Craig Richardson on Storytelling, Economics, and Magic

classical liberalism teaching economics progressivism economic mobility

June 7, 2024


Why do progressives tell better stories than proponents of the free market? Do big corporations
really care about the people who work for them? Has economics lost its magic? Are economists born or made? Professor, magician, and storyteller Craig Richardson joins Juliette Sellgren for a whirlwind conversation.
Craig Richardson is a professor of economics at Winston-Salem State University, and the director of the Center for the Study of Economic Mobility there. Today, we talk about a ton of things, from a breakdown of compelling narratives to magic. He tells us why Elizabeth Warren is more interesting to listen to than economists, although she doesn’t understand economics as well as economists do. We talk about the importance of relationships and trust in society, from multinational corporations and small towns to the communication of big ideas. We talk about the lack of awe and magic in economics and communication, and he explains why bringing back the *wow* factor will help us personally and professionally.



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Read the transcript.


Juliette Sellgren 
Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition. Hi, I'm Juliette Sellgren and this is my podcast, the Great Antidote- named for Adam Smith, brought to you by Liberty Fund. To learn more, visit www Adam Smith works.org.

Welcome back. Today on May 8th, 2024, we're going to be talking about storytelling, why certain economic narratives prevail over others. I'm excited to welcome Craig Richardson to the podcast to talk about this topic today. He's a professor of economics at Winston-Salem State University, and he's the director of the Center for the Study of Economic Mobility. There’s something I hope to touch on as we continue. Welcome to the podcast.

Craig Richardson
Thanks so much, Juliette. It's great to be here.

Juliette Sellgren
So famous /infamous first question, what is the most important thing that people my age or my generation should know that we don't?

Craig Richardson (1.12)
Well, I thought about this quite a lot. I got a little advanced notice on this question, and what I would say is that I think most people listening to this podcast like to travel. And I see a lot of times there's these bucket lists of all the cities that we're supposed to hit- from Paris to London to Shanghai. And so my advice to people of your generation is that my greatest discoveries and my greatest stories, by the way, have come from visiting ordinary villages from Vietnam to Zimbabwe to Honduras, deliberately going to places where people, most people don't go. And there you really learn so much more about the culture. You also come back with stories of your own that nobody else has experienced. So happy to go into one or two of those stories at some point if we have time, but they're really the ones that I really remember. So that's my practical advice for your generation.

Juliette Sellgren
Yeah. How did you learn that? How did you start going to these places that you wouldn't necessarily think of when you're like, I want to visit the world? What put them on your radar?

Craig Richardson (2.33)
Well, I was lucky that my dad was also a professor of economics and he and my mom had a huge emphasis on us traveling during our summer breaks. So we would get all pile up into our VW van and disappear for six weeks. We drove all across the country and we stayed in a lot of little ordinary places, but along the way, just start bumping into people. You have conversations, you go into a little town in the Rocky Mountains or you go into a Fargo, North Dakota, and if you're traveling by VW Van, you're going pretty slow, first of all, like second gear over the Rocky Mountains. So everything's slowed down and you're not zipping trying to go to one big city after another and say, Hey, I hit 'em all. It's not like the, I know some people have hit these nine countries and nine days types of things, which I really sort of detest that whole idea.

I'm all about immersion. And then we also stayed for six months after my high school graduation in a little tiny village in Near Bath, England, which I'm actually going back to this summer. And that's the kind of impact it had on me. And we met our neighbors, we play darts in a nearby pub. And so those kinds of little experiences I think are far better than trying to see as many museums as possible. Not that that's a bad thing, I've done all that, but like I said, my favorite, favorite stories in the classroom are those from those ordinary villages and far away places.

Juliette Sellgren (4.18)
Yeah. So something that I was thinking about when you were talking about the van, have you ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?

Craig Richardson
I did long, long time ago, yes. About the motorcycle by a motorcycle [mechanic].

Juliette Sellgren
And it's not entirely about the slowness, but it is about being immersed in your environment. He talks about there being something about being on a motorcycle. Sure. Maybe that's not safe. Okay. Some people call them deathmobiles- valid. I don't personally really want one, but there's something really moving about the way he talks about the immersion and going slow and being exposed to that sort of thing. And it kind of reminds me of the way you're talking about these sorts of experiences, which I don't know, it makes me believe it's more true, especially in a time when everything moves so fast.

This may be a silly question, but how do you detach? Is it something that's easier, especially as everything becomes more attached and fast professionally and socially? Is it because you have always kind of done this with your family that it's just something you know, want to go back to? How do you maybe recommend that People my age that I, people who are so attached to their computers and they're like, everything is now, everything is fast, bumps of dopamine type of thing. How do we get there? How do we do that? I know that's kind of a big question.

Craig Richardson (6.00)
Yeah. Well, I go back to travel. I think there are so many things that are gained from traveling. Even if you can't afford to travel outside of the United States, travel to remote areas to places nobody has been. We also be willing to do silly things like when I was 20, I was in England on another travel trip with some students of my father's, and we had three days at the end of the term in England and we were looking at a map and we saw this little town called Beer and we said, Hey, any place that named beer is worth going to. So we had knew nothing about this town except that's where we were going to go. It was like four hours away by van driving on the wrong side of the road. And after knocking off many hedges and nearly clipping pedestrians, we ended up and had this great little time in this place named Beer that served a lot of beer and it was on the ocean, but nobody else I know of has ever been there.

So not follow what everybody's doing on Instagram and what's everybody, here are the places you need to go. There's this kind of Instagram, here's what it looks like and here's what it actually is. And everybody wants to go. And a lot of times those second best places are so much less crowded, and you get that experience of meeting authentic people who live there. So instead of going to Telluride in Colorado, which is where all the rich people live, go across the mountains to and find this little mountain town that I was absolutely magical. And we meet the locals at the bar, sit up at the bar, talk to. Yeah. So that's how I'm a huge fan of travel and meeting people along the way in all these sort of unexpected circumstances. And then I love to collect from my travels, it entertains my friends at dinner parties.

Juliette Sellgren (8.12)
Yeah. This is maybe a perfect segue moment because what I'm struck by is the fact that trade creates value, right? Economic freedom and markets reward diversity, and we, people who love and believe in markets see this and we try to talk about it a lot. And social media and doing the thing that's the same as everyone else is not necessarily that. And going to the obscure little town called Beer is exactly the sort of difference diversity divergence from the path that we see being rewarding in certain situations. So I see a clear connection, I don't know if that's just me, but on this vein of economics, how do you get into thinking about economic narrative and the way we talk about this and why we free marketers are so bad at talking about this sort of thing, at least maybe not talking about it, but talking in a way that other people are compelled by.

Craig Richardson (9.25)
So I think that if we go back and I was to say, Juliette, what are your most memorable experiences in your life? And you would maybe think for about four or five minutes or maybe less, maybe they just jump out at you. My guess is that they probably have a very high emotional content to you that joy maybe from walking across the stage and graduation or maybe a huge shock about something terrible that happened, but they have this huge emotional impact. Those are those things that we remember. And I think in economics, those of us who love economics, we fell in love and we actually had this emotional attraction to economics, but it was in a way that was probably different than most other people. Actually, I think we're wired a little bit differently, but we tend to assume, I agree, that everybody is going to fall in love with a supply and demand graph or elasticity formula.

And so we lead with logic because we find the beauty in that logic. We lean with the logic, but there's no emotion unless you have a story attached to it. And that's what I like to do in my classroom. Before I talk about elasticity, I'll talk about how I was with friends in grad school. We got stuck in a snowstorm at the top of a North Carolina mountain. The guy at the top of the mountain was charging triple for snow chains. And we talk about, well, look, that's inelastic demand. That's based on a situation where you have very few choices. People laugh or students get some sort of emotion reaction or that story. And so part of what I think economists have to do is remember that this part of our brain called the amygdala is this heart of the emotional response is the thing that really seers a memory in our head and that we have to remember part of it is how do we join together the emotion with the logical so that it really sticks?

And I think the second part is that, and I think progressives are really, really good at this, is that this isn't my original thought. I saw this a long time ago from a lawyer named JW Vert, but the thing that I think do very well is when they construct a story, I call it the Three Vs. And it's the villain, the victim, and the vindicator or the hero. And so a great story, even if you think about a James Bond story, you have a villain, you have the victim, the person being taken advantage of, and then you have James Bond or whoever your favorite heroes swoops in and saves the day. And this narratives, this three V narrative of the villain, the victim, and the vindicator progressives then are really, really good at translating that into society. When you're looking at, okay, you've got big business villain, you've got the individual victim, and then the progressives are the indicators, we're going to help save the day. How are we going to save the day? Vote us into office, we're going to pass the right regulations, we're going to save you from big bad business. And you can see somebody like Elizabeth Warren is extremely adept at this type of storytelling. She will be very good at bashing big business, create villains without a big business. And look, there are some villains out there. I'm not saying there aren't, but what really irritates me is that she casts all big business in the same framework.

And that's what makes the news, because the news loves this three V narrative as well. You can look at so many stories, and by the way, the right-wing side, Fox News will have their own version. It's just the names change. So instead of government, it's Elizabeth Warren now is the villain. So the characters change, but that three V narrative is an extremely strong that carries through story after story. Economists aren't very good at combating that narrative.

Juliette Sellgren (14.07)
Yes, entirely. Something that this brings to mind is Arnold Kling’s three languages of politics. So you have this oppressor versus oppressed, which is the more generally progressive, like three V, in my mind is what I'm thinking of, esque sort of narrative. And then you have this more conservative civilized versus not. But even that could be construed as, oh, well, not being civilized and being brutish is kind of villainous bad. And then you have the libertarian, which is very unemotional. It's oppression. It's not oppression, even it's coercion versus not, coercion in itself. I think the thing that really is becoming clear to me is that coercion to me has a really bad connotation. And I think in certain contexts when coercion looks like oppression, that's when these other groups of people hop on and also agree with the connotation that I perceive from it, but it just doesn't affect people in the way it affects me necessarily. And so we kind of have to learn to use that. But part of the problem is I don't really want to be negative. I think something that's so characteristic, especially of many economists, is that we're generally an optimistic bunch. And so how do we kind of work with that? How do we deal with the fact that maybe we we're more optimistic and less willing to talk about something like oppression and villains and bad and not even less willing, but we're maybe more logical about it as you indicated earlier, or even we talk about it in a way that doesn't feel emotional. How do we kind of reconcile the fact that we generally trend towards positive optimistic narrative and the fact that that's not what hits people?

