Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tempering Subjectivity:
Professionalism and Fandom in Punditry and Economics

Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.
G. K. Chesterton (1874 - 1936)
Are we all so predictable as thinkers that others know what we will say before we say it? I'm afraid that too often the answer is yes. A further concern is that modern communications exacerbates the problem. That encourages us to cast people some people as the good guys, others as the bad guys, and from that emerges sympathy for some ideas and antipathy for contrary views. But this means we rarely look at the weakness in the views we hold nor in the strengths of the counter arguments. That brings thinking and prejudice too close in alignment, in my view.

I developed a habit that dates back to my college days, of looking at the Op-Ed pages in the newspaper first. (At the time, this was to wean me from reading the sports section first. Now I hardly ever read the sports section of the national papers and use ESPN as its own separate source of information.) In the last several months or so I've taken to do that for both the New York Times and the Washington Post. This being Monday, Ross Douthat has his weekly column, usually thoughtful but reliably Conservative. And E.J. Dionne is likewise observant, but from the Liberal perspective. Today each writes about the debt ceiling issue and the performance of the Republicans. Knowing that you can anticipate the scope of their respective columns. They are mostly about confirmation of prior held views. I learn more from Douthat's column, because when I take sides I'm Liberal and I've been doing more of that lately, so I don't always think through how Conservatives rationalize behavior, particularly on whether one owns up to that an error in judgment was made about not taking the "big deal" or if true believe instincts are the rule of the day. In this case Douthat admits the error, though I think he strains too far in giving his explanation. In contrast, Dionne just bashes the Republicans as do nothings, focused on symbolic gestures rather than on governing. Before moving on, let me note here that so far I haven't seen a parallel made between these debt ceiling talks and the so-called "peace process" between Israelis and Palestinians, which as everyone knows hasn't produced a peace. I don't know why that connection isn't being made and made regularly. It seems to me that if the argument were presented that way the Tea Party types in Congress would have to articulate that they prefer gridlock to a negotiated solution because they anticipate winning a significant enough majority in the near future to get what they want. Given such beliefs it would be a rational position, though how they'd come to that belief is something the public really needs to know.

Last week, it occurred to me that this one-sidedness in perceiving how pundits articulate their views had invaded the economics profession very strongly, when on the Charlie Rose Show I heard David Leonhardt refer to Martin Feldstein as a Republican Economist. (He chaired the Council of Economic Advisers under Reagan, but he was not a supply sider at all.)

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