*The Ideas Industry*, the new Dan Drezner book

by on April 7, 2017 at 7:17 am in Books, Education, Political Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

The subtitle of this new and fascinating volume is How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas.  Think of this as an update of Richard Posner’s work on public intellectuals, but explaining where a world of social media and higher income inequality and greater polarization has put us.  Wisely, Drezner does not idealize the milieu of Susan Sontag and the Commentary crowd, but still some things have become worse, due largely to the lack of trusted gatekeepers.  For one thing, current superstar status encourages shortcuts and pandering and the evolution of thoughtful “public intellectuals” into evangelizing “thought leaders.”  On the macro level, we are in an equilibrium where every position is argued, verification in the eyes of the reader is doubtful, and the level of trust keeps falling.  That in turn lowers quality, which causes trust to fall further yet, and that also has feedback onto the kind of superstars that rise and persist.

And yes, individual offenders are named!  (You’ll have to buy the book for that.)

In my conversation with Dan yesterday, we pondered whether a high water mark of sorts, for the quality of public intellectual discussion, might have been reached in the late 1980s (e.g., Fukuyama, Nye, Huntington, Friedman, but just a hypothesis, I am not attributing this view to him).  Ultimately I still prefer the present day, having become addicted to freedom of entry and large audiences and a higher percentage of weirdos on the content side.  Yet the larger audiences (yes, you!) are a mixed blessing, and the desire to pander to them, and to give them a voice on social media, ultimately may lead to lower quality feedback being passed along to elites.  The ongoing polarization and exaggeration of discussion is hard to stop, for instance one of the most famous and highest status public intellectuals covered by Dan — Paul Krugman — only a few days ago on Twitter called Trump a “corrupt Russian puppet.”  Krugman is not even one of the figures Dan criticizes.

Going back to Dan’s book, what he prefers is — to summarize it bluntly — TED talks with rebuttals and referee reports.  I am fine with the idea, but I wonder if it doesn’t just cement in the outcome where all comments and positions are staked out with both a vehemence and a lack of resolution.  And as Dan himself points out in other contexts, criticism itself cements in the superstar status of the targets in most cases, and a reasonable consensus may be as likely to recede as anything else.  Ideally Dan wishes to ease “idea exit” rather than restrict “idea entry,” but I am not sure you can have the former without some version of the latter.

There is a very interesting chapter on how this new world has boosted the relative status of economists amongst the social sciences, for instance relative to political scientists.  The first person observations about Dan’s own career are extensive and fascinating.

My take on all this is to prefer a higher-trust-in-experts equilibrium for its practical properties, yet without believing the trust actually is deserved, giving me again a slight affinity with Strauss.  Is there an equilibrium where a high level of trust can be maintained more or less forever?  Or is it like an optimal resource extraction problem, namely that most kinds of trust end up being cashed in, you just hope it was for some good purpose (public support for the bailouts to avoid another 1929?, to cite another of Dan’s books.)

Two topics I wish were discussed more were a) the corrupting influence of consulting, and b) the unwillingness of many intellectuals to address particular issues at all, rather than bias in what they do say.  Of course in both cases accountability is harder to enforce; on the former there are typically no public records, and on the latter it is rarely the responsibility of any particular individual to speak up (“I will pontificate on all sorts of things, but I don’t work on that topic.”)  The resulting lack of transparent, identifiable violations can make these problems all the more insidious.

Over coffee, or rather mineral water for me, I challenged Dan on the notion that social trust actually has gone down — not in businesses, I would say — and offered contrarian takes on Jared Kushner and the trajectory of American power, maybe you will hear more about those soon.  In the meantime, this is one of the thought-provoking books of the year, most of all for those who seek to better understand the world we are all swimming in.

1 Axa April 7, 2017 at 7:45 am

I share your worry about “just cement in the outcome where all comments and positions”.

