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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)

"We had a great dinner," Cowen said. "Thai X-ing," a 2 1/2 -table restaurant in the basement of the chef's home near Howard University. "Best Asian food in D.C.," Cowen once wrote. "Nothing nearby comes close."

(Like his not-on-time edict, Cowen also has rules about stories: He distrusts them, particularly ones like this profile. The writer is arranging facts to keep readers reading. "The more inspired the story makes me feel, very often the more nervous I get," he once said. He believes that nearly all stories follow seven templates: "monster, rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth." Asked during a dinner of Ethiopian raw beef what form this story would likely take, Cowen said: "Man on a quest." He was early. The reporter was late.)

The man on a quest -- for information, for understanding, for dogma, to find out what he is if he's not autistic -- is frumpy and bearded. At GW, he was dressed, typically, in black Dockers, gray shirt, rumpled sport coat. His tone usually makes him sound as if he is excitedly lecturing young children. And no matter how distrustful he is of them, he uses stories to make points.

In the lecture hall, Cowen stood before the audience -- no mike, no lectern -- and told a story about a recent speech that bored him (all authors' talks annoy him). So he wanted to try something fresh: Instead of people standing up to ask questions and signal how smart they are, he directed his audience to write their questions and pass them forward. "Writing out the questions should improve the quality and precision," he said. There were giggles, but people did as they were told. The first question was tricky:

"Is existence preferable to nonexistence?"

(Cowen, based on his reading of thousands of books, thinks stories trick readers because they are filtered: Writers "take a lot of information and they leave some of it out," he says. His answer to the existence question meandered across philosophy and the reasons one might commit suicide, but in this profile, that response will be filtered out and replaced with a simpler set of facts about Cowen's own existence. As Cowen noted about the media in a recent book, "The tendency is to fit all facts into the format of a story, usually with a memorable protagonist, even when the reality is more complex.")

Not a total nerd

Cowen is 48. He grew up in Hillsdale, N.J., an hour's drive from New York. His mother stayed home, and his father was president of the chamber of commerce. He has a younger brother (a cook) and an older sister (a grocery store manager). Holly Cowen recalls her brother acquiring vast quantities of information before he was 4. He read constantly, even at dinner, though not to the exclusion of playing sports. "He wasn't a total nerd," she says. "He was balanced."

Tyler Cowen recalls, "For a nerd, I was a good athlete." At 13, he began reading economics and philosophy books. "Both subjects at least pretended to be a way of making sense of the world," he says. He began to fashion his tenets about the world.

He is a libertarian and a fan of globalization: "A typical American yuppie drinks French wine, listens to Beethoven on a Japanese audio system, uses the Internet to buy Persian textiles from a dealer in London, watches Hollywood movies funded by foreign capital and filmed by European directors, and vacations in Bali; an upper-middle-class Japanese may do much the same."

He has systematic solutions for suburban problems, such as getting kids to do dishes: "If you tell your daughter she is obliged to do the dishes, that story will stick in her mind. She may not always heed her duty, but she will feel some need to cooperate. . . . When we pay our children, the tale changes. She says to herself, 'Doing the dishes is a job for money,' and she feels less obligation. The parent becomes a boss rather than an object of deserved loyalty."

The girl for whom love was a more powerful incentive than cash is Cowen's now-college-age stepdaughter, Yana. She grew up with Cowen and her mother in Fairfax, in a home decorated with Mexican and Haitian art. Cowen's wife, who was born in Moscow, is a Russian literature scholar turned Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer. They are a playful, funny couple, and more than slightly nerdy.

Yana calls Cowen four times a day.

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