Notes from Titus Levi
Saturday, July 16, 2005
How I Ended Up Here
I first became interested in economics when I started college. Economics provided tools that I could use to better understand questions I had had for many years about all sorts of things: Why didn’t more of my friends like jazz? Could Ronald Reagan cut taxes, balance the budget, and increase military spending? How could sparsely populated farm states wield so much political power? Why does the market produce so much junk? My interest in applying economic tools to such questions drove me to learn more and more… until I finally earned a PhD in the field.
While my ability to answer such questions remains a mixed success, I still believe that thinking through problems from an economic point of view can yield deep and valuable insights, if not final, definitive answers. But as I went through graduate school, it became clearer that by adopting more and more abstract means of analysis, economics had become the least social of the social sciences. That is, we had taken people – messy, irrational, fascinating – too far out of the analysis in a real and robust sense. Fortunately, during these years I learned about sociology and anthropology, and how insights from these fields could inform economic thinking. After joining the faculty of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, I continued to learn more about other social sciences and how they could inform economics and vice-versa. In the back of my mind I pondered how a dialog among these disciplines could be set into motion.
During my years as a student and academic, I had become involved in media. I worked as a jazz journalist through the latter half of the 80 and into the 90s. In the 90s I worked as a radio DJ and program producer. I developed a deep affection for radio, and eventually made it my field of research expertise, delving into issues of regulation, technological change, and business strategy. I’ve been particularly fascinated by the move toward digital distribution of radio and radio-like programming through means such as streaming audio, satellite radio, and podcast. These are powerful tools in search of the right kind of programming and the right mix of audiences.
Back in 1998 when I met Jonathan Field, I had no idea that we would launch an online radio program. But over the years we have had conversations on all manner of topics: the evolving market for advertising, the possibilities for peace in the Middle East, the wonders of good food, the possibilities for new sorts of radio programming, the problem of news writing and presentation being either superficial or misguided, the rise and reshaping of pop culture. Our email exchanges really could cover some ground. And it’s those exchanges, those conversations, which stayed with me. Conversation is enriching: it relies on listening, it helps to deepen and broaden one’s view, it informs others. It’s not about winning or losing, or getting one’s way. It’s about give and take. About building something together. The conversations I’ve had with Jonathan over the years have had these qualities. The trick was to figure out how to bring these qualities into a broader and more open context.
When I left academia, I really wanted to do something with economics, but to make it more available and presentable to more people. Not to water it down as a means of popularizing it, but to have people use economic tools to think systemically about what they observe. Frankly, people already do this more than they think: as one of my professors would tell us over and over again: Economics is common sense made difficult. Or at least, more formal or technical. But even though most folks had some notion about economics and economic analysis, it seemed clear that applying a somewhat more rigorous or thoughtful economic analysis would be of use in helping more people understand policy, as well as their day-to-day lives. Some economists have taken up this challenge, but in general, the media have not been good to economics or economists. For the most part, journalists often mishandle stories on economics and business, and worse, don’t apply economic or systemic analysis to a variety of questions and problems where economics would be a big help.
By using a variety of tools, Jonathan came up with a way to put something out there that would use economics and economic analysis, but to make it accessible. And it would reclaim that great lost art (at least in the media): conversation. This program would address the most prosaic and familiar of life’s experiences as well as the biggest financial and policy issues. And it would have a really cool title, named for one of the most robust and thoroughgoing of analyses of capitalism.
So here we are. At some point, we hope to offer this program over more types of radio platforms. But for now, this is home. Come in, take your shoes off, put your feet up, and hang out for a spell.
And remember to join in the conversation.