The intellectual as a celebrity
By Alberto Mingardi
The Financial Times has published a collective interview on “how to detox digitally in the sun“: that is, a set of conversations with famous people on tips to make the most out of your holidays. This is, typically, material for tabloid newspapers but, the FT being the FT, instead of seeking the opinion of movie stars or soap opera celebrities, we were made aware of the fact that former UK central banker Mervyn King will have “just the birds singing in the garden” as his summer soundtrack, and that the versatile Marianna Mazzucato “tends to write front-page articles for Italy’s La Repubblica while recovering from a long hike or sitting on a beach” (emphasis added).
I shall confess that I didn’t know who most of the posh people the FT interviewed are, though a quick Google search, and a quick look around my office, suggests to me that perhaps I should pay more attention to what Marie Kondo writes. And while I’m not surprised that, as economists, they picked Yanis Varoufakis and Marianna Mazzucato, nonetheless I find this choice worth pondering.
I think it cannot be explained only by the fact they both come from the left of the political spectrum (though the other two policy figures they interviewed, Mervyn King and Radek Sikorski, may have been chosen to balance their leftism). Varoufakis and Mazzucato are certainly not the two most accomplished, contemporary social-democratic economists. Neither are they the two most quoted, nor the two most original. Actually, to the best of my understanding as a non-economist, they are both quite at the fringe of the profession.
But, even more so than Paul Krugman or Larry Summers or Thomas Piketty (all of whom can be considered at least as famous, and more scholarly renowned), Varoufakis and Mazzucato are global celebrities. The question is: why?
They are both very effective speakers: Varoufakis is certainly a brilliant chap, while Mazzucato has given some very forceful speeches. When he had ministerial responsibility, Varoufakis was a dismal failure – and yet, as I was writing one year ago, he became a global celebrity. I think Mazzucato’s writings do not survive a close scrutiny (I can never recommend enough this blog). It seems that, if Varoufakis and Mazzucato are the best that contemporary socialism can offer when it comes to the world of ideas, we non-socialists could rest easily.
But it ain’t that easy. I think the very fact two economists like Varoufakis and Mazzucato achieved this prominence as pop stars of economics is helping them in winning many to their ideas.
Provided that my judgment over the two of them is not wrong in itself, that is: provided that it is not their scholarship or their brilliant ideas which can explain their success, I think the following factors may help in explaining their resonance with the general public.
(1) They are skillful communicators, and know the virtue of repetition. Both basically stick over and over, as public intellectuals, to the same themes: austerity is bad, the government is the ultimate backer of any innovation. Propaganda is about saying the same thing over and over. It works in fostering a public image.
(2) Because of (1), they are the sort of popularizers that avoid qualifications in their statements. They’re bold in what they say, and avoid self-questioning.
(3) Their ideas (austerity is bad! government is the real force behind innovation!) sell well, because they are precisely what a good chunk of the public is searching for: an articulation of the anti-market bias which sounds sensible and authoritative (after all, the FT asks them even holidays tips!).
(4) They are good-looking and almost iconic. Mazzucato is a beautiful lady, but this point applies mostly to Varoufakis. Would he have had the same success, if he put on a suit and a tie and did not ride a Harley Davidson? This may sound a shallow assessment, but ask yourself this question and try to answer ‘yes’ with a straight face.
All of the above will sound trivial to a genuine scholar, or to somebody who has a high conception of social thought. But I am afraid it is not. In a society like ours, everybody is constantly competing for attention with everybody else: and Mazzucato and Varoufakis succeeded in catching the public’s and the media’s attention like most of their colleagues don’t.
Econ Journal Watch had this interesting symposium on why there is no Milton Friedman today, held three years ago. To understand why we miss a “big” communicator for liberty like Friedman was, however, I think we should also consider who is catching the public attention today: the likes of Varoufakis and Mazzucato. Is it the case that there is a higher demand for statist views? That would seem not to be new. Or is it that advocates of free market common sense look too boring people to be listened to?