I dislike TED talks. It’s like 18th century French positivism, scientism. The question people should answer before listening to a thought leader is: do science has reliable answers? Of course science works: planes fly and some illness can be cured. But, other topics are still in the blur. It’s good to be curious, but why the hurry for answers? The problem is that people already has an answer and just look for ways to justify it with “science”. The reality is that we ignore a lot of things, but we can be happy with the things we already know and keep discovering.

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2 Thiago Ribeiro April 7, 2017 at 8:17 am

“on Twitter called Trump a “corrupt Russian puppet.”
Is he or is he not? The point is, the American system is broken – government is broken, the press is broken, the Justice system is broken. People believe in no one anymore, be it Crooked Clinton or Russian Trump because they know no real investigatio will be done, it is all politics. In Brazil, one knows if a politician is guilty or not because the system works, the press and authorities work for the People, not to score points for their political team. When then Vice President Temer was trying to get re-elected and was accused of being a Satanist, the Press did not stop digging until they got to the bottom of the issue, which ended up proving his innocence. How can Mr. Trump be president if half the country thinks he is a fifth-collumnist who sold this own country to Moscow. How could Mrs. Clinton be president if half the country believed she killed American diplomatic personnel and used her positions to earn corrupt money and eliminate her Arkansas enemies?

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3 Cassiodorus April 7, 2017 at 11:42 am

The system works in Brazil? Page me when all of the other politicians engaged in the sort of corruption Dilma was are sitting in cells beside her.

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4 Thiago Ribeiro April 7, 2017 at 12:25 pm

She was not personally corrupt. Her corrupt ministers and allied governors and Congressmen are being jailed like flies. Her ticket funds (which means current President Temer’s, too) are being investigated. She and her adversaries may have received illegal money from some businessmen, who are jailed anyway. What we already know is, it will be a brave, thorough investigation pretty unlike what happened with Mrs. Clinton’s emails or Mr. Trump’s Russian ties.

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5 Boonton April 7, 2017 at 12:23 pm

Here’s what you are missing. F**k what you say ‘half the country thinks’. Most of the country does not think at all and will quickly change opinions with slim information just based on whether or not things seem to be working or failing.

So thinking about what others think is of very limited value unless you’re running a polling company and care about a spot measure of public opinion. What matters is what really is. If Hillary Clinton was super corrupt, that would matter over the long run. Fact is she wasn’t (if she was someone would have actually proven it in a court of law). If Trump is too indebted to Russia for comfort, that matters….and the facts are indeed lining up that way.

Why does it matter what reality is? People will go with something if it seems to be working or at least not failing badly. So it’s possible Trump is a complete tool of Russia and totally unfit but he will luck out, nothing too bad will happen. We’ll be visited by UFO’s who’ll give us a cure for all illness as a gift, all nice stuff will break out. But over the long run reality beats out luck. Some people will pay attention to the road and nonetheless crash the car, others may drive drunk and blindfolded and not crash. But on average you’re more likely to crash with the latter than the former so go with the former.

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6 Thiago Ribeiro April 7, 2017 at 12:31 pm

“F**k what you say ‘half the country think'””.

Meanwhile, a desperate populace, whose every attempt to know the truth has been repulsed, loses its faith in the system. Its petitions have been slighted; its remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; its supplications have been disregarded; and it has been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may it indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. Only the Trumps are left. This is how democracy dies, with thunderous expletives.

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7 Dzhaughn April 7, 2017 at 3:48 pm

In this episode, Thiago says the problem is people overstating things…

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8 Thiago Ribeiro April 7, 2017 at 4:28 pm

It is more than just thaf. The whole system is broken. The Press does not work. The Justice system has been politicized. Government and corporations have turned on the people and care only about their own interests. There are good resons to think the current president is a foreign asset. The so-called American Dream has gone sour.

9 Pshrnk April 7, 2017 at 3:34 pm

Imperfect is not a synonym for broken

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10 Thiago Ribeiro April 7, 2017 at 4:22 pm

The system does not work anymore! This is exactly what broken means!

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11 Ted Craig April 7, 2017 at 8:43 am

The thing is, Drezner started out as a non-tenured professor who made his mark with the liberal use of the term “horseshit.” He’s a smart guy with good credentials, but there are dozens, if not hundreds, of people like that. It was access to a wide audience that made him who is today.

