Insider Knowledge

by Henry on October 30, 2012

Paul Krugman writes about journalists’ obsession with the quest for insider knowledge.

A lot of political journalism, and even reporting on policy issues, is dominated by the search for the “secret sauce”, as Martin puts it: the insider who knows What’s Really Going On. Background interviews with top officials are regarded as gold, and the desire to get those interviews often induces reporters to spin on demand. But such inside scoops are rarely — I won’t say never, but rarely — worth a thing. My experience has been that careful analysis of publicly available information almost always trumps the insider approach.

I’ve meant to blog for ages about a similar illusion – the remarkably widespread belief that policy forums in DC (think tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations) provide insiders with a lot of information that is unavailable to outsiders. As a political science professor here, it’s not hard to get to go to all sorts of off-the-record discussions on foreign policy questions; indeed, the more vexing problem is refusing invitations so that you can get your work done, without annoying people. However, I’ve almost never learned any new information about questions that interest me from these kinds of events. Sometimes, people are slightly less discreet than they are in public. But only sometimes, and usually not very much. Likely, there are more important events and workshops that I’m not invited to (after all, from the point of view of the organizers of such events, I’m usually a warm body with vaguely relevant sounding professional qualifications; good to swell a progress, but not much else), but I suspect that there aren’t very many of them that aren’t mostly vaguely disappointing in this sense.

This actually isn’t surprising, when you think about it. Most of the people who work on foreign affairs in Washington DC and who make up the potential audience for such events, are generalists, because they have a variety of briefs. They’re not necessarily looking for exciting new information – they’re looking for digestible summaries of issues that they vaguely know are important, but don’t have time to form educated opinions on themselves. And, even more importantly, they’re looking for opportunities to stay in the loop by talking to other people in the same world about who has gotten which new job, who is on the way up, and who is on the way down. This is the insider information that actually counts for the people going to these events – and it’s at best of anthropological interest to the rest of us. These meetings and briefings serve much the same professional role as do the annual meetings of academic associations, where most of the people attending are sort-of-interested in going to a few panels, but definitely-very-interested in catching up on the latest disciplinary gossip. Going to the former serves as a necessary justification for finding out about the latter.

Which is a longwinded way of agreeing with Krugman – most of the time, you can learn as much or more from intelligently consuming publicly available information as you can from attending purportedly insider briefings. And, as a secondary matter, if you graze free-range from a variety of sources, rather than re-masticating a pre-chewed monocrop diet of selected facts and opinion, you are likely to end up with a less biased understanding. Communities of generalists relying on a very limited set of information sources are peculiarly vulnerable to self-reinforcing illusion. I wasn’t in DC during the run-up to the Iraq war, but from what I’ve been able to piece together in the aftermath, the reasons for the apparent near-unanimity among foreign policy specialists that going into Iraq was a good idea was a combination of bad sources (reliance on people like Ken Pollack, who had a patina of apparent credibility), careerism (the general sense that you would do your career no favors by publicly dissenting from senior Republicans and Democrats), and substantial dollops of intellectual (and indeed non-intellectual, more or less flat-out) dishonesty.

{ 146 comments }

1

Number Three 10.30.12 at 7:08 pm

There’s also an epistemological point about the insider-y stuff that deserves mention, which is that privileging the “insider” already assumes that the “insider” has actual knowledge that “outsiders” cannot obtain. My sense (in a field not IR) is that insiders rarely have any real understanding of what is actually going on, in a Big Picture sense. They get a part more or less right, but ignore more than half of the reality that other forms of inquiry can better capture. The question is what counts for knowledge, as opposed to opinion? Even informed opinion is often “weak sauce.”

2

Matt 10.30.12 at 7:17 pm

Sometimes, people are slightly less discreet than they are in public.

Plus, you have to figure in the (fairly high, I’d guess) probability that they are bull-shitting, or flat out lying. There’s no good reason to think these people are telling the truth, and this will often be the case of “insiders” who what to make use of reporters to sell a particular view.

Note, too, that even gov’t agencies consistently miss-estimate the value of public information. As it turns out, Pravda provided a much more accurate estimate of Soviet economic and agricultural production, at least after Stalin, than did the CIA. There are lots of other examples.

3

JW Mason 10.30.12 at 7:23 pm

This is so clearly right that it’s tempting to turn the question are around: What are the questions for which insider knowledge *would* be genuinely valuable?

4

Bruce Wilder 10.30.12 at 7:29 pm

Everyone is limited to the same 24 hours in the day. People, who are “generalists”, are also higher in the pyramidal hierarchy, but they don’t get any kind of time-bonus, to cope with the increased information-processing demands of the job. Instead, they rely on abstraction and other information-compression gambits, while disinvesting from their investment in priors — their stock of theory and prior knowledge (which is probably becoming obsolete pretty fast). “Bias” isn’t half the problem.

Journalists are generalists, too, and act as signal-repeaters and conduits for this highly compressed, highly abstract, framed-by-obsolete-notions information, in which we all trade. As the original post observes, “Communities of generalists relying on a very limited set of information sources are peculiarly vulnerable to self-reinforcing illusion.” Journalists, typically, want to know what the “self-reinforcing illusion” of the moment, is. That’s “news”. They don’t need to know “what’s really going on” in an objective sense of critical assessment or even denotation; they need to know “what’s really going on” in the subjective sense, of understanding the telegraphic jargon of the “self-reinforcing illusion” in all its slangy connotations.

To the extent that politics is a society thinking, the way these processes are structured is not healthy, but the problem is more fundamental than just advising journalists on how to find out, or figure out, stuff.

5

Tim Worstall 10.30.12 at 8:29 pm

Moving resolutely off subject, this:

“And, as a secondary matter, if you graze free-range from a variety of sources, rather than re-masticating a pre-chewed monocrop diet of selected facts and opinion, you are likely to end up with a less biased understanding. Communities of generalists relying on a very limited set of information sources are peculiarly vulnerable to self-reinforcing illusion. I wasn’t in DC during the run-up to the Iraq war, but from what I’ve been able to piece together in the aftermath, the reasons for the apparent near-unanimity among foreign policy specialists that going into Iraq was a good idea was a combination of bad sources (reliance on people like Ken Pollack, who had a patina of apparent credibility), careerism (the general sense that you would do your career no favors by publicly dissenting from senior Republicans and Democrats), and substantial dollops of intellectual (and indeed non-intellectual, more or less flat-out) dishonesty.”

It’s such a stunningly good argument that those wise people who run government should have more power over our lives, isn’t it?

6

Clay Shirky 10.30.12 at 8:33 pm

JW, there are two obvious instances of valuable insider knowledge, at opposite ends of a spectrum of control. The first is where the insiders have some real power over the system; knowing what, say, Stalin or, latterly, the al-Khalifa’s are going to do next in their respective countries would be of great use to local actors, since there are so few public mechanisms for challenging, altering, or, in some cases, even understanding those actions.

The other is when the insiders have, through observation in some key aspect of a large, unpredicatable system, have some sense of what is happening. If you are interested in, say, the development of telecommunications systems, the people who can observe traffic at significant border routers have a view of the world that is hard to replicate on the outside. If you care about books, what Amazon knows about the rise and fall of different authors, titles, and genres is pretty irreplaceable.

The happiest situation to be in, for an insider, is to be able mix these two patterns; Apple knows what the release date and set of features will be for its next iPad, and it knows that this information will move markets, and it takes steps (many expensive, paranoid steps) to make sure that this insider information stays inside.

And sometimes, it’s possible to invent a system which, to Henry’s original point, fails to capture significantly valuable inside information, but orders or frames it in such a way as to create this sort of privileged position. This is not just rent extraction, as with Westlaw or Reed-Elsevier; a better example might be US News and World Report’s college rankings, where the people making the list understand that changing the weights or measures for colleges will re-order the list in ways that affect those colleges, but the list can’t be re-produced by outsiders.

None of this disagrees with Henry’s major point, though, or Krugman’s, which is that journalists remain obsessed with secrets (e.g. the Watergate story) rather than mysteries (e.g. the Enron story, hiding in plain sight). The ‘secrets vs. mysteries’ phrase is Susan Landau’s, originally discussing the failure of the intelligence community to predict the fall of the Shah of Iran, but the observation remains general.

7

LFC 10.30.12 at 8:37 pm

Most of the people who work on foreign affairs in Washington DC and who make up the potential audience for such events, are generalists, because they have a variety of briefs… they’re looking for opportunities to stay in the loop by talking to other people in the same world about who has gotten which new job, who is on the way up, and who is on the way down.

This is no doubt true. There are generalists with a variety of briefs, and indeed there ought to be such people. They perform a necessary function, and I’m not including following gossip as part of that.

However, my impression is that there are also a fair number of non-generalists: there are people, whether in academia, think tanks, NGOs, lobbying places, even federal agencies, the Cong. Res. Service, or wherever, who are definitely true specialists in the sense that their entire professional lives are taken up with more or less a single issue or problem (or specific region) that can be placed under the broad umbrella of ‘foreign affairs’. Most of them probably don’t bother going, most of the time, to the sorts of off-the-record, private events you have in mind (or perhaps even get invited).

8

MPAVictoria 10.30.12 at 8:39 pm

“It’s such a stunningly good argument that those wise people who run government should have more power over our lives, isn’t it?”
In fact it is! Thank you for agreeing that the average person is not equipped to figure out exactly how many parts per million of mercury in their food should worry them. Good on you for being intellectually honest enough to admit that your political philosophy is ridiculously simplistic and self defeating. Kudos!

9

William Timberman 10.30.12 at 8:56 pm

The constraints on overcoming what everybody already thinks they know about politics or economics are formidable, even more so for journalists, I think, than for pretty much anyone else. For obvious reasons, corporate wage slaves don’t do definitions — not without a lot of nervous looking around to see which way the winds are blowing, anyway — and journalists in our era are the quintessential corporate wage slaves. (Tom Friedman, my ass.)

I think it’s always better to do what Krugman — and not only Krugman — suggests. You can indeed glean a lot of information from Pravda, still more from an entire Internet full of Pravdas, if you’re willing to indulge in a little intellectual jiu-jitsu. Then, at least, your only constraint will be the time available to sift through what you’ve found, and try to draw some conclusions based on what you yourself think you know. For better or worse, at least your mistakes will be your own.

Getting anyone else to listen to you will in any event be more of a problem than making a mistake, especially since it’s unlikely that anyone else will actually understand what the hell you’re talking about. (Try putting the President and War Crimes in the same sentence, for example, or Israel and Apartheid, or the Free Market and Imperialism.)

10

Henry 10.30.12 at 9:17 pm

What Clay says here is very interesting, and points to a second set of questions that my colleague Marty Finnemore and I have been ruminating about for a while. The function of US News and World Report and other such publications isn’t to generate new information – the informational content of the ranking is notoriously weak. It’s to generate _social knowledge_, which is to say, ‘facts’ and plausible arguments that are treated for sociological reasons as being dispositive. We’ve a very early draft of a paper where we’re trying to think about this more systematically in the context of Wikileaks – still very drafty, so take arguments and claims with a pinch of salt …

11

Henry 10.30.12 at 9:30 pm

bq. It’s such a stunningly good argument that those wise people who run government should have more power over our lives, isn’t it?

Applies with equal force if not more so to CEOs and CEO-wannabes on the Davos/Aspen Ideas Festival circuit.

12

bianca steele 10.30.12 at 9:46 pm

As someone whose career (as a software engineer) has been in an area that has contacts with academia (to varying degrees at different jobs), as well as with generalist business managers, that outsiders would only sometimes get interesting information doesn’t seem surprising.