Craig Richardson (16.21)
Well, I'm going to disagree with you a little bit, Juliette, in one way, go please. I think I find that when I go to a lot of conferences, and I also found this when I was learning economics, that we get told a lot of things. I'll give you a class example, rent control. By now, rent control should be fully accepted as a bad thing. I learned about rent control decades ago as a bad thing. Yet what are we doing wrong? The fact that rent control is being hotly debated right now, and yet to me, it's as clear as a finding of physics that it doesn't work, that it reduces the supply of housing, it makes it harder, all the rest. Everybody on this podcast knows these arguments. What happens is when we talk about rent control in the classroom, we say, okay, students, here's why it's bad.

I can show you on the graph, I can show you all the things that are wrong. And now why didn't it change? Oh, there's something called political capture. We've got maybe corrupt government officials or we have officials who care more about getting voted in than the actual benefits. So what happens is we get into this intellectual cul-de-sac where the economists now, the professor becomes the smartest person in the room. They're saying, if only everybody listen to my great ideas, we wouldn't have this. But unfortunately, we have this intellectual, we have something that I can't fix, and therefore students are kind of left feeling angry. I don't know if you had that sort of experience. Did you have any of those experiences in college where you're learning about something and you'd be like, oh my God, the government's so dumb. Why don't they, I feel like sometimes our profession leads students into this really cynical path of, yeah, if only everybody understood economics, the world will be better, but they're so dumb or they're corrupt. Did you have that experience?

Juliette Sellgren (18.30)
Yeah, a little bit. I think honestly, and this is maybe going to be ironic given that I hope to become a full-fledged economist someday, it leaves me being more, I don't want to say angry, but I think there is a level of emotional response, and it is not positive and it is targeted at the professor. It's not even at the discipline. It's like why? It's almost like how am I supposed to believe you?

And it's this frustration. It invites a level of maybe cynicism and pessimism. I think you're right. How do we fix that? Because it is true. I think that teaching these ideas and talking about these ideas is still something, and yet, I don't know. Is it just that, is that the reason why these ideas don't gain traction? Because the fact that it's debated now when we think it's a finding like in physics, okay, this is objectively true about the world, about our economy, about economies generally, why is it still being debated? Then? I don't know. Do you think that's the whole story of why this kind of cyclically happens?

Craig Richardson (19.55)
I think that a lot of economists are, they do some of their own stereotyping. So one thing is I think libertarians can fall into a trap of talking about government as if it's this monolithic entity, big bad government kind of thing. When I work, I live in Winston-Salem, which is a city of small city, about 300,000. And as a director for the Center of Study of Economic Mobility, one of the things that I decided to do was meet with my local government people, people who have faces to them, Dan Cornelis, who ran the Forsyth County Economic Development. I went and had lunch with him. I talked with him, Hey, he's a real person. He's a nice guy. He's actually pretty entrepreneurial. He figured out a way to have the private sector housing program instead of putting on taxpayers. There are entrepreneurial people in government, and I think we have to stop stereotyping the bureaucracy, the faceless bureaucracy, and go into those places where economists meet the people, talk with them, find out what their incentives are. And what I've tried to do as the director is to say, where can we get a win from businesses, individuals and government businesses, individual government, BIG, and call it the big idea?

Juliette Sellgren
That's awesome.

Craig Richardson (21.30)
And so when we give grants at our center, we explicitly say, if you want to study something, you can't just come up with why things aren't working. You've got to figure out what are the incentives of business individuals and governments simultaneously. And if instead of pitting them against each other and creating a villain of one of them, think about, find out a way to create a solution so that all three entities are better off and what do they want? Well, business wants higher profits. They're going to be happy. Individuals want more freedom, more liberty and ability to climb the economic ladder. If that's working, they're going to be happy. And government wants to increase their tax base. So if we have a thriving business sector, their tax base is going to increase. We have thriving individuals, their tax base is going to increase. So if you frame things that way, you're going to have people instead of shouting at each other, they're going to be gladly coming together. And I think we've had some real success on that.

Juliette Sellgren (22.36)
Yeah, that sounds really awesome. What it sounds like also is that you're actually on the ground doing something that isn't necessarily on the books as part of the professorship job, which you kind of explained a bit before we started that this is your work with the center is half your job that you have this opportunity and get to do this. But I don't know, would we be better at narrative if more economists actually did that and got to go on the ground and observe the way that they used to, the way that economics was in Smith's time?

Craig Richardson
Yes. I think we would be, and I would make that comparison to our earlier conversation about going to visit ordinary villages. I think that part of our problem as a profession is we're staying in the bubbles. We're staying on our university campuses, we're going to conferences where we talk with everybody sort of in the same bubble, and we're not getting out of our comfort zones and talking to people on the other side or talking to people in government. I've also been lucky to be able to consult with Fortune 500 Corporation, Hanes Brands and learn so much and saw so many blind spots that I had about teaching the theory of the firm that I would've never understood had I not talked with corporate executives, by the way, I showed them some blind spots of their own too with some of the work that we did. And so I think that's definitely a part of it is getting out of our bubbles.

Juliette Sellgren
Can you give us an example of, and I guess maybe let me know if I'm ruining the last question and you want to save it of one of your blind spots that you kind of realized in this experience?

Craig Richardson (24.38)
Yeah. Okay. Yeah, I've, my theme of my life is trying to keep uncovering blind spots. And I think if I do that aggressively, maybe I'm thinking about what am I not thinking about? The assumption is always the unasked question. I always thought the assumption is the un asked question in economics. Remember in grad school, we start with a macro model and here are all the assumptions. And I want to say, wait a second, I want to question this. You're starting out with the assumption people are rational. Can we just talk about that for a minute?

