Is Wonk-Snark the New Genre? Unkind Thoughts About Ezra Klein

I guess Ezra Klein’s latest column – post? – whatever, wherein he deems himself up to taking on Greg Mankiw, is the right time for a question that has popped up whenever I have considered the trajectory of young Ezra.

Would Klein be a better writer/thinker/pundit/blogger/wonk/whatever if he had actually done some of the “reporting” stuff, factual reporting stuff, basic beat reporting stuff, that, as I sort of remember, was how in the old days of journalism, one clawed one’s way up to the lofty heights that Klein has scaled in a couple of years of pure opinionating? Was there some value to having to labor, so to speak, in the plains of fact-gathering before getting a perch to express one’s many views?

Klein’s career has consisted entirely, so far as I can tell, of delivering himself of many opinions. In an age in which (a) the front pages of newspapers increasingly consist of precisely that and (b) the internet emerged as a forum for disseminating oneself individually and one’s opinions as a career option, he has Done Well. Or as well as one can do by shoehorning oneself on the strength of one’s own internet brand into the … money-losing, dinosaur-media, Kaplan-supported Washington Post. I imagine Klein will milk it until that franchise is no longer valuable enough and then move on to colonize some other medium – I see forms of communication that require less writing and more talking, more visual stuff, in his future. Or wherever the money is in offering opinions. My suggestion? Subcontract the book; you’re more a short-form kind of writer.

But I find it hard to believe that his older journalistic peers at the Post and in the profession do not think privately to themselves that, although his political progressivism makes him not really attackable, just as a career figure, they must think to themselves that he might be improved had he done something besides go directly from junior high school to internet “public policy” columnist. He and I both graduated from UCLA – I didn’t know they had a major in pontification. Do they hand out diplomas from the college of “Generic Expert”? B.E., Bachelor of Expert degrees?

It is, of course, not outside the realm of possibility that Ezra, Young Turk, is possessed of a keener analytic mind than Greg Mankiw; I’m not opining here on substance, but only on the seemliness of career track. It’s the realm of possibility, however, in which Spock has a goatee.

The problem, however, is that his is a career track that thrives on high level, refined, abstract bickering among experts and talking heads. Pick a fight with Greg Mankiw and hope that he responds so that you can show your general worldly relevance and audience connection. That’s the currency you’re selling to the WaPo, at the end of the day, the heat, not the light. Including the snidification I’m producing here – how do we put it on the internet, “Don’t feed the trolls”?

Ezra Klein could, I emphasize, be right as to the substance of every position he takes. That’s not what fascinates me about him. It’s instead the business model from which he springs, full grown, as it were, skipping over working in and thereby learning something directly about the world in its myriad ways, and going directly to opining about it. And free of any disciplinary restraint, unless one really thinks of generic “policy” as a discipline or a constraint.

Update: I woke up this morning and looked back over what I wrote last night, and do have some regrets. Sorry, too many muscle relaxants also relaxed the social inhibition centers of the brain. But far from a complete sense of regret, I’m afraid … further thoughts, on my own post.

First, did I violate my own post Against Snark? Partly, but partly not. The problem is, how do you address Ezra Klein’s offering? It starts out, note, with a title “The Unbearable Lightness of Greg Mankiw.” Greg Mankiw is many things, but “light” is not one of them, and it is an appellation one might conceivably conclude applies to Klein, which is a big chunk of what my post is about. Not about Klein’s argument, but about the tone of his way of talking, and wondering whether the lack of factual journalism experience – to which one might add, the lack of experience in anything except expressing opinion – might plausibly be thought to be part of the reason.

Consider not just the title, but the opening – an email from a friend who says he’s about to have Professor Mankiw in class, and wondering if he should take the good professor seriously. So. Klein cites a friend thereby showing his connection to elite, only to turn around and out-elite them by trashing them. I’m sorry, but this is smarmy, and to say so is not snark. It is a comment on style and good taste; Klein’s opening shows neither, but for quite interesting reasons. Avoiding snark does not mean always limiting oneself to talking about sense, and never about sensibility; it is Klein’s sensibility that I find objectionable here.

My interest in it is that the Washington Post has thought that it should pay good money to acquire the style, the blogger, and his audience. That includes the smarminess, and quite possibly a premium for it. This is not the usual method for a traditional newspaper, although it is one papers have been experimenting with – and it goes back a ways, to include pre-web writers like Will. That is, traditionally, you promoted some reporter within the newspaper to the ranks of op ed columnist – he or she was respected within the newspaper and its readership, and presumably brought that credibility and audience.

