Deconstructing Cultural Codes

One of Tyler Cowen’s favorite questions he asks guests on his podcast, Conversations with Tyler, is What is your production function?”

In Economic terms, production function is a mathematical equation that explains how outputs relate to inputs. For example, the time it takes for the construction of high rise to finish and the number of builders working on the high rise could be explained with a production function. In true economist fashion, this is Cowen’s way of asking what factors contribute to their success.

In Deconstructing cultural codes, Cowen explains his production function:

I’ve long been convinced that matters of culture” are central for understanding economic growth, but I’m also painfully aware these theories tend to lack rigor and even trying to define culture can waste people’s time for hours, with no satisfactory resolution.

So I thought I would tackle this problem sideways. I figured the best way to understand culture was to try to understand or crack” as many cultural codes as possible. As many styles of art. As many kinds of music. As many complex novels, and complex classic books, and of course as many economic models as well. Religions, and religious books. Anthropological understandings. I also learned two languages in my adult years, German and Spanish (the former better than the latter). A bit later I realized that figuring out how an economic sector works — if only partially — was really not so different from cracking these other cultural codes. For instance, once I spent three days on a boat (as keynote speaker), exclusively with people from a particular segment of the shipping trade. It was like entering a whole new world and every moment of it was fascinating.

Eventually it seemed to me that problems of management were themselves a kind of cultural code, each one different of course.

And travel was the most potent form of this challenge, every new place a new culture to be unraveled and partially understood, and how much time was there to do that anyway?

It is very time-consuming — years-consuming — to invest in this skill of culture code cracking. But I have found it highly useful, most of all for various practical ventures and also for dealing with people, and for trying to understand diverse points of view and also for trying to pass intellectual Turing tests.

I am not recommending this you at any particular margin, or at the margin I have invested in. But if you ask me about the Tyler Cowen production function, every now and then I will tell you.
September 8, 2021

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