No. So I'll give you an example. So with Hanes Brands, my job with a colleague of mine, SDI, was they asked us to look at how their workers are doing. This is garment workers in five different countries around the world, and to look at their quality of life because Hanes brands is composed of factories around the world. They make, they make a lot of garments and they get accused by workers' rights groups of not paying a living wage. So one of the things that Hanes brands want to do, and they hired us and they said, we want to tell you the good, bad, and the ugly. We want you to tell us that they flew us into these different places, these remote areas where we are able to do surveys about how these people are doing. And one of the things that really came across here was something that really surprised me was supply chains.

Now, I mean, I understand the basic idea of a supply chain, how a T-shirt starts with cotton and it moves to thread and then it moves up to line of t-shirt, et cetera. Okay, I got that. That's the textbook. What I didn't get was how much trust is along the way of each one of those supply chains. So when Hanes Brands goes into a country oftentimes like a less develop countries, what the first thing they're going to find out is that everybody wants to bribe. And in order to grease the wheels, you're going to have to bribe. And so what Hans brands told their suppliers was, number one, we will never give you a bribe. Number two, if you deal with anybody with bribes, you're losing your contract with us like a cotton supplier. And that was a big shock to a supplier in a developing country.

Honduras, for example, so here's a blind spot is that I've heard economists say, oh, it's not a supply chain at all. It's a supply net. And if you have one supplier fall apart, you can go to another one. There's a big market out there and it's no problem. And that's how adaptable supply chains are. And what I found out was the opposite. The supply chain is actually really fragile because it's based on human relationships, on trust, on those relationships that are built over many years. And you want to work with people who don't take bribes. In the case of Hanes brands, you want to work with people who are going to deliver on time. You don't want to sign contracts every time because that takes a lot of time. You want to handshake. And so yeah, I found so much, I think this is a big theme of mine is how much trust really greases the wheels of the economy.

That's not a new insight, obviously, but it's something that I keep finding out and discovering everywhere. And I remember that when visit doesn't have any fences, and I said, yeah. He said, well, where we live, we have to put a fence around everything because if not everything will be stolen. And he couldn't believe that in our neighborhood with lots of mature trees and quarter acre lots that you could have houses with no offenses. So these are all the kinds of things. And you think about, wow, what an opportunity cost that you have to live in a place where you have to spend whatever, 15% of your income on security, what an opportunity cost? These are the things I don't think about until I travel to different places. 

Juliette Sellgren (29.15)
And I'm certain that, I don't know, there's the thought experiment about spending money on stuff like security that we talk about a lot. When you study public choice. Isn't it better to have a set of institutions, and I guess maybe you can talk about this in other scenarios where I guess it's the collective action problem where you talk about, okay, well if everyone has to pay for locks, it's not as effective as if you pay for a police force and build trust in your community so that then less money is spent on that sort of thing. And you hear it, but you don't think about like, oh, well, that's true of the most minor things that I don't see because we don't have fences in our neighborhood. And everyone just respects, and sometimes they shovel each other's walks, and that's really nice, and you don't think about it. I think what is crazy about this is it's not only a critique of the way we talk about economics, but the way that we even do economics. I think that's part of what the problem is when we talk about, oh, why don't you just look at this beautiful graph? You can see it because that's not how the world works. It is, but it's very abstracted, and it's almost inhuman. I feel like I hear a lot of this stuff being thrown around. It's so robotic, it's cold economics.

It's not a humanity, but it's not a science. But what is it? But this idea of the supply chain, the way you've described it, humanizes economics and it doesn't, it doesn't really contradict this idea of markets or freedom being a good thing. But what it does is it says, well, look, all of our economic relationships are fundamentally human and relationship oriented, even if it's a corporation. And it is so contrary to every single part of the narrative we have about the job and the economy and the way we talk about things. The fact that Hanes asks these sorts of questions for you, the fact that they want to know it all and don't want to cover it up, that in itself is contrary to the narrative that is prevailing. And so I don't know, there's a lot of…

Craig Richardson (31.43)
I find that, and that's the perfect thing when I talk to my progressive friends, is they want to villainize Hans brands. And I've been inside and I can say, these folks that I work with, they're wonderful people. They truly care about their workers. I wouldn't work for a place that didn't. And to see giving free backpacks, helping people get their MBAs, and I went to their actual, we said, we want to go to see where people live in Vietnam. We went to one of these homes where it was spotless inside. There was one bed where the whole family slept perfect little pillows. They had one fork, one plate, one knife for each person. And yet, what I loved was that when we walked in and we talked their life, they had all this hope in their eyes. I said, well, where are you going to be next year?

And they said, well, this year we bought a moped, and in two years we're going to have a motorcycle, and in five years we're going to have a car. And what really dawned on me when I listened to that was that economists are so hung up on measuring poverty as a level of income or middle class as a level of income. We get way too hung up on that. And I think really the true poverty is a lack of hope. And you don't see a lack of hope in Vietnam. You see a lack of hope in East Winston where people who are trapped by anti-poverty programs get taxed implicitly, a hundred percent on the dollar. You see a more lack of hope there, even though their incomes are three times as high.

Juliette Sellgren
And that's hard to hear.

Craig Richardson (33.44)
Yeah, because we spend so much money and it's very difficult what we've done. It's very difficult. But I want to go back and say that I don't want to be all pessimistic. There are a lot of things we've done that have trapped people in a way that they're not trapped in other places around the world where there is a lot of hope, objectively speaking, they're so much poorer. But emotionally there's so much richer. But going back to my work, we do have some neat things that we do. You talk about narratives. So one of the things we've done is we've done two documentaries, and I'm actually working on a third. We did one on figuring out one of my other big blind spots was assuming everybody has a car, everybody has a car. Everybody asks me, Hey, you're going out to church, you're going to eat. Everybody says, well, does it have good parking? That's the big, I always have that on my slide. This is the big question.

Juliette Sellgren
Can I drive?

Craig Richardson (34.50)
Yeah, can I drive? Does it have go parking? But one day I drove by the bus station and I saw all those people there downtown milling around, and I said, what are their lives like? Not having a car, having to rely on a bus. And so one of the first things that I did as when we started our center was let's do a survey of bus riders. And we've never done a survey like this before. The city hadn't. The survey was going to be about the road not taken. What are the jobs you're not getting because you're having to ride the bus for 90 minutes? What are the promotions you're not getting? What's the time you're not getting with your kids? At that time, they could only take two bags of groceries on the bus. What are the foods you're not eating if you can only bring two bags of groceries, Juliette, on a bus, what you're going to put in pasta, stackable things, stackable boxes of pasta and carbs and all that.

So I said, well, look, I can go out and we can present the results of all this data, but are we really going to hit people with this emotionally? Probably not. So I said, well, let's commission. Let's do a documentary a day in the life of a bus rider, and we're going to call it Bus Stop Jobs. That was my wife's name, my wife's idea. Great idea. It is a good idea. Bus stop jobs. The theme is, these are the only jobs you're going to get. So we had a 12 minute documentary, a day in life of a bus ride starting at five 30 in the morning watching this woman. There are no talking heads, there's no economists. But what there is is a thread. There is a thread running through of opportunity cost because she talks about turning down jobs, having to commute times she can't spend with her son. That is all quietly but beautifully done by the director. So at the end of that, so there's the power of narrative that affected people so emotionally, there were some people that stood up in the audience when we premiered it and said, that was my mother. I never really got it that what my mother did for me as a kid. But you pair that now because you can't just say, a story has to be paired with, there's not just one of these people. There's thousands.

So at the end of that movie we had, our last slide was other cities are exploring innovative ways in public transportation. So that's always stuck with me is what's innovative. And so in production right now, we have a new movie out that we're producing, and it's a really interesting story. Want me to tell you about it? Yes, please. Alright. So Wilson, North Carolina, is this what seemed like this unremarkable town? I've lived in North Carolina for 30 years. I've never heard of it, never been to it because sort of out east, south of Raleigh in the middle of, not near the beach, not near the mountains, so never have anywhere to go. Well, Wilson, I read throughout their entire public and replaced it with an Uber alternative. It was a company called Via that's based in New York. And what they have are vans that pick people up and take them point to point instead of having to spend hours and hours and hours per week on the bus.

So I've got really interested in this story. And so we're making a movie called Momentum, and we're working two Emmy Award-winning filmmakers from PBS, who are also good friends of mine. And we were just on site last week with four Winston-Salem State students on the crew, and talking with people whose lives have changed, like a guy who would've never gone to his chemotherapy appointment, who had not been able to keep his job. Just all kinds of people who are now able to plug into an economic network, who are able to have hope once again. And we're also going to look at the economics of this system.

Juliette Sellgren (39.10)
So thinking about how a lot of this stuff humanizes economics, makes it real, kind of communicates these things that generally we as talking heads are bad at communicating, not to diminish my own job.

So thinking about that, and then also this idea of hope being something that not only comes out of institutions, this idea that poverty traps, especially with these programs, basically keeps people where they are and makes hope somewhat impossible to have in some scenarios. There's also this deeply human element of inspiring hope in other people. So we, you're already illustrating how we bring those together, but I can't up and make a documentary. I can maybe screen it. I would love to screen it here at school. I would do that. I would totally do that, actually. Okay. You're on. I will talk about doing that. But when I teach or when I talk to my friends or anything, and anyone other than me talk about these ideas, or not even explicitly talk about them, but be better at crafting a narrative in their daily lives, crafting a narrative around hope. Around hope, or even the important economic ideas that end up inspiring hope in Vietnam, that people in America are so lacking these days.

Juliette Sellgren
Yeah, I mean, yeah, that's a big question.

Craig Richardson (41.13)
It is a big question. I think a part of this is, first of all, I think it's really important to talk to people who are older than you to talk about what their lives were like. And first of all, put context into where your life is right now. I mean, just talking with somebody who grew up without running every time. I mean, I think there's a, first of all, a sense of building appreciation. I think that's a problem that if we're living in the here and now and always watching the latest TikTok video at which a lot of these algorithms, of course, are targeted to outrage, and it's this very almost like drug induced kind of thing that can happen where we're emotionally getting buffeted every day in sort of the worst way. But I think the first thing is to building appreciation for way life used to be, how hard it was, how many babies died a hundred years ago, how many illnesses there were out there.

So the first thing is to be able to appreciate where we are right now. And then materialism isn't always cracked up to be either. I mean, I think we want to have a growing economy, but I think some of that comes from not saying we're going to buy the latest thing, but instead of saying, oh my God, it's hot outside. I guess it's global warming. Cynicism is sardonic kind of conversations. And I think you have this really optimistic personality, and I think just by gently pivoting people away from falling into a cynical trap and saying, look, you can focus on that, but let's focus on this. The other thing is, if we have time, I'd like to talk a little bit about the link between magic and economics. Yeah. Okay. So my dad, I already mentioned he was an economics professor, and he was actually incredible because in one semester he had three very esteemed professors.

As part of his class, he had Milton Friedman, he had Hayek. And then Paul Samuelson called in for an interview for this class in the late sixties. And he actually, so he knew these three future Nobel laureates. And so he was an incredible economist. And I grew up eating, talking about economics over my breakfast cereal with him. But I never thought I'd be an economist. I always thought I'd be something else. But he was also very much into magic and extremely good. I mean, he was kind of like a magician's magician and wrote three books, published numerous articles, and is extremely well known with some of the most famous magicians. He's not a stage musician. But anyway, so he died about eight years ago, and I always thought those two were very separate lives, like magic and economics, like, oh yeah, he does magic over here. He does economics over there. And I haven't really connected the two until recently where I said, well, why did dad like magic and economics so much? And then I realized whenever he talked about economics, he talk about the magic of economics. I mean, I think you've probably seen the Russ Roberts thing about the bread and all the different, the miracle of making a piece of bread from all the different, have you seen that particular video by Russ Roberts?

Juliette Sellgren
Yes. And listeners, if you haven't, you should go check it out.

Craig Richardson (45.07)
Check it out. Yeah, it's pretty good. So we will eat the bread, we will have the loaf, but we don't understand the tractors, the gasoline for the tractors to get the grain and to the machinery and all these thousands of people that come together anonymously. That's a magical story to me. I mean, that's an incredible story that I think Russ is so good at conveying that type of thing. So it's kind of like an architect walks around and they look at structures of houses, and they're analytically seeing how this one was built or that one's built. Well, you and I in economics walk around and see the world a little differently too. We look at a loaf of bread a little differently than other people. And I think to give people some wonder and awe about how this all came together, isn't this incredible? All these anonymous individuals are all coming together to build airplanes and create food for us and build iPhones and tennis shoes. It is truly incredible. And also the adaptability and flexibility. Think about during Covid, how suddenly we have this whole thing called Zoom that we're using right now that just seemed to pop out of nowhere and helped us sail through an epidemic. Probably the word sail is wrong. A lot of people died, of course, and had terrible outcomes. But for those of us who wanted to keep working it, this thing just kind of popped up out of nowhere. 

Juliette Sellgren
And we had, relative  to history, we sailed.

Craig Richardson (46.46)
Yeah, exactly. We had Netflix to keep us happy. We had a lot of things we weren't just like a hundred years ago. We would all be shivering in huts wondering how long it's going to take. So I think that part of building hope is to have conversations around wonder in awe. And I think that's our secret superpower of economics, that if we move away from the villain, the victim, and the vindicator, which ultimately makes people feel bad, it doesn't matter who's telling that story. If libertarians are telling the story and the government's the villain, people are feeling angry. If progressives are telling it big business, they're angry. But if we move into what we love as children, which is wonder and awe. I remember just blowing a soap bubble and seeing my 2-year-old just like, oh my God, how does that thing float? I used to think about this, right? This thing is defying gravity in her head, and you blow a bubble and it floats up. How she processes

Juliette Sellgren
Well, doesn't entirely understand that.

Craig Richardson
How does she process that? This is heavy. I'm thinking in my head, Hey, this is water. This just came from something and now it's floating up. How did that happen? I think that the more that we can have a playfulness and a wonder, everybody we're laughing about this. It's a silly thing, this bubble, but they're all, it's true. Yeah. They're all these little

Juliette Sellgren
Why I accepted. I don't know why I accept it. I don't know how that works. And that's just cool. How does that work?

Craig Richardson
I mean, we stopped seeing it, right? As adults. That's why it's so important to look at, hang out with little kids and see how they don't have those built, built-in blind spots yet, right? It's like they accept everything. So they don't know there's gravity. They're just like, oh, okay. That thing goes up and everything else goes down. So I guess it has to do with, I'm sure a vacuum, it would drop. But those are the things that, there are a lot of wondrous things that economics opens up, and that's how I think magic and economics really connect.

Juliette Sellgren (49.15)
Yeah, and what's so compelling about this is the idea that as classical liberals, and also just as people striving to gain kind of peace and happiness as you go towards adulthood, there's this idea of regaining and maintaining your childlike virtues, of staying curious, of being playful, but also being serious. It just goes along so well. It's almost shocking now that when we're talking about it that this hasn't been an idea that I've had or that anyone has mentioned because it seems so clear. And yet we don't do that because we're too serious about it in all the ways that are kind of shooting us in the foot. That's kind of an amazing story about your dad. Thank you for sharing.

Craig Richardson
Sure.

Juliette Sellgren
It's inspiring really is what it is. You were talking about materialism earlier, and yes, it's not all that it's made out to be, but in a way, the natural defense against materialism for materialisms sake, it can make our lives better materially ha. But

It can make us better off. But we never, ever, as economists said that that would bring meaning or that would be the reason to live, or that was necessarily sustaining. It just makes life better. And those are two different things. And I think part of this inspiring awe in people about how economics works and about how it is that I don't have to know anything about bubbles or physics or tractor oil or bridges, and yet I enjoy all of those things somewhat regularly. I think you probably have a lesser propensity to consume things you don't need when you can appreciate the things that you have and everything that went into them. So I don't know. I feel like in a way, this change of narrative, trying to kind of do this in our own lives and as economists and in our profession and in the world around us, maybe it won't win politically, but it will make us all happier. It'll make us all more purposeful. And that seems in a way, almost like a solution to the polarization and the angry villains. I don't want to have a narrative that is sad or bad. That's kind of depressing. I don't care if it's not politically cool, it should be. So I don't know.

