

People were willing to make sacrifices for their tribe, economic sacrifices, financial sacrifices. You know, people will say, “Well, if there’s Brexit, if England leaves the European Union, you’re gonna lose GDP.” And some people said, “Well, you will, but I won’t. Because you’re living in the part of the country that benefits from that globalization.” But other people said, “Yeah, I will lose the GDP, but that’s it’s more important to me to keep what I think is important about being a person of this country.” 

The whole question of national narrative came to the forefront. Despair came to the forefront with people being left behind in a different way than in the past. Drug overdoses became suddenly a huge source of premature death in America. Some of those are economic related, economic activity that had left certain areas struggling. And economists would say, “But they’ll go to where the jobs are, they’ll migrate.” Why didn’t they? A lot of people didn’t because they wanted to be close to what they thought of as home. Again, I don’t think economists have a good model of how you feel about home. 

So, these sorts of fundamental values, suddenly or not suddenly, over the last five to 10 years became more interesting to me and economics has less to say about them. So, I found myself reading more philosophy, reading more about culture, and interviewing people on my show, on my podcast who are interested in those questions. And all of a sudden I found them much more interesting than say monetary policy. So, I’ve changed.

SEAN SPEER: Just in parentheses, Russ, that famous book of the early 2000s, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, it strikes me as a perfect encapsulation of the limits of economic utilitarian thinking. You know, the essential argument is that these people are voting against their economic interests, as if that’s all that ought to define their political and cultural preferences.

RUSS ROBERTS: So obviously, those people are irrational and that’s a violation of economics. Yeah. 

SEAN SPEER: The reason I asked about the stage in your life is because it’s a segue into my next question. One thing that struck me, Russ, is that most of the types of problems that you identify as wild ones, tend to be concentrated in a relatively short period in one’s life, roughly the period in one’s 20s and 30s, when you’re choosing a profession, choosing a partner, choosing where to live, possibly choosing to start a family and how big that family should be, etc, etc. 

If we go back to your own evolution with regards to economics, where wisdom and experience have changed you in terms of how you think about economics, which for a good part of your life, was really fundamental to how you thought about the world and even your identity, what should young people who may not have the benefits of wisdom and experience be doing to position themselves in a way that enables them to make these series of life-shaping decisions in a short period of time?

RUSS ROBERTS: Well, that’s a very, it’s a great observation. You’re the first person to make that observation about the timing of these kinds of decisions. And obviously, there are some decisions like this that run throughout your life. I use the example in the book of, you know, what kind of friend do you want to be? How much time do you want to spend on your friendships versus your career? Or your family and your career. These are problems that persist throughout your life. But a lot of these big decisions come early, and I think the easy answer for me is to tell the young people to go buy my book and then you’ll have a better life. And it could be true, and it’s cheap. It’s a bargain at twice the price. 

But I think there are certain appreciation issues that come with age. I’ve suggested that when you tell people who are younger than you, the lessons you wish you’d learned, they don’t often take out a notebook and start writing them down. Or even a phone and start taking notes on an app. They kind of go “Yeah yeah, yeah. Yeah, that old guy.” There are exceptions, but in general, we usually have to make our own mistakes and discover wisdom through experience. 

I think the deeper underlying point in the book is something I alluded to at one point when I point out that through most of human history, these decisions were not decisions. Nobody in 1530 said, “Should I get married? Or maybe I’ll live with a friend of mine, or should I have a child? Would it be bad for the environment?” Throughout most of human history, you got married if somebody would take you and you had children because that’s what you did, either for religious reasons or practical reasons. To say it was a no-brainer is to understate the amount of anxiety and time people devoted to those kinds of decisions. And similarly, a career that we’ve alluded to a little bit. Most of the time your career was what your parents did. If you’re a man, you did what your dad did. You got into the guild, or you were a farmer, like most people were at the time. And if you’re a woman, you stayed home and raised your kids and it was not a wild problem. There was no choice between the mix of authority, tradition, and religion. Life was very constrained compared to what it is now. 

