At the intersection of programming, economics, cryptography, distributed systems, information theory, and math, you will find Vitalik Buterin, who has managed to synthesize insights across those fields into successful, real-world applications like Ethereum, which aims to decentralize the Internet.

Tyler sat down with Vitalik to discuss the many things he’s thinking about and working on, including the nascent field of cryptoeconomics, the best analogy for understanding the blockchain, his desire for more social science fiction, why belief in progress is our most useful delusion, best places to visit in time and space, how he picks up languages, why centralization’s not all bad, the best ways to value crypto assets, whether P = NP, and much more.

This article was originally published on medium by Mercatus Center

Do you have a world-changing idea like Vitalik? The Mercatus Center is launching a new fellowship and grant program called Emergent Ventures to support transformational thinkers and doers. Listen to Tyler talk about the new project on the latest Mercatus Policy Download, and click here to learn more.

Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: Hello. I’m here today with Vitalik Buterin, who is founder and chief scientist at Ethereum. I’d like to start with what I call the Vitalik Buterin production function — that is, how you get things done.

I went back and I reread all of the papers on your home page. I found it quite striking that there were two very important economics results, one based on menu costs associated with the name of Greg Mankiw. Another is a paper on the indeterminacy of monetary equilibrium associated with Fischer Black.

These are famous papers. On your own, you appear to rediscover these results without knowing about the papers at all. So how would you describe how you teach yourself economics?

VITALIK BUTERIN: I guess it involves a combination of things. Some of it is reading what various economists on the internet say. Some of it is reading papers. Sometimes, if I want to dig into some topic more deeply, I end up reading books, like I read one on urban transportation economics a while back.

I also go to conferences. I was just at the Economics and Computation conference with Glen Weyl and other people in Ithaca last week, which I thought was very interesting.

It’s always kind of an indispensable opportunity to physically go to places and actually talk to people, because that way you learn things about both what people are thinking about and how people are thinking in the space that you can’t easily find from the internet.

COWEN: If you think about economics — what you’ve taught yourself — what do you think of as the central ideas relevant for cryptoeconomics, which is a term I think you coined?

BUTERIN: I would say that cryptoeconomics, first of all, is economics. It’s not like we’re inventing some completely different parallel society with a different parallel economy and different rules, but it is economics specialized to a particular set of circumstances. Then you have to ask yourself, “Well, what describes those circumstances?” There are a few major parts to that answer.

First of all, whatever mechanisms you have in cryptoeconomics land have to be fully specified exactly — not exactly to the standards of a court judge, but exactly to the standards of a computer programmer. What that means is that there’s a lot of things that you can’t do.

For example, you can’t say in cryptoeconomics, “It’s illegal to bribe people,” because there’s really no simple way to define what a bribe is. If someone really wants to bribe someone else, he can just go and do that outside of the protocol, and the protocol would have no way to tell.

COWEN: Vitalik, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much.

BUTERIN: Thank you.