Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein Pet Peeve

I almost considered not posting this, but what the hell...

Two things I saw today got me thinking about a pet peeve of mine: the fawning over Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein that goes on in this town (Washington D.C.). Here, Yglesias feels the need to let everyone know it's his 29th birthday today, and he solicits 30th birthday party ideas. Here, Ezra Klein is interviewed about his reading habits. Klein actually bothers me less, because he seems more self aware. But both are received as "wonks" in this town. They're not. They're journalists. I'M a wonk.

I say Klein doesn't bother me as much because he seems to realize that he is just a journalist, albeit a quite well informed journalist. In the intro to his daily email (the "Wonkbook"), he explicitly calls it a news aggregator. In the interview, he talks about the role that interviewing experts plays in what he does. So he seems to understand his strength - aggregating, interviewing, restating complex ideas, reporting, and blogging. I know Yglesias thinks of himself as a blogger as well, but sometimes I think he goes a little farther than Klein in his understanding of his own role in the debate. Maybe it's just because Yglesias is more partisan than Klein, so it sounds more like he thinks he is developing ideas rather than just aggregating ideas.

The thing is, Klein is the same age as me and Yglesias is only a couple years older. Both only have a bachelor's degree - neither have a bachelor's degree in economics, which is the field they often comment on. Neither actually does research, which to me is the defining characteristic of a "wonk". I do economic policy research every day. I could read the news, blogs, and the literature as broadly as they do and aggregate it if I wasn't doing research, but I'm doing research. I'm painfully aware of how little I know relative to the senior researchers that I work with, but I'm confident that after several decades of this I will know as much as they do. And the thing is, it doesn't matter how many news snippets and blogs Klein and Yglesias spend their time aggregating - they don't have the insights into the issues that you get from actually doing the research yourself and defending it in front of a critical audience of your peers.

The difference between a wonk and a journalist I think comes out the clearest whenever you read Yglesias trying to talk about monetary policy. He tries desperately to parrot Paul Krugman and Scott Sumner and pass it off as an indepenent insight. For such a big liberal (I'm sorry... "progressive" - he is at the Center for American Progress, after all), he doesn't seem to comprehend how much he sounds like Milton Friedman and how little he sounds like John Maynard Keynes. If you actually read Paul Krugman and Scott Sumner on a regular basis, you can easily pick their insights out of his posts. Think of the simplest, blandest exposition of their points, strip it of all the nuances, caveats, and all the theoretical and empirical skeleton that Sumner and Krugman provide for it, and you've got Yglesias's monetary policy posts. You can even pick up their style and their way of framing issues in these posts of his.

That's all fine, but that is opinion journalism and blogging - that's not being a "policy wonk". These two got a lucky break out of college with major magazines, largely as a result of their blogging in college. Good for them, but let's be serious about what this really is. In the mid-2000's the blogosphere was a lot sparser than it is now. College kids can be energetic, eloquent, and well read. That's the college atmosphere. These two guys were those things, and it caught the attention of major print publications who swooped in to grab them right out of school. Their college blogging was a signaling device. I don't think that sort of story could happen today. There are lots of very high quality blogs out there, and college students running a blog have a much harder time distinguishing themselves. Klein and Yglesias caught the crest of the wave as it was coming in - and they did it because they are talented. But people are confusing that perfect storm of circumstances and transitions in the news industry with some kind of wunderkind phenomenon that I don't think really exists in these two cases.

Basically, Klein and Yglesias are journalists and bloggers - and they're good journalists and bloggers. They probably aren't as uniquely talented as a lot of people seem to think they are, though. But they appeared to be uniquely talented because they were the best at a news medium that was just beginning to take shape when they were in school. They locked in those advantages, and their time at The American Prospect, the Washington Monthly, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, etc. is going to pay off and they're going to have very successful careers in journalism and writing as a result of their inherent skills, but also because of these experiences. But they're not wonks and they're not policy experts. They're just very good and interesting writers that write about policy.

"Thoughtful Yglesias"

(I really need to get a stock photo of myself in front
of a shelf full of books)

How I imagine Matt Yglesias looks when he's writing about monetary policy

My God!!! Who gave this man a podium?!?!

All in good fun (and a little jealousy), Matt. I read and link you often, for what it's worth.


  1. In retrospect, I suppose it's fairly obvious who gave him the podium since it's written right on the podium.

  2. "Maybe it's just because Yglesias is more partisan than Klein, so it sounds more like he thinks he is developing ideas rather than just aggregating ideas."

    Good reminder overall. More specifically, I think that's precisely the reason why Yglesias jumped from the Atlantic to CAP -- so that he could be more prescriptive and engaged in advocacy.

  3. Also, if I wasn't doing what I was doing now, I could totally do what Yglesias does -- and likely with fewer typos.

  4. Several thoughts in response:

    1) I'm hurt that you find me more annoying than Ezra.
    2) I'm especially annoyed by this because it's only Ezra who brands himself as a self-described wonk (see, e.g., his morning "wonkbook" posts).
    3) I think of myself as neither a wonk nor a journalist, but primarily an aggregator -- which I think is exactly as you see it.
    4) As you point out, people who are busy doing research don't have time to aggregate. By the same token, people busy aggregating others' work don't have time to do original research. What's so bad about the division of labor?
    5) I'm perfectly aware that my views on monetary policy are closer to Milton Friedman's than to Keynes' -- I think that's pretty clear and I don't know why you would assume I'm not aware of it.

  5. Did Matt Yglesias really take the time to stop by here? The world may never know (actually Evan might... he's better at sleuthing commenter IP addresses and that sort of thing than I am). Let's have fun and assume he did stop by:

    1. I never said more annoying!

    2. Actually, I thought that about Ezra at first too - it was the title "wonkbook" that first got my frustrated. I looked closer at the page while writing this post, though, and noticed he said no such thing for himself (at least not that I can find). I concluded it is a "book for wonks" rather than a "book by a wonk" - on his website he does, however, refer to his task as aggregating.

    3. That's great - my concern is as much with how you two are perceived in this town as it is with what you think of yourselves.

    4. Nothing at all is bad with the division of labor - I said you guys are great at your job didn't I?

    5. Gotta push back on your last one. I haven't commented on a monetary policy post in a while, but dmontieth and I REGULARLY dispute almost everything you say, regularly request that you respond and you never do. I still think those posts are quite superficial. It's tough stuff - don't get me wrong. I don't usually blog on those issues because its tough stuff.

  6. Another example of fawning:

    The writers at "Capital Gains and Games" should not be "humbled" that Ezra Klein reads them. They should say "we're budget wonks that were making policy in this town before you were born - you can't really be a good journalist WITHOUT reading us - glad you stopped by"


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