Arnold Kling  

More Tea and Sympathy

PRINT
What Would You Like to See on ... Reminder...

Again, off mission so below the fold.

Not only is this off the mission of economic education, but it violates another rule--when you're in a hole, stop digging.

Readers have commented on my ambiguity, elitism, and the vagueness of "both sides will lose."

The ambiguity is genuine. I don't want to go to the faculty picnic. I am extremely uncomfortable in settings that include nothing but academics. I have written in the past of my inability to fit in with what I call the sherry-sipping, repartee-trading types.

I can get along much better with heartland-America types. A crowd of them is much better than a crowd of intellectuals. (People have noted that the demonstration on Saturday left much less trash behind than a typical left-wing demonstration. Of course. Heartland America does not take it for granted that other people will clean up for you.) On the other hand, heartland America is not going to suggest interesting books for me to read or say something at lunch that gives me something to ponder for a couple of days.

As to elitism, I believe that I belong to an elite class of individuals who is capable of handling very difficult academic subjects. I would not go farther than that. In particularly, I would not say that this class of individuals ought to have lots of political power. On the contrary, I see mostly harm in the way that educated elites have exercised power, from The Best and the Brightest in Vietnam through the current economic crisis.

One of my running disagreements with David Brooks is over the fitness of the academic elite to govern. This essay, written eight years ago, stiill resonates in many ways.

I think that the best solution to the elitist/populist dilemma is an elite with humility. Don't let the mob rule, but at the same time don't let the elite get too sure of itself. As I've often written, I favor strong civil society, not strong government.

Why will both sides lose? The Tea Party-ers hate the Progressives, and vice-versa. It may not be possible for the same government to earn legitimacy in the eyes of both of these large, politically committed groups. That suggests an eventual break-up of some sort. Such a break-up could end up as a lose-lose.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (21 to date)
aez writes:

Bracing. Thank you.

stephen writes:

Keep going off mission. Its good stuff.

SydB writes:

I find this current discussion incoherent and largely unmotivated by anything other than possible bias. Having grown up the son of a machinist who lacked a high school diploma, in a lower middle class white neighborhood, and now having many academic degrees and living in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America, I think your observations say more about the observer than that observed.

I've personally worked in hardware stores, a termite business, a shoe store, a liquor store in a blue collar neighborhood--and some of the largest most successful companies in the world.

And I'm baffled by your observations.

roo writes:

Even though you wrote this to address the vagueness, it's still very unclear what's meant by a break-up. Unless the economy completely falls apart, how could that conceivably happen?

To make such a statement I think it's likely that you overestimate the degree to which most Americans care about current political struggles. If the country survived a time of desegregation and vietnam intact, I think it can handle a few hundred thousand 50somethings railing against federal spending, despite journalistic attempts to portray this and some congressmen getting shouted at as the harbinger of some political apocalypse.

Alex J. writes:

The elite would run everyone's lives poorly. The rabble would run everyone's lives poorly. The way out of this is to let people run their own lives, rather than everyone else's. Of course, to a large but shrinking extent, that's how things are arranged today.

Regarding the tea partyers, if an organization is going to be proactive, it's going to have to act as a unified structure. (Like an army's feigned retreat or blitzkrieg thrust.) To do that, it's going to need some internal hierarchy. A grassroots organization devoted to reducing the elite's control over things is going to have difficulty acting in concert.

tom writes:

Arnold, that was prescient. Reading it, I could have predicted Brooks' future close and conflicted relationship with Obama much better than I would have just by reading Bobos. He writes of Bobos and is a Bobo. And I haven't read Moral Politics, so I'd always assumed that it was simple neutral description of conservatives and liberals. I didn't know Lakoff managed to derive an opposition to conservatives from his belief that strict daddies are bad for kids.

It's funny that your off-message posts come at the same time as Bryan's monogamy posts. Your take is much more conservatie than Bryan's.You and Patri Friedman (assuming that was him) both want 'exit', but you are hoping to enter very different things!

