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Tyler Cowen's appetite for ethnic food -- and answers about his life

Behavioral economist Tyler Cowen eats dinner at Eyo restaurant in Falls Church.
Behavioral economist Tyler Cowen eats dinner at Eyo restaurant in Falls Church. (Evy Mages - For The Washington Post)

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By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2010

Tyler Cowen -- economist of daily life, reader of five books a day, polymath blogger, food explorer -- was zipping through his inbox one day when an e-mail confused him.

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Cowen recognized the sender's name: Kathleen Fasanella, a devoted reader of Cowen's blog, Marginal Revolution, which features a daily discussion of head-scratchers such as "Why isn't there marketing for broccoli?" Fasanella had one quick question for the blogger: Did you ever consider whether you might be autistic?

Fasanella, a clothing patternmaker who once took a two-week vacation to read at the Library of Congress and is herself autistic, was responding to a Cowen post that mentioned autism. She thought, "Geez, Tyler, um, have you ever looked in a mirror?"

Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, can rattle off an astonishing amount of information on nearly any topic. He holds in his mind deep reservoirs of arcane details, "Rain Man" stuff: on economics, literature, classical music, cuisine. He maintains long lists. He has specific rules and rituals -- for everything.

"He had to be autistic," Fasanella said. "It made total sense."

It did not make total sense to Cowen. Looking back at the moment, Cowen writes that he was an "upper-middle-class white male who all his life felt like he belonged to the dominant group in American society. Suddenly I was faced with the suggestion that I could be part of a minority, and a very beleaguered minority at that."

He was insulted. No, not autistic, he told Fasanella.

So then, what was he?

Man on a quest

Cowen has catalogued too many rules to tally about how the world works, but one is this: Nobody is ever exactly on time. You choose early. You choose late. On time? Impossible, a fool's game. When a cab dropped him off recently for a talk to a student libertarian group at George Washington University, Cowen was 17 minutes early. In Cowen's canon, early is preferred: E-books and iPads have lowered the cost of waiting, offering time to read.

But there would be no reading here. The room was already packed, with members of the group as well as non-students who learned of Cowen's appearance on Marginal Revolution.

The instant Cowen walked in, a young man cornered him and said, "Where did you go for dinner?"

To those who don't follow Cowen, the question might seem peculiar, but his repute in economics is matched by his stature in the food world -- the second hit on Google for "Tyler Cowen" after Marginal Revolution is Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide, a long list of the best hidden gems in the region.


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