Charles Cooke's lame dismissal of left wing nerds
By Scott Sumner
Here’s Charles Cooke in the National Review:
One part insecure hipsterism, one part unwarranted condescension, the two defining characteristics of self-professed nerds are (a) the belief that one can discover all of the secrets of human experience through differential equations and (b) the unlovely tendency to presume themselves to be smarter than everybody else in the world. Prominent examples include MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, Rachel Maddow, Steve Kornacki, and Chris Hayes; Vox’s Ezra Klein, Dylan Matthews, and Matt Yglesias; the sabermetrician Nate Silver; the economist Paul Krugman; the atheist Richard Dawkins; former vice president Al Gore; celebrity scientist Bill Nye; and, really, anybody who conforms to the Left’s social and moral precepts while wearing glasses and babbling about statistics.
Yes, I know this is meant to be entertainment and not a serious essay, but I don’t think it even works on that basis. You’d like it to be at least slightly embarrassing for the people you are trying to skewer, but Cooke doesn’t even come close. He sounds more like a high school jock mocking the straight A student. If I was one of those left wing nerds I’d feel even more smug about being on the right track after reading Cooke’s essay.
Left wing hipster nerds do have two very serious weaknesses, which Cooke completely overlooks.
Weakness #1: Intellectuals on the left go through the following thought process. First they observe a “problem.” Then they declare a “market failure.” Then they consider what sort of government policy could remedy the problem. What they often overlook is that the problem is usually the side effect of other government policies. That doesn’t mean the free market solution is always best; there may be cases where those other government policies are needed, and hence further regulation is required to overcome the side effects. The real problem is that it’s much easier to dream up straightforward government policies to remedy a situation, than to envision how a problem is the side effect of other regulations. Or what further side effects will result from your proposed solution. That biases pundits toward supporting far too much government involvement in the economy
Alex Tabarrok posted a great example yesterday. The left blames the lack of a cure for Ebola on the greedy drug companies. Africans have little money to spend on newly invented drugs. But in fact a treatment has been invented by a private drug company. And the treatment does seem to have helped when recently given to an American suffering from Ebola. So why can’t others buy this drug? The government (FDA) won’t allow it, at least until extensive testing has been done. Keep in mind this is a disease that kills 60% of its victims.
Weakness #2: Left wing intellectuals believe they are pro-science and the right is anti-science. They are right that part of the right is anti-science, but they are equally anti-science. A few years back a distinguished left wing nerd was fired from his job as president of Harvard for making a very familiar scientific argument; that the distribution of innate intellectual skills among males might have fatter tails than distribution of innate intellectual skills among females. (BTW, lots of people thought Summers claimed men were smarter than women—not so. He said the distribution of skills might be wider. Most of his opponents didn’t know enough about “science” to understand that distinction.) Whether you agree with Summers’ theory, or whether you agree with me on global warming is immaterial. There’s lots of data supporting both theories, and some against. What matters is that the left is just as intolerant as the right when their ox is being gored.
Unfortunately for Cooke, when I finished his essay I had more sympathy for people like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias than when I started reading. If it’s to be a culture war, an us vs. them between Cooke on one side and Klein and Yglesias on the other, then I’m with the left wing nerds.
Cooke should know you fight fire with fire. The GMU bloggers (Caplan, Cowen, Tabarrok, Hanson, etc.) are at least as smart as those on the left, and have an even better appreciation of the subtle secondary effects of government regulation. Cooke should have touted the nerds on “our side.”
PS. Just to head off misunderstanding on Summers, I am claiming that any arguments using the phrase “fatter tails” when not talking about the rear appendage of animals are “scientific.” I’d guess roughly 50% are scientific and true and 50% are scientific and false, but they are all scientific arguments.
PPS. Obviously I was painting with a broad brush. Some on the left (such as Matt Yglesias) are more aware of side effects of government policies than others. But none are as aware of the problem as I think they should be.
PPPS. I was going to say that progressives rely too much on “common sense,” but Bryan won’t let me get away with sloppy philosophy. So let me just say they rely too much on “initial instincts when presented with an issue the way it is generally framed in the media, and by economists.”