I'd say you missed one thing in your essay. Bobos will confront those who both question the morality of their beliefs and lack victim status under those beliefs. A lot of people in that category might have been marching.

If I could guess something more optimistic than you do, without knowing how the economy and our wars will go over the next year, I'd say that the structure of the Senate may exercise a limit on how far Democrats will push things over the next few years. There are a lot of hick states with 2 Senators and they count just as much as New York's and California's.

Adam writes:

Amen to that--a civil society. Wouldn't that be great: free exchange of ideas and goods; stable rights and responsibilities; recognition of knowledge and it's fragile composition; respect for the moral authority of each person. A civil society is wholly different from the 'Atlas Shugged' economy that seems to be on order from the Federal government.

Tom writes:

Arnold,
I just wanted to chime in and say you're not alone in your general orientation here. Minus the parts about being in DC, I could have written much of your two posts on the subject.

RL writes:

"I think that the best solution to the elitist/populist dilemma is an elite with humility."

If you're not already familiar with it, you should read some of Charles Murray's stuff: he makes similar points and offers solutions. Look at, for example, his Real Education.

Robert writes:

"People have noted that the demonstration on Saturday left much less trash behind than a typical left-wing demonstration. Of course. Heartland America does not take it for granted that other people will clean up for you.)"

1. 09/12 was a much, much smaller event. 1.5 million people vs. 80k?.

2. There are many pictures of the piles of trash left behind on 09/12.

Mike Rulle writes:

I read your book Learning Economics a few years back and thought it was written with great clarity. You still write with great clarity. But you are digging a hole on this one.

I remember a comment you made a few months back comparing Reagan and Palin. You may have said a dozen things of importance that day---but one statement stood out among all others. You said something like "I doubt Palin could understand Hayek", implying Reagan could. I was a bit surprised because of its clear "elitist" perspective--(ironic how Reagan became the "elite"; still don't know when that happened).

I am not sure many people could "understand Hayek", including, say, me. He was absurdly prolific and intricate. But I bet many could read Russell Robert's various novels (like Price of Everything) and understand those, including many of the people you saw in the crowd (and including Palin, for example).

You may be right that this movement is the last stand before we go full bore into a permanent centralized anti-Hayekian progressive government world. But that does not make it less meaningful. These people are Hayekians in their essence--whether they "understand" it or not.

This movement needs people like you who understand what they/we are about--not standing on the sideline proud of your critique of Brooks (duh!)--while not quite believing these people have any substance. These people (like me) need intellectuals who see the essence of the movement which I believe is self evidently a movement toward more freedom.

CK writes:

Buckley voiced this exactly many decades ago when he made his famous remark about the first 2000 names in the Cambridge phonebook. And if he wasn't a member of the elite, then no such thing exists.

The older I get, the more I think that this is all about stylistic distinctions and not much more. I don't like the idea of being ruled by a technocratic elite, but it often feels to me as though we're getting the elite condescension without the technocratic expertise.

As an example, look at our new bete noire Van Jones. Aside from his questionable past associations, this technocrat was supposed to run what was essentially supposed to be something like a multi-billion dollar VC fund. I expect the administration to have a fair share of Yale Law grads and community organizers, but this guy would never be made a partner in a VC fund unless he was being selected as a Chicago-style political fixer. With all the enthusiasm for Obama in Silicon Valley, you would think they could have found a guy with a hardcore finance or engineering background. I wonder if they even looked?

Tom writes:

Mike Rulle:
The distinction, I think, between Reagan and Palin is that Reagan bothered to accumulate elite-style knowledge and had read and thought seriously before being nominated to national office. Take a look at In His Own Hand, a collection of radio addresses he'd prepared in the 1970's. The problem with Palin was she didn't know what she thought about things and came off uninformed and unintelligent. The problem I had is not just that, but further that it wasn't clear she (or those who supported her most) considered those problems to be remedied as opposed to virtues to be promoted. She'd have been a much better candidate in 2012 or 2016 if she'd bothered to figure out what she thought about different things.

