THE ETHICS OF THE PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, March 13, 2006 -- Paul Krugman and Andrew Sullivan traded rhetorical shots this week - a triviality in and of itself - but out of this exchange a deeper message rises to the surface. It has to do with what it means to be a public intellectual, and what moral responsibilities accrue to such an exalted position. In the meanwhile, the rest of us get to watch two media heavyweights dishing it out.
This is also an opportunity for me to write about Andrew Sullivan, something I have been intending to do for quite some time. He is among the more entertaining bloggers; of late, he has been the strongest conservative voice protesting American policies on torture. For this, he is to be praised. For other things he is not.
By the term public intellectual, I mean someone exactly like Andrew Sullivan or perhaps George Will; that is, somebody who is not afraid to bring his education and intelligence to the process of commenting on public policy. In practice, the public intellectual analyzes, criticizes, and occasionally supports the political establishment on the major issues of the day. Out of this, he makes a decent living, either by writing (Will), writing and editing (Sullivan), or by bouncing back and forth between government and the university or the think-tank.
Public intellectuals try to steer the course of debate on the major issues of the day. In these early years of the third millennium, great debates have raged over our tax policy and over the wars that the U.S. is waging. Andrew Sullivan has been outspoken on both.
There is no doubt that Sullivan is brilliant. Born in England in 1963, he attended Oxford University, then studied Public Administration at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He later earned a Ph.d. in political science. He became acting editor of The New Republic at the age of 27 and was named the editor within a few months. There, he presided for half a decade. These details and more are available on his blog (time.blogs.com/daily_dish/).
Sullivan was one of the early pioneers in using the new "blog" technology as a political instrument; his work is familiar to many readers as "The Daily Dish". Along the way, Sullivan has been an influential voice among the intelligentsia. His is a complicated voice, sometimes apparently self-contradictory, but often the voice of honesty and reason in an otherwise venal world.
Here are just a few Andrew Sullivan facts: He is a religious Catholic and a self-declared homosexual, an HIV positive man who supports the Iraq war and the Bush tax cuts. He is a strong proponent of gay marriage, smaller government and federalism.
In other words, he cuts across traditional boundary lines. On first encounter, you might think of him as a standard-model authoritarian, but then you read of his support for gay rights and understand that he is also something of a libertarian. His writings reveal a continuing struggle over his desire to maintain religious faith in the face of his strong disagreements with church policies.
But mainly, Sullivan has made a very public name for himself in terms of his early support for the Bush administration and his later turning away. He went so far as to support Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race, ostensibly on the grounds that Kerry would be better able to finish the job in Iraq. The Republican assault on gay rights was admittedly a part of Sullivan's positioning. Sullivan also has been willing to be critical of Bush's economic policies in recent years, but mainly in terms of excessive spending growth, as opposed to tax cuts.
With his clear, easy-to-read English and sometimes surprising views, Sullivan has gained access to the world's major newspapers and magazines. He has more or less staked out the libertarian Republican position for himself.
There is no question that in his career as a public intellectual, Sullivan has not only made a decent living, he has also done his best to steer public policy. Since this has ramifications for the rest of us, it is fair to inquire about the quality of his work. At the end, we shall come to a deeply moral test that Sullivan fails. In order to develop this thought, we turn to Sullivan's most recent antagonist, Paul Krugman.
Krugman is another brilliant scholar who has become a public intellectual. American born and raised, he attended Yale, earned his Ph.D. in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and served as an economist in the Reagan administration before holding faculty jobs at Stanford, then MIT, and now Princeton. (As an aside, the fact that Krugman can go from one to the other of these topnotch economic faculties shows that, like that proverbial 800 pound gorilla, he can go wherever he wants.) As his followers love to point out, Krugman won the John Bates Clark medal for the best American economist under the age of 40, and over his distinguished career has published over 200 scholarly papers and close to two dozen books.
Krugman began to become famous in the 1990s by asserting his professorial expertise in popular books and articles: He pointed out that people whom he viewed as manifestly unqualified were attempting to steer economic policies in the political realm. In this, he was a nonpartisan judge; he was critical of Robert Reich (Secretary of Labor under President Clinton), just as he was scathingly critical of the right wing "supply-side economics" supporters. He disagreed with Clinton insiders over trade policy among other things, but supported the Clinton tax increase.
As the new decade progressed, the liberal economist Paul Krugman and the libertarian conservative Andrew Sullivan became spokesmen for two opposing viewpoints on fiscal policy. Krugman was semiofficially crowned as a public intellectual when he became a New York Times columnist. In that role, he has been scathingly critical of the Bush administration not only for its economic failings but for its foreign policy adventures. In this, he was inevitably to cross swords with Sullivan.
