I recently finished listening to Timothy Zahn’s second Thrawn series on audiobook (Thrawn, Thrawn Alliances, and Thrawn: Treason), and have come to the conclusion that Thrawn is Tyler Cowen. Or perhaps Thrawn is what Cowen would become if he were a galactic soldier or vice versa if Thrawn were a college economics professor with a podcast. Both share some very peculiar qualities that are truly unique and central to who they are and how people see them. Both are very interested in art, especially what it teaches us about people. Both are good at spotting talent early, and both tend to be Straussian in terms of how they think about interpret what other people say and do. This all fits into their big picture views of their worlds and their places within those worlds.
Thrawn is set to be a villain in a spin-off from the Disney+ Mandalorian series. He is a blue skinned humanoid with glowing red eyes, and in Zahn’s series he joins the Empire after being picked up on a deserted outer-rim planet. His wit, insightfulness, and talent gain him favor with the Emperor and help him rise to become one of the top Grand Admiral’s of the Galactic Navy. He is efficient, a tactical genius, and a great teacher – all qualities you might look for in a great economics teacher.
Cowen is a Professor of Economics at George Mason University, a columnist for Bloomberg, and the host of Conversations with Tyler among many other things. Cowen grew up playing chess (his Wikipedia page says he was the youngest ever New Jersey state chess champion at age 15 to demonstrating his strategic thinking skills), reads and writes an incredible amount, and has recently started an organization called Emergent Ventures to make small awards to creative thinkers and innovators.
What I think is the greatest connection between Thrawn and Cowen is their study of art. In Zahn’s books it is not clear that Thrawn truly loves and enjoys art, but he clearly appreciates art. He studies the works of art of his enemies (or their victims) and learns a lot about them from what they create. Patterns emerge from the art that Thrawn is able to use to his advantage in battle, helping him predict and understand the likely approaches that his enemy will take.
While Cowen is not engaging in space battles with anyone (to the best of my knowledge at least) he approaches art in a similar way. He frequently asks his guests about the art they enjoy and is able to gain deep insights into his guests minds by understanding and exploring the art they create or engage with. While Thawn uses art to help him win battles, Cowen uses art to help him learn more about people and their views of the world.
Spotting Talent Early:
Last week Cowen highlighted a blog post from Tony Kulesa that was all about Cowen’s unique ability to spot talent early. Cowen is great at connecting people and ideas (partly because he is so widely read and understands things like art and different cultures so well) and this has helped him find and cultivate young and talented individuals who have gone on to have a big impact in their fields. His organization Emergent Ventures is taking a new approach to identifying smart and innovative individuals and helping them get their start. His platforms allow him to broadcast and share those individuals and their ideas, promoting their talent even further.
Spotting talent early is a continual theme for Thrawn across the series. He meets his right hand man, Eli Vanto, when Vanto is just a cadet and helps him rise to become a Lieutenant Commander in the Galactic Navy. While in the Galactic Naval Academy, Thrawn and Vanto are attacked by jealous rival cadets, and Thrawn is able to recommend that the rival cadets be transferred to a pilot academy after he sees their talent for coordinated attacks and movements. His recommendation pays off later when one of the rival cadets does become an excellent pilot under Thrawn’s command.
For both Cowen and Thrawn, spotting and encouraging talented individuals is more about the individual and about what is good for society than it is about their own gain. Thrawn doesn’t look for praise or political benefits from being connected to high status talent. He simply looks for people who are exceptional at their jobs or very talented and helps them get to a position where they can best benefit the Navy. Cowen similarly is not looking to just build up an impressive dinner party list or Twitter following. He is truly interested in helping get innovative ideas into the world as quickly as possible and helping the most talented individuals drive toward bigger and better goals and innovations. His book Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Ani-Hero reinforces this idea. Increasing GDP and development means we will all have better lives, and that requires that the most talented individuals with innovative ideas get to places where those ideas can get into the world.
Straussian Readings of People:
Cowen is famous for asking his guests to share their insight on what a particular author, musician, or artist was trying to really communicate through their work. This is what I mean by saying that Cowen is Straussian – he is constantly looking for revealed worldviews and impressions that can be understood by a close reading of other people’s writing or by a careful analysis of core themes across art and cultural expression. Straussian perspectives help Cowen see beyond the surface level, to understand the big picture and how things connect.
Thrawn does the same thing, often more focused and directed toward space battles than the more worldly applications of Cowen, but the Straussian tendencies are a key part of what makes Thrawn Thrawn. He is able to read people’s emotions, non-verbal communication, and behaviors and to deduce larger trends and forces that under the surface. This insight is often unnerving for the people who work with him, but often help him save their lives or reach their goals, even if it is not clear to the other person exactly how Thawn knew what he knew or why he took a given approach. By looking to the big picture Thrawn is able to make important connections that others overlook and to better understand the world he is a part of.
These similarities really stood out to me while listening to the books during my morning and afternoon commutes. I don’t know if Zahn knows who Cowen is, but I can see many ways in which Cowen could have influenced the character that Zahn created. Hopefully for us Cowen doesn’t join an evil Galactic Empire, but if he does, he will certainly provide valuable insight into crushing galactic pirates and rebels, just like Thrawn.