Blogger Pots Call Senator Kettles Black

Matt Yglesias:

Senators who genuinely do believe that carbon dioxide emissions are contributing to a global climate crisis seem to think nothing of nevertheless taking actions that endanger the welfare of billions of people on the grounds that acting otherwise would be politically problematic in their state. In other words, they don’t want to do the right thing because their self-interest points them toward doing something bad. …

It’s not even clear that voting “the wrong way” poses particularly serious threats to one’s re-election. But even if it did, one might assume that people who bother to dedicating their lives to securing vast political power did so because they actually wanted to accomplish something and get in the history books.

Tyler Cowen:

It’s stunning how true this is.  …  Many people — especially those who become politicians — really do want fame and power and it is amazing what they will talk themselves into to get there and to stay there.  They don’t even want fame in the sense of being recognized, in the longer run, for having done the right thing.  They want more personal influence and power now.

Are Matt and Tyler really surprised here?  Senators are roughly our top hundred politicians, after all, and such critiques should most apply to our most elite politicians, who have been most selected for putting winning above other considerations.

A similar critique applies to our top columnists and bloggers. The topics on which they write show a strong correlation with topics that their readers (or patrons) are likely to find engaging, because those topics are “in the news,” or popular among other pundits, or perennially popular like sex or scandal, and so on.  Meanwhile, a vast cloud of good ideas remain neglected because they are less engaging, or even offensive, to readers (and patrons).

Yes many pundits do sometimes sacrifice their popularity to promote ideas deserving more attention, but the tendency is weak and weakest among the most elite pundits.  Pundits might similarly gain fame in the history books as having been among the first to give serious attention to some neglected idea, but they also show little interest in this prospect.

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  • Grant

    Perhaps this calls into question the ways in which we should label someone one of the ‘top’? ‘Popular’ or ‘most powerful’ may be better terms, as ‘top’ implies a broader superiority to others (which we don’t necessarily want to imply).

  • James K

    Grant, I would say superiority depends on the criteria one is using. The politicians in the Senate are the top politicians (save for the President) because they are the best at what politicians do: win elections. The mistake comes from thinking that being a politician is primarily about any other than winning elections.

    • The mistake comes from thinking that being a politician is primarily about any other than winning elections.

      The important mistake, IMHO, is persisting in practices that give people who win elections control over vast resources.

      • Constant

        The important mistake, IMHO, is persisting in practices that give people who win elections control over vast resources.

        But these “practices” are nothing other than the actions of the people who win elections. So it’s not a separate problem.

  • Matt

    I’m guessing the main difference between the two is that a blog that is poplular with 52% of it’s audience could be undermined and marginalized by a blog that is popular with 73% of the vote. With a Senator all it takes is 50% popularity in a closed contest (a contest that is not directly implicated by how good of a job you are doing) to have job security for the next four years. In the blogosphere, at least blog writing is the name of the game. When it comes to writing and deciding on laws, campaigning is the name of the game.

    Of course, you can write crap and be successful almost as easily as you can write crappy laws and be re-elected.

    I gues the real question is: What sucks more, Twitter or Cash for Clunkers?

  • Of course, people who sacrifice increments off their election probabilities for the good of their fellow human beings may not make it all the way up the political hierarchy to Congress.

    And perhaps if there really are any folk in Congress who truly held their nose and their scruples to accumulate political capital they could use later, they’re all planning to run for President later and get into a position to really do some good.

    It would be interesting to see a more mathy analysis of the issue of “hiding your scruples” – how an ideal utilitarian would behave if climbing a power structure with the goal of “getting into a position where they could do some good”, as a function of power increases at various levels, good done versus probability of descending or ascending the power structure, and so on. One could probably show that Congress is not plausibly composed of such individuals behaving rationally.

  • Douglas Knight

    Gerrymandering is more evidence for (commenter) Matt’s claim that there’s a more selection pressure on bloggers and columnists compared to noise on politicians.

    Senators obey the median voter theorem more than congressmen. But congressmen don’t act uniformly idealistic or endorse idiosyncratic noise. Instead they’re more partisan. Why? because the parties or primaries are good at screening who gets in? (Do senators act differently over the 6 year cycle? in the beginning do they act like congressmen or idealists?)

  • josh

    Matty also refuses to extend his cynicism to people who rely on government research grants for both their livelihood and prestigious status, nor to the grant writers who depend on certain research results to make them necessary. But man, those guys Matty already didn’t like are so unscrupulous!

  • “Yes many pundits do sometimes sacrifice their popularity to promote ideas deserving more attention”

    Anyone know of anywhere where this is commonly done or aggregated? I don’t even know of an un-elite doing it.

  • Who would make better Senators in terms of getting the job done?

    If it worked more like professorships or intellectual prizes we might look at a history of publications in peer-reviewed journals demonstrating top 100 expertise in the Senate seat’s core competency.

    The other salient model is most rigidly exemplified in the armed forces, where one rises as an officer from platoon leader to, potentially chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. managing a scales from about 10 people to about 1 million people.

    I like a blended approach of standardized test peformance (like I think how some countries select their judges) to demonstrate literacy, publication to demonstrate clarity of thought (and capacity for deep and original thought in the field) and track record of managing subunits.

    Also, I think public administrators should be thought of as professional positions for experimental social scientists.