Sunday, January 02, 2011

Ezra Klein's Rise, Kaus's Stagnation

Ezra Klein recently create a lot of snickering when he stated that no one understands the US Constitution because it is over 100 years old. As many of the US Constitution's Amendments are a couple sentences long, I think is is mainly because many don't like what it says. It is important to remember, as Fareed Zakaria noted in Illiberal Democracy, the Western model of government is best symbolized not by the mass plebiscite but the impartial judge reading from a rule-book (eg, the US Constitution). "Congress shall pass no law" regarding X is only ambiguous wording to do-gooders who find this law inconvenient.

In general, Klein's a typical wonk: a smart person who can pepper his nostrums with academic studies. That selectively pulling research, even disinterested research, is biased is one of those meta-effects most people don't notice, and in general is unprovable. The truth is complex enough that you can cherry pick data, snippets from legislation, quotes from academics, that supports/critiques any big issue of the day, and this is all the easier if it doesn't bother you to be a partisan shill.

Mickey Kaus, a 50-something who has studied these issues for decades, criticized Klein's dismissal of union problems on Slate. A couple years ago as Ezra Klein's star was rising, Klein wanted to debate Kaus about health care on, but Kaus would have none of it because he thought Klein was an unworthy neophyte (5 years out of college with a poli-sci degree). Now, Klein's one of the top lefty pundits, a columnist for The Washington Post, Newsweek, a contributor to MSNBC, and often on the Sunday talk shows. Klein is now too popular for Kaus and the tables are turned: Kaus wants to debate Klein but Klein won't stoop to Kaus's lower level of popularity.

It's kind of a sad arc, the elevation of Klein, the stagnation of Kaus. The problem with Kaus is that he's accumulated principles: he's generally a Liberal for greater equality, but thinks many standard solutions--unions, welfare, untrammeled immigration--are counterproductive. This leaves Kaus without a base because conservatives don't like his Liberal likes, whereas good Democrats don't criticize their base on things like unions and immigration.

Klein's ascent highlights that such accumulated wisdom isn't helpful to a career as a pundit. Paul Krugman's perpetually peevish posts highlight that the dominant strategy to be popular is to write-off your opposition as either stupid or evil and just document the latest data and theory that supports your Weltanschauung that brings back like-minded readers for bi-weekly confirmation of their biases. In contrast, someone like Kaus who actually thinks for himself will invariably present idiosyncratic ideas which by definition are seen by most people as unconventional and wrong. This rubs the rubes the wrong way, they see you as an undependable intellectual ally, not part of the team. In a sense, they are right.

To see how lame tendentious ratiocination is, listen to this 20 minute discussion of the economy by two macroeconomists who obviously are trying to support their quaint macro forecasts. All the experts, even these guys, know their forecasts are inferior to inarticulate Vector-Autoregressions or consensus forecasts, so it's rather pointless to hear the 'why' behind their inefficient forecasts. In any case, it's what pundits do, but without the obvious partisanship such blather is exposed for what it is: boring and pointless.


Anonymous said...

Kaus spoke at a conservative political club I belong to, and I got a chance to chat with him for 10-15 minutes afterward. He is a very knowledgeable, calm, and fair observer of the current political scene. And one of the creative thinkers on the endangered moderate left. One thing he said that stuck me (and I paraphrase here): "We on the left want to help the have-nots, but why do we prop up relatively rich and privileged union and government workers at the expense of the truly needy?"

Michael Meyers said...

I've noticed the same thing... an increase in ad hominem attacks from the political left ["stupid or evil"].

J said...

To formulate a comprehensive "consensus forecast" you need the opinions of these people. Even consulting the Pythia or Israel's chief kabbalist ("The Roentgen") would make sense. Even my humble opinion should be taken into account, may be.

Dave said...

I like Kaus, but I'm not so sure his unpopularity is due to "accumulated principles" (though he is clearly more principled than Klein, who can be a partisan hack). I think it's more that the Democratic party has shifted in character as he's gotten older, and he no longer fits comfortably within it.

I'm not sure why Kaus refused to debate Klein on health care (were they that far apart on it?), but it's worth mentioning that Klein's ascendance is due more to his ability than his partisanship. On health care, in particular, he was a force to be reckoned with, whether or not you agreed with his position. I remember him eviscerating Larry Kudlow in a debate on health care on Kudlow's CNBC show.