A tale of two ranking professors: Professor Krugman wrote an important column in yesterday’s New York Times.
Don’t get us wrong! He’s written the column a hundred times. No one in the national press corps pays a lick of attention.
Despite this unfortunate state of affairs, the column is sane and important. It helps explain the shape of our floundering culture.
In this morning’s Washington Post, Professor Lessig writes a different type of column. In fairness, his column treats important topics, as Krugman’s does.
If Lessig was a graduate student and we were his academic adviser, we’d take a red pencil and we’d suggest that his piece needs a [boa]tload of work.
Krugman discusses an important question in his column. He tries to explain how our discourse can come to be ruled by “transparently false claims and bad ideas.”
Krugman describes a “nonsense narrative” about the British economy, in which “every piece of th[e] story is demonstrably, ludicrously wrong.”
Is Krugman right about this narrative? We can’t tell you that.
But similar “nonsense narratives” dominate our own public discourse about high-profile topics—about public school test scores, let’s say. With respect to the British example, this is the way Krugman explains this peculiar state of affairs:
KRUGMAN (5/8/15): Now, every piece of this story is demonstrably, ludicrously wrong...Alas! Professionals working for major industries are quite skilled at creating “misleading analogies” and “scare stories.”
Yet this nonsense narrative completely dominates news reporting, where it is treated as a fact rather than a hypothesis. And Labour hasn’t tried to push back, probably because they considered this a political fight they couldn’t win. But why?
[Simon] Wren-Lewis suggests that it has a lot to do with the power of misleading analogies between governments and households, and also with the malign influence of economists working for the financial industry, who in Britain as in America constantly peddle scare stories about deficits and pay no price for being consistently wrong. If U.S. experience is any guide, my guess is that Britain also suffers from the desire of public figures to sound serious, a pose which they associate with stern talk about the need to make hard choices (at other people’s expense, of course.)
Still, it’s quite amazing.
For decades, our own discourse was driven by “misleading analogies” and “scare stories” about the nature of the Social Security trust fund. This scary, misleading imagery drove public debate, and policy decisions, in directions pleasing to wealthy elites.
Those misleading analogies didn’t come out of thin air. They were invented by professionals working for wealthy elites. For decades, those analogies were allowed to stand by our nation’s professors, who didn’t have sufficient smarts or social concern to challenge the dominant discourse.
The same situation obtains today as people like Nicholas Kristof mislead the public, in standardized ways, about the state of American public schools and the deeply stupid children who are said to inhabit them.
As people like Kristof behave this way, people like Lessig stay silent.
Truth? Industry-employed dissemblers are much sharper, and much more committed, than our ranking professors. We’d cite Professor Lessig’s column as an example of what we mean.
If a graduate student wrote that piece, we’d get our red pencils workin’. We’d start with the first paragraph, where the professor frames his concern in a very fuzzy way.
(Have academics really conducted a fierce debate about what the term “corruption” means? Can that be what Lessig meant? Can that be his clearest description of this ongoing debate?)
Whatever! As he continues, Lessig unloads a good deal of bile about the alleged “corruption” of the Clintons. His reasoning, though, is very weak, and his anger is quite selective.
In what way is Professor Lessig’s basic reasoning weak? Just take out your own red pencils! Mark and consider his uses of “influence” and similar terms. We think you’ll see problems arise.
Concerning his selective anger, please consider this:
Professor Lessig is angry about the Clintons’ “rapaciousness.” He thinks the Clintons have too much money, which may mean more money than him.
He seems to think that the money in question may have influenced some of their decisions. That said, he doesn’t offer examples of shady decisions, not even possible candidates.
The professor is concerned about this. As a general matter, it’s a reasonable concern.
On the other hand, the professor doesn’t show any concern about several other topics. The possibility of these concerns doesn’t seem to have entered his angry, thick head:
The professor seems to vouch for Peter Schweizer, who has written a new book, Clinton Cash. He doesn’t seem to have any concerns about what might imaginably be “influencing” Schweizer’s work.
He doesn’t seem to be concerned by Schweizer’s extremely spotty journalistic history. He isn’t concerned to see someone write an entire book of this type without offering any examples of decisions which were “influenced” by all that cash.
The professor isn’t concerned about something else. He isn’t concerned about the work the New York Times recently did in its pseudo-journalistic treatment of that scary uranium deal.
Professor Lessig isn’t concerned by all the nonsense associated with Schweizer. He isn’t concerned by the slippery work on display in that New York Times “news report.”
Next week, we’ll continue to review the way liberals have reacted to that “bombshell report” in the Times. As we do, we’ll ask you to consider the role the New York Times play in our floundering discourse.
In Professor Krugman’s column, he alleges an unfortunate state of affairs. With respect to the “nonsense narrative” in unthinking olde England, he says that “most of the British news media report this bad economics as truth.” He says “this nonsense narrative completely dominates news reporting, where it is treated as a fact.”
Over the past several decades, the New York Times has played a key role in most of our own nonsense narratives. As the Times keeps playing this role, our puffed-up professors have sat on their ascots and have stared off into air.
This morning, Lessig is concerned about the Clintons but not about the Times. In all honesty, he’s reciting script from the Times—and even from Schweizer, a very sketchy performer.
This is the way our professors have worked all through the decades in question. In yesterday’s column, Professor Krugman describes a similar process over there.
Who is Professor Lessig? At present, he is director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard.
For ethics! Professor Lessig finds no problem with the ethics of the Times. But then, within almost any culture, control of acceptable public discourse works in some such way.
More on Professor Lessig, who has such limited vision:
According to the leading authority, he earned a B.A. in economics and a B.S. in management (Wharton School) from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Cambridge (Trinity) in England, and a Juris Doctor from Yale Law School in 1989.
Professor Lessig put in the work! After reading his column, we were left with one question: