*The Ideas Industry*, the new Dan Drezner book

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.


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