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.
(I really need to get a stock photo of myself in frontHow I imagine Matt Yglesias looks when he's writing about monetary policy
of a shelf full of books)
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.