So, we live in a glorious time with a lot of freedom. You can do whatever you want. The challenge is, we’re not so well equipped to deal with it. We are a little bit lost and a lot of people struggle with these decisions that they didn’t have to make before. I think norms will evolve and emerge on these questions going forward. But we live in a time I think that’s a little bit on the cusp between when these things were traditionally not to be worried about and to where now they’re like a huge focus of uncertainty and unease for younger people for precisely the reasons we were talking about. They’re highly concentrated in a particular time in your life. You don’t have a lot of experience in dealing with those kinds of decisions and the guardrails and constraints that used to make it not uneasy, no anxiety, are gone. So, you have to deal with it and it’s hard.

SEAN SPEER: In a related question, Russ, I’m also struck by how many wild problems tend to involve us as relational beings. If individuals are the main unit for how we tend to think about political economy, relationships are how we live out the biggest moments of our lives. Do you want to speak a bit about the role of relationships in wild problems in particular and your concept of human flourishing more generally? 

RUSS ROBERTS: That’s another really excellent observation, economics tends to see people as individuals, decision-makers looking for their own best choices. You know, the parody of that in marriage is, “Hey, if I don’t do my job today, and my wife doesn’t notice, I’ll get away with one.” You know, my advice to married people, young people getting married, is always don’t keep score. It’s hard not to do that, most of us keep score. We feel like we’re not getting a good deal. It’s a little bit disturbing to us. Love is supposed to overcome that. I think sometimes it does if you get married to the right person. But it’s certainly clear that you don’t want to see your marriage as the economists’ usual way of “what’s in it for me?”, as opposed to “what’s in it for us?” And what’s in it for us is not as easily modeled, so we tend not to be so good at it. And through most of human history, us, that relational thing you’re referring to, was the normal mode of interaction. 

We’re living in a world where increasingly it is about me because there is not much of us. People are much less willing to make a commitment to another person, they’re much less likely to be in a family, they’re much less likely to have children. So, they’re much more atomistic, more individual. In that world, I think the virtues of the more complicated world are underappreciated, but certainly in that world of individuals, you should be thinking about what’s in it for me until otherwise, till things are different. But you asked another point related to that, what was that?

SEAN SPEER: Just the importance of relationships in how you think about human flourishing?

RUSS ROBERTS: Yeah, I think we’re hardwired to think about me, and we’re not hardwired to think about us. A friend of mine’s father said, “Until you get married, you’re an idiot.” And I think there’s some truth to that. You learn a lot from having to interact with another person. One of my themes in a later chapter in the book is that if you see your friendships as transactional, whether it is your family relationships or your friends, you will live a thinner life, a less flourishing life than if you see yourself as being more part of an ensemble and being aware of what other people need and not just what you need. 

We live in funny times. There’s a certain honouring of making sure you get what’s due to you and what you’re entitled to, and you deserve to be happy. And the idea of honour, dignity, and obligation is not so in favour these days. And relations are about those things. Relations are about obligation, responsibility, and loyalty. I think those virtues are underappreciated in our times to some extent, and I try and do my little part to remind people that sometimes over a longer period of time, not day to day, but over a longer period of time, honouring obligations and responsibilities does lead to a life well lived and a deeper sense of satisfaction, at least over the longer overarching period of one’s life.

SEAN SPEER: In an EconTalk episode dedicated to the book, your friend, fellow economist, and frequent guest, Mike Munger stepped into the hosting role to interview you. At one point, he challenged you on the idea that most people think consciously about their life choices in terms of what you described as human flourishing. His basic point seemed to be that ordinary people, for lack of a better term, are just living their lives and aren’t thinking in philosophical terms. You broadly accepted his point. Maybe you were being agreeable, or maybe you agreed. 