Sullivan has been critical of Krugman for at least the past five years, first in the pages of The New Republic, and later in his blog. Krugman has occasionally found time to sass back. The sass hit the fan this week, as Krugman casually mentioned Sullivan (almost in passing, the evidence shows) in a New York Times column and Sullivan went ballistic in response.
For many of us, the conflict surfaced on Sullivan's blog: "With his usual accuracy and fairness, Paul Krugman smears yours truly today." Sullivan then uses almost 700 more words to defend himself and to smear back. You can read it on the blog (March 10, 2000), but it can be summarized without too much oversimplification: Sullivan agrees that he supported Bush post-Sept. 11, 2001, he still wants us to win the war in Iraq, and he confesses to having made mistakes in judgment at the beginning.
Here's what caught my eye: "My criticisms of the Bush fiscal policy began very early and were very strong, although I supported the tax cuts (still do) and my focus was entirely on spending."
And that's where Krugman wins the argument and Sullivan fails the test for deeper morality, as we shall discuss in a few paragraphs. But first, a brief foray into how Krugman provoked this diplomatic crisis.
Curiously enough, Krugman's March 10 column is only tangentially about Andrew Sullivan. It talks of a forum sponsored by the Cato Institute in which former-Bush-supporter Bruce Bartlett lashed out at the Bush administration over its fiscal policies. Bartlett is the author of "Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted American and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy". Krugman's column could be summarized more or less like this: I told you so.
Actually, Krugman is a little more diplomatic and settles for, "Better late than never."
The part that has Sullivan in a twist begins, "Nor do I expect any expressions of remorse from Andrew Sullivan, the conservative Time.com blogger who also spoke at the Cato forum. Mr. Sullivan used to specialize in denouncing the patriotism and character of anyone who dared to criticize President Bush, whom he lionized. Now he himself has become a critic, not just of Mr. Bush's policies, but of his personal qualities, too."
Krugman "told us so" three years ago, and he is now taking the chance to remind the world. The message is a lot deeper than a simple battle over egotism though. At the core, it is meant to point out that there has been a lot of bad judgment on the other side, and worse yet, the other side has been too block-headed to even consider the voices of the opposition. Now they have to eat some crow, and Krugman is willing to be the chef.
If that were all, it would be a small story at best, but there is another level that goes directly to the message that I have been trying to develop in this "On Media" column. Simply put, there is intellectual honesty, there is intellectual laziness, and there is intellectual dishonesty. The would-be "public intellectual" ought to be held to a high standard of intellectual honesty. When the media critic notices a lapse, it should be noted.
This is also the message implicit in Paul Krugman's 1994 book "Peddling Prosperity." He uses the term "policy entrepreneurs" to refer to those non-economists who make a living making grave pronouncements on economic policy. When it comes to giving the public and the politicians advice on tax policies, Sullivan would undoubtedly be considered a policy entrepreneur by Krugman.
And the problem with Sullivan's pronouncements on tax policy are that they are dead wrong. They may have a powerful allure to the conservative mind, but they are still wrong. In every way that is measurable, the predictions of the "supply-side" tax cutters have failed to meet the test of reality. Government revenue has failed to increase fast enough to prevent deficits, just as professional economists predicted. The evidence was abundant during the Reagan years and is with us again in this decade.
Andrew Sullivan, as a public intellectual, is entitled to have his own set of religious and political values and to apply those values to the great public questions of the day. On values-laden questions such as abortion or gay marriage it is every man for himself.
On questions which involve applying economic theory to the real world and then applying the reality test to that theory, there is less room for intellectual maneuvering. In this sense, there is a moral requirement inherent in intellectual endeavor, and Sullivan flunks. Simply put, it is the requirement to use the utmost honesty in considering scientific questions. Economics may be a fiendishly difficult science; it is clearly a work in progress, but it is a science.
In other words, if you present yourself as having expertise in anything, whether it be economics or human nutrition, either you have that expertise or you are guilty of intellectual fakery. The burden is on you either to develop that expertise or to make clear to the reader that you are writing as a lay person. For some reason, there are a lot of economically illiterate hucksters trying to sell their various brands of snake oil.
Krugman would take it one step further, and point out that people who are not trained as economists shouldn't pretend to economic expertise. Those of us a little more distanced might even say it a little more bluntly: If you don't know what you are talking about, you should defer to those who do.
To try to sell pseudo science is unethical for the scientist and it should be considered unethical for the public intellectual. Or to put it in that wonderful anonymous quotation, "You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts."