Browser Interviews: Soumaya Keynes

Baiqu: Welcome to The Browser Interviews, and today we are sitting down with Soumaya Keynes. She writes about European economics for The Economist, currently based in London, and she also co-hosts a podcast called Trade Talks. Welcome to The Browser.

Soumaya: Thanks so much for having me.

Baiqu: So today we are going to pick your brain about a couple of recommendations for our readers and our listeners, and if you're ready, we can just dive right in.

Soumaya: Let's do it.

How To Sound Smart In Conversations

Baiqu: Perfect! Recommendation one, what would you recommend if someone wanted to come across as being smart in a conversation?

Soumaya: Ooh, okay. I think I'm contractually obliged to say that they should read The Economist because I think that's literally how we advertise ourselves, but to try and be a little bit less cringe.... That's a really good question. I guess I'd say read lots – not necessarily The Economist although that helps – but to read lots and read intentionally. I think subscribers to The Browser probably already have that one covered. But I think there's a lot of passive absorption of information that we do, kind of assuming that it will come to us by whatever social media strands there are, and I often find that my own diet of information is very much little snippets - the 600 word article about something, scrolling through the news or whatever. Whereas I have much more interesting thoughts, and just end up thinking about much more interesting things, when I've actually said: okay, I'm dedicating this time. This is my Saturday morning, I'm going to go in search of deeper things to read.

I also - and this is really not going to be on brand - I also don't listen to podcasts so much anymore. I've basically started listening to audio books instead, where I find that the depth that you're kind of guaranteed is more conducive to retaining information, and being able to use that information in real life and in conversations.

This sounds incredibly obvious, to read books. Okay. Maybe a way for me to think about this is just to think about what people who I think are smart, what I think they do. Because you ask the question and I'm like, well, of course I'm not smart - or I don't want to admit to trying to seem smart, right, that's maybe a shameful thing to admit to. You should just let your natural intelligence beam out of your skin or something.

Baiqu: I liked what you said about reading intentionally, and also interesting about podcasts. With audio books, do you also listen to it on faster speed so that you finish the book quicker?

Soumaya: So I did that and I have listened to books at some crazy speeds. There's one, I think I listened to it more than double speed, which - I'm going to partly blame the reader, who was just being offensively slow. But also it was quite a boring books, so it was kind of fine.

I don't do that anymore. The reason is that I was told that there are studies - and I never looked into them myself, so, you know, listeners go and search these out - there are studies that show that if you listen to things very, very quickly, your brain just doesn't retain the information as well. And so it feels like you're being super, super productive, but actually you just don't remember anything. And I actually have problems retaining things; I think just normal problems as all humans do. But I decided that for that purpose, I was going to listen to things on one-time speed, even if it means that I'm a bit less efficient. I also was listening to books at the gym and there's just so much noise that if you're going too quickly, then you'll miss things.

Baiqu: Yeah. And I don't know, personally, I feel like when my heart rate's at a certain level, I'm actually not taking anything in.

Soumaya: Yeah. My main focus is like, when will this treadmill hit the target, or the number of minutes that I want to get.

Baiqu: Yeah exactly. All right. Next question...

What would you recommend if someone wanted to know more about economics or European economics? Take your pick, just your area of expertise.

Soumaya: No, let's do economics because I mean, I'm three weeks into my beat, right. So my learning curve is vertical right now. Yeah, so only economics: I think the best way to get into it is through economic history.

One of my favourite books about economics is called Grand Pursuits by Sylvia Nasar, and that essentially tells the story of economics through these various thinkers. It's really really good, and you come away from it, first of all, with some basic econ, but second of all, understanding that economics is this very young subject, right?

Our understanding of it has changed a lot over relatively recent history, and you come away from it understanding that there aren't really very many rules in terms of how the economy works, and all these great thinkers who now we're like, oh, Keynes said this, or Marx said this, they were all responding to their time, right?

They all had these ideas in the context of their time, and when you read this book, you understand: oh, this idea came from this experience of this. There was a government that literally just confiscated people's property, that didn't feel nice - that shaped their views on confiscation of stuff. You realize how different the context was then, and therefore you're careful about understanding the value of these amazing ideas, but also careful about applying them in today's context. I think it really shows the discipline as this living thing that should be updated and amended and revised and what have you. And in a way, I kind of want all economists to read it, to be like: oh, these laws that we were taught, that we can describe in algebra, maybe they're dependent on institutions that change over time, or cultural, social norms, that also change over time. So maybe we should all just be much more open-minded to things changing.

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How Did You Get Interested In Economics?

Baiqu: Yeah, I love that. Excellent recommendation, I will actually want to pick that up after this conversation.

What made you interested in economics? I mean, I heard you speak about women in economics and that was really fascinating, but can you tell us a little bit what got you interested in economics. Because you were an economist before you became a writer, right?

