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October 19, 2006

Where Art Thou, David Card?

Was talking to a friend last night about the impressive overrepresentation of libertarian economists in the blogosphere, and complaining that, given the massive numbers of lefty economists, my side's intellectual firepower was being reserved for office hours. For instance: A few weeks back, David Brooks massively misrepresented the positions of Lawrence Katz, a former Clinton administration economist and current Harvard professor. I'd read a bit of Katz and noticed the discrepancy, so I gave him a call and convinced him to let me set the record straight. What astonished me, however, was that Katz himself had no interest in challenging Brooks' distortions. It sucked, to be sure, but he had things to do, and why dwell? That the nation's most popular op-ed page was misinforming Americans on the inequality debate was a shame, but whaddayagonnado?

Well, Katz could have written an op-ed of his own. Or written a piece for The Prospect. Or started a blog, as his right-leaning colleague Greg Mankiw has done. But he did none of those things: He was, if not content, then willing to allow his Clinton bona fides and Harvard-conferred authority to be used to distort the debate -- that there was a responsibility to make sure his name and affiliations were to be used for good, not evil, didn't seem to enter the equation. The public sphere wasn't his sphere, and if he was going to be misrepresented in it, there wasn't much to be done.

I hadn't thought much about why it is that, say, the George Mason University economics department has decided en masse to take up blogging. My understanding from others is that, so much as I like Tyler and Bryan and all the rest, their libertarian outpost is pretty decidedly on the fringe of mainstream economics. But that's probably the point. Folks forget how small the actual feedback circle is for most journalists, academics, and pundits. In theory, all these groups write books, articles, and do media aimed at audiences of various sizes. But until very recently, that conversation was completely unidirectional: They spoke, but few had an opportunity to talk back. So their reinforcement came from colleagues, friends, folks in their social circle. And for most popular academics, particularly those at Harvard, that circle was large enough, grateful enough, sustaining enough. For more embattled ideologies, the opportunity to popularize in a new medium was probably comparatively more attractive.

Which is a shame. Blogs are a remarkable tool for turning publicly-funded intellectual into public intellectuals. Ten years ago, writing at The American Prospect, I would have never needed to account for the libertarian critique of my ideas -- it would never have occurred to me.

Nowadays, I know that folks from that end will be looking to cut apart my ideas, I have to protect my points against their insights which, in turn, means I absorb their insights. I've a little libertarian on my shoulder (as well as a little feminist, mid-sized populist, rather large labor leader, and a variety of other shoulder-sized ideologues) and my writing is stronger for it. But so much as I understand why relatively marginalized ideologies have more enthusiastically sought expression in the blogosphere, it would be nice to get a bit more than I do from the minds populating the mainstream of these disciplines. My fear, however, is that successful academics feel popular and public enough and, save for the rare exceptions like Mankiw or DeLong, have little need to enter the chaotic, popularizing demimonde of the blogosphere. And as the blogosphere continues to grow, that will become a more acute disadvantage, and catching up will prove a harder task.

Update: Another possibility is that a lot of the GMU folks come out of the Austrian tradition, which is more theory- and less math-heavy than the neoliberal or neokeynesian schools. Now, I don't actually think that should matter for blogging -- even the most math heavy papers have results that are boiled down into the paper's abstract and could be transformed into a post by a competent writer -- but it may mean that a fair swath of economists weren't really trained to write in a non-technical style.

October 19, 2006 | Permalink

Comments

Even on NPR, you're more likely to hear a comment from a George Mason econ prof than one from the U of Chicago. I have the sneaking suspicion that some of these schools (Pepperdine also comes to mind) have hyper-aggressive media people bent on getting the school mentioned in the press as often as possible. Of course you are right that the remedy isn't less of them, but more from more accomplished scholars in those fields.

(nitpick: wherefore means why, not where. When Juliet asks "wherefore art thou Romeo", she's asking (no one in particular) why the boy she loves has to have the name of the family her family is feuding with:

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

Posted by: kth | Oct 19, 2006 10:50:57 AM

Ezra is an excellent writer. "Shoulder-sized ideologues" is brilliant. But he consistently screws up the wherefore thing. See here and here.

It may be time for him to add a shoulder-sized Shakespeare. Consider this my academic blogger pedantry of the day.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Oct 19, 2006 11:26:36 AM

It may be time for him to add a shoulder-sized Shakespeare.

Indeed...but in the absence of Shakespeare himself, I would think his sister would be eminently qualified to correct Ezra.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Oct 19, 2006 11:37:36 AM

Uh...no way! I actually mean Why is David Card, David Card? It's an existential question only peripherally related to the post...

Posted by: Ezra | Oct 19, 2006 11:45:19 AM

To kth:
Pepperdine law school does have a very aggressive pr department. That’s because Pepperdine basically exists to crank out members of the Federalist Society. Pepperdine is to law school as Fox is to news.

They get on tv all the time because one of the core purposes of the school is to add conservative voices into legal thought, a goal which they actively pursue and because of the “balance” media bias. If you have, say, a recognized constitutional law expert on your TV show like Cas Sunstein, you can’t balance him with another recognized constitutional law expert like, say Burt Neuborne, because they won’t disagree, or if they do it will be only on small details. So you call up either Pepperdine and ask for someone to come on your program (or you call Berkley and get John Yoo, sad to say).

Posted by: IMU | Oct 19, 2006 11:45:51 AM

When's the last time you heard a socialist anywhere? A real, workers own the means of production, socialist?

I think they had one on C-Span about six years ago.

Posted by: olvlzl | Oct 19, 2006 11:48:41 AM

G-Mu is the "new Chicago."

"Liberal" economists (e.g. Mark Thoma) still believe in free trade, and use words such as "rent" (see this post) and Utility (from Tom Bozzo) in ways that the general blogsphere does not.

And they do so casually (see the Varian comment in the Thoma post ref above), so there is a difficulty in communicating in the blogsphere that a semilibertarian/sf person such as Cowen or even Brad DeLong don't necessarily have.

In short, it's a different mode of writing.

Posted by: Ken Houghton | Oct 19, 2006 11:49:04 AM

Since no one's commenting on anything but Shakespeare, allow me to ask a question Will Wilkinson posed to you in comments a few months ago: Ezra, have you read "The Bell Curve"?

Posted by: Orkon | Oct 19, 2006 11:49:12 AM

G-Mu is the "new Chicago."

"Liberal" economists (e.g. Mark Thoma) still believe in free trade, and use words such as "rent" (see this post) and Utility (from Tom Bozzo) in ways that the general blogsphere does not.

And they do so casually (see the Varian comment in the Thoma post ref above), so there is a difficulty in communicating in the blogsphere that a semilibertarian/sf person such as Cowen or even Brad DeLong don't necessarily have.

In short, it's a different mode of writing.

Posted by: Ken Houghton | Oct 19, 2006 11:49:26 AM

Oops. Sorry for the double-down.

Posted by: Ken Houghton | Oct 19, 2006 11:50:12 AM

It's also true that academics have different goals in life than journalists. David Card doesn't necessarily want to make policy or even impact policy, he's just interested in being thought clever and innovative. Popularizing his work isn't a very high priority.

Additionally, he would say quite rightly that his comparative advantage is in doing clever research, not in trying to make policy or write popular articles. Even Katz, who has served in government, would say that all that matters is the person actually in govenment, when outside government it's not worth the effort to try to influence "public debate."

Posted by: Isaac | Oct 19, 2006 11:54:26 AM

Are you kidding me?

I greatly respect the Ph.D degree, but let's face it, outside of a classroom that they can lord over, most Ph.Ds themselves ain't shit and don't know squat.

I think there is a "moral hazard" problem here. Don't expect Ph.D professors with any positive reputation to open themselves up to more avenues of criticism.

In the law blog field observe Glenn Reynolds and Ann Althouse. Glenn was the first mover and got the big name and the credibility, and so he has no incentive and massive disincentive to open up comments. There is no way he will open up comments to people that will call him on his lies and note the spooge still dripping off his lips.

Then there's Ann Outhouse. Ann Outhouse arrived after Glenn but with much the same line of feces to throw. In order to make her nut, she had to add extra value to her diarrhea, that extra value being the ability of her coterie to make sweet sucking noises and fawn over her. Now she is known as the 7th juiciest law blogger, where the juicy refers to the drippings of diarrhea from her bunghole. But again there is the moral hazard issue, which she solves by deleting posts and banning commenters.

The lower on the law professor heirarchy the more blogs and comments you will find.

Same with economists, especially with economists that are still backing free trade. A very few will blog. Some of those will allow comments. Not too many will actually respond to those comments.

It is silly to expect Ph.Ds professors, protected by tenure, with their own private publishing channels that YOU Mister No Ph.D Klein will never publish in, to engage in practices that expose them to more criticism that would dry up their grants and their ability to get some sweet 21year old student poontang.

Posted by: jerry | Oct 19, 2006 11:58:13 AM

... and use words such as "rent" (see this post) ...

Though Thoma didn't use it; he quoted Varian as doing so.

And would that more people understood Ricardian rent. Then they'd realize that the government actually transfer wealth from the poorer to the richer (mainly via land rents); that many libertarians actually despise freedom (as pointed out by an actual freedom-loving libertarian in the excellent essay, "Are you a Real Libertarian, or a ROYAL Libertarian?"); and so forth.

Of course, a big problem is that neoclassical economics has essentially abandoned the classical view that there are three factors of production. Probably because they're on the take from the rich and powerful.

Posted by: liberal | Oct 19, 2006 12:03:10 PM

The funny thing about hard-core lefties of the Marxist persuasion is that the more of an actual Marxist you are, the less likely you are to dirty your hands in electoral politics.

The whole point of Marxism is that democracy is but a waystation on the road to the worker's paradise, and that the true Marxist shouldn't be participating in something which prolongs humanity's stay at that waystation. This residual distaste for electoral politics has infected, to one degree or another, most of the left -- and this can especially be seen by the far-left people targeted by the Green Party, even those who don't know Karl Marx from Zeppo Marx.

Meanwhile, the far right doesn't much like democracy, either -- but cleverly pretends to love it as they turn democracy's institutions (the media being first and foremost) against it so they can get and retain power.

Posted by: Phoenix Woman | Oct 19, 2006 12:24:06 PM

I am thoroughly convinced by now that liberal Democrats are the most bureaucratic, institutionally-constrained people in the world. Professionalism and credentials and ranks and hierarchies and proper channels and standard procedures and received wisdom and precedent and collegiality and all that shit. Hysterical anti-populism has a lot to do with it.

A lot of it is professorial. Schlesinger and Galbraith could function effectively with that avuncular manner, but that was 30+ years ago. These days a lot of people hate professors as such. A different self-presentation is required.

Posted by: John Emerson | Oct 19, 2006 12:31:54 PM

Pheonix Woman,

Nice post. Marxism is the opiate of dumbasses.

Groucho was my favorite.

Actually the behavior similarities between the far Left and the 'far Right' are more than the differences. Both want the overbearing hand of government to enforce their social standards on people who would never chose those standards.

Posted by: Guy Montag | Oct 19, 2006 12:38:32 PM

Orkon, while you're waiting for Ezra to answer your question (it might be a long wait), explain why this of all books is such an important one for you.

I greatly respect the Ph.D degree, but let's face it, outside of a classroom that they can lord over, most Ph.Ds themselves ain't shit and don't know squat.

So you respect the degree but not the person who has it? Maybe you've encountered disembodied PhDs which are quite respectable. Sorry, just made me laugh.

As I understand it, most media folks looking for experts call particular individuals, not departments.

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 19, 2006 1:06:56 PM

That's quite a strawman, liberal.

Thank you for the link, by the way. It is interesting, and I will have to think on it further.

But even where people might disagree about land as property, libertarians are the only ones who maintain consistent freedom in what you say, what you do, how you spend your money and how you govern yourself. I'll take the 90% of the "royal" libertarians over the 40% of the democrats and 37% of the republicans. There is more to freedom than land ownership, your characterization notwithstanding.

And Ezra - you have Max and Brad and Duncan to carry liberal economic views, and a few others to boot. Are they not enough?

Oh, and jerry? Your obsessive fascination with liquid faeces does absolutely nothing to improve or support your arguments. Just thought you should know.

Posted by: jb | Oct 19, 2006 1:12:10 PM

I think mainstream economists just don't much care about policy. I went to graduate school in economics 30 years ago because I was interested in economic policy. I left because no one else there was interested in anything but running numbers through computers.

On the other hand, those with a libertarian bent enter economics precisely because they start off with an interest in policy. If you start off with an interest in mainstream economics, there is no reason that you would end up as a libertarian.

