Lorenzo Bini-Smaghi Says He Is Flying Self-Blindfolded...
Paul Krugman Makes (Justified) Fun of Allan Meltzer, Who Does Not Know His Basic Price Theory...

Notre Dame Public Intellectualism Conference: The Blogger as Public Intellectual

Screenshot 4 23 13 7 34 AM

I find myself both in substantial agreement and in substantial disagreement with Paul Horwitz's thoughtful and very interesting notes on "The Blogger as Public Intellectual". Let me try to set out seven tentative and provisional markers of disagreement:

"That the blog is 'just' a medium does not make the particular conduit used wholly irrelevant…. [T]he age of the blog is an age of immediacy, of present-mindedness, of thinking by linking instead of thinking by reflection…. [But] the choice of the blogging medium is not in itself all that consequential with respect to the public intellectual question…"

  • I think that it is quite consequential. It seems to me that it is like the difference between the Tanakh and the Talmud: a culture that tries to present a monument--a book--that is in its and its author's self-presentation supposed to be an authoritative word, and a culture where everything is provisional, must be read in context, and is supposed to be subject to correction and development and revision and commentary. It seems to me that, in general, history tells us that the more Talmud-like intellectual communities have progressed faster and produced more insights than the Tanakh-like ones. But I may be wrong: this is just a provisional guess, subject to correction and development and revision and commentary.

"The blogosphere has made it much more possible, cheaper, and attractive for academic and other public intellectuals to write for and reach the public as opposed to writing for other academics… it has made it cheaper to be one and easier to get past the media or academic gatekeepers and find a forum… it has made it easier to speak to the present moment. Even though we now have a lot more chaff, there is more 'wheat' too."

  • Since there has always been more 'wheat' than one can possibly read, the simple coming of even more wheat is not necessarily a plus. The question, I think, is does the blogosphere allow us to produce better wheat--does the rapid-fire write, like, comment, link, revise, link, criticize, link, restate--actually produce more cogent and coherent arguments more likely to be correct? I would say "yes": I am never stupider than when in my office cut off from outside thinking all by myself for long periods of time. And there is the question of aggregation and selection. When I was in my 20s an awful lot of the public-intellectual discourse of the American left was simply what tickled the fancy of Martin Peretz, Victor Navasky or Robert Silvers; of the center what tickled the fancy of whoever edited the New York Times op-ed page; and of the right what tickled the fancy of William F. Buckley or Norman Podhoretz. Weird dudes, all of them. A more decentralized system seems to me to certainly be working much better on the left and in the center--on the right I am not sure: the right-intelligentsia seems pretty badly broken for a whole bunch of reasons I don't understand but among which may well be the coming of the internet.

"Bloggers regularly trade on their authority in one area to speak in another area about which they know little…"

  • I see it differently. Or perhaps it is just that the webloggers I read do it differently. I have, on my hall, the south hall of the 6th floor of Berkeley's Evans Hall, Christina Romer, David Romer, Martha Olney, Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas, Maury Obstfeld, and Barry Eichengreen--a truly impressive combination of intellectual power on issues of business cycles, monetary economics, leverage, and international economics. But add to that the ten political-economy weblogs I go to most often--Dean Baker, Mark Thoma, Paul Krugman, Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, Felix Salmon, Matthew Yglesias, Noah Smith, Stan Collender, Ryan Avent and company, and Jared Bernstein--and my total real plus virtual hallway becomes not just impressive but positively fearsome and ferocious: very smart people who know an immense amount who think enough like me for me to understand them and yet different enough from me for me to learn from them. The webloggers I read speak about their expertise to a much broader audience than runs into them in the hallway or than reads their working papers. And I think I am not an outlier. I recall a bureau chief for a major newspaper with international reach saying to me: "You know, on an average day I learn more from reading Ezra Klein's blog than I do from the entire national news staff of the New York Times." I recall a major Washington TV personality saying to me: "You know, I learn more from reading Nate Silver than I would learn if I watched all three of MSNBC/CNN/Fox News 24/7." And in the days surrounding the Supreme Court's decision last summer in NFIB vs. Sibelius, there were two groups--the knowledgeable sheep, who closely followed SCOTUSBlog, and the clueless goats, who did not.

"Precisely because they speak on matters of great and highly immediate public concern, public intellectual bloggers are more likely to be guided by emotion and political priors, and less likely to bring any humility or doubt…"

  • Emotion and political priors, yes--not only is their immediacy, but also all webloggers write from the center of their personal power, from the place where they are most at home and most used to deference from others. Nevertheless, if it is humility, doubt, a willingness to accept correction, and an openness to rethinking positions that you are looking for, do not look for it in a seminar room with a tenured professor in the front. Again, this is Talmud vs. Tanakh--and if you want others to concede to you when you have the better argument in a Talmudic exchange, you need to be willing to engage in rethinking as well. The blogosphere thus strikes me as healthier in this regard than the professoriate.

"Public intellectual bloggers are… more likely to mostly speak to a supportive audience… merely rallying the troops…"

  • Again, what Horwitz says is true: this is, after all, a Fallen Sublunary Sphere in which we live. But, again, I find myself wondering: compared to what? Where is this πολιτεια against which Horwitz is judging the blogosphere and finding it lacking?

"Not only will their pronouncements have a high error rate; they are also likely to be highly evanescent, disappearing without much influence and rarely being corrected for false statements or incorrect predictions; being a blogger, after all, means never having to say you're sorry."

  • Again, my experience is different: part of the price of continuing membership in a weblogging subcommunity is the requirement that one answer questions of the form: "Hey, remember last year when you said X? Do you still think X, or do you agree with me that you were wrong?"

"And the most popular bloggers, like the most popular public intellectuals, are more likely to be those who are skilled at communication and rhetoric than those who actually have expertise on the issues they're addressing. All this is just the general critique of public intellectualism itself…"

  • Not just of public intellectualism! It was ever thus: the sophist is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who search into things under the earth and in the heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others. If you find the place where expertise is valued over communication, tell me where it is and I will move there.