Monday, June 18, 2012

Sentence of the day

From Tyler Cowen: "If your blogging or writing doesn't increase the degree of trust among people who do not agree with each other, probably you are lowering the chance for better policy, not increasing it, no matter what you perceive yourself as saying."

I try to follow this here, even though a lot of my blogging is about things I disagree with. This also encapsulates a lot of my concerns with the way the market monetarists blog about Keynesians - a lot of it is sowing seeds of distrust about Keynesians in a way that you just don't see Keynesians doing w.r.t. market monetarists, and that makes good monetary policy less likely - not more likely.


  1. I think Cowen's advice only makes sense if there is obviously common ground in policy recommendation. For instance, you are probably right that Sumner probably should be less difficult on Keynesians, if the latter generally agree with Sumner's big policy prescription: NGDP targeting. However, it would make less sense for me, since I don't think augmenting "trust" in Keynesians and Monetarists is necessarily a good thing.

    1. I imagine Cowen didn't have my specific example in mind, where trust can actually lead to advancing a specific policy.

      I think his argument works more generally too, though - for example, you dealing fairly with Keynesians and me dealing fairly with Austrians helps us to "get somewhere" in a way that a lot of other bloggers don't. Although you make a good point - while it is helpful for moving forward, I'm not sure we're moving forward to policy agreement.

  2. Indeed, Daniel. How one sets the tone of discussion is important. And I think you've set a good atmosphere for discussion on your blog by consistently showing that you can agree to disagree with other people and still keep the trust amongst each other.

  3. The points about fairness and tone are important for promoting trust and elevating the level of public discussion. One aspect of that is accurately and non-derisively stating opposing views, even while arguing against them.

    Not to disagree with Cowen's point, but I found the lead-in to his statement about increasing the degree of trust ironic. Cowen quotes himself:

    "In response, some people have moralized about this shift — sometimes by telling voters they’re stupid to let government shrink. But that kind of talk can lower public trust even further."

    Then he follows with the statement about increasing the degree of trust. He is right that calling other people stupid is counterproductive. At the same time, his very criticism is made in a way that tends to undermine trust.

    First, he talks about "some people". Now, that may be a polite way of refraining from personal attacks. However, to say "some people" in this kind of context invites the reader to think "not me" in response. It is already dividing people into camps, us vs. them, with the resulting matrix of suspicion and mistrust. In addition, "some people" is a vague phrase, which makes it easy for the reader to imagine that those people are more numerous than they actually are. That makes any threat that they pose more ominous. A specific example could be over-generalized, of course, but the vague phrase invites over-generalization.

    Next, he say that these people have "moralized the shift". (I suppose he means a shift towards smaller government.) "Moralized" has a negative connotation, since it implies that someone is making a value judgment about something that is inherently neutral. However, the debate about the size of government has always had a moral dimension. For instance, the idea that taxation is theft is a moral judgment. Since I know this, Cowen's statement erodes my trust in Cowen. It sounds like he is attempting to deflect any moral objections to shrinking government by calling them moralizing in advance. This is an example of unfairness towards opposing views.

    Next, Cowen's example of moralizing is to tell voters that they are stupid. Well, calling someone stupid is not moralizing. That supports the case that the use of the word "moralize" is a rhetorical ploy. It further erodes my trust in Cowen. Even if he thinks that calling someone stupid is moralizing, he may be sincere, but his judgment is questionable. Since he gives no reference, I do not know if "some people" actually called voters stupid. That is Cowen's interpretation, which is questionable. Perhaps "some people" actually said that to vote a certain way was stupid. That is not the same thing as calling people who actually voted that way stupid. Smart people sometimes do stupid things. (Isaac Newton once hard-boiled his watch. ;)) I do not know what writing Cowen had in mind, but he may have interpreted it in a way that undermines trust.

    Since I intend this as constructive criticism, let me try to make Cowen's point in a less divisive way:

    Adopting a morally superior attitude or engaging in name-calling can lower public trust even further.

    Note that this focuses on behavior, not people, and it does not suggest that one side or the other of some question is engaging in that behavior. :)

  4. I think that it achieved moreso on this blog than anywhere else.

    1. it *is* achieved. Funny how a simple typo can make your comment look like Japanese spam


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