Posted by: Greg Arnold | Oct 19, 2006 1:12:46 PM

my father is a well known lefty academic (in poli sci, Philip Green, emeritus at Smith but also on the ed board of The Nation and a major writer on theory over the past 30 years). when i asked him to start blogging with me a couple of years ago, he was very nonplussed--who are these bloggers, and now ANYONE can say ANYTHING? why, he'd spent 30 plus years building up a body of work and credibility--was that now worthless?

the counter arguments aren't that great, really--yes, anyone can say anything, no, your past bona fides won't necessarily get you much (mankiw's traffic is much smaller than duncan black's, for instance, though mankis is a much better known and more respected person in his field).

my dad's speciality is egalitarianism and a left critique of mass culture--if i couldn't easily get him to come around, i can't imagine that others of his ilk will do so without a fight.

to be fair, he has come around to an extent, but there is too much holdover from the days of fighting your way to a PhD and fighting your way to tenure and fighting to get Oxford Press to publish your manuscript and so on for these men and women to overcome.

on the right, of course, it's never been quite as hard to imagine subsuming your beliefs underneath the aegis of just fucking winning.

Posted by: Robert Green | Oct 19, 2006 1:21:31 PM

jb wrote,

That's quite a strawman, liberal.

What strawman? Geolibertarians have a consistent philosophy which is quite admirable. The remaining so-called libertarians despise liberty---they think it's fine for individuals to seize natural resources (preventing or charging for access) and defend their possession via force. (Said force to be issued or at least blessed by the government in the minarchist view, AFAICT.)

Thus, I don't see how (non-geo)-libertarians are substantially different from feudalist thugs.

But even where people might disagree about land as property, libertarians are the only ones who maintain consistent freedom in what you say, what you do, how you spend your money and how you govern yourself.

LOL! Yes, after you've paid a landowner a fee for a place to sleep, water to drink, and a spot to labor, you're free.

Having to pay a landowner for access to natural resources that existed with no help from the landowner bears lots of similarities to being enslaved, even if it's not identical.

I'll take the 90% of the "royal" libertarians over the 40% of the democrats and 37% of the republicans.

OK, you side with feudal-like thugs. That's your problem.

There is more to freedom than land ownership, your characterization notwithstanding.

Maybe if you either despise true freedom, or don't have an understanding of economics (rent in particular).

Posted by: liberal | Oct 19, 2006 1:29:21 PM

In fairness to Atrios and Instapundit, they don't write econ/law blogs in the manner of Mankiw or Volokh or Jack Balkin. OTOH, and regrettably, Althouse intersperses her American Idol summaries and crazy allegations of 'breastblogging' with posts on legal matters that are, suffice to say, far below the standards of academic writing (including, hopefully, her own).

Posted by: kth | Oct 19, 2006 1:31:40 PM

Robert Green wrote, (mankiw's traffic is much smaller than duncan black's, for instance, though mankis is a much better known and more respected person in his field).

A stronger critique is I think the "founder effect," so to speak: I actually think Atrios is pretty smart, but it's doubtful he'd be anywhere if he were starting out today. (And don't get me started on the low signal-to-noise ratio in his comment sections.)

Posted by: liberal | Oct 19, 2006 1:34:41 PM

Sanpete writes:

"Orkon, while you're waiting for Ezra to answer your question (it might be a long wait), explain why this of all books is such an important one for you."

I ask the question because I believe the answer to be "no," which would mean that the New Republic hired someone to write a review of "In Our Hands" who hadn't read "The Bell Curve."

I just started reading Ezra's blog recently, and I was taken aback by how confidently he wrote here last week about TBC, when much of what he said just wasn't in the book. Whenever I called him on something in comments -- with citations from the book, asking on point, short questions of him -- he ignored them or restated incorrect assertions without citation.

So I'm a little skeptical now when he writes on any topic, since a topic I know well (IQ) he wrote both brashly and incorrectly on. Not a big fan of the blog overall, due to a) this suspicion that Ezra wades more deeply into subjects than he's really able to, common problem among those who blog on a very wide variety of topics, but not universal and not good) b)lack of argumentation in favor of invective (not from the commentators -- these are quite good, Sanpete, Duwayne, etc.) and c) tendency to not concede points (even the misuse of "wherefore"!).

Posted by: Orkon | Oct 19, 2006 1:50:01 PM

I don't know exactly why it is, but Libertarians are over-represented in technology generally, not just blogging. There is a whole lot larger percentage of libertarian computer programmers, then there are in the general public. Perhaps it is the inherent anarchy of the internet that appeals to them.

I think though that many tech geeks are libertarians, and tech geeks are more likely to blog (and especially have been one of the early adopters) that is the root of this phenomenon.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Oct 19, 2006 1:55:25 PM

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