The new model that Klein represents – Douthat and others to some degree as well; it’s not a liberal versus conservative thing – is a change on the business model. The opinionator as free agent on the web. Klein has developed an audience independently via the web, one that presumably appreciates his brand of mixed information, analysis, and sparky controversy to give it emotional appeal to particular audiences (yes of course, one can find this on the right, or analogues, in talk radio, for example). The sparky controversy involves attacking some figure in order to generate a little buzz; in this case, a respected establishment figure like Mankiw, but smarmily intertwined with various indirect ways of showing that one is also part of the elites that he represents.

So Klein has nurtured and developed this audience as a web entrepreneur – and apparently it is thought valuable enough that the Post decides it should buy the franchise and, by extension, the audience. My non-snarky point is that this is a new and different business model, and one with potentially sizable consequences for the Post as a news organization. And if I were a reporter from the old school, I might have questions about whether the lack of experience was made up for by the dedication in developing a saleable franchise.

(Re experience. I also wonder, by the way, if Larry Summers would not be a better policy maker, as distinguished from brilliant economist, had he not been the youngest tenured Harvard faculty member, and instead had gone and done some things in the real world first and then done economics second. I don’t know enough about Mankiw’s background to know if I’d think that about him as well, but I’m nearly through reading Justin Fox’s excellent The Myth of the Efficient Market, and the sense of the individual economists involved leaves one with an unsettling sense of otherworldliness that could not be said of people such as Peter Bernstein, Henry Kaufman, George Soros, and others who, whatever their political and policy views, never saw the enterprise as being like string theory. If academic economics were imagined a bit less on the model of math and physics, in which you leave your mark young and in the purely abstract and abstruse, and a bit more on the model of practical wisdom, policy – as distinguished from the pure discipline of economics – might benefit. In a different way, that applies to policy entrepreneurs like Ezra Klein. You don’t have to be old or middle aged – but some experience of the world, in something, somewhere, might have certain virtues.)

Second, then, the nature of some issues worth examining is that they do require examining the individual – in this case his style of journalism and the business model it implies. It’s not about the arguments as such in any individual case, it’s about the model that underlies it. Sensibility, and not merely sense, is worth examining. To examine it is not automatically to descend into snark, though I grant some of what I said above probably does.

Third, a number of commentators ask what makes that different from Anderson opining here at VC on, well, anything Anderson wants. Fair question. But last I looked no one was paying me anything here – this is a pure hobby, and Beloved as Our Commentators Are, I don’t think of you as a saleable part of the Anderson franchise. If blogging at VC somehow furthers my academic career, such as it is, no one has told me about it. If I were getting paid money for this, I would go about things really, really differently. Expertise has its problems, and political rule by economic experts has many problems, but lack of expertise is also a problem.

What the Washington Post has paid for is not expertise – maybe it got it with Klein, but maybe not – point being that it bought it not for the expertise, but for the buzz, the audience. In that sense – and yes, this will sound rude – within the Post’s business model, how it sees the Klein franchise, well, I’d suggest it sees him less as an op-ed columnist than as Robin Givens, as part of the Style section. It sees him as a political tastemaker with a new, web-based audience that the Post would like to purchase, but as far as content goes, it is about generating the little bits of controversy that someone like Givens generates when she opines on the dress styles of rich and famous women. If that sounds mean, well, think about it as a pure business transaction – content-free – on the part of both Klein and the Post, and tell me if there isn’t at least a grain of truth to it.

I realize that sounds rude and snarky, and I suppose it it. The problem is, one of my General Interests is media business models, and very often that requires consideration of the model quite in the absence of the substance that it embodies. It is possible to appreciate and evaluate the free cash flow that Ezra Klein’s ruminations presumably generate for the Post without consideration of their content, and I imagine that’s exactly what someone on the business side of the Post did. Or at least, were I a WP shareholder, I hope someone did.

Apologies, then, to Mr. Klein insofar as I stepped over bounds of good taste. But I didn’t think his WP column was in such great taste, either, and he and the Post, unlike what’s said here, are making money off it, and sometimes understanding the underlying business model requires looking not at the arguments, but the position of the person making them.

Final update: I don’t quite understand why so few commenters seem interested in addressing what I thought was the more interesting part of the discussion – what is the business model that the WP is pursuing here? I would have thought that the WP’s media strategy here is the more interesting part of this. Someone want to tell me what the Post’s strategy is? I’ve suggested that there’s a new kind of dynamic here, of web policy entrepreneur developing a web-based community of readers, and then selling it to an established media outlet. That seems pretty interesting as a strategy for the entrepreneur and the media company.

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