Lots of readers of this blog will be regular readers of Tyler Cowen. I’m not, but that’s just my taste. He often has interesting things to say and there are just too many such people in the blogosphere so he’s not on my feedreader. Anyway, Tyler Cowen is often a good read and a thoughtful guy. When I was killing some time in an international airport last year I came across a hardback copy of the newly released Create your own economy: the path to prosperity in a disordered world by the said T Cowen.
Well if there were a book to illustrate that old proverb that you can’t judge a book by its cover it’s this one. In fact the cover is not just a cover, it’s a cover up! The book, as you may know if you’ve read it or about it elsewhere is Cowen’s paean to autism. If that surprises you it certainly surprised me. As I read on I figured it would broaden from his own ‘outing’ of himself as high functioning autistic or perhaps others would call it Aspergers Syndrome – into broader themes. But it never really does. In fact there is one mention of autism on the cover on the second of the four ‘shouts’ on the back cover (and nothing whatever on the front). That’s all the warning you get. I presume this isn’t Cowen’s fault. I presume the publisher cooked up the cover-up (making Cowen’s point about the stigmatisation of autism).
In one of the back cover ‘shouts’ the book promises to “weave Facebook, Zen Buddism, Sherlock Holmes and so much more into a compelling argument”. Well it certainly seemed intriguing so I bought the book. The ‘compelling argument’ that Cowen weaves is that all these things can be related in some way to autism or Aspergers. The internet generally is encouraging classification of all and sundry – classification being an autistic trait, Sherlock Holmes is autistic – a case which Cowen argues compellingly. Zen Buddhism gets a guernsey in there somehow, though it’s a while since I read that bit.
Anyway, Cowen makes a good case that autism is stigmatised and that that is 1) cruel and unfair to autistics and 2) stupid because high functioning autistics have contributed an unusual amount to human civilisation. I think he makes his point well. I have a few criticisms for what they’re worth.
- I don’t know if this book had its origins in an article, but this is one of those books that should have just been an article to elaborate and argue the thesis and perhaps some blog posts to expand examples. Unfortunately the panoply of examples didn’t really build a richer picture of his argument and so it palled as a book.
- Cowen’s call is ultimately one for balance between cognitive skills, which is unarguable. And good on him for having the courage of his convictions – and his cognitive style. But, perhaps as one might expect, in arguing the case for greater emphasis on what autistic approaches can bring to the world, he does not report to his readers that some people think that his own discipline is already too autistic. In fact there’s a whole movement started in France at the turn of the century calling for a “post autistic economics“. As Wikipedia observes the movement has “has been criticized for using the medical diagnosis, autism, as a derogatory expression.” Fair enough too, but the point being made is a serious one. In a book about the appropriate balance between different cognitive orientations, or ‘neurodiversity’ as Cowen pithily calls it, it’s a pity that Cowen couldn’t have discussed this possible weakness in contemporary economics.