Regulating Pundits

Joshua Green writes:

[P]undits are a plague on us all. It is time we acted.

The crowning indignity, of course, is that they’re usually wrong. Not just off-by-a-few-degrees wrong, but invading-Iraq-is-a-good-idea wrong. “Dow 36,000” wrong. And what are the consequences? There are none at all! You can blow the biggest questions of the day, time after time, and still claim to be a discerning seer.

Well, there ought to be consequences. It’s not as if blogs and propaganda outlets don’t keep trackof this stuff. In Washington, regulation is back in fashion. If we can regulate tricky things like credit-default swaps, surely we can regulate pundits.

That pesky First Amendment prevents us from silencing them outright. But couldn’t the more reputable media outlets reach a gentleman’s agreement to stop inviting commentary from the very worst offenders, at least for a respectable interlude? Pundits should have to explain their bad calls (and grovel?) as a condition of return.

It’s always amazed me that entire foundations seem to exist solely for the purpose of dispatching hordes of green-eyeshaded technicians to pore over transcripts and news clippings in a civic-minded effort to detect “bias” in media coverage. Who cares? Why not measure quality—or the lack thereof—instead? That would be useful information.

Regulating pundits needn’t be the province of dull nonprofits and media scolds. It could be fun! What would be more satisfying than a Daily Show segment that routinely held the worst offenders up for public ridicule? Let’s keep a list of them online—a surefire traffic-generator if ever there was one. Some reputable publication with a track record more often right than wrong could serve as sponsor and steward.

Hmm. Green seems to recognize that we do this already but allows the reason it doesn’t work as he would like to slip under his nose.

There is a huge amount of energy devoted to tearing down the credibility of pundits of all stripes. There is Sourcewatch. There is Discover the Network. One of the main activities of pundits is attempting to shame and marginalize opposing pundits. And it’s not as if the editors and producers of “more reputable media outlets” (which one’s are those!?) don’t apply a discerning filter. The problem is that the motivation to “regulate” stray pundits is primarily ideological. And ideology is precisely why there is so little agreement about whether a particular pundit is right or wrong, whether a media outlet is reputable or disreputable.

The Dow 36,000 example is easy, since it’s so easy to determine with certainty that it did not come to pass. But almost nothing is like this. So, to take Green’s other example, I have always thought it was wrong to invade Iraq, but I don’t feel like I know yet whether it was a “good idea” in a more compehensive historical sense. Maybe we’re seeing the domino theory in action right now in Iran. Or not. The thing is nobody really knows. I don’t feel like I know that America’s entry into World War II was a good idea. For all I know, Germany would have otherwise walloped the Soviets and the rest of the century might have turned out better than it did. But if you say that you don’t know for sure that America’s entry into World War II was not a good idea, people will start to regulate you right away. (Ask Jim Cramer’s regulator, Jon Stewart, who was sternly regulated for suggesting, quite reasonably, that Truman was a war criminal.) Indeed, Green’s choice of “invading-Iraq-was-a-good-idea wrong” is a not-so-sly attempt to marginalize those who disagree.

So who does the financial markets collapse discredit? Free market ideologues? The Federal Reserve? People who trust regulation to work? Those who supported policies to increase homeownership among the poor? Who gets a black mark? Who gets a gold star? Should we dogpile Joshua Green for this ill-conceived piece of meta-punditry?

I think what Green wants is an ideas future market. So far, this idea has been regulated into ineffectuality, literally.

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17 thoughts on “Regulating Pundits

  1. As more voices have a platform via the net, the whining will increase, yearning for the good old days when a handful of experts cornered the market.

  2. So, uh, do you think America’s entry into World War II was a good idea or not? You keep hinting that you have some analysis on this question more detailed than “obviously.” I'm curious.

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  4. Scientists and observers of science can shame, ridicule, and discredit Patrick Michaels, Fred Singer, and Robert Balling all we like, but if recent history is any education that won't change the credulity of free marketeers on hearing their arguments.If this is indicative, I have no reason to believe even in cases where shaming pundits is easy that it will have substantial effect.

  5. Wilkinson, your last paragraph obviated the need for my comment.I'd still point your readers to this useful Cowen-Caplan exchange.Even if we can't have a literal ideas future market, we can at least start with a betting norm. Make these pundits “put up or shut up.”Do you need proof it would work? Well, people are still talking about the Simon-Ehrlich wager all these years later. The betting norm helps social learning.The only other familiar alternative is to bring back dueling, but that has negative consequences.

  6. The latter. You did say you don't know, but you also seem to have at least a sketch of what the “entry wasn't justified” view looks like, which, unlike almost everyone else in America, you don't reject as obviously false. It's so infrequently stated, at least by people who aren't cranks, that I'm actually curious about the details.

