Trumping knowledge

This , and Kieran’s rejoinder, put me in mind of one of the best and worst things about expert knowledge.

Per the current regime of punditocracy – less egregious Matthew Yglesias on one end and willfully aggressive George Will on the other – we now live in a world where a class of public opinion leaders feel they are able to comment on literally anything and everything. I mean, just to take the most recent writings of Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly: global warming, Pakistani foreign aid, American affluence, American vacation habits, crossword puzzles, military discharges, Iraqi security force training, corporate taxation, healthcare policy, US taxation policy, computer technology, internet searches. And though this is a bit rangy, it’s not really unusual. We know his background is in tech marketing, just like we know that Atrios (Duncan Black) is an economist, and Joshua Micah Marshall is a journalist. But though some stay generally within their bailiwick (Marshall, Ackerman), others (um, William Kristol?) do not.

These folks depend to a really, really great degree on mainstream news reporting and expert knowledge to act as fodder for their opinion analysis. And sure, it is a relatively democratic world – in the sense that anyone can get in on the act – but it is also based on very little. Yes indeed, the web is designed to inform, influence, and entertain, so I hope that Unfogged continues its meaty mix of law, Harry Potter, and self-deprecating, odd swimmer-porn. And yet, the idea that Andrew Sullivan could enlighten you on evolution, US military policy, and British economic policy is really sketchy. Seriously.

But if the say-something-about-anything punditocracy is at one end, the use of expert knowledge as a way to close off participation in a given issue (or set of issues) is at the other. Here is where economists are the absolute worst. You start out by saying that it just seems wrong that some people work hard and make $100 million in a year (one freakin’ year!), and others work hard and make $15,000. And suddenly, you end up arguing with Greg Mankiw about relative taxation rates across income groups. Feel insecure about your job? First, become an expert on the studies of the effects of minimum wage on employment, or the inflation-adjusted value of consumable goods resulting from changes in free-trade agreements. Because if you don’t you may find yourself arguing with someone about the relative effects of political corruption on the historical development of China, which you can’t win because you couldn’t possibly know much about the economic and political history of China (and if you did, frankly, the example would switch to Argentina, or British railroads, or Italian industrial development). When what you wanted to say was that economists as a group believe in the goodness and power of markets, a claim which is just true. It is as true as saying that sociologists as a group have political commitments to social justice. That individuals don’t, and that this fact makes them somewhat disliked and distrusted within the discipline, is also true. And in the case of economists, it is important because economists make the claim that they should be listened to with regard to policy.

So where is the sweet spot, between over-informed debate that is exclusive to those with professionalized knowledge and under-informed debate that speaks to everything while knowing not much about anything?

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