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12 vd April 7, 2017 at 8:55 am

Professors are generally not members of the elite. Public intellectuals don’t exist in the way they used to; what we have today are intellectually capable entertainment writers (Posner, Gladwell, etc). Not that this is a bad development; even in the old days of public intellectuals they did not exactly have a good track record. The ted talks/smart books are enjoyable consumption, but they are ignored by elites who actually make decisions. I’ve been consulted numerous time by various state govt

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13 vd April 7, 2017 at 8:55 am

But am under no illusion that professors have any real say or influence with the levers of power

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14 prior_test2 April 7, 2017 at 9:26 am

Mainly because when talking about the sort of people that populate the GMU econ dept., the relationship is decidedly the other way round.

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15 Mr Cheerful April 7, 2017 at 9:03 am

“Yet the larger audiences (yes, you!) are a mixed blessing, and the desire to pander to them, and to give them a voice on social media, ultimately may lead to lower quality feedback being passed along to elites.”

{cough} P-A {ahem}

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16 prior_test2 April 7, 2017 at 9:28 am

No elites listening to me – and it’s been decades since being paid to write what they approve of.

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17 Tom T. April 7, 2017 at 9:14 am

I think we’d all like less competition in our jobs, but we don’t write self-indulgent books about it. Looking back nostalgically at failed thinkers and hacks like Fukuyams and Friedman and wondering why trust in public intellectuals has diminished just looks hapless. And the idea that we get the Krugman we deserve amusingly calls to mind the movie “Gremlins” — shame on all of us for feeding him after midnight. Don’t compound the problem by getting him wet.

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18 Brian Donohue April 7, 2017 at 9:17 am

“There is a very interesting chapter on how this new world has boosted the relative status of economists amongst the social sciences, for instance relative to political scientists.”

The word ‘relative’ is doing a lot of work in that sentence.

Y’all deserve it. There is no such thing as a macroeconomics expert. Sorry. As for the rest of the social sciences, they have fully earned their lack of respect and trust.

Interesting speculation about trust in the business world. Of course, this is just speculation on your part. Or are you somehow also an expert on business now?

There are actually lots of smart and interesting people out there. But by all means, continue rubbing shoulders with the Dan Drezner’s of this world. He has a lot of Twitter followers, which I understand you attach great importance to.

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19 prior_test2 April 7, 2017 at 9:32 am

Twitter is a metric – something that appeals to a certain type of economist.

Though not to economists like Smith, Marx, Veblen or Ricardo. But really, who cares about people like that – they didn’t even use graphs, much less infographics.

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20 Edward Burke April 7, 2017 at 9:38 am

One day this week, TC had an MR post that somehow got garbled in translation and which was promptly removed, something about evidence contrary to the widening perception that our tech marvels are somehow stultifying.

That post would’ve amounted to the barest tip of a large iceberg. This post itself is barely above the waterline. –and look: yonder sails the Titanic, and it’s coming this way.

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21 Jeff R April 7, 2017 at 10:07 am

For one thing, current superstar status encourages shortcuts and pandering and the evolution of thoughtful “public intellectuals” into evangelizing “thought leaders.”

Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias tell me they don’t understand the problem here.

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22 JWatts April 7, 2017 at 10:12 am

“Thought Leaders” just doesn’t have any panache. “Thought Evangelists” has a nice ring to it, but the word Evangelist would never cut it in the circles they inhabit.

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23 Art Deco April 7, 2017 at 10:10 am

I cannot imagine spending more than 10 minutes in a room with Daniel Drezner without facing an uncontrollable impulse to leave or break his nose.

Wisely, Drezner does not idealize the milieu of Susan Sontag and the Commentary crowd, but still some things have become worse, due largely to the lack of trusted gatekeepers.

Or due to the decline in the quality of mind from one age cohort to another. It is difficult to locate a public intellectual under the age of 60 who merits much respect. Megan McArdle, Ryan Anderson, Ross Douthat, and…..

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24 AlanG April 7, 2017 at 11:40 am

” It is difficult to locate a public intellectual under the age of 60 who merits much respect. Megan McArdle, Ryan Anderson, Ross Douthat, and…..”
I don’t understand this sentence. Are you saying those three do deserve respect? Certainly the jury is in on Ms. McArdle – a resounding no respect. Douthat – barely marginal respect. Don’t know Ryan Anderson and thus cannot pass judgement.

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25 Art Deco April 7, 2017 at 12:42 pm

You have dreadful judgment, which is not my problem or theirs.

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26 Ray Lopez April 7, 2017 at 12:04 pm

TED talks says TC. HA! Out of the 2400+ TED talks, only three mention patents, and in a light-hearted way, see below.

No, expert opinion is indeed still behind the curve, internet or no. Nobody is brave enough to discuss patents in a smart way (save I), certainly not any economist in the blogosphere. TC tries to suggest by implication we need a better patent policy, with his “Complacency” and “Great Stagnation” theme (by negative implication) but never does quite bring himself to mentioning it, probably because his ‘free marketeer’ worldview doesn’t believe in government intervention (which is what a patent is). So trade secret is the preferred route, and, worse, there’s potential inventors out there who are not incentivized to invent anything, since it’s a loser’s game monetarily. The undiscovered Einstein is working as a patent clerk, Walmart clerk, or Wall Street clerk making a comfortable safe salary as a bureaucrat or paper shuffler.

RL

TED talks:

Tania Simoncelli
Should you be able to patent a human gene?
Posted Jan 2016
Rated Informative, Inspiring

Ellen ‘t Hoen
Pool medical patents, save lives
Posted Dec 2012
Rated Informative, Persuasive

Drew Curtis
How I beat a patent troll
Posted Apr 2012
Rated Funny, Informative

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27 Dain April 7, 2017 at 12:10 pm

A list of anti-public intellectual public intellectuals: Taleb, Ryan Holiday…

Any others?

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28 Jack Lifton April 7, 2017 at 12:49 pm

If Paul Krugman is Drezner’s idea of an intellectual leader then he cannot tell the difference between a partisan and a critic.

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29 Paul April 7, 2017 at 2:00 pm

Krugman has given a TED talk. That’s the admission ticket/badge for being an “intellectual leader” these days. No actual followers are necessary.

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30 Dzhaughn April 7, 2017 at 3:54 pm

Many regard Krugman as an intellectual leader, so he is an intellectual leader. More is the pity.

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31 Art Deco April 7, 2017 at 4:12 pm

Twenty years ago, he was a fairly non-sectarian figure who might ding other economists in print on occasion (Lester Thurow, Steve Hanke), but was not strongly aligned politically and not polemical. He rapidly decayed in his late 40s for obscure reasons.

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32 Neil S April 7, 2017 at 5:59 pm

There seems to be some correlation with his move from slate to the nytimes ( which called for him to write articles that were much shorter and thus less rigorous) and his marriage to his extremely progressive wife.

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33 Art Deco April 7, 2017 at 8:44 pm

I assume Robin Wells writes the column. IIRC, he wrote for Business Week and Fortune or Forbes. The problem isn’t the format. What’s odd is that they’d been married for more than 15 years when his column very suddenly turned to s***. Since he’s a Nobel laureate, he may get a biography from someone competent, and one question will have to be wha’ happened?

34 GU April 7, 2017 at 4:29 pm

“Over coffee, or rather mineral water for me, . . .”

You’re taking this whole Mormon thing a little too far Tyler.

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35 Thiago Ribeiro April 7, 2017 at 5:23 pm

“Supposing a senator asked you for advice about whether drilling a hole should be done in his state; and you decide it would he better in some other state. If you don’t publish such a result, it seems to me you’re not giving scientific advice. You’re being used. If your answer happens to come out in the direction the government or the politicians like, they can use it as an argument in their favor; if it comes out the other way, they don’t publish it at all. That’s not giving scientific advice.”

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