Soumaya: Yeah. So this is actually kind of an embarrassing story.

So essentially at school, I really, really liked maths. I was on the school math team cause that's how cool I was, and it was really cool just for the record. But yeah, so I really wanted to do maths. With A-Levels in the British system, you specialize, so my A-Levels were maths, further maths, physics and economics. Then I realised I probably wasn't gonna be a mathematician and I didn't really like physics and so - economics! I mean, I liked it, it seemed super interesting, it seemed policy relevant.

I think at one very young age, I was like, yeah, I'm just going to do econ, go into the city, earn loads and loads of money, retire when I'm 30, and start my own theater company. That was a kind of strange plan that I held for about three months. So I think the 18 year old me went into economics for slightly the wrong reasons. It was like, oh, there's maths, it's a science, so much rigor... Um, great, I can use this toolkit to understand... you know,  I'm sure my personal statements when applying for things were pretty painful.

And now, well, first of all, I see the various flaws in the institution that is economics. But, you know, I'm into it, right. I bought in, I'm a card carrying writer about economics and former economist. It's kind of amazing to be working on something where you feel like you're asking really important question, and it's good to have data as a discipline. It's good to have something that's empirical. It's good to have to think carefully about what this set of evidence actually tells us. Like, can we apply that to other settings? You know, things like monetary policy, central banking, they sound really boring, but oh my, are they important.

If you just think about how bad it can be when things go wrong. Arguably in the U.S., in the Eurozone, essentially the government, the central banks, they didn't get it right. Maybe the central banks couldn't get it right. But the consequence was people whose lives were just not as good as they should have been, demand for them as workers wasn't high as it should have been, that had consequences for wages. You've got various inequalities. You know, really, really important consequences. So I think it's important, which is good, and it's a standard of evidence - the careful thinking that is good. That's not to say the other disciplines are not careful. I just think that there is value in the toolkit.

I think it's vaguely instructive that I arrived at university and I was a bit of an outlier in that actually by then, I didn't want to go into the city. I was interested in economics, I was interested in economic policy.  I then went to work for the government after university, went to work for a research Institute. So my reasons for getting into economics weren't the greatest, but I think the reasons that I found to stay in it were pretty good. Just in terms of wanting to do good, if that doesn't sound too cheesy.

Baiqu: Not at all, and I love that because I think there are reasons for why you get into something and then there are reasons for why you stay. And actually I think, as you go on, it almost doesn't matter why you go into, it is the reason why it makes you stay that's what it counts for, right? When you look back at your career or even a relationship and you're like, ah, those are the reasons that kept me in this, and that's what it gave me.

We talked earlier about books that people can read; discussed this idea of knowledge consumption, and intentional reading. As a journalist, do you ever feel a sense of responsibility?  Do you feel this pressure that other people are consuming what you've written, and that's informing their thought process and their worldview?

Soumaya: I mean, absolutely. And I think it's really interesting. There's definitely a spectrum of people out there in the world and journalistic institutions generally. On one end of the spectrum, you've got people who basically will write things because they're striking or interesting, or maybe they want to spark debate, or because their employer tells them to. And then on the other end of the spectrum, you've got people who are like, the number one thing, the first question is: is what I write true?

I am solidly on that end of the spectrum, which is good. The economist is great, it values things being true as one would hope. But I think perhaps if I were to leave that, the demand for the striking take or the really hardcore opinion, that could be bad for me.

We go to print on Thursday mornings, and so I just never sleep very well on Wednesday nights. And it's very anxiety inducing on Thursday morning when everything goes live. I think there are also some writers who really, really want everyone to read their piece. I'm actually not in that category, partly because I guess I'm very afraid of getting things wrong, and I think that makes me a better journalist, right?  I really care about that. If I didn't feel a sense of responsibility, if I didn't have the sense that it mattered, then you know, what am I doing with my life? Right?

The Cure For An Existential Crisis?

Baiqu: What would you recommend as the best cure for an existential crisis? Assuming you've had at least one.

Soumaya: I've had loads! Sleep, exercise, holiday. Although sometimes I have existential crises just before the holiday, because I'm basically spent, and then sometimes I go on holiday and actually that's the thing that brings on the existential crisis, because I can step back and think: oh God, what am I doing with my life?

Writing things down I feel helps a lot. I'm one of those bullet journaling people, which I would also recommend. I tried it once ages and ages ago and kind of did it half-heartedly and it doesn't - I mean, it's just a long to-do list if you only do it half-heartedly. And then I invested a bit more in it and now I'm really into it.

And I think being kind of earnest, and willing to embrace what can seem like slightly cheesy methods of just working out what you're doing. I have a page where I just write out my goals, which you know, I would definitely smirk at someone for doing that if I saw it on an open notebook on the tube - but I definitely do it. You know, it's that kind of thing.