I thought about your exchange for a while Russ. I even told my wife about it, and I think he’s wrong. While it’s true that most people aren’t thinking in terms of human flourishing, they instinctively understand what David Brooks has called the distinction between “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” The former being, by the way, the way we sort of puff up our professional resumes, the latter are what they say about us when we’re gone. I think in that sense for us, everyone, no matter their educational credentials, or occupation, or class confronts wild problems in ways that aren’t narrowly utilitarian. They understand that there are some things that are immeasurable, and yet, ultimately define us.

I don’t know if you want to respond. I don’t have a question so much as I wanted to defend the book and its idea against Munger’s pushback, which I think actually underestimates most people. 

RUSS ROBERTS: It could be. I think what I would say is, and I don’t remember what I said to Mike at the time, but what I would say now is that it’s hard to remember those things. That’s a common theme in my book is that a lot of the things that we think we should do, and that in the calm, quiet of the evening, realized we should do, are easy to forget. I use the example of going to a funeral. It’s really easy to convince yourself you shouldn’t go to funerals on short notice, tragically. Usually, you have a day to try to rearrange your life and you know, you’ve got responsibilities at work. You’re what, you’re just going to run out on those and go to a funeral? It’s not an immediate family member. It’s just your friend’s grandparent,  you’re going to go to that? And I think a lot of times, we skip those funerals, we skip opportunities to spend time with our children and we justify it by saying, “Yeah, I’ve got this big meeting tomorrow, I can’t miss it.” And I think the life well lived is challenging. 

I agree with you that we all realize somewhere in the back of our mind that it’s not unimportant,  those eulogy virtues. But we struggle. The immediate often gets our attention rather than the more profound. I think about the phrase, which I love, “Nobody on their deathbed wished they spent more time at the office.” That’s a telling comment. The fact that we all go, “Oh yeah,” is a way of saying I think we spent too much time at the office. I think that’s true of a lot of things. It’s hard. You need some principles, or religion, or other guidance to keep you focused on these things that matter a lot. I agree with you, everybody does recognize at some level that these are the things that are ultimately, fundamentally, profoundly important. And in any one decision, it’s often easy to forget it.

SEAN SPEER: Again, for Hub listeners who regularly listen to EconTalk, you’ll know that Russ had a great relationship with his father who sounds like a really wise man. If I may say so, your dad didn’t seem like a utilitarian. What did he think about your economics phase, if I can put it that way, and then how you subsequently came to evolve into someone with a thicker and more nuanced view about the world?

RUSS ROBERTS: l can probably spend half an hour or more on that. When I was fresh out of graduate school and totally devoted to economics as a tool for understanding the world, he was a little more skeptical than I was. And I thought, “You know, he doesn’t really understand the deep appreciation I have for economic theory.” Of course, what was really going on was I just made a four-year investment in graduate school and I was kind of conditioned to be more sympathetic than he was. And he had the advantage of being an outsider who could see things, some of the warts, that I would ignore or miss. He was not opposed to the economic way of thinking or economics in general but he certainly felt it was overconfident.

In that sense, in many areas, I’ve become more like my dad than I was when I was younger. It happens to many of us that we realize that our parents were right all along, even though we struggled to concede that at the time. He was not a utilitarian. He was thoughtful. It’s an interesting word. It’s not a word that’s easily quantified. So, in that sense, very consistent with this approach I’m taking where I’ve rebelled a little bit against overemphasis on quantification and measurement. Thoughtfulness is another underrated virtue. It’s about using wisdom in decisions. I thought a lot about this question. You’ll hear it on certain EconTalk episodes where someone will tell me, “Oh, yeah, just use my gut,” and you think, “Oh that’s not a very good strategy in life.” 

My book, by the way, is not about using your gut. It’s the fact that because you can’t use only your brain doesn’t mean you should use your gut. You should use a more thoughtful part of your brain, which is what I’m suggesting. But I think when people say they use their gut, what they really mean is, “I have accumulated a lot of experience and I use that when I make a decision in ways I don’t fully understand, and I just call that use of my gut.” My dad was somebody who was wise. My dad had that thoughtfulness about him. He read very widely, and I think, when you read widely, if you read thoughtfully, you can appreciate the complexity of various decisions and understand what’s at stake more effectively. At least that’s the idea. That’s the idea of education, anyway.