@LFC: However, my impression is that there are also a fair number of non-generalists

Yes, and their point of view will likely be rather different from that of the generalists, in part from not having a big-picture view, in part because of distorting effects from focusing closely on small, technical issues over long periods of time. Surely some scoops come from disgruntled people with less than big-picture views, though? And generalists and technicians are not always as easy to distinguish as you might think, and big-pictures possessed by technicians are sometimes generated via re-masticating general and/or outsider views (not always a bad thing obviously). In either case they can be fragile.

13

William Timberman 10.30.12 at 9:48 pm

An interesting draft, but it says little — as I read it anyway — about democratizing the process of turning information into knowledge, which I take to be the real aim, and the one genuinely big idea behind Wikileaks. Very Serious People seem to worry a lot about the cultural funnel, and the loss of coherence if it ceases to exist, or the loss of control if too many people contribute to what goes into the big end, and the wrong people wind up in charge of what comes out the small end. Liberals worry about what will happen if we lose the public schools, conservatives worry about what will happen if labor unions are represented on corporate boards. The New York Times and the publishing industry presumably worry that we might read ten books picked at random, rather than the ones on the NYT ‘s best-sellers’ list.

My own view is that if we want a really robust cultural consensus, we should tolerate a lot more chaos at the beginning of the process. This would no doubt be tough on everybody, not just the professional opinion-shapers, but I believe that it would nevertheless be for the best. I also believe that considerable evidence already suggests that we’re heading in that direction anyway.

14

Substance McGravitas 10.30.12 at 10:04 pm

Harry Shearer’s Le Show was almost all an interview with Stephanie Kelton this week, one subject being the triumph of Pete Peterson’s view of the economy, social spending and deficits. Peterson’s a manufacturer of knowledge from within the establishment and contrasts with WikiLeaks which in the paper seems too disorganized to understand that it might be turning facts into knowledge beyond the idea that things will out.

15

John Quiggin 10.30.12 at 10:57 pm

Of course, for journalists, a “scoop” commonly means getting slightly early access to info that would have become public anyway – the classic example is the “Veepstakes”. The fact that this early access is of no value to anyone doesn’t matter.

16

ezra abrams 10.30.12 at 10:58 pm

In Halberstams book about the ‘nam war, isn’t there a scene where a non gov’t guy visits a friend who has gotten a gov’t job with super top secret clearance, and the Nongov guy says, don’t get taken in by all those briefings ?
and the gov’t guy goes, no, we have this incredible 24/7 round the world intelligence service that goes out and gets all this infoall over the world…
so the nongov guy goes out to the newstand, gets a bunch of eng language papers from around the world [for those of you under the age of say 30, in all big cities there use to be newstands that carried dozens, if not hundreds of papers from all over the world] and shows the newspapers to the govt guy and say, is there anything in your briefing that ins’t in the newspapers…..

I bet if we bothered to reread Liebling, or Mencken, or.. we find out that this story is old news, dog bites man, yesterdays’ paper….
its sort of the middle aged intellecutal version of teenagers thinking that they invented sex…

17

P O'Neill 10.30.12 at 11:18 pm

Henry, could you get any mileage by comparing reactions to information in the State Dept Wikileaks to “accidental” leaks of similar type information e.g. the various summit live microphone problems, cases where a high level briefing note makes its way to the public domain? My quick impression is that politicians are willing to brush off the latter type (e.g. a remark in an official document about Berlusconi corruption or womanizing) but somehow the Wikileak version made the institutionalized hypocrisy harder.

One question prompted by your post is whether there really are super-secret briefings outside the usual K street circuit that none of us get invited too but the truly big revelations do get presented … maybe going to the non-informative ones gets you frequent flyer points for admission to the forbidden city …

18

Jim Harrison 10.31.12 at 12:04 am

The problem with American journalism is not that there is no penalty for being wrong, but that there is no reward for being right. In the absence of some moral or ideological motive, why would any professional opt for reporting objectively? It just doesn’t pay.

19

Bruce Wilder 10.31.12 at 12:13 am

No, it doesn’t pay. We might notice what does pay, and why.

Per Substance McGravitas @ 14, Pete Peterson’s long-term funding of his Catfood Project seems likely to be far more effective than Wikileaks’ hail mary prayer that revealing “secrets” will matter to anyone.

Clay Shirky’s comment was great, but I take issue with the Susan Landau’s ‘secrets vs. mysteries’ distinction, as applied to journalists, because I think the journalists, who are most enthused about the pursuit of ‘inside’ information, would much rather know a secret, than report one. They are pursuing “inside baseball”, a peculiar, calorie-free species of information, which makes one feel knowledgeable, without actually informing or educating anyone.

The “Martin” Krugman refers to in the quoted portion of the original post is Jonathan Martin of Politico. Politico, the creature of Robert Allbritton, is an investment in political journalism of the kind, which got Clinton impeached. One might contrast it, with such quixotic liberal efforts as Media Matters for America.

The Media Matters project hasn’t sparked a reform of journalism — none of the manifest failures of journalism or punditry since the Clinton impeachment seems to have motivated reform, or even turnover. David Broder would still be writing for the Washington Post, despite two well-funded retirements, if death had not finally intervened. F.A.I.R., the older effort to embarass journalists, never managed to offset John Malone’s ownership of the PBS News Hour, either. Funny how that works.

And, yet, here is Krugman giving instruction on how to do journalism, but taking little notice of how to own journalism. Pete Peterson’s Fiscal Times funds journalism. Politico fills slots on Washington Week in Review and Charlie Rose and various Cable News shows, and, helpfully, prints up the “inside baseball” of Congressional staffs in a free, workday newspaper, I guess, just to make sure the inside players are reading the Allbritton-approved transcript of their own “inside baseball” talk.

On October 27 and 28, Krugman (on his blog) was trying to defend his own benighted profession from the charge of having nothing useful to say about the financial crisis or the current state of the economy. He took note, on the 28th, that Glenn Hubbard, dean emeritus of the Columbia Business School and a leading economist, long noted for his corruption, speaks plutocratic-friendly nonsense on the economy. Krugman doesn’t seem to want to notice how to own economics, any more than he wants to notice how to own journalism.

20

Paul Duguid 10.31.12 at 12:27 am

While the argument is important, isn’t it essentially restating Izzy Stone’s journalistic philosophy, which every generation of journalists probably learns but certainly forgets?

21

Anarcissie 10.31.12 at 12:38 am

I was surprised at the last sentence above, especially ‘the apparent near-unanimity among foreign policy specialists that going into Iraq was a good idea.’ I can’t remember encountering anyone during the run-up to the war that thought it was a good idea. Of course I dwell out among the folk in New York City, which means I’m not really in America, but still, the disjunction seems remarkable. Not just talking about hippie communists here. Perhaps that remarkable gap is not totally irrelevant to this discussion, for I remember also ‘the brightest and the best.’

22

MQ 10.31.12 at 12:57 am

I agree with the post generally, but I think a proviso is that ‘foreign affairs’ is an unusually bullshit-heavy field even for DC, full of ‘experts’ who aren’t even fluent in the languages of the countries they are supposed to be expert in. As other posters here have argued, the content of foreign affairs is sufficiently removed from the tangible interests and knowledge of the American public that there is little external check on expertise claims. Insiders tend to be people who are expert at working their way up in various bureaucracies and adept at spinning stories that justify expansion of the defense establishment or appeal to other key inside-DC constituencies (as opposed to appealing to the people actually affected by the policies).

Not that there isn’t plenty of BS in domestic policy and economics too, but you are much more likely to end up dealing directly with people who have first-hand knowledge of the business you are selling yourself as an expert on, and the impact of your ideas on politicians constituents is quite direct. Adding to that, insiders in domestic policy often do directly make decisions that have big impacts on large regulated industries — if I was interested in financial policy I would be very interested indeed in knowing what the Fed was going to do next.

23

Nick 10.31.12 at 1:03 am

“First – that without legitimation from more established authorities, WikiLeaks’ information dumps would have had little consequence in changing common knowledge.”

Henry, I think I disagree with this a bit. It would have simply taken more time. Tens of millions of people had watched “Collateral Murder. Wikileaks and the information it released were slowly but surely seeping into worldwide public consciousness. It might not have caused everyone to take to the streets in mass protest, but, well, they hadn’t done that in Western countries for several years anyway. More importantly, they didn’t all watch it and become outraged on the same day. They were watching it over months.

Getting into bed with the mainstream publishers took something that had been building under the surface, and launched it into the worst kind of daily headline front page news. The ‘scoop’ John referred to earlier. Bruce’s ‘revealing of secrets’. The kind of news you forget roughly a week later, because something else happened.

Or – what you used to discuss at the pub and probably tell other people about, but now when someone brings up the latest cable, all you want to say is “please! can we just stfu and have one night out without discussing Wikileaks!”

It could have let itself evolve, and people’s understanding of what was being presented to them, and the new way in which it was being presented, along with it. They could have taken their time, worked with their limited resources, and just released the cables more slowly – even if it took years…

There was no need to go for over-saturation, just because you’re feeling over-saturated. Personally, though I think it was more about hiding behind skirts…

It might be worth you taking a look at waybackmachine. You get to read their original manifesto, and see how much changed over 3-4 years.

24

Dr. Hilarius 10.31.12 at 1:38 am

I. F. Stone comes to mind.

25

Satan Mayo 10.31.12 at 1:49 am

This is so clearly right that it’s tempting to turn the question are around: What are the questions for which insider knowledge *would* be genuinely valuable?

I think it would be mostly issues of human nature rather than issues of fact. For example, was Politician X knowingly lying, or does he really believe that nonsense?

26

Both Sides Do It 10.31.12 at 1:53 am

Another thing to include in the paper might be discussion of another Wikileaks goal.

Assange wrote a treatise under his name but which was largely taken to be outlining one of Wikileaks strategies. (An Aaron Bady post on it, linked below, was praised by the Wikileaks twitter account as a “Good essay on one of the key ideas behind WikiLeaks”.) The basic idea was that by creating a costly culture of leaking, Wikileaks would induce governments to tighten up their internal information networks to try and prevent the leaks from getting out. This makes it harder for them to transmit information internally, which makes them slower, less responsive to events, less efficient overall, etc. Assange optimistically hopes for making governments so sclerotic if they wish to retain secrets that they can no longer function.

From the standpoint of pursuing this strategy, Wikileaks partnering with media organizations seems to be fairly beneficial. The more Wikileaks becomes an entrenched member of the international media landscape, the more stable and permanent it becomes, the more it becomes something that governments have to adapt to in the long term. And even if Nick’s criticism is correct, partnering with media organizations allowed governments to more immediately recognize what Wikileaks was doing, so that their internal responses to it are going to be much quicker than having to recognize an organic phenomenon that bubbles up from having tens of millions of people view the same piece of clandestine information.

Note that this strategy depends on Wikileaks’ information being transmitted into knowledge, but is independent of the consequences of that knowledge. A government won’t alter much in response to Wikileaks information which is not legitimated into knowledge; when it does act in response to knowledge it will take steps to limit the potential damage of future leaks, which doesn’t necessarily depend on the effect that knowledge of past leaks have had. The only worrying thing from Wikileaks’ standpoint in this arrangement is if they get too close to the media organizations they rely on so that they stop receiving information or can be pressured to not release information they receive. That is, this strategy starts to falter the less information Wikileaks receives and the more that Wikileaks can be pressured to keep the information it has from being transformed into knowledge.

This fits fairly easily into the structure of the draft of the paper, which talks about consequences of leaks in government behavior to other governments, but not really about intra-government behavior undertaken to keep secrets from being leaked. From a rational actor standpoint, the mechanisms assisting the Wikileaks strategy are fairly straightforward: increased transaction costs for information dispersal, increased principal-agent tension which increase costs for enforcement and degrade morale, the bounds within which rationality can operate become smaller, etc.

From a constructivist account, a government’s attempt to restrict leaks may create periods of disequilibrium within institutions and drastically change the relationship between the setters of institutional policy and agents tasked with carrying that policy out, the ideals of the agents and the tools with which to work towards those ideals, how institutional actors conceive their personal goals fitting within larger institutional frameworks, the bounds within which institutional actors are free to create and pursue their own conceptions of institutional goals, etc. All of which may have large effects in the functioning of those institutions.

Nascent as Wikileaks is, there are already empirical examples that seem ripe for the above kind of analysis. The database which Bradley Manning leaked was created to solve problems by the inefficient sharing of information, and its subsequent restriction has invited those problems back. Manning’s severe detention and Obama’s zeal in prosecuting whistleblowers has degraded attitudes of people working those institutions and has probably affected their behavior.

Just a few thoughts that seemed to track nicely with what the paper outlined.

Aaron Bady link:

http://zunguzungu.wordpress.com/2010/11/29/julian-assange-and-the-computer-conspiracy-%E2%80%9Cto-destroy-this-invisible-government%E2%80%9D/#

27

William Timberman 10.31.12 at 2:47 am

To an amazing extent, this discussion parallels Hobsbawm’s analysis of the expansion of the franchise in the industrial countries at the end of the Nineteenth Century. The powers in control at the time came to the somewhat reluctant conclusion that the only way to relieve internal pressures on the bourgeois consensus, and to prevent the growth of populist parties/movements which could mount a genuine bid for political control, was to allow more people to vote. The franchise was indeed broadened significantly in most of the countries in question, but all sorts of mechanisms were then put into place to defang what the ruling classes saw as its negative effects — the now very familiar mechanisms of hypocrisy, Houses of Lords, cheap goods, jingoism and nationalist flag-waving, misinformation and propaganda, etc. All the modcons, in short. What all of that that got them, of course, was WWI.

What was different then was a) the lack of widespread literacy among non-urban populations, and b) the availability of a genuine political education to urban workers, which made it more than a little daunting for them to form genuine political alliances, or attempt to rise above their station en masse.

We’re so much better off now, right? Well, a cynic might say instead that after the long euphoria of the post-WWII period, the powers that be are re-discovering the lessons learned right at the beginning of the modern age. (No, not that the tried-and-true palliatives mentioned above don’t work — the Cold War was a very convincing demonstration that they do indeed work, even on a literate, educated population — but that they have unintended consequences, including some very serious ones indeed.)

28

Bruce Wilder 10.31.12 at 2:52 am

Anarcisse @ 20
MQ @ 21

It might be revealing to get down to cases. For some reason, I have followed the career of Michael O’Hanlon, a “Senior Fellow” at the Brookings Institution, since the Iraq War was first anticipated in 2001. This is how the Brookings website describes him:

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow with the 21st Century Defense Initiative and director of research for the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, where he specializes in U.S. defense strategy, the use of military force, and American foreign policy. He is a visiting lecturer at Princeton University, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, and a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. O’Hanlon is a member of General David Petraeus’s External Advisory Board at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a commentator on Alhurra TV and also blogs for Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square site at CNN.com.

In other words, he’s pretty much an empty suit, who networks well enough to be able to produce the kind of pseudo-credentials that can get him on teevee, and on op-ed pages, from time to time. He’s not really an expert on anything. (A long time ago, he was a Defense department budget analyst at the Congressional Budget Office.) What he does, is journalism: he writes books and articles, and does quotes and punditry, glossing topics of current interest.

That O’Hanlon functions as a journalist, but by another name, seems deeply relevant to the kabuki, which surrounds “insider knowledge” and to the related production of propaganda, funded by billionaires and business corporations.

Like any journalist, he seeks out informed opinion, and repeats it. He uses his own authority as an “expert” to massage sources out of his production of conventional wisdom, but it is very clear that he knows that he’s synthesizing conventional wisdom. On the Iraq War, he was as firmly anchored in his judgments as a weather vane is, in indicating the direction of the wind. On Iraq, he was initially cautious, though he endorsed everything the Administration did, when it actually came to do them. He was also initially earnest; his Iraq Index was quite successful as a journalist citation magnet (according to Brookings at least), and it is clear, that he intended, at the outset, to track the success of the Administration’s ambitious Reconstruction plans, but he never let the accumulated documentation of the abject failure and deep corruption come between him, and currying favor with the Administration. Did I mention that he is a member of General David Petraeus’s External Advisory Board at the Central Intelligence Agency? Oh wait, Brookings bragged about that.

The Iraq Index — there’s now an Afganistan Index and a Pakistan Index, as well — is an example, I think, of what Clay Shirky in his comment above, called a “system”, which creates a privileged position for its author/publisher, by framing and ordering information, without actually capturing significantly valuable “inside” information (or generating any new information, as might be accomplished by original research).

What might be most interesting, though, about the Iraq Index, is what little use was made of it, despite Brookings’ claim of many journalistic citations. It was ready-made to document the scale of Bush’s Iraq Reconstruction failure, but O’Hanlon always ran away from that, and toward endorsing the policy of teh Surge, etc.

The supposed seeking after “inside information” would seem, on the strength of O’Hanlon’s curriculum vitae, just a cover story for cozying up to power, and journalists (doing PR on better stationery) feeding journalists of the conventional variety, with no genuine expertise involved anywhere in the process.

29

Bruce Wilder 10.31.12 at 3:03 am

@ Both Sides Do It

For what its worth, Wikipedia offers this helpful summary of O’Hanlon’s views on Assange and Wikileaks:

Discussing the controversy around Julian Assange’s Wikileaks project with a journalist, when asked what he would do if he was seated across the table from Assange, O’Hanlon asked whether he’d be armed or unarmed in this situation, further responding with “BLAM!” – implying that he would [like to] kill Assange. He later specified that he “would like to see Assange behind bars, which is where he belongs.”

Viewed as the comment of a kind of business rival, this seems revealing.

30

LFC 10.31.12 at 3:26 am

MQ @21
I agree with the post generally, but I think a proviso is that ‘foreign affairs’ is an unusually bullshit-heavy field even for DC, full of ‘experts’ who aren’t even fluent in the languages of the countries they are supposed to be expert in.

There’s some of that, no doubt. OTOH there are people — not necessarily mainly in Wash D.C. but some in D.C. too — who are fluent in the languages of the countries they are experts in. I guarantee you that the head of China studies at the Brookings Institution, to take one example, knows Chinese (I’m not sure offhand what the exact job titles are there, but you know what I mean). There are also people who may know a lot about a particular issue or issues (whether it’s trade, refugees, int’l labor rights, water, hunger, disaster relief, law of armed conflict, energy, arms control, or whatever, the list is v. long) and who don’t hold themselves out as being experts in a particular country (or if they do, they shouldn’t). Then there are people who, whether you agree w them or not, may have some claim to attention on broader issues, whether b.c of jobs they’ve held in the past, things they’ve written, or whatever. Then there are some academics who occasionally try to translate their work into non-technical language. When you add up all the publications, journals, briefings and whatnot, there’s a lot of BS to be sure, but if you know what to look for, there’s plenty of expertise out there. Can experts be wrong? Yes. Are they wrong? Sometimes, quite catastrophically. Should they be trusted implicitly? No. Do they agree on everything? Often not. But none of this means that expertise doesn’t exist.

Btw, of course, expertise may coincide with the possession of advanced degrees, but it is not synonymous with same. For example, I have a Ph.D. in international relations and I don’t consider myself an expert in anything (certainly in nothing policy-relevant), and I am the first one to admit it. But I also recognize that there are such things as genuine experts on particular countries and issues, which doesn’t, again, mean what they say is necessarily right.

31

LFC 10.31.12 at 3:29 am

Wrote my comment @29 before I saw B. Wilder’s comments. We both referenced Brookings, I see, although to somewhat different ends.

32

LFC 10.31.12 at 3:39 am

Anarcissie — re “the apparent near-unanimity among foreign policy specialists that going into Iraq was a good idea”

Henry is using a particular definition of “foreign policy specialist” here, e.g. Michael O’Hanlon et al. (see Wilder above). It doesn’t apply to IR profs, some 50 or so of whom (I forget the exact number) took out a full-page ad in the NYT opposing an invasion of Iraq.

33

bad Jim 10.31.12 at 4:38 am

Everything I first wanted to say has already been said.

There’s an advantage to having specialist knowledge, and that may be a weakness for generalists. Colin Powell’s performance at the U.N. was widely considered persuasive, even despite its subsequent piecemeal refutation by Hans Blix, but to someone with the least expertise in manufacturing it was obviously nonsense. The aluminum tubes and mobile weapons labs were somewhere between extremely dubious and juvenile fantasy to anyone who actually knows how things are made, which probably excludes most of the people who write political opinion pieces as a profession.

Being an engineer doesn’t give me a special insight into the friction between Pashtuns and Turkmen, of course. Who among us doesn’t have to rely on borrowed knowledge? Nevertheless, having a solid grounding in one specialty makes it easy to tell when someone is bullshitting, and that’s a pretty handy heuristic.

34

Jeremy 10.31.12 at 6:48 am

Bruce @28: “Viewed as the comment of a kind of business rival, this seems revealing.”

What O’Hanlon’s comment makes me think of is a reaction to a certain view of the way the world should be being threatened. It reminds me of what Corey Robin writes about conservatism. People like O’Hanlon construct an ideology that relies on hierarchical structures where people like himself are privileged gatekeepers, who have power due to their wisdom to use that power wisely. WikiLeaks is a threat to that order, bypassing the hierarchy, and disrupting the order that it creates. The vehemence of O’Hanlon’s reaction seems to indicate more than a professional rivalry, but a direct affront to his position in world affairs. I’m thinking Jack Nicholson’s “you want me on that wall; you need me on that wall.”

35

Ken_L 10.31.12 at 7:08 am

Not only can you ‘learn as much or more from intelligently consuming publicly available information as you can from attending purportedly insider briefings’ but you are less likely to succumb to groupthink about the implications of that information. That is especially important in an era when such powerful pressures exist to force everyone into a one-dimensional liberal/conservative ideological spectrum, in which your opinion about one issue is taken to define your opinions about all other issues.

36

Alex 10.31.12 at 8:19 am

The thing about Iraq was that the status of being an expert got redefined as being one of the people who thought we should invade Iraq. There were plenty of actual experts who thought it was stupid. Now, the pseudo-experts in Tetlock’s sense tended to be much more in favour. Bad thinking drove out good. O’Hanlon’s response makes much more sense when you realise that being an Iraq-ist made him an expert.

One thing I will always remember about it was that expertise was actually used as an insult. Even speaking Arabic made you suspect. We were told that the camel corps arabists were all a bunch of saps and terrorist sympathisers, not like any given Kagan or O’Hanlon or Danielle Pletka and her black coffee briefings*. Ignorance was strength.

* still out there, on twitter, still propagating the same drivel in the same way, as if the huge pile of corpses hadn’t happened

37

ajay 10.31.12 at 10:04 am

Note, too, that even gov’t agencies consistently miss-estimate the value of public information. As it turns out, Pravda provided a much more accurate estimate of Soviet economic and agricultural production, at least after Stalin, than did the CIA. There are lots of other examples.

I was hoping someone would make this point: yes, this is definitely true in intelligence circles, at least in peacetime*. Not just that open-source intelligence tends to be more accurate but also that people tend to privilege secret-source intelligence far beyond what its reliability would justify. (I am not sure that Pravda was any more accurate, mind, but it’s quite possible that civilian economists in the US were much better at it than the CIA.) Secret intelligence is a mind-altering substance, as someone or other said.

One thing I will always remember about it was that expertise was actually used as an insult.

This.

38

John Quiggin 10.31.12 at 10:33 am

In Australia, there’s a TV show called “Insiders” featuring pollies and pundits on Sunday morning (I think). I don’t suppose I would watch it in any case, but the name is sufficient to ensure that I wouldn’t do so even if they were going to announce the results of the next election.

39

John Quiggin 10.31.12 at 10:40 am

Attempting a thread derail, what about the observation “most of the people attending are sort-of-interested in going to a few panels, but definitely-very-interested in catching up on the latest disciplinary gossip”. I’m sure this is true, but not for me.

As regards disciplinary gossip, I would only be interested for instrumental reasons, and I have none. I already have the only job I want, and as regards the location of other academics, I only care whether or not they are at the same uni as me, and I already know that. Then there’s gossip proper, but economics is pretty lame in this respect – with Deirdre McCloskey as the exception that proves the rule, economists just aren’t interesting enough.

So, when it comes to conferences, I give my own paper, listen to those of my co-authors/friends and the handful of interesting panels, then spend the rest of the time checking out the local cafes etc.

40

Torquil Macneil 10.31.12 at 11:18 am

Robert Conquest made this point years ago about the old USSR. He said you could learn just about everything that was going in in the Kremlin at any given time through a careful reading of Pravda, which makes the horrible misjudgements of the more ‘nuanced’ Kremlinologists of the time that bit more culpable.

41

ajay 10.31.12 at 11:41 am

39: in my experience, JQ, this makes you kind of an outlier; at most of the conferences I’ve attended, the point of going is the bits between the presentations; at best, the presentations are there to give you a conversation starter in the next coffee break.

42

dsquared 10.31.12 at 11:45 am

as so often, the stock market got there first – if you want some pungent reflections on the value of “tips”, there are plenty in “Reminiscences of a Stock Operator”.

43

Lurker 10.31.12 at 12:49 pm

[y]ou could learn just about everything that was going in in the Kremlin at any given time through a careful reading of Pravda

While Pravda was a tool of propaganda, it was not monolithic. There were a number of agencies that were able to get stories and opinion pieces published there. A published piece in Pravda was almost official policy, but not quite fully. Thus, you could learn about the internal debates by reading it carefully. The key question was to ask: “What is the purpose of this text?” not “What is the relation of real life and the text?”

Actually, I know quite a number of European people who ad the Time and New York Times with the same method: what is the message sent by this particular article/news item? In practice, there is a number of powerful players who are able to get news or op-eds published in the mainstream media. The value of reading the US news media lies not in the news themselves but in the information that the news tell about the current internal state of the only superpower of the world.

44

ajay 10.31.12 at 3:49 pm

as so often, the stock market got there first – if you want some pungent reflections on the value of “tips”, there are plenty in “Reminiscences of a Stock Operator”.

I’d disagree with that. The stock market is about the one place where this isn’t true. That’s why you keep getting people making money through insider trading.

45

engels 10.31.12 at 5:02 pm

Probably a dumb question, but what is the difference between intellectual and non-intellectual dishonesty?

46

Chris Bertram 10.31.12 at 5:13 pm

Intellectual dishonesty is when you pretend to believe P when you really believe ~P, non-intellectual dishonesty is the exact opposite.

47

ajay 10.31.12 at 5:51 pm

Intellectual dishonesty is when Chris Bertram tells elaborate lies involving things like “~P”. Non-intellectual dishonesty is when I steal his car.

48

William Timberman 10.31.12 at 6:44 pm

Intellectual dishonesty is a Glenn Hubbard op-ed. Non-intellectual dishonesty is a Mitt Romney campaign speech.

49

LFC 10.31.12 at 7:42 pm

Intellectual dishonesty involves stretching the facts to within an inch of their life but not actually telling a straight-out lie. Non-intellectual dishonesty is, e.g., when your aide tells you that country X has no threatening missiles on its border, whereupon you immediately go before the cameras and say: “I have it on good authority of our intelligence services that country X has positioned threatening missiles on its border.” In other words, lying.

And come to think of it, no less an eminent scholar than John Mearsheimer has recently published a book called, if my memory serves, Lying in International Politics. Maybe that would make a good subject for a CT roundtable. After CT gets through with Erik Olin Wright, of course. First things first.

50

bc 10.31.12 at 8:07 pm

You may get much the same effect among financial analysts. Analysts are employed in different strata of the financial system, with different levels of access to information. There’s analysts actually employed by the companies they analyse, then there’s sell side and buy side analysts employed by various financial organisations, there’s independent analysts and finally “blogger” analysts.

Each type of analyst has available different levels of information. Obviously an analyst working for, say, Apple has much better information about Apple’s performance. Then sell side analysts may have all kinds of market information, finally independent analysts only have entirely public information.

And yet, there’s a strain of opinion that the further away an analyst is from insider information, the better their performance is. As there’s so much public data to be had on this it would be interesting to see a study, the only thing I could find where someone has made an attempt (for one company) was this.

If true – then possibly analysts actually employed by companies feel they have to toe the company line in their predictions, and so are co-opted. Buy and sell side analysts are more agenda driven, and professionals who remain independent are still unnecessarily influenced and conservative.

51

Bruce Wilder 10.31.12 at 8:47 pm

Yes to Timberman’s denotation, because Glenn Hubbard is a consummate bullshitter, in the sense Harry Frankfurt made popular in his famous essay.

Both Hubbard and Romney are dishonest, in the sense of being careless about what the truth actually is, and both are trying to impress and persuade their audience, but what makes Hubbard’s nonsense into intellectual dishonesty is the intellectual effort put into spinning out the bullshit, combined with the dress-up in credentials and academic prestige. Romney does dress-up, too, as a “successful” capitalist job creator, but Romney’s frequently deceptive patter conspicuously lacks the baroque, academic pretensions of deep-thinking — indeed it lacks any indication that Romney reads beyond the level of the 5th grade level.

I’d like to connect this observation to what hannah said: “The catastrophe of economics is a collaborative effort of experts and insiders.” The collaborative effort, it seems to me, is on what the original post called, the “self-reinforcing illusion” of a “community of generalists”. That the community is made up of “generalists” is a nice way of saying that certain conventions, intellectual and sociological, allow them to exclude critical examination of assumptions and evidence. They collaborate on the exclusion, and the substitution of b.s.

Not all economists are as bereft of integrity as Hubbard, but it is worth noting that his career has been built on his ability to sell his bullshitting skills, to those with an ideological or business interest in their application. And, the “community” is fatally contaminated: the public good of the community’s shared expertise, eclipsed by the privately provided public bad of a fog of confusion, disabling democratic governance.

In economics and in international relations, the story is the same: corruption. If, as MQ @ 22 asserted, “foreign affairs” is “an unusually bullshit-heavy field”, perhaps it is because of the willingness of billionaires and business corporations to pay for a fog-generating “community” to provide cover, behind which genuine “insiders” (largely uninvolved in the “community”) are free to pursue their interests, unencumbered by democratic politics.

My apologies, if all that seems too obvious and didactic. Sometimes, I think someone should speak up for the obvious, even against clever.

52

Jerry Vinokurov 10.31.12 at 8:48 pm

Isn’t this exactly the Nate Silver story? The aggregate of publicly available information provides a far better indicator of what’s happening in the election than the “informed” musings of people with “insider” connections. Of course, I imagine the insiders find this quite threatening, hence the recent uproar over math’s well-known liberal bias.

53

Bruce Wilder 10.31.12 at 8:57 pm

Silver seems to have won the enmity of many in the community of pundits and journalists, with the suggestion that their horse-race journalism, and obsession with related “inside baseball” campaign minutiae, is pure, self-serving b.s. unconnected with reason or reality.

54

Substance McGravitas 10.31.12 at 8:57 pm

Isn’t this exactly the Nate Silver story?

Part of the current Republican screeching is that Silver had access to internal polls from the Obama campaign, so if that’s true, no.

55

Jerry Vinokurov 10.31.12 at 9:01 pm

It seems that if you read either the PEC’s Sam Wang or Votamatic’s Drew Linzer, you can conclude that the inside information is mostly, and possibly completely, worthless. Maybe Silver does have access to it, but that doesn’t seem to matter at all for the purposes of analyzing the race.

56

LFC 10.31.12 at 10:37 pm

Gelman at The Monkey Cage says the election is too close to call. I’ll be glad when it’s over.

Btw, sorry for going off-topic, but does anyone know why U.S. political ads (which one hears on radio news stories and everywhere else) have that ghastly tinkly noise (it can’t be dignified with the term “muzak”) in the background? It sounds like a deranged gibbon trying to play a bad knock-off of Philip Glass. It’s as if the aural pollution of American life is so far advanced that political ad-makers think voters actually won’t be able to hear or comprehend the voices without that tinkly s**t in the background.

57

Peter T 10.31.12 at 11:44 pm

Can’t comment on journalists, but form experience I can say that, first, any group that is professionally involved in reading socio-political entrails develops, as an occupational pathology, an inner conviction that, out there, there is some source that would provide instant, unfailing, enlightenment. It drives the search for the insider, the quest for the secret intelligence grail and the academic pursuit of ever more arcane statistical methodologies. It does not exist, of course, but it’s a natural reaction.

Second is that, while most large organisations (yes, including governments, Tim) have expert resources who are truly expert, and who can usually give you a guess which is often very accurate and usually pretty good, constructing organisations that link the expertise to the decision-makers appropriately is really hard. The experts – particularly the best ones – often cannot tell you why they think this or that is the best answer, always hedge their bets (being aware of the limitations of their knowledge), and are usually better at telling you why something won’t work than telling you why it will. Since policy-makers like certainty and are can-do types, the exchange is frustrating. It’s much easier to find examples of organisations that had access to experts and failed to listen to them than of ones that systematically used good expertise in this sort of field.

Compounding these problems are the interposition of people who peddle certainty to the top, and the increasing dominance of generalists at the top – people who, lacking real expertise themselves, don’t have a good feel for what makes expert sense and what does not (being able to read a financial statement is not expertise).

58

Random lurker 11.01.12 at 12:17 am

Suppose that I am a journalist.
I have to produce an article every X days, so I need a reliable news source.
The article is supposed to be about something the public doesn’t already know .
This makes insider gossip a really useful news source.
I think it is as simple as this.

59

Witt 11.01.12 at 2:28 am

As a local-level (and occasionally state and federal) policy advocate, I have to say I find this phenomena no less maddening for being ubiquitous. Even my fellow advocates seem often to want “the answer” or a shortcut rather than actually bother to understand how and why things work. If you want to change things, you have to know how they work now. Else how can you recommend changes that will mean anything to the actors?

I also go through spates of keeping lists of how reporters could practice actual journalism with regard to specific topics or stories. Sometimes I lose my temper and post these as questions in newspaper comments sections.

Otherwise, I count it a good week if I can talk a journalist out of writing something idiotic, a great year if I can support them in writing something truly helpful.

60

Omega Centauri 11.01.12 at 3:52 am

LFC @57 -at the risk of being off topic. The soundtracks -and visual images in American political advertising are choosen by presumed psycological marketting experts. The goal is to provide near subliminal emotion -usually a bad emotion that the brain associates with the target of the add. The summation of automatic associations constitutes a persons gut reaction. The idea is that when the voter hits the voting booth, he just feels candidate X is icky and scary without knowing why he feels that way.

61

Sebastian H 11.01.12 at 4:35 am

“Not only can you ‘learn as much or more from intelligently consuming publicly available information as you can from attending purportedly insider briefings’ but you are less likely to succumb to groupthink about the implications of that information. That is especially important in an era when such powerful pressures exist to force everyone into a one-dimensional liberal/conservative ideological spectrum, in which your opinion about one issue is taken to define your opinions about all other issues.”

This is a very important point. We use a very tribal judgment system, where your views on abortion allegedly link to your views on global warming which link to your views on GMOs which allegedly link to whether or not you are Keynesian. And when that is ridiculous, that is how the common political judgment works.

62

Bruce Wilder 11.01.12 at 4:38 am

Politics is a team sport.

63

Brian 11.01.12 at 6:31 am

Reading quickly through the comments, I didn’t see mention of Jonathan Chait’s comments on ass welt journalism. This post called them to mind.

http://www.tnr.com/article/desk-jockey#

64

Peter T 11.01.12 at 8:55 am

I would add that, although you can “learn as much or more from intelligently consuming publicly available information as you can from attending purportedly insider briefings” you do have to spend a lot of time reading and thinking about lots of information. The guy who has intelligently read Pravda et al for 15 years is much better at interpreting it than the one who skims it when something comes up. Most good intelligence is done by sitting the right kind of people in front of a feed of mostly public information for long periods. It usually takes even very good people two to three years practice as area specialists to get the hang of it.

65

Alex 11.01.12 at 12:41 pm

Secret intelligence is a mind-altering substance, as someone or other said.

It was Daniel Davies, but the blog post is now secret, ironically. It makes you see the world differently from consensus reality, gives you a sensation of cosmic insight, and makes you feel enormously important and confident, while also dividing the world into people that get it and people that don’t. Or words to that effect.

Most good intelligence is done by sitting the right kind of people in front of a feed of mostly public information for long periods. It usually takes even very good people two to three years practice as area specialists to get the hang of it.

This, this, this. The foundation of my blog and my career…hang on…perhaps not such a recommendation after all.

66

Zamfir 11.01.12 at 1:02 pm

What peter says. You can lots of info from public sources, but you need to know what your doing. And at least a little bit of insider talk, to be certain that your not missing a layer. Krugman is not really a reliable guide here, as he is already an expert, and he gets to talk to important people all the time. Even if I could get the same knowledge from sources as him, I cannot be as certain that my conclusions are sound.

67

engels 11.01.12 at 1:07 pm

Okay:

Dishonesty – stealing my wallet
Intellectual dishonesty – stealing my first edition of ‘Iron in the Soul’

Dishonesty – lying about how many partners you have had
Intellectual dishonesty – lying about how many library books you have taken out

Am getting warm?

68

Neville Morley 11.01.12 at 2:18 pm

I take Aristophanes’ caustic characterisation of the Sophists’ arguments as a touchstone for intellectual dishonesty: making the worse argument appear the better. It can be used as a tool for old-fashioned dishonesty, e.g. explaining why it’s better for everyone that corporations pay as little tax as possible, but it doesn’t have to be.

69

Harold 11.01.12 at 3:40 pm

I.F. Stone used to say he learned a lot from carefully reading the newspaper.

70

LFC 11.01.12 at 3:44 pm

O.C. @61 — Thanks. I also wonder whether the fact that people are assaulted with background ‘music’ in a great many public spaces, esp. consumption spaces — supermarkets, malls etc. — makes the psychological marketing experts think that the ad would somehow be aurally ‘naked’ if it didn’t have a soundtrack. (But wouldn’t it be interesting if some [courageous] ad person decided to make an ad without a soundtrack? Might actually be quite effective.)

71

SB 11.01.12 at 3:54 pm

Call it intellectual self deception then. That seems to be a better description. The problem is when intellectuals see professional advantage or see what is expedient for their career and then argue what they now believe to be the case. Or maybe I’m naive in thinking that they are unaware they are shifting with the winds.

With Iraq, I was hoping there would be some professional consequences for such people but there weren’t, not really. It wasn’t only careerism but also the way in which the war mongers tended to look stronger, more realist, grappling with a ‘big decision’ and rejecting the peaceniks who never seem to get up too far in the academic hierarchy these days. So there’s also groupthink driving this trend.

I’d love for someone here to come up with a list of historical figures we esteem who tailored their views to be more palatable to the powerful. Hegel and Hobbes come to mind but I’m no historian so I could be wrong.

It depresses me my how much careerist motives affect people’s work because I think this is how certain views come to predominate in the academy and how the accepted views on the issues I care about lack diversity. There isn’t so much at stake after a certain point for people–they have tenure–but often they will angle for these minor advantages and tailor their views accordingly.

72

David 11.01.12 at 3:56 pm

I.F. Stone spent his entire life proving that. Even the best of our current journalists are generally too lazy to follow his lead.

73

ajay 11.01.12 at 4:54 pm

I’d love for someone here to come up with a list of historical figures we esteem who tailored their views to be more palatable to the powerful. Hegel and Hobbes come to mind but I’m no historian so I could be wrong.

How about Machiavelli? And, indeed, Jesus?

74

bianca steele 11.01.12 at 5:17 pm

To add to Peter T @ 58, organizations contain different kinds of expertise. The core of the modern corporation, from a management perspective, is marketing. From an economics perspective, it is finance. Manufacturing or services aren’t really in there, unless they can be represented within those two (what product is marketed, how much product is sold) or they’re very visible to end-users and journalists (the iPad and Siri). The “important” people won’t be talking about those, at least not at cocktail parties and similar occasions (unless they’re so wonky and socially inept that\ they’re unlikely to be invited to those parties), and journalists won’t be writing about them. Pravda, similarly, was really informative just because the bureaucracy really was what determined what went on.

75

Jeffrey Davis 11.01.12 at 6:11 pm

So, what is the value of the CIA? Why are there spies? Why is espionage a crime?

76

Substance McGravitas 11.01.12 at 6:35 pm

So, what is the value of the CIA? Why are there spies? Why is espionage a crime?

Big difference between people who want to find out information everyone wants hidden and those who are content to print what “insiders” tell them.

77

Seth 11.01.12 at 8:00 pm

Lurker@43:

“A published piece in Pravda was almost official policy, but not quite fully. Thus, you could learn about the internal debates by reading it carefully.”

This reminds me a bit of the Wall Street Journal. The editorial page is bat-s%^t propaganda, but the news content is written by people who aren’t quite as reliably on-message. They have to look over their shoulders a bit, but they are sometimes naive enough to broadcast information from the ‘wrong’ side of various debates within the elite.

That leaves readers in the position you describe: “The value of reading the US news media lies not in the news themselves but in the information that the news tell about the current internal state of the only superpower of the world.”

78

Bruce Wilder 11.01.12 at 8:05 pm

Alex @ 66 “[Secret intelligence] makes you see the world differently from consensus reality, gives you a sensation of cosmic insight, and makes you feel enormously important and confident . . . “

This has never been my experience. Knowing official “secrets” has always felt like a burden or an obstacle. The “secret” nuggets are like rocks scattered about the landscape of your knowledge, which you have to self-consciously walk around, and which you cannot discuss, except under guarded conditions. They don’t actually add that much to your overall view, but they impose a cognitive burden, because you have to keep the secret.

Granted, I’ve never been a very important, powerful person — always more in the role of a technician/staff support/policy analysis/”expert” kind of position. In those lowly grunt roles, as some earlier commenter hinted, there’s often a shortage of arrogance, which makes one very anxious about making up definitions and constructing overarching frameworks to make sense of things, and prone to the nihilism of the paralysis of analysis, etc. Sometimes, a “secret” can be a useful bit of concrete, “certain” information, on which to nail a more elaborate, and speculative, narrative picture — an excuse to trim back the fog of caveats, which often obscure what you are trying to convey to the VIP.

I don’t know what secrets look like to the VIP. An embarrassing bit of gossip, perhaps, like knowing that the wife of a former Ambassador, which ambassador was sent to inquire about the possibility of uranium diverted to Iraq, is a spy. Maybe, what the VIP sees is like the negative of a photograph, where everthing black is white, and everything white is black, and everything I think is rank speculation is a secret, and everything I recognize as a secret is a trivial detail. Like the Secretary of State, who supposedly thought Saddam Hussein had portable chemical weapons labs, tooling around the desert, or that aluminum tubes were being diverted to a nuclear bomb project. The job of the CIA is to figure out that the aluminum tubes are, or are not, in some technical, trivial-detail-way, useful in a nuclear bomb project, or what you’d have to have, in the way of highly-specialized, can-only-buy-from-Siemens equipment, to build a mobile weapons lab, or even whether such a thing is even remotely plausible. At the CIA, NSA and other spy agencies, they are always looking for those trivial details, and trying to monitor “border routers” (as Clay Shirky said) or the import/export documentation generated at ports, and the like, to glean them.

The U.S. government has an elaborate system for classifying information communicated on its “secure” networks and stored in “secure” locations. There’s a hierarchy of security: like how good a safe, you have to use to store documents of a given level of classification, and who, with what “level” of clearance can see those documents. Classified doesn’t mean “secret”. Once something is “classified”, particularly in military nets, literally hundreds of thousands of people may have access to it. Very little that is classified is really secret, even to begin with (as a lot of State Dept cable traffic, for example, consists of news media reports), and the most important political and even diplomatic secrets, I suspect, are deliberately never classified.

In Britain, the Official Secrets Act, details the censorship powers of the government, and that seems to me to better express the usual agenda of governmental or political “secrets”. The WWII Manhatten Project type of secret is rare and exceptional. The confidential business plan type of secret is economically important, “moves markets” as they say, but is well handled by bureaucratic procedure. It is the “secret” qua authority to censor, which is politically most valuable, because the authority to censor, is a lever on power. In U.S., the Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, is working assiduously to undo the constitutional separation of powers, which forces them into deliberation with the Congress and the Judiciary, by means of “secrets”.

What interests journalists, professionally, is the “secret”, which is really censorship in thin disguise. Some few journalists will be idealistically determined to defy the censor, but most will be rent-seekers, hoping to curry favor and win the valuable imprimatur of the censor, become the trusted conduit for “leaks”, etc. There’s a symbiotic relationship between publisher and censor, and journalists get their paychecks from publishers.

79

Bruce Wilder 11.01.12 at 8:13 pm

Seth @ 79

90% of the WSJ editorial content consists of corporate press releases lightly rewritten to conform to the WSJ stylebook. The only filter is the institutional memory of the editorial desk through which they pass, which may notice anomalies and inconsistencies and contradictions, and edit in ways that highlight these, while trimming away the hype.

80

Bruce Wilder 11.01.12 at 8:17 pm

81

rf 11.01.12 at 8:46 pm

‘So, what is the value of the CIA? Why are there spies? Why is espionage a crime?’

Majority of the CIA’s time and resources is spent analysing open source info, afaik. (Just a giant pro govt think tank)
Depends on the policy though? Nixon/China, rendition etc are all ‘secrets’ that can be uncovered?
re the press – this is interesting:

http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/roundtable/the-myth-of-the-fourth-estate.php

‘To be sure, the Washington Post moved forward on a story that left most American news outlets uncomfortable. They gave it wide play. They helped legitimate the investigations. But that’s a far cry from picturing the press as the maker of kings. Woodward put it plainly himself: “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.” ‘

82

Andthenyoufall 11.01.12 at 8:59 pm

Sb – Hobbes, if anything, seems to have tailored his ideas to piss off as many people as possible. Each new draft finds another constituency to alienate. He may not have had the physical courage to wait around in London to be thrown in the tower, but damn was he consistent. As for Hegel… he certainly avoided saying anything plainly that would offend Prussia or the Lutherans, but if we restrict ourselves to content rather than mode of expression, what are the goods on him?

I think the most obvious candidates for “respectable hack” are Cicero (practically every word is a thinly veiled apology for a pretty nasty oligarchy) and Voltaire. You could almost add Milton, but I rather suspect he took his propaganda seriously, even if it seems inadequate in places.

83

GiT 11.01.12 at 9:10 pm

Another good candidate for professional hack, from my understanding, is Grotius.

84

GiT 11.01.12 at 9:19 pm

A good book on the history of professional hackitude might be Anthony Pagden’s Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain, and France.

85

Bruce Wilder 11.01.12 at 9:21 pm

Hobbes did rely on the protection of his personal leviathan, Charles II, against the devout members of Parliament, who would have hung him for his blasphemy.

Nietzche’s “god is dead” thesis is really an argument about the psychology of cowardice driving philosophers into elaborate rationalizations, denying their own lack of religious faith. It’s an old story of loss of innocence. It is a myth to think you can become famous, by being good: you can be good, or you can be famous; not both — the famous have made their choice.

86

C.L. Ball 11.01.12 at 10:18 pm

Krugman’s argument applies well enough to the pro/con side of policy question, but the value-added of journalism is also to tell us what is not available is public documents — which persons or agencies within the government, including Congress, support a particular position on issue x, are serious efforts being made to advance or retard action on the issues. In this sense, not-for-attribution and background interviews may be the only way to obtain information about what various players are doing.

87

LFC 11.01.12 at 10:39 pm

Correction: The Mearsheimer book I referred to upthread is called Why Leaders Lie (Oxford U.P.). One critical reader’s review at Amazon claims the book is full of typos. Can’t say I’d be surprised (copyediting standards being what they are).

88

Alex 11.01.12 at 11:30 pm

Hobbes’ personal Leviathan was determined to hang all the members of Parliament, devout or otherwise, for their temerity in disbelieving in kings. To me he’s a Carl Schmitt figure – an apostle of the fake order tyrants boast of.

89

lemmy caution 11.02.12 at 1:00 am

“Great piece on wonkette on Nate Silver v pundits”

I think what the reporter wants is for one of the insiders in a campaign to say that their own campaign is doomed. If it gets to that point, I am pretty sure it isn’t really secret insider information even if the reporter can frame it that way.

90

Harold 11.02.12 at 1:31 am

According to Quentin Skinner, Hogg incurred the enmity of the royalists because he said that it was ok for the Tories to go back to their ancestral English homes from their exile in France. Since Cromwell had kept their property safe, it followed that he was the legitimate ruler, and it also followed that as long as Charles II was in exile, he was not.

Whether this is pandering to Cromwell, or “la verità effettuale della cosa”, I couldn’t really say.

91

Nine 11.02.12 at 2:33 am

Andthenyoufall @84,

Why is Voltaire a “respectable hack” ? IIRC, his popular works (Letters, Candide) don’t read that way – unlike, say, for Hobbes, where one can occasionally wonder if the writer is pulling a Swift – & the opinion is certainly contrary to his popularized wiki-reputation.

92

Bruce Wilder 11.02.12 at 7:50 am

Alex @ 90: “Hobbes’ personal Leviathan was determined to hang all the members of Parliament . . . “

Charles II did not try to hang all the members of Parliament. He went after those involved in the regicide. He was recalled by a Convention Parliament, and ruled in cooperation with the Cavalier Parliament for 17 years.

93

Tim Worstall 11.02.12 at 2:37 pm

” bq. It’s such a stunningly good argument that those wise people who run government should have more power over our lives, isn’t it?

Applies with equal force if not more so to CEOs and CEO-wannabes on the Davos/Aspen Ideas Festival circuit.”

Quite so: I’ve had exactly the same problems trying to explain my tiny little corner of expertise to both groups, both to politicians and to CEO types. Specifically and particularly that no one needs to have a grand plan about supplies of rare earths (this is over all these stories of China suspending or limiting shipments etc etc). They’re not rare (and they’re not earths) and there are deposits of them all around the world. And they turn up as wastes from all sorts of other mining processes. Separating them, one from each other, is tricky, yes. More accurately, boring and expensive rather than tricky.

But both the political and CEO types would rather have a Grand Plan to solve matters rather than simply allowing market competition to solve that little problem. As, remarkably to them but not to me, it is.

94

SB 11.02.12 at 3:16 pm

Alex: Is Carl Schmitt a hack or did you mean something else?

95

Anarcissie 11.02.12 at 4:02 pm

The point of having an inside and an outside in power structures is to sequester valuable information. By ‘valuable’, I mean conducive to getting and holding power. Therefore, a person openly proffering ‘insider’ information, when not getting equally valuable items in return is almost certainly lying or self-deluded. As noted above, information is passed deliberately from the inside to the outside for specific purposes and becomes outsider information, regardless of what it is called. Of course the (good) information exported is usually diluted with bad information.

It should also be recognized that a power structure of sufficient size, like a government or large corporation, has internal structures which also must have an inside and an outside. There can be many layers. All the large organizations of which I have had any experience have had elaborate, time-tested means of controlling internal information flow, designed along the same lines as those on its external boundary. The control of informational flows is essential to the maintenance of power structures.

For this reason I thought Assange’s idea, from the above-mentioned essays written in his anarchistic phase, that the internal mechanisms of information control in power structures could be sabotaged through unsanctioned, hostile leaking, was overly optimistic. Leaks are generally exploited by insiders as a means to intentionally export information; with public whistleblowers as with spies, it would be part of the practice to feed the channel with whatever one wanted to feed, while preserving an aura of authenticity with pretended secrecy. Unintentional leaks can become intentional on iteration.

Thus the panic and anger which Assange seemed to cause was thus hard for me to understand, unless it was merely the fury of the obedient authoritarian at any attack or even gesture against his master and his master’s team, whether effectual or not.

96

Harold 11.02.12 at 4:11 pm

Hobbes not Hogg — grrr

Voltaire supported enlightened despotism, luxurious living, and did not think servants should be educated. He hated Rousseau’s egalitarianism. In this he differed from Diderot.

97

liberal 11.02.12 at 4:16 pm

#20:

… isn’t it essentially restating Izzy Stone’s journalistic philosophy…

Exactly my thought.

98

Bruce Wilder 11.02.12 at 5:19 pm

Tim Worstall: “. . . simply allowing market competition to solve that little problem . . . “

I know this is the central intellectual self-deception in your life, and wouldn’t expect anyone to be able to disabuse you of it. I will say, though, that to those of us don’t share in the peculiar, ideological alternate reality, where the quoted assertion seems to make sense, re-asserting this nonsense just makes you look ridiculous.

“Market competition” is not a thing, not an actor, not an agent and not a cause. It is an abstraction. That is, “market competition” is, in a priori, analytic reasoning, isolating in the form of a concept, one aspect of a system. In the actual, a posteriori world, systems can exist whole, but concepts do not exist at all, and what you call, “market competition” is something people have to cooperate in doing — indeed, as a concept naming one aspect of the doing, one might say, that “market competition” is, at best, one possible range of styles, for organizing some parts of the doing. The doing still has to be done by people, and not by an immanent, abstract concept.

In the classic economic theory of the firm, the theory of production is that output is a function of input, because profit and output are assumed to be maximized, amid complete and perfect information. There is no management, no corporate strategy, no government. Here in the world, information is incomplete and imperfect, and governments and CEOs exist, and think themselves to have functions and purpose. You may try to disabuse them of their illusions about their existence as well as their usefulness all you like. It is a sad waste of life.

99

Nine 11.02.12 at 5:34 pm

Harold @98,

“Voltaire supported enlightened despotism, luxurious living, and did not think servants should be educated.”

“Respectable hack” has to at least mean somewhat meretricious flattery of the prejudices of contemporary elites in exchange for sinecure and whoopee, not just offensive or anachronistic or idiosyncratic opinionating . Otherwise Nietzsche, Celine (the french novelist not the canadian singer) and Axl Rose are all RH’s.

100

Andthenyoufall 11.02.12 at 5:44 pm

Git; I don’t think Grotius comes close. He was supposed to spend his life in prison for republicanism and anti-clericalism, remember? (Not that Grooty showed any moral courage in ratting out his boss to save his own skin, but…)

Bw – Personal leviathan, or geometry student? I don’t think Charles had any hand in the blasphemy legislation. (Maybe Clarendon did, but that was the one person in the world whom Hobbes most thoroughly alienated.)

Nine – Voltaire was a disgusting elitist, he was anti-political agitation (not sure how you missed that in Candide!), he was on the take from Frederick and took the role of defending despots and war-mongers from his slightly less hypocritical peers (Diderot, D’Holbach), and many other things that I’m sure I’m ignorant of. He was basically on the wrong side of all the intra-Enlightenment debates, and his sources of income give a pretty good idea of why. — As for Hobbes, I’m not sure exactly what you mean by pulling a Swift. A lot of his writing is meant to be amusing and insulting, but I think he really did believe that war is awful, vagueness in government breeds extremism and war, and that people have an obligation to obey the law.

101

Harold 11.02.12 at 6:06 pm

My impression from non-systematic reading is that Hobbes really was a man of principle, something of a contrarian, and certainly not a hack. Voltaire falls closest to the hack spectrum, but he was a man of genius who courageously opposed the crimes and excesses of religion, was in his youth physically beaten and spent time in jail — as did his censored books — and largely deserves the adulation accorded him. Autre temps …

102

Tim Worstall 11.02.12 at 6:30 pm

““Market competition” is not a thing, not an actor, not an agent and not a cause. It is an abstraction.”

Excellent, so you’ll be able to let us know whether this abstraction has or is solving supply problems in the rare earths market then? Be sure to show your workings.

Bonus points for pointing to which RE company the incoming President of China’s family part owns. Who financed the US mine. Where the other two mines gearing up for production are. The number of junior miners touting projects.

103

BillCinSD 11.02.12 at 9:25 pm

Tim Worstall @104

Little to none at all. The re-opened and new RE mines are substitutions for the REs that won’t be available from China in the near future, so it’s not really much to do with competition.

104

js. 11.02.12 at 11:54 pm

What’s this nonsense about Hobbes being a hack? Have you read Leviathan? Dude was a fucking genius. (Yeah, ok, the arguments in favor of monarchy in chap. 19 are pretty weak, but at least he’s honest enough to acknowledge that monarchy is just one of several forms the commonwealth can take, that—in other words—there are no conceptual restrictions on who or what may be invested with the highest political authority in a given state.) You want some hackish arguments, I suggest you check out chap. 5 of Locke’s Second Treatise.

105

GiT 11.03.12 at 12:46 am

On Grotius – I’m working from a recollection of a recollection of a source, so I may be entirely off on Grotius, but my understanding was that his opinion on what, for example, the law of the sea should be, shifted to whatever was convenient for the Dutch at the time.

On Hobbes – I agree with the “not a hack” verdict.

106

Andthenyoufall 11.03.12 at 4:20 am

Git, that seems unlikely, since (I believe) he only wrote one (unpublished) tract on international law while he was a Dutch politician, and an extract of that was his essay “The free sea”. Everything in de iure belli ac pacis was done in prison or in France. Could be wrong. Do you know what the source you’re thinking of?

107

Peter T 11.03.12 at 5:27 am

Tim’s view seems to be :

1. If an intelligent private executive, informed that some essential mineral will be in tight supply due to limited sources and national policies, who then consults relevant technical experts and successfully persuades various sources of financial support that money is to be made developing alternative supplies, this is the magic of the market.

2. If, however, an intelligent public executive, informed that some essential mineral will be in tight supply due to limited sources and national policies, who then consults relevant technical experts and successfully persuades various sources of financial support that the public welfare will be enhanced by developing alternative supplies, this is the dead hand of bureaucracy.

I wonder if Tim makes like distinctions in his personal life?

108

Tim Worstall 11.03.12 at 7:24 am

“The re-opened and new RE mines are substitutions for the REs that won’t be available from China in the near future, so it’s not really much to do with competition.”

Not so much. Outside China production coming online is larger than the shrinkage (even the announced, let alone what we’re actually likely to see) in supply from China. And that’s just the mines we know are coming online (if they’re not already), entirely disregarding those that might.

@109. Very good, yes. Although that wasn’t actually the point I was making. Rather, that I’ve had experience of talking to both pols and CEO types (maybe not C suite, but the decision makers within large firms) about “how” such alternative supplies might be developed. For example, rather than the German Government going off and making a deal with the Kazakh one about building a vast new mine and processing complex (one such is indeed under discussion) a better idea might be to spend a little money on the separation technology. That’s the real bottleneck in the system and there are several promising and as yet untried technologies that might solve it. And solving that problem then allows myriad small producers to be viable. And, my argument goes, having myriad small producers spread around the world would provide greater reliability of supply than replacing a mega-plant in Inner Mongolia with one in Kazakhstan.

Now my argument might be wrong. My observation though was that, in my experience, both the CEO types and the political types weren’t interested in the “lets foster a market” solution, preferring instead the “let’s have a grand plan” solution.

Meaning that I was agreeing with Henry’s (sarcastic but I’m agreeing with it as said straight) point at 11.

(For those who care about the technical stuff here. Rare earths just aren’t rare. We can get them from many different places. We could supply much of current world demand just from the wastes of other mining processes. However, each of those sources is small in and of itself. Which leads us to our problem. The separation of the REs, one from the other, is the bottleneck. It can cost $800 million to build a plant to do this using current technology (solvent extraction). And you need to have, to be efficient, a consistent homogenous stream into such a plant. You really do not want to be taking a number of small streams and trying to process them either together or in sequence. It is this processing technology that leads to having a few, several, large mines with their associated plants. Even while we have some similar amount of REs in other wastes that we don’t bother to process. My argument, and agreed I might be howlingly wrong, is that if you can use some other technology to reduce the capital costs of those processing plants, thus allowing the use of the smaller already extant streams, then you can supply world demand from those smaller extant streams and not be reliant on two or three large mines. Diversity of supply being the best way to ensure security of supply. As I say, this might be entirely wrong.)

109

Peter T 11.03.12 at 10:05 am

Okay,good points, Tim. But why isn’t the market putting money into these promising new technologies? We have a very successful biotherapies company in Australia (CSL). Its success is built on years of research and the development of an entirely new plasma separation technology while it was the boring old government-run Commonwealth Serum Laboratories.

110

Watson Ladd 11.03.12 at 12:51 pm

Peter, Tim: you are missing the core of the distinction here. If the private executive is wrong, he has wasted his shareholders’ money. His shareholders can leave the firm at any time by selling the shares, so really no one is getting it who doesn’t deserve it.

By contrast a politician with a dumb idea will never be judged for it come election time. Given the ability of politicians to engage in outright theft in many places without much detection, their ability to cover up malfeasance with rhetoric is likely to ensure a lack of actual judgement.

The public welfare is an abstraction, while profit is not. Profit is either made or not, a check on any company. By contrast, it is unclear which actions contribute to the public welfare more than others.

Lastly, no mining company in the world is going to disclose improvements to its RE processing while such development is ongoing. If you disagree, you are free to allocate your own assets appropriately.

111

Tim Worstall 11.03.12 at 1:16 pm

“Okay,good points, Tim. But why isn’t the market putting money into these promising new technologies?”

It is. It has in fact. At least one company I know of has gone public with their plans as well. Orbite Aluminae. One of those possible sources for REs is the “red mud” waste of the bauxite to alumina process. Orbite’s system (claims, I’ve not actually run the experiment to check it but what they say is certainly feasible) extracts them, along with much other interesting stuff.

If rolled out across the industry would, alone, provide perhaps 30% of global usage of REs.

And there are some 429 junior mining companies (“junior” here meaning anything from interesting but new to three men and a dog trying to flog a dud) out there with RE projects.

112

Tim Worstall 11.03.12 at 1:18 pm

“claims, I’ve not actually run the experiment to check it but what they say is certainly feasible”

Perhaps I should explain that a little. I’ve run exactly the same technological experiment a couple of years back. It definitely works. At industrial scale. They’ve added one more wrinkle which makes it economic, rather than just technologically successful.

113

ajay 11.03.12 at 5:57 pm

Hobbes not Hogg — grrr

You’re thinking of that 70s series “The Rousseaus of Hazzard”.

114

Harold 11.03.12 at 6:29 pm

Actually, it really was the “Rousseau’s of Hazzard.” My great grandfather was a self-made man who used to say that he had “only the hills and woods and streams of Kentucky to give me a start in life.

He and his brother, born shortly before the Civil War, ” married two sisters named surnamed Hogg . But my great grandfather’s wife “ran oft” to Ohio, before he married his second wife, my 15-year-old great grandmother, a teacher.

115

SusanC 11.03.12 at 6:41 pm

I’ve heard it said in sociology of science seminars that the state of scientific knowledge is completely determinable from what’s published: you need the knowledge that members of the scientify community have, such as which jiurhanls are reputable and which will publish any old rubbish, who is considered a crank, etc.

A simialr argument could be made in the interpretation of religious texts: if you want to know what a particular Christian group believes/considers important, it;s not enough to read the Gospels and what Jesus (allegedly) said – you need to know which bits the members of that particular community care about, which they ignore totally etc.

So if you’re a journalist who is a total outsider to a specialist subject, but has just been assigned the job of writing an article about it, going and interviewing some members of the relevant community makes a lot of sense: find out how the insiders interpret the published texts.

On the other hand, you’re almost certainly not going to find a member of the Bavarian Illuminati (or whatever) who knows what is really going on. Even insiders have only a partial view. An insider is likely led astray by the lies and misinformation of other members of their organization.

I can think of two political campaigns recently where leaks were really useful. One was the notorious Wikileaks, and the other I’ll not mention by name but suffice to say it was local, and the ability of campaigners to get leaked documents was significant — it’s one thing to suspect that the politicians are lying, and another to get the documents that pin down exactly when they’re lying. Freedom of Information requests are a hunt for a needle in a haystack unless you already know exactly what you’re trying to extract. In this respect, a mole is useful.

116

rootless (@root_e) 11.03.12 at 7:52 pm

You’re thinking of that 70s series “The Rousseaus of Hazzard”.

Emile, when you gonna get educated and stop acting like some sort of noble savage? You best remember you are in the State of Tennessee, not the State of durn Nature.

117

rootless (@root_e) 11.03.12 at 8:08 pm

Roscoe, them Hazard boys was born free, but will go everywhere in chains

Now uncle Jesse, NASCAR don’t run up North in the snow.

118

Andrew F. 11.03.12 at 9:32 pm

I’m not sure Iraq is the best example. Much of the information that was publicly available was, for a time, only publicly available because a journalist had been given information by an insider. Insider information – information as to how certain factions in the administration were analyzing and presenting intelligence, the intelligence itself, the biases and prior beliefs of the factions holding sway, etc. – was crucial to understanding whether an invasion and occupation would be a mistake, and the possible magnitude of that mistake.

My broader point here is that much of the valuable public information we have concerning immediate questions of foreign policy derives from insider interviews. Journalists are interested in insider interviews in part for reasons other than whether those briefings will result in greater insight into a question – there’s the fascination for the audience of learning various colorful details – but we turn to higher quality publications precisely because of the likelihood that we will encounter not only intelligent analyses and summaries of information already in the public domain, but also new information that is just passing out of the insider realm.

119

Cranky Observer 11.03.12 at 10:22 pm

= = = I’m not sure Iraq is the best example. Much of the information that was publicly available was, for a time, only publicly available because a journalist had been given information by an insider. = = =

The fact that 81mm is the standard size for a whole host of military weapons (particularly unguided rockets), and that any nation building its own armaments (as was Iraq) would need large quantities, was available in the public literature since the 1930s. That standard-grade aluminum tube is useless for uranium enrichment is a fact that can be determined by a quick call to any of the 10s of thousands of professors of nuclear engineering the western world. That the concept of “mobile bioweapons labs” is ridiculous can equally be ascertained by a call to any competent director of a biochemical laboratory, again available at any nearby research university (although some high schools have excellent biochem labs and their managers would probably suffice). But the NYT, Judith Miller, etc were searching and searching for that bit of “insider knowledge” which would justify a war.

Cranky

Just as a few months later the NYT bought the FBI’s phony story about the anthrax attacks and their alleged perpetrator despite there being zero publicly available information corroborating the FBI’s allegations, and plenty questioning it.

120

LFC 11.03.12 at 11:12 pm

Roscoe, them Hazzard boys was born free, but will go everywhere in chains

Uh-huh, no chainin’ these two.

121

LFC 11.03.12 at 11:13 pm

ooops, wrong link. i’ll try again.

122

LFC 11.03.12 at 11:15 pm

This shd work:

here

123

LFC 11.03.12 at 11:26 pm

Now see, Holbo should write a post on ‘Dukes of Hazzard,’ instead of all that 80s bratpack ****.

124

rootless (@root_e) 11.03.12 at 11:31 pm

Voltaire supported enlightened despotism, luxurious living, and did not think servants should be educated. He hated Rousseau’s egalitarianism. In this he differed from Diderot.
—–

I would like to take a stand in favor of luxurious living and also gardening. Voltaire’s cynicism about ideological answers has certainly stood the test of time better than Rousseau’s somewhat dreamy theories about the State.

125

Harold 11.04.12 at 12:57 am

rootless, I have to agree with you about the little luxuries of life — and also gardening.

126

Harold 11.04.12 at 12:58 am

Rousseau was a gourmet cook, as it happened. I am not sure simplicity is entirely incompatible with pleasure.

127

Harold 11.04.12 at 1:08 am

MISS Susannah Touchandgo had read the four great poets of Italy, and many of the best writers of France. About the time of her father’s [bankruptcy], accident threw into her way Les Rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire; and …she carried with her into retirement all the works of Rousseau. In the midst of that startling light which the conduct of old friends on a sudden reverse of fortune throws on a young and inexperienced mind, the doctrines of the philosopher of Geneva struck with double force upon her sympathies: she imbibed the sweet poison, as somebody calls it, of his writings, even to a love of truth; which, every wise man knows, ought to be left to those who can get any thing by it.
The society of children, the beauties of nature, the solitude of the mountains, became her consolation, and, by degrees, her delight. . . She imbibed her new monitor’s ideas of simplicity of dress, assimilating her own with that of the peasant girls in the neighbourhood; the black hat, the blue gown, the black stockings, the shoes tied on the instep. . .
And with the food of pride sustained her soul In solitude.
It is true that … to the black hat she added a black feather, to the blue gown she added a tippet, and a waistband fastened in front with a silver buckle; she wore her black stockings very smooth and tight on her ancles, and tied her shoes in tasteful bows, with the nicest possible ribbon. In this apparel, to which, in winter, she added a scarlet cloak, she made dreadful havoc among the rustic mountaineers…T. L. Peacock, Crotchet Castle 1831.

128

Andthenyoufall 11.04.12 at 3:41 am

Sorry… What about idolizing Frederick “the Great” and belittling universal education and democracy has stood the test of time? I’ll admit that there are still gardens, and many of them are awfully nice, but I have yet to find a homegrown salad that justifies authoritarianism. Franco died decades ago, I thought we were done with this game.

129

Harold 11.04.12 at 4:08 am

Well, as far as “cultivating one’s garden” Rousseau and Voltaire were not so far apart as it seems. But Rousseau is no longer considered “dreamy”. On the contrary, he is the deeper, and more original thinker.

130

Harold 11.04.12 at 4:27 am

“Rousseau, the student of evolution, the anthropologist …. [also] appears as a pathbreaker for later socialist thought, with this difference, however, that his conclusion is not that everything hangs from economics, but that everything hangs from politics.” — Mario Einaudi, The Early Rousseau (1967).

Rousseau our master, Rousseau our brother, toward whom we have shown so much ingratitude, but to whom each page of this book [Triste Tropiques] should be dedicated.” — Claude Levi-Strauss, addressing a conference of anthropologists.

131

root_e 11.04.12 at 3:28 pm

“Every service a citizen can render the State he ought to render as soon as the Sovereign demands it; but the Sovereign, for its part, cannot impose upon its subjects any fetters that are useless to the community, nor can it even wish to do so; for no more by the law of reason than by the law of nature can anything occur without a cause.” Jean-Jacques

“What about idolizing Frederick “the Great” and belittling universal education and democracy has stood the test of time?”

But of course that’s a peculiar summary of Voltaire’s work.

“The State, therefore, is the most flagrant, the most cynical, and the most complete negation of humanity. It shatters the universal solidarity of all men on the earth, and brings some of them into association only for the purpose of destroying, conquering, and enslaving all the rest. It protects its own citizens only; it recognises human rights, humanity, civilisation within its own confines alone. Since it recognises no rights outside itself, it logically arrogates to itself the right to exercise the most ferocious inhumanity toward all foreign populations, which it can plunder, exterminate, or enslave at will. If it does show itself generous and humane toward them, it is never through a sense of duty, for it has no duties except to itself in the first place, and then to those of its members who have freely formed it, who freely continue to constitute it or even, as always happens in the long run, those who have become its subjects.” – post by Mike B.

“Work then without disputing,” said Martin; “it is the only way to render life supportable.” – Voltaire

“his conclusion is not that everything hangs from economics, but that everything hangs from politics.”

And, for my part, these are both false totalizations. Society is neither economics nor politics and human beings are not reducible to subjects or economic atoms without violence.

132

rootless (@root_e) 11.04.12 at 4:50 pm

“Every service a citizen can render the State he ought to render as soon as the Sovereign demands it; but the Sovereign, for its part, cannot impose upon its subjects any fetters that are useless to the community, nor can it even wish to do so; for no more by the law of reason than by the law of nature can anything occur without a cause.” Jean-Jacques

“What about idolizing Frederick “the Great” and belittling universal education and democracy has stood the test of time?”

But of course that’s a peculiar summary of Voltaire’s work.

“The State, therefore, is the most flagrant, the most cynical, and the most complete negation of humanity. It shatters the universal solidarity of all men on the earth, and brings some of them into association only for the purpose of destroying, conquering, and enslaving all the rest. It protects its own citizens only; it recognises human rights, humanity, civilisation within its own confines alone. Since it recognises no rights outside itself, it logically arrogates to itself the right to exercise the most ferocious inhumanity toward all foreign populations, which it can plunder, exterminate, or enslave at will. If it does show itself generous and humane toward them, it is never through a sense of duty, for it has no duties except to itself in the first place, and then to those of its members who have freely formed it, who freely continue to constitute it or even, as always happens in the long run, those who have become its subjects.” – post by Mike B.

“Work then without disputing,” said Martin; “it is the only way to render life supportable.” – Voltaire

“his conclusion is not that everything hangs from economics, but that everything hangs from politics.”

And, for my part, these are both false totalizations. Society is neither economics nor politics and human beings are not reducible to subjects or economic atoms without violence.

133

Anarcissie 11.04.12 at 5:23 pm

Watson Ladd 11.03.12 at 12:51 pm:
‘Peter, Tim: you are missing the core of the distinction here. If the private executive is wrong, he has wasted his shareholders’ money. His shareholders can leave the firm at any time by selling the shares, so really no one is getting it who doesn’t deserve it. …’

The state machinery of capitalism, by means of which value is extracted from workers and given to elites, is not private.

134

rootless (@root_e) 11.04.12 at 8:08 pm

Watson Ladd 11.03.12 at 12:51 pm

Peter, Tim: you are missing the core of the distinction here. If the private executive is wrong, he has wasted his shareholders’ money. His shareholders can leave the firm at any time by selling the shares, so really no one is getting it who doesn’t deserve it.
———-

Ha ha ha. Like many right wing economists, you have no idea how firms and markets, especially financial markets, work.

135

Peter T 11.04.12 at 11:32 pm

It’s O/T, I know.

Watson’s comment illustrates a way of looking at the world – as the remorseless working out of a small set of very big assumptions. Has Watson ever looked at a company report? Did he see the details of the many ideas which were considered, tried and failed? Did he see detailed consideration of the various financial, legal, technical, policy, perhaps even ethical, considerations that went into each decision? I have read quite a few, and somehow all these bits were missing. The point is that the bottom line is an impossibly simple metric even within companies, let alone for shareholders.

As for government, do his ideas notice that treasury departments are dedicated to NOT spending money? That all major initiatives have to pass treasury approval? That most initiatives come from bureaucrats, and have to pass a series of tests that ensure only very few make it to cabinet, and then are subject to political scrutiny and external audit. The point is that organisations develop all sorts of ways of checking out ideas, and many of these ways work well. There’s no single path to organisational paradise.

To relate this to expertise – the challenge is not so much in developing expertise, it’s in developing organisational cultures that listen to it.

136

Harold 11.05.12 at 12:12 am

Why the long quote from M. Bakunin, rootless, in a discussion of Voltaire?

137

rootless (@root_e) 11.05.12 at 12:46 am

That’s from Bakunin’s critique of “The Social Contract”. The Modern State has not worked as M. JJ Rousseau had envisioned. Bakunin correctly noted that the model of the social contract as a bridge from state nature to civilization presupposes that human society only begins with a state. This fable has some similarities with the fable told about the origin of money by economists.

138

rootless (@root_e) 11.05.12 at 12:57 am

” Has Watson ever looked at a company report? Did he see the details of the many ideas which were considered, tried and failed? Did he see detailed consideration of the various financial, legal, technical, policy, perhaps even ethical, considerations that went into each decision?”

Free Market Economists opinions about the workings of the market are much like phrenologists ideas about the working of the mind.

139

Harold 11.05.12 at 1:34 am

Well, that was a standard criticism of the social contract in the nineteenth century, and doesn’t really have much to do with Rousseau.

140

rootless (@root_e) 11.05.12 at 1:47 am

I don’t follow you. Rousseau, we are discussing the author of The Social Contract, right? Not the painter? In The Social Contract, M. Rousseau argues that the state of nature gives way to the creation of The State:
——-
THE passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Then only, when the voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses and right of appetite, does man, who so far had considered only himself, find that he is forced to act on different principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations. Although, in this state, he deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, his feelings so ennobled, and his whole soul so uplifted, that, did not the abuses of this new condition often degrade him below that which he left, he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him from it for ever, and, instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, made him an intelligent being and a man.
—-

But that fable does not correspond to the development of human society.

141

LFC 11.05.12 at 2:42 am

rootless @136, addressing W. Ladd
Ha ha ha. Like many right wing economists, you have no idea how firms and markets, especially financial markets, work.

I believe you’re somewhat new here as a commenter, rootless, which is why you don’t know that W. Ladd, though he may on fairly regular occasion sound like a right-wing economist, is not a right-wing economist. He belongs to an organization whose name is escaping me, for which I blame the Scotch-on-the-rocks I consumed a couple of hours ago. However, if you click on his name you will arrive at their site.

142

LFC 11.05.12 at 2:44 am

Platypus.

143

rootless (@root_e) 11.05.12 at 2:52 am

LFC: Goodness Gracious!

144

Harold 11.05.12 at 3:25 am

Many political philosophers formulated “social contracts”, before and after, mostly before, Rousseau, whose contract is sometimes regarded as a criticism of the whole idea. Most of these were never intended to be taken literally. All were much criticized after the manner of Bakunin — beginning with Hegel.

There are lots and lots of good books about Rousseau, I wouldn’t just stop at Bakunin, who really doesn’t even mention Rousseau in the essay you quote from, except in the title. A very recent one is a compilation of the writings on Rousseau by Robert Wokler, Rousseau, the Age of Enlightenment and Their Legacies (2012), reviewed very interestingly by our own Chris Bertram, an expert on the subject, in the August 10, 2012 issue of The Times [of London] Literary Supplement.

Rousseau favored the city state (such as Geneva) and direct democracy by male (not female) citizens. According to Wokler, during the French Revolution this was revised by the Abbé Sieyès, a self-proclaimed follower of Rousseau, who hailed the Third Estate as the embodiment of the nation. During the Terror, the Committee of Public Safety declared its acts “representative” of the General Will. All this would have been abhorrent to Rousseau. Bertram writes:
“The French Revolution would not have been possible without a rejection of some of Rousseau’s central doctrines. In The Social Contract, Rousseau had argued that popular sovereignty must be directly exercised and cannot be exercised via representatives. The Abbé Sieyès, by contrast – the first theoretician of the Revolution – repudiated this: the representatives of the Third Estate incarnated and represented the nation. Later, the Jacobins would claim that the edicts of the Committee of Public Safety were expressions of the general will, but for Rousseau, the people must always speak for themselves. For this reason, he favoured small republics, where life was simple and face-to-face communication possible. True, when asked by Corsican and Polish patriots to suggest political principles for their countries, Rousseau made some concessions to practicability, but he would surely have contemplated the modern nation state, the source of so much killing and oppression, with horror.”

145

rootless (@root_e) 11.05.12 at 3:19 pm

The idea of representation is modern; it comes to us from feudal government, from that iniquitous and absurd system which degrades humanity and dishonours the name of man. In ancient republics and even in monarchies, the people never had representatives; the word itself was unknown. It is very singular that in Rome, where the tribunes were so sacrosanct, it was never even imagined that they could usurp the functions of the people, and that in the midst of so great a multitude they never attempted to pass on their own authority a single plebiscitum. We can, however, form an idea of the difficulties caused sometimes by the people being so numerous, from what happened in the time of the Gracchi, when some of the citizens had to cast their votes from the roofs of buildings.

I think it is an ambiguous legacy, and I used “dreamy” advisedly. Even Rousseau is somewhat dubious that his State can exist and he notes that it both must consume the daily existence of all citizens ( ask Oscar Wilde also noted, more wittily), won’t scale and is not always appropriate.

Lands where the surplus of product over labour is only middling are suitable for free peoples; those in which the soil is abundant and fertile and gives a great product for a little labour call for monarchical government, in order that the surplus of superfluities among the subjects may be consumed by the luxury of the prince: for it is better for this excess to be absorbed by the government than dissipated among the individuals. I am aware that there are exceptions; but these exceptions themselves confirm the rule, in that sooner or later they produce revolutions which restore things to the natural order.

I prefer Voltaire’s skepticism of such theories.

146

Andthenyoufall 11.06.12 at 1:40 pm

Being consumed by doubt and self-criticism is skepticism. Being absolutely certain that 19 people out of twenty have no interests or abilities outside casual drunkenness, and they should really stick to cultivating plants, is more like “Prolegomena to any future bell curve”.

Comments on this entry are closed.