Craig Richardson (52.04)
Yeah, I agree. I think it ends up, you can meet people, economists, especially at the tail end of their career, who they are pretty cynical. They've kind of like, I don't give a flip or other expletive. We're going to just go and listen some papers and go have a beer afterwards and curse the world. Yeah. I don't want to be like that. And that's why when I talk to audiences that are full of people across the political spectrum, first of all, I don't like to come in and present myself as an expert. I think that's a huge mistake because to me, the word expert connotes, I'm no longer learning. I know it all. That's just kind of how it sounds. And so if we go in with an audience where I'm talking about, let's say this movie, Bus Stop Jobs, everybody's on the same side with this woman.

They want her to succeed. And when we talk about, well, here's a social program, here's the social program. This bus system is holding her back, or this food stamp system is punishing her when she works harder. Is that what you want her? So people get on like, whoa, I didn't know that. That's the wonder. In awe, you revealed something to me. And the other thing is progressives, the people that I know who I'm very good friends with, they have really good hearts. They're most of them, not all of them, but some of them have really good hearts. And what you have to do is say, I know you want to help people, but did you know that this might actually be hurting them instead? No, no, no. And I said, and this is where you're like the magician, because then you pull back the curtain and say, here's what really happened. And then you see, oh my gosh, what have we done? So there is that sense of mutual exploration that happens when we kind of package it a little bit more like a mad show. Then I'm the expert and here's why you should take it, and here's all the logic and the numbers to back me up.

Juliette Sellgren
Yeah, I love that.

Craig Richardson
And by the way, my dad is a magician. I will just say on that theme, he had a very unusual type of magic. He was not the star. He always put, this was a mutual journey together where something crazy was going to happen, and let's see what happens. So he was not like Barry Richardson. Here's the magician, pull the rabbit hat. He was like, because he did a lot of mind reading. So he was like, okay, we're going to see if this is going to work together. I think that's the way he taught as well. That's how I think I modeled myself after him. A lot of humility, but then a sense of wonder.

Juliette Sellgren (55.12)
I was about to say that this comparison to magic says that at least to me, says that we need to be more like, I was going to say the audience, but maybe we can even do this as the magician. Being the economist means not only are you showing people the trick, but you're experiencing it too. So you said what I was thinking in a way better and more concise and eloquent way than I did through illustration. We need to maintain this awe, this sense of curiosity. And I think we lose that. We've talked about this, but something I'm kind of wondering about. My parents both studied economics, do economics.

People are always asking me about what was I influenced by my mom? Is that why I'm doing it? Is that why I am interested in it? Or does it really run in my blood? Is it the way I was born, the way I think? And so I was kind of wondering, how has your experience been doing economics and having a father that did economics, and also I guess growing up talking about that sort of thing, maybe primes you to take on that sort of job and mindset, but I don't know, what has your experience been with a parent in economics? Is it like a political view where you just, it trickles down maybe? Or how did you kind of reconcile this idea of...

Craig Richardson (56.54)
Upstairs at night, he'd be doing magic tricks in his study? So it was sort of both of those things happening and he'd be trying them on me. How does that look? But okay, so my dad never said, okay. We never had a conversation where he said, Craig, this is how the world works. I think if I look back on it, I'd say that we might be talking about, Hey dad, we learned today we're going to run out of oil in 10 years. And then he'd say, well, let's talk about that a little bit more. You remember when you had all this Halloween candy and you just kept throwing the wrappers back in the bag every time, and you got harder and harder to find the candy because it was so full of wrappers. I said, yeah. He said, what'd you do in the end? I said, well, I threw it out with a lot of candy left.

And he said, well, yeah. So that's what's going to happen with oil. It's just going to get harder and harder to pull out, but we're never going to run out. So he would have that kind of Socratic way of talking. It took me a while to understand that's the economic way of thinking, but I really kind of pushed back against falling in his footsteps. I mean, he was teacher of the year. He was having these famous economists over, he was the star on campus, and I thought, I'm never going to compete with him. I want to do something else. 

So I was actually pre-Med as a freshman in college. I was terrible at It, like the equivalent of being a Marxist in a libertarian household. And dad was fine, whatever. But when I had to dissect a cat, that was just the end. And I could not remember bones and muscles. The only thing I liked in biology was Theory of Darwinism. I was like an idea theory. I was like, oh, okay. It's competition.

Yeah. So I liked that. I was like, okay, I don't have to remember all this stuff, like the bones. So I reluctantly took economics my sophomore year and had this great professor, professor Trethaway, who just was wonderful. And this very understated r sense of humor. I remember being so disappointed when class was canceled one day. I just looked forward to it. It was incredible. And so I just took that one class and I just loved it, and he just cracked the world open for me, and it was just a delight. And so I guess I said to myself, you know what, Craig, maybe you'll never be as good as dad, but why not do the thing you like? And so I did. I went that path, and my dad was always very proud of me. I think he was always extremely my biggest booster and never ever made us feel like we were in competition with each other any way. He always, we actually ended up writing papers together. It was fun.

Juliette Sellgren
Oh, that's awesome.

Craig Richardson (1.00.01)
Awesome. Yeah, we coauthored some papers and his friends called them Brothers Richardson when we would go to some conferences. But we had a lot of fun. We had a lot of the same interests. He loved History of Economic thought. We got turned on by a lot of the same obscure economists and Von TuneIn and some other lesser names that some people haven't heard of. But we just had so much fun writing these papers together, so that's where it went. So he ended up just always being a huge booster of mine. So I'm really very lucky to have him as a dad. He taught me a lot of lessons.

Juliette Sellgren
Yeah. That's awesome. Yeah, it is just an awesome thing. I think part of it is in my blood. I think the way of thinking is somewhat inherited because I see the world in a certain way. I say I was born an economist that was also freedom oriented. But I don't know if that's entirely true. It's just the narrative I tell myself, and I'm okay with that.

Craig Richardson
Do you have a similar type of story or were you covered from the get go just saying, I'm going to go on this path?

Juliette Sellgren (1.01.21)
Well, so it happened earlier around when I started the podcast with Covid. I essentially decided to kind of stop pretending I wanted to be a communist or something angsty. But I knew in my heart of hearts that freedom was really the thing that drove me. And then this love of ideas very seriously. There's something that resonated with when you were talking about how memorizing the bones was, not it, but the ideas was really what it was. And I didn't really care what subject it was, but I think economics was this new puzzle that you don't learn early on in life in school necessarily. So it was something new to play with. But then I realized that a lot of it was intuitive, I think because the way my family is oriented and the way that we run and function on our day-to-Day lives is very economical in a lot of ways. And so I was like, well, it's just kind of convenient. At the end of the day, I tried to be something different, but it's just convenient that my family does this stuff and knows these people that talk about things that I want to talk about and that I want to learn about. And I don't know, I think I'm grateful in a way that I don't think I was when I was younger, that actually given my interests, I landed such an awesome family. And who knows entirely the causality, but it doesn't really matter.

Craig Richardson
Yeah, that's right. It is. You always sort of go through these thought experiments if you had been raised in a different family, I almost said raised by wolves, but if you've been raised by a different family, let's say a factory worker, would you have found that path? I think a lot of these kind of innate things, like you said, your love of freedom, I sort of think we're wired for some of that. Maybe some of that goes along with you don't mind risk, right? Freedom with freedom comes risk. And some people are very risk averse, and so they'd rather have less freedom and less risk. But yeah, it's interesting. But in the end here, we are talking about economics because we had economics parents, and that's a wonderful thing to pass along, pass the baton,

Juliette Sellgren (1.03.56)
And maybe it made me more inclined to choose economics. But something that I've been thinking a lot about recently, especially kind of in light of this conversation, is that what freedom and prosperity has granted me is the opportunity to explore not just the thing that my family does, but all these other sorts of things. And I don't know, I'd be interested to see if we see more and more of career divergences from what your parents do to what you then end up doing now than maybe historically. Because the world really is our oyster. And I feel like that's, it's probably true just because I am doing something similar to what my parents have done. And you as well doesn't mean that everyone always, because this used to be the way of the world. Your last name was Smith because your entire family was blacksmiths. This is a striking difference that is just staring me in the face right now. So yeah, I don't know. It's just kind of funny.

Craig Richardson
Yeah, if you look at, I think of 200 years ago, I think I saw the list of available jobs in the entire country, and I think it was like 30 jobs, blacksmith, baker, Miller, et cetera. It was only like 30, and now it's like hundreds of thousands. And nobody anticipated when the internet was began as the worldwide web that there'd be tens of thousands of new jobs, different jobs, jobs had never ever existed before. So, and who knows, again, that's the market that continually reinvents itself over and over and over again in the next a hundred years.

Juliette Sellgren
Well, I guess I won't be here in the next a hundred years necessarily, but I'm excited to find out. I'm hopeful. I have one last question for you, which I think we've kind of talked about a little bit, but I want to ask it more explicitly and to kind of wrap up. What is one thing that you believed at one time in your life that you later changed your position on and why?

Craig Richardson (1.06.15)
Yeah. So I would say that I believed, I'll take you back to my graduation ceremony from college at Kenyon College.

Juliette Sellgren
Oh, awesome. Kenyon is awesome.

Craig Richardson
Thanks. Yeah, I loved it. There's, there's a place called Middle Path, which is a gravel, one mile walk that everybody does back and forth every day, middle path and graduation. You walk through middle path through all the faculty who are applauding you. It's just about a school of 1600. So everybody walks through middle path, and I remember my professor of economics jumping out and grabbing by the shoulder and shaking my hand and just having this immense pride about what I accomplished there. So I would say that that day I believed that I was solely the reason why I was there and walking across that stage. And over time, looking back now, I really think that was a part of it. But there's a lot of luck involved. I mean, I was born not only in the right century, but the right decade. I was born to two parents who both loved to read, who loved to take me to the library. My mom would take me. We lived in a little village in West Virginia where she had to take me to a library on Saturdays that was 45 minutes away. So I have a lot, my grandparents, who were immigrants from Germany, who believed in the value of hard work, and I lived to see their lessons. So what I once believed was that I deserve all the credit for my success, and now I see all the people that came before me and how much credit they deserve for who I am.

Juliette Sellgren
Once again, I'd like to thank my guests for their time and insight. I'd also like to thank you for listening to The Great Antidote Podcast means a lot. The Great Antidote is sound engineered by Rich Goyette. If you have any questions, any guests or topic recommendations, please feel free to reach out to me at great antidote@libertyfund.org. Thank you.
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