Baiqu: The writing things down, it really helps me too. I haven't tried bullet journaling. But maybe I'll look into it.

Soumaya: It's great, because also you get to buy really nice notebooks.

What is the best thing you've bought on Amazon?

Baiqu: Buying nice stationery is just so satisfying. I feel so happy when I have it on my desk.

What is the one thing you'd recommend from your Amazon purchases over the last year? During the pandemic?

Soumaya: Best Amazon purchase? I bought a treadmill, which is I guess a weird purchase. My husband loves me very much, enough to allow me to have a treadmill in our apartment - in a flat, sorry, I live in England now.

But it's kinda been a game changer. I mean, you can get really cheap treadmills off Amazon. Basically you can watch TV on the side. I moved on from audio books a bit, because I basically worked out - on the treadmill at least - the code to exercising more was to have some really, really trashy, terrible TV that was completely addictive. So you end up looking forward to seeing the next episode and hey, you're also running for three miles as you're watching. I mean, the first question was what should you read to make you smarter? The opposite of that is to watch the absolute tripe that I've been watching.

Baiqu: So trashy TV for a healthy body. And good books for a healthy mind.

Soumaya: Yeah, my body is my temple, my mind is being trashed essentially.

Your favourite app, audio book, and trashy TV show

Baiqu: Cool. All right. Last question is a bit of a rapid fire. So I'm gonna ask you if you can recommend one website or app that you really like; one audio book or the one that you've been listening to lately that you like; and because of the treadmill, one trashy TV show.

Soumaya: No, that's far too probing! Okay, okay. The first one was website or app. I mean, it's funny, I spend a lot of my life thinking how I can spend less time on apps and websites, so it's kind of the opposite. I like Feedly, which is kind of a blog reader.  It seems to be the least horrendous blog reader out there.

There was a kind of internet service - I don't know if this counts! - that I was really into, called Nuzzel, where you would hook it up to your Twitter account and then it would send you an email every day with the five most shared articles by people you follow. Which was great, so I basically disabled my Twitter newsfeed and just got this email with the five most shared articles, so I could use Twitter to tweet things out and get messages and so on. But I didn't feel that sense of FOMO because I was getting these articles. Twitter just bought the company and so suspended the service. I'm pretty devastated, but they're promising to bring it back. So everyone should watch out for that, 'cause it was great.

And then a book. So I'm listening right now to a book called Post War by Tony Judt, which is magisterial - which I think is just code for very long. But it's this book about post-war Europe, and it's really, really, well-written; it's very, very rich. I guess I'm slightly struggling a little bit because it's obviously not character-based, and I find that often to retain things and follow a narrative, I need characters and people.

The book that basically was the best book I'd read in a really, really long time, was Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe, and it's about The Troubles in Northern Ireland. I won't say much more. It's character-driven. I spent the first bit of it being like, eh,  where is this going? Why am I being told about these disparate stories? And then they all come together, and if you're like me and you have some knowledge of The Troubles, you just come out of it with such a richer impression of that story - from one side.

Okay, and then the third one was trashy TV. So I like short trashy TV, because I'll just get addicted to things when it's too long. One of my favorites was 90 Day Fiancé, and I picked that one out because it's one of the least trashy. It can be a really, really interesting look into the US immigration system.

Essentially the premise is that two people want to get married. One of them is an American citizen and then they want to marry someone who is not. And then that other person comes in on a fiancé visa, and they have 90 days to get married. If they don't get married then that person can't stay, they have to go back - and there's a mix of relationships, right? Some people who clearly barely know each other; many people who are just clearly, deeply in love and who were just going through this bureaucratic hurdle. So the documentary follows them as they're dealing with these constraints. You know, you can't work on this visa. But then also the various culture clashes of these people being introduced to their families, the families sometimes not being that accepting of the way that this has happened. And I don't really enjoy car crash TV, so there's enough wholesome "this all works out" that it's fine. And then there is the occasional car crash, which is a bit less wholesome. But yeah, it's probably on the more thought-provoking end - because they're really interesting questions about exploitation, who's exploiting who, massive power imbalances in some of these relationships.

Baiqu: Another thing that I haven't heard of, but I feel like I need to watch it now. Great. Thank you so much for your time. It was such a pleasure talking to you. I was looking forward to it and I've definitely learned a lot, and I'm taking things away that I'm going to look up post conversation. So thank you Soumaya.

Soumaya: Thank you for having me.

Soumaya Keynes:

Grand Pursuit: The Story of the People Who Made Modern Economics by Sylvia Nasar

Post War by Tony Judt – history of post-war Europe

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe – about The Troubles in Northern Ireland

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