Why no posts?
1. I don’t plan on posting much anyhow.
2. I’m in Istanbul, getting resettled, and have spent much less time on my computer as of late.
3. Related to point 1, I continue my practice of waiting a day before posting something. Yesterday it seemed worth noting that I originally thought this was a parody of everything that is terrible about sports journalism, and then spending 15 minutes outlining why its so bad. Today, it doesn’t.
I often decide against writing “why the hell do people refer to Matt Yglesias as a left blogger?” posts. It just seems much more accurate to just call him a blogger. I don’t go ahead and actually write these because I dislike playing the ideological cop/judge. At the same time, there are limits! And when Iraq War supporters who think it makes sense to turn Medicare into a cash grant represent the left, this is a problem. This is difficult stuff for me to write, because it sounds like I’m criticizing him, but I’m not. I mean, I do disagree and am critical, but thats not my point. Bracketing my personal positions on these issues, he is just an absolutely terrible representative of the left. If I were to fall into a post-30right-wing conversion, I’d feel the same.
The problem with Yglesias as a left blogger is not that he disagrees with other leftists. It is not that he is heterodox. It is that his disagreement with the left seems to be driven by (or at the very least fits perfectly in with) the blogosphere’s seriousness cult. It is reasonable, smart, wonkish, and seriousness to concede some points to Reihan Salam. Yglesias did us the service of providing his rational for supporting the Iraq War, and if you read this you don’t get the image of an unorthodox leftist, or a misguided leftist. You get the image of a “blogger.” A very serious person. Even if Hitchens’ warmongering was more nauseating and offensive, it was recognizable as leftism gone wrong. Very wrong but you could trace it to some sort of leftist orientation.
If you look at the reasons Yglesias gives for his Iraq mistake they speak volumes. Trusting a Clinton on Iraq? Biden? I’m sure that is all smart and serious and stuff, but after the 90s what sort of leftist trusts a Clinton on Iraq? Nonetheless, it is at least admirable he admits to a mistake and even gives us some pretty direct self-criticism:
So that’s that. You can, however, always get more psychological. I was 21 years old and kind of a jerk. Being for the war was a way to simultaneously be a free-thinking dissident in the context of a college campus and also be on the side of the country’s power elite.
Now, lets ignore the jerk part, because this really isn’t about criticizing Yglesias or being mean. Doesn’t “free-thinking dissident on the side of the country’s power elite” characterize his work better than leftist. Maybe this is just resolved by calling him a liberal, in which case I’d have little desire to criticize his credentials. It is just that whenever I see someone refer to him as a “left blogger” and think of his politics I get a bit distressed.
And usually I resist saying anything. Then I see things like this. Last year a paper by Zeljka Buturovic and Daniel B. Klein showed that left progressives are unenlightened about economics. Here is how Yglesias describes his initial response:
One response that occurred to me at the time was that the survey’s questions seemed to have been selected so as to ensure that the left-wing answer was also the wrong one.
He then goes on to discuss their newer paper that takes this critique into account by including questions where the right-wing answer would be the wrong one. Now Yglesias has a valid point. Some people have a tendency to rely on economic textbook knowledge when it fits their worldview, and dismiss it when it doesn’t. Ok, fine. Not sure anyone would argue with that. But what sort of leftist uncritically accepts claims from economists that a particular answer is wrong or “unenlightened” in the language of the article.
In response to the original article, David Ruccio points out (shorter, longer) that these questions are theory-dependent. For example, it was unenlightened for people to agree with the claim that: “Third-world workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited.”
Indeed, many of the terms (exploitation, standard of living) are theory-laden and ambiguous without context. In these cases, unenlightened answers of “I dunno” might have been signs of sophistication.
Remember this isn’t an intermediate level course on standard microeconomics. A student responsible for understanding neoclassical theory’s treatment of exploitation should know the “right answer” for their exam. If they give the wrong answer I’ll deduct points without blinking. But for Yglesias this is just wrong. It might be left-wing to think workers (in the third and first) are exploited, but it is wrong. It is worth noting that he considers himself a student/authority on economics (here and here) so this is not him wading into unfamilar territory.
Ruccio also notes the irony of the authors’ approach to economic enlightenment:
Only the most unenlightened would devise an examination according to which only those answers that correspond to the one given by neoclassical economists are considered correct, and all others incorrect.
To be honest, I give the original authors somewhat of a pass here. I do not have high expectations of pluralism from economists. But a leftist? Again, it is the situation where you really don’t want to play ideological cop, but you just can’t help asking, “what sort of a leftist..?” And, as usual, if you think of Yglesias as a “blogger” with all its connotations and denotations – positive and negative – it makes absolute sense. Can’t you just picture Yglesias and Salam giggling about how unenlightened their respective ideological pairs are? “I mean, I’m a proud leftist but what sort of a silly, unserious person thinks workers are exploited!”