El Presidente writes:

Adam,

Amen to that--a civil society. Wouldn't that be great: free exchange of ideas and goods; stable rights and responsibilities; recognition of knowledge and it's fragile composition; respect for the moral authority of each person. A civil society is wholly different from the 'Atlas Shugged' economy that seems to be on order from the Federal government.

What moral authority? If anybody is a moral authority, they are above reproach. I know of no such person. I would concede moral agency, but that is different.


CK,

Buckley voiced this exactly many decades ago when he made his famous remark about the first 2000 names in the Cambridge phonebook. And if he wasn't a member of the elite, then no such thing exists.

That may be what Buckley wanted, but that would be a poor choice. So long as we all get a vote, I'm gonna have to negate one such vote with mine. In my experience, the problem with governments is not that they are too expert. Far from it. In my experience, the problem is more often that goals are poorly defined and real experts are constrained to the point that their expertise is ineffectual or unbalanced.

If you're interested in a light-hearted but useful take on this, I recommend Idiocracy. Or I could refer you to several economic development professinals who have never taken even an introductory course in, uh, economics. They know how to make sure the right "developer" gets a subsidy though. Do you suppose they get away with what they do because they're "experts"? The truth is, they don't even understand the economic effects of what they're doing. No, it's not overbearing expertise we suffer from. It's the assertion of moral authority we cannot possess at the expense of moral agency we cannot abdicate. It's placing rights before responsibilities rather than on par with them.

SydB writes:

Yeah, please don't compare Reagan and Palin. I didn't agree with everything he did, voted for him once, and I think his understanding of issues was possibly superficial at times, but his writings show a reflective person and his actions demonstrate a pragmatist when the need arose.

Palin seems very uninformed and, in particular, she seems uninformed about how uninformed she is. That's the worse kind of uninformed. Not unlike Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns.

After some thought, I think Mr Kling's problem is not elites. It's winners and those with power (often the same). Because it doesn't matter whether it's the "elite" or the "common folk," when they win big their ego attributes all their success to themselves and that's the first step towards something stupid.

This whole discussion of elite versus common folk has no real reference. It's all mixed up. He's mad at the winners and those with power who use it (in particular use it to step on his rights--but that comes from the left and the right if you ask me).

Atahualpa writes:

The Tea-Party crowd seem worse to me than the Progressives in several dimensions. The Tea-Party protesters seem to want for arguments; instead they have some free association games involving chiefly the words liberty, freedom, socialism and constitution that are supplemented by some wildly inaccurate beliefs about where Barack Obama was born, death panels, czars and illegal immigrants. The deepest thoughts that they have are arguments that invoke the founders and constitution, but those are no better considered, founded or sensible than their other fixations. The leftist protesters of days not-long-past at least had particular targets, wanted the government to stop doing some things without much indication of wanting to overthrow it and weren't keen upon toppling every this and that.

If progressives regard these people as illegitimate, it's something of an answer in kind as their invocation of revolutionary war era imagery suggests that they see the government and the left that they exaggeratedly see as controlling it illegitimate.

And I imagine that if one had asked them about the government and politics four years ago, then again today, the answers given would have been quite at odds with one another. These people do not seem laudable, impressive or even deserving of relevance. If the opposition embraces them, they will only drag it down.

citi.zen writes:

You should enjoy this Onion news bulletin:

http://www.hulu.com/watch/76681/onion-news-network-obama-drastically-scales-back-goals-for-america-after-visiting-dennys

CK writes:

El Pres,

Thanks, but read my whole comment, including where I said "I don't like the idea of being ruled by a technocratic elite, but it often feels to me as though we're getting the elite condescension without the technocratic expertise."

My take on the elite comes from a similar place as WFB's. By coincidence I went to the same prep school he did, and then on to a top-25 university, and now live in Boston. When Palin et al. screech about the northeastern elite, it's my people they're talking about.

And yet, my experience with my peers is that most of them have little opinion of value to offer outside their narrow area of specialized expertise. On the flip side, they are very good at coming across as refined and wise in these ways to someone who is equally misinformed.

To a large extent, I think I am picking at the same scab as when Arnold Kling talks about "Suits vs. Geeks." The elites vastly overestimate the scope of their competence.

El Presidente writes:

CK,

I _did_ read your whole remark. There seem to be several people who think I don't read before I respond. David said the same thing a couple of days ago before realizing he was incorrect. I don't know why. Perhaps because I don't always restate to verify comprehension?

The elites vastly overestimate the scope of their competence.

That may be, but I don't think that's the problem with government. I like the interpretation of WFB's remark that suggests a need for a broad cross-section of average people's concerns; consideration for more than an insular minority. Randomness tends to provide that. I strongly dislike the interpretation that suggests amateurism is as good as or preferable to professionalism. That is where the whole thing goes awry for me. When I need my car fixed, I don't seek out the services of an amateur mechanic. When I need my plumbing fixed, I don't consult a literature professor. Specialization in the field of public policy is good, and we should want those charged with making it to have access to extensive knowledge of how to do it well. It's okay to elect or appoint people who are a little soft in expertise but have a firm grasp of common goals and the ability to learn and employ effective and efficient methods. If "elites" think they have a good grasp on goals, it might be because they generally have wide exposure and have given considerable thought to things of both philosophical and practical significance. If "elites" think they are gifted in learning or creating efficient ways of doing things, it might be because they have walls plastered with degrees. They may have too high an opinion of themselves, or they may simply need to supplement their knowledge and talents with the input of others and frank, deliberate discussion about achieving common ends.

Arnold's acknowledgement that he prefers mixed company suggest he finds value in diversity, or rather that his relative value is higher when his talents are different from, but complementary to those of his companions. It doesn't suggest, to me anyhow, that he would disparage his own talents or think less of his ability to craft sound macroeconomic theory and argument. I disagree with him vehemently on many issues, but I don't question his competence in economics, or in life generally.

When he says,

"I would not say that this class of individuals ought to have lots of political power. On the contrary, I see mostly harm in the way that educated elites have exercised power, from The Best and the Brightest in Vietnam through the current economic crisis.",

I would say there is a deficiency in the exercise of power in many of these instances because goals are poorly defined, whether that is a matter of competency, process, or both. However, one who opposes the acquisition of political power by "elites", as Arnold does, must either oppose the existence of such power or prefer it be wielded by others. This creates two problematic but important conversations that require us to talk more about what we value and how we pursue it, and less about who's arrogant or overconfident.

CK writes:

El Pres,

The issue is not that I am in favor of increased amateurism, but that I am opposed to false professionalism.

- How many intelligence officials were fired after 9/11?

- How many people in the Army Corps of Engineers were let go after Katrina?

- How many macroeconomists will lose tenure or take early retirement because their research completely missed the current financial crisis?

- How many SEC officials will be demoted for completely missing the Madoff scam?

- How many C-level executives at banks and institutions bailed out by TARP have been put out to pasture?

If there is a great well of populist rage at the elites these days, it is because of the real (or perceived) lack of accountability for the sort of failure that would get most of us kicked to the curb, and rightly so.

Likewise, there is a sense that the process of staffing the elite cadre is becoming even more driven by politics and power than broad merit and expertise. Not only did the suits fail to heed the the warnings of the geeks, they are solving the problem by bringing on more suits and pushing out any geeks who disagree with them.

El Presidente writes:

CK,

I can appreciate that.

It would seem we have similar concerns with respect to process and goals.

I wonder aloud what enables such an insular minority that can be so heedless of the concerns of others. Indifference of that magnitude would require some sort of leverage, right?

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top