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Interviewing Christopher Hitchens & Nassim Taleb?

Russ Roberts serves as the high water mark so far in terms of dream guest that has appeared on ‘The Curious Worldview Podcast’. 

He is one of the true OG’s of podcasting and in fact so OG, that Russ is one of the mediums earliest adopters, Russ has been at this racket for nearly 20 years now since he debuted EconTalk in 2006. 

And with guests the likes of Milton Friedman, Thomas Pikety, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Lewis and even the great and elusive Nassim Taleb, you can see why EconTalk is one of the most appraised shows out there.

#150 Russ Roberts on ‘The Curious Worldview Podcast’ listen in and hear about the following…

  • Christopher Hitchens and what Russ makes of good talkers. 

  • Nassim Taleb, whether he and russ ever got to speaking religion plus whether Russ has come to a pithy conclusion of what he has learned from Taleb.

  • There is talk of serendipity and of course… then much more as well.

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So just that opening clip, surmises for me why Hitchens was just such a phenomenal speaker and communicator. He's famously one of the great speakers so much so that he could take probably either side of any debate equally persuasively. Was he one of the best speakers that you ever talked with?

Russ Roberts
He's incredibly articulate. Most of my British guests speak very well. It's not a random sample of the English public, but they are very good at expressing themselves. He was exceptionally good at it. That was a very memorable interview for a variety of reasons. It was a bit of a stretch for me. Most of my interviews at that point had been about economics.

And to drift into Orwell was a bit of an adventure. And of course, since over the years, I've drifted a lot away from economics into many, many other things. But at the time, that was a bit of a risk for me. And I was in Palo Alto, California, visiting Stanford for that summer. And Christopher Hitchens was also there. And I realised I could interview him and basically had one day. It was only, it had to be that Friday. And I went out that evening, Thursday night, after he said yes and bought Orwell Mander's and read it, his book on Orwell and it's a wonderful book. And we did, in those days, I occasionally did interviews face to face now, almost exclusively over Zoom, but I did that face to face sitting in his house he was staying at in Menlo Park around the corner. And it could have been a set for a movie. It was a strange and surreal experience constantly interrupted by workmen and other people doing stuff on the house. So it was a very, I don't know if you can sense my unease in the experience. I also had to get the edits done that afternoon to get them to my producer.

So after the recording was over and he, we just kept getting interrupted. So it was a crazy, intense thing. And I'm pretty sure he offered to be Scotch. The interview was at noon and I met him, we sat by the pool before we did the interview. And I'm pretty sure we had a Scotch, which would be very Hitchesensian. Christoftaphorus. Anyway, it was a really fun, very memorable interview. He died, you know, way too soon.

Soon after that interview actually. Did he cut you his famous Johnny Black with Perrier?

Russ Roberts
I don't think there was Perrier. I'm ashamed to don't remember what the scotch was. I was a scotch drinker in those days and it should have been more vivid. But yeah, it was probably Johnny Walker Black, but I'm not 100% sure.

Did you reach out to him? Were you booking your own shows in the early days?

Russ Roberts
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, for sure. Yeah, and I sent him an email and. Fortunately, he said yes, it's not the best sound quality, but because I wasn't very good at that then, but the content is just is spectacular and it still gets a lot of listens.

It's phenomenal. You know, Hitchens, there's so much audio of him out there in the internet and your interview with him is for sure and maybe the top five, in my opinion, of, you know, pieces of audio that he's ever been captured on. You know, particularly the little sidebar about Orwell and Hayek, which you obviously jumped all over. Some really interesting stuff in there. Could you maybe explain a little bit more why it felt like a movie set?

Russ Roberts
Thank you. Well, It was a large house. There was a pool and there were trees, big old trees. And as I said, there were workmen working on the house and they kept coming through. And if you were going to film Hitch in America, it'd be a good place to do it. That documentary that never got made.

So the reason why I decided to play that clip is just because of how quickly and aesthetically he reframes the three points you gave to him. And it's very informative, but as well, it's entertaining. It's beautiful. It's rhythmical to listen to. You said a lot of British people are like that. I would still put Hitchens right on top of that. So maybe underneath that question is asking you how valuable is it to be a good talker?

Russ Roberts
Oh yeah. Well, I think communication is underrated, and I think it's also denigrated a bit as obviously a form of show or marketing as opposed to the content. But I often think about the fact that the most famous economist of all time is probably Adam Smith. He was an extremely effective writer.

And some of his ideas were not novel. They had been written about by other people, including by his friend David Hume. And I think part of the reason, not the only reason, but part of the reason that Smith is immortal is because he wrote well. I don't know how he spoke. I suspect he was pretty articulate also, but his writing and the clarity of it, the occasional humour.

and the eloquence of it, I think, is part of the reason he endures. And I think in general, writing and speaking are underrated. And of course, not everybody's good at both. As I'm sure you know, as a host, a brilliant writer can sometimes be a poor speaker. A mediocre writer can be a great speaker, and they don't always go together…

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