SEAN SPEER: My family and I are in the midst of grappling with a wild problem. We have to decide where we want to live and raise our family. But I won’t end the episode in something of a self-help discussion. Instead, let me ask—

RUSS ROBERTS: Free advice! Free advice! Come on, take a shot at it!

SEAN SPEER: Instead, let me ask a final question about EconTalk. When you set out to do the podcast, did you envision that it would have the longevity and reach that it has? And as a related question, how have you kept up the discipline and enthusiasm after so many years and so many episodes?

RUSS ROBERTS: Well, when I started I thought I’d try for a few weeks and see if I can do it. And although you were kind enough to say I’ve done an episode every Monday since 2006, not quite. In the early days, you know, I’ll do maybe once a month. Somewhere in 2006, I realized it’s got to kind of be every week. So, I guess it is since 2006, but it’s not since the first episode. That was the sort of mental asterisk I put to your comment. And I used to take off the end of the year to take off a week or two around the holiday season. And somewhere along the way I thought, “Well, I don’t need to do that. I’ll just do it every week, and I’ll release them in advance.” You didn’t ask me this but I think I’ll answer a slightly different question. 

So certainly, yes, when I started the project, I thought I would try it for a while. I couldn’t have imagined that I would do it for 16 years. But I think the more interesting thing that I couldn’t have imagined are two things. One is how the show would change. You know, when when I got started, people said, “Oh, he’s just going to interview an economist, you’ll run out of gas after six months.” And I thought, “Yeah, but I can interview him twice. Sometimes there’s more than one thing to say.” Then I realized a lot of people write about things that are related to economics. Then finally, I thought that it doesn’t have to be just the economist, I can interview historians, philosophers, business people doing interesting things, and so on.

So, I certainly never imagined how it would change in terms of focus. And as I mentioned earlier, my interests changed in the last five to six years, seven years to be moving away—I still interview economists, you know, but not every week, and nothing close to every week. The other way it changed I think is more interesting. When I first started the show, I was more of an advocate. I’d argue with my guests. I tried to convince them that I’m right, convince listeners of all the good arguments on my side for my type of philosophical views, policy views, political economy views. 

Somewhere along the line, I realized, one, most people don’t want to be a guest on a show where they get yelled at all the time. Two, they’d like to have more airtime than the host. Reasonable. And three, the main thing a lot of people got out of EconTalk as the years went on and wrote me was that it helped them learn how to have a civil conversation. And I thought, “You know, that’s pretty important, ” and it’s only gotten more important in the last 10 years. So, you know, people to write me and say, “How did you let that person get away with saying that? Why didn’t you yell at them?” And I’m thinking, “Well, I wanted to yell at them. And when I was younger, I would have yelled at them. But I think it’s better not to yell at them, in fact, for a hundred reasons. And I could start listing them.” But so, it’s made me, I think, a better person because I started at such a low level. I don’t want to say I’m not a saint, but I’ve certainly become, I think, a better conversationalist from being the host. 

And your last question was, how do I keep my interests up? I have learned so many things from being the host of EconTalk. It’s changed me in so many ways as a thinker. I would never have written my last two books, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life or this book Wild Problems. Wild Problems, I made a list, it’s on my website, russroberts.info, I made a list of all the podcasts that influenced my thinking about this book. It’s about twenty different people, different books I read, different authors I interviewed, but it’s just I feel fortunate to be able to do that as long as I get up in the morning curious about things and wanting to learn more about something I think I’ll still be the host of EconTalk, which after all, has a new subtitle “Conversations for the Curious,” which is really what the show is about. 

SEAN SPEER: Well, on behalf of your listeners all around the world, we’re grateful for what you do and grateful that you keep it up. And I’m grateful that you’ve joined us today at Hub Dialogues. The book is Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions that Define Us. Russ Roberts, thank you so much for joining me today.

RUSS ROBERTS: Thank you, Sean, it was a blast.

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