Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Comparative Hackery

In early December of 2008, on his way to Stockholm, Paul Krugman held a lecture at the Copenhagen Business School. The tickets had been quite pricey, as I recall, and they didn't sell out. I got one free on the day as an employee of CBS. He was introduced with an elaborate PowerPoint presentation, which situated his talk in a series of lectures by various people about the various crises the world faces today. But when he took the podium he merely pulled out a single piece of paper (I remember it, perhaps incorrectly, as yellow, lined note paper) unfolded it and, after thanking his hosts, began to talk. He now held forth coherently, intelligently, comfortably about the financial crisis, how it happened and what we should do about it, for about an hour and fifteen minutes, then answered questions for about forty-five more. He even offered some investment advice (buy munis, as I recall). One got the distinct impression that he was a man who had his mind all the way around his subject matter. He was lucid and informative throughout. He may not (I won't claim to know either way) have been right about everything, but he certainly knew what he was talking about. He was going to Stockholm, of course, to pick up his Nobel Prize in economics.

Andrew Gelman has asked me to compare Ferguson's brand of public intellectualism to Krugman's. As a place to begin, consider the two videos below.

The first is Niall Ferguson delivering a speech on July 3, 2012, on the occasion of Milton Friedman's 100th birthday at the Center for Policy Studies. The second is Paul Krugman on May 2, 2012, at the Economic Policy Institute, talking about his new book. They both appear to be among friends at their respective, like-minded think tanks. They both hold a short talk (Ferguson about 12 minutes, Krugman about 20 followed by questions). It's not a perfectly "fair" comparison because Ferguson had been asked to celebrate the memory of Friedman and Krugman is just supposed to present his own ideas (which is arguably a more comfortable position to be in as a speaker), but one does get a sense of the difference of intellectual persona between the two men. Perhaps even an indication of a difference in intelligence.

It's also convenient that both men begin by saying a few words about being a public intellectual. What they say, and especially the way they say it, is tellingly different. Ferguson begins by saying that he shares with Friedman "an enthusiasm for the low pursuit of journalism" (0:55), speaking admiringly of his appearances on PBS and his regular column at none other than Newsweek. "I have lapsed into writing for Newsweek myself of late," he then admits (this is before the recent "Hit the Road, Barack" blowup). All this then qualifies him to speak about "Milton Friedman, the public intellectual", which he then ironically translates into British English as "Milton Friedman, the hack". The rest of his remarks, then, are situated squarely in "the world of hackery", with which he is intimately, he assures us, familiar.

Krugman's remarks about the same theme begin by noting that "we have better economic discourse than we've ever had" because of the vibrant blogosphere. But he's not unreserved in his praise. The reason that he felt a need to write a book (about things his columns had already discussed) was that blogging, it sometimes seems to him, is too often like playing "whack-a-mole" (6:20). When you've defeated an argument it simply pops up in a new form somewhere else. But the point I want to emphasize this morning is one of tone. I think Krugman has a genuine love for public intellectualism. He really thinks it matters. Ferguson's irony (about "low pursuits", "lapses", and of course "hackery"), it seems to me, simply fails to conceal his underlying contempt for the discourse he so profitably participates in.

That's just my initial impression, of course. I'll say a bit more about it tomorrow.

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