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  8. The problem with the 'DOW 36,000' prediction wasn't that it has been proven wrong in hindsight. The problem was that their book was really dumb. And the dumb was obvious at the time. In a nutshell the means whereby the author's arrived at their DOW 36000 prediction was riddled with basic math errors, ignorance of what various accounting terms actually meant, and hubris. Rather than taking expected earnings as EITHER historical earning yields on equities OR historical dividends plus expected growth, INSTEAD they added both of these values together, effectively doubling growth and therefore present value. Bad punditry is bad less because it's predictions aren't born out (we're all wrong at times) but bad because it's just …. bad.

  9. It seems like the underlying problem with punditry is the almost unbelievable short-sightedness of all of it. Pundits, who by definition are asked to give quick takes on issues as they are emerging, are thus incentivized to significantly overvalue short-term consequences vis-a-vis long-term consequences (their discount rate is in the neighborhood of 50%). Consider the Iraq war. Almost everyone was in favor of it back in early 2003, and then everyone came out against the surge in 2006. In retrospect, both positions were probably wrong (although the jury is still out on whether the invasion of Iraq will turn out to have been on balance good for America).Another hilarious example is Paul Krugman, who gyrates back and forth and overreacts to almost everything. In 2001, he was frantically calling on Greenspan to inflate a housing bubble in order to stamp out a recession that, we now know, was very mild, and probably should have been allowed to run its course without such an aggressive easy-money response from the Fed. But no one remembers this, and Krugman is still peddling his short-sighted alarmism in reaction to every bit of economic news.

  10. Another hilarious example is Paul Krugman, who gyrates back and forth and overreacts to almost everything. In 2001, he was frantically calling on Greenspan to inflate a housing bubble in order to stamp out a recession that, we now know, was very mild, and probably should have been allowed to run its course without such an aggressive easy-money response from the Fed.“Can you point to the Krugman columns that make this case? I'm looking at the history according to the unofficial archive. So far I've got “What do you get when you cross a godfather with a Federal Reserve chairman? Someone who makes you an offer you can't understand.” (01/21/2001), “With one exception, the economic data don't support [the administration's and the punditry's] gloomy views.” (02/21/2001) and “This slowdown may turn out to be nasty and brutish; but my guess is that it will also turn out to be short. ” (2/25/2001) in making an argument for a cautious approach to the 'mild' recession. He does argue (twice that I can find) that Greenspan should have cut rates faster, but not deeper, and mostly for psychological reasons.In fact what's striking about Krugman's columns from this period is the thoroughgoing moneterist orthodoxy. “The big difference is that the Fed has a powerful conventional tool at its disposal; since U.S. interest rates remain well above zero, there is still room for substantial cuts.”(3/21/2001), “Not that I really think it's [tax cut or Lieberman's $300 rebate] necessary: if I had to choose, I'd take another percentage point off the Fed funds rate any day.” (3/28/2001) and his profound skepticism about the arguments being made by the Bush administration in support of their tax cuts. He also states (5/21/2001) “For the big lesson of the late 1990's was that speculative bubbles spring eternal. The signs of irrational exuberance, not to mention sheer silliness, were there for all to see; yet the bubble expanded and then burst all the same. Surely there will be other bubbles, and other burstings, in the decades ahead.” I don't see much gyration or alarmist over-reaction here, except when he's making very pointed complaints about the Bush Tax cuts.

  11. Well, how about this, from his August 2, 2002 column:http://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/02/opinion/dubya…Krugman: “To fight this recession the Fed needs more than a snapback; it needs soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment. And to do that, as Paul McCulley of Pimco put it, Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble.”It's incredible that the man who wrote that paragraph is still treated as a pundit who is worth listening to on macroeconomics. (As opposed to trade issues, for which he won the Nobel and actually does know quite a bit about).

  12. Aaah!. An NRO quality(tm) talking point. You got this from here, didn't you?So .. a year outside your stated time period Krugman quotes someone else saying a housing bubble is the way to go. Immediately after your cite, Krugman writes “Judging by Mr. Greenspan's remarkably cheerful recent testimony, he still thinks he can pull that off.”, and later that “Mr. Greenspan needs one [a recovery spurred by a burst of consumer spending] to avoid awkward questions about his own role in creating the stock market bubble.” Scarcely pro-bubble sentiment, that. Rather undermines Mr Williamson's complaint that Kruman didn't remind us that bubbles are bad things. As if that needed repeating …. The whole complaint reminds me of The Onion. Only that's satire.As a historical note, though, Krugman was wrong in that column. Precisely what he was skeptical about (Greenspan's optimism, resurgent business spending) was vindicated, and we didn't have the 'double-dip' recession about which he makes much stronger statements: “As I've repeatedly said in this column, the arguments of the double-dippers made a lot of sense. And their story now looks more plausible than ever.”This column is mediocre punditry. Though not for the reasons you seem to subscribe to.

  13. I get the impression that the article is satire, but I don't know much about Joshua Green. I love living in a society where people can say the stupidest things they can think of and not be “regulated”.”Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we’re in one.” -Dan Gilbert

  14. I get the impression that the article is satire, but I don't know much about Joshua Green. I love living in a society where people can say the stupidest things they can think of and not be “regulated”.”Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we’re in one.” -Dan Gilbert

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