New Structures and Public Intellectuals

I was on holiday in Ireland over the last couple of weeks without regular Internet access; one of the things I missed was the Niall Ferguson debate. I liked how these posts from Dan Drezner and Justin Fox identified Ferguson’s behavior as symptomatic of a broader structural change.

Drezner:

Credentialed thinkers like Zakaria and Ferguson, once they’ve reached the top, become brands that can multiply their earning potential far more than was the case fifty years ago. The ways in which the Internet concentrates attention on a Few Big Things means that if you are good and lucky enough to become one of those Big Things, money will rain down on your door. … I’ve heard from a few sources that Ferguson resigned his professorship at Harvard Business School (but not Harvard University) because he calculated that if he gave four or five extra talks a year, he could earn his HBS salary without all the tedious teaching obligations.

Fox:

The path to lucrative thought-leaderdom blazed over the past couple of decades was to establish yourself with dense, serious work (or a big, important job) and then move on to catch-phrase manufacturing (I spent a few weeks following Tom Friedman around in 2005, and learned that he had made this transition very deliberately). Nowadays ambitious young people looking to break into the circuit often just aim straight for the catch-phrases. Speakers bureaus need pithy sales pitches, not complex erudition — and while speaking fees might be spare change for Mitt Romney, for journalists and academics they often represent their only real shot at a top-tax-bracket income. The result is an intellectual environment that seems to increasingly reward the superficial, and keeps rewarding those who make it into the magic circle of top-flight speakers even if they don’t have anything new or interesting to say. Or at least: a part of the intellectual environment is like that.

The Ferguson and Zakaria cases are interesting, but I’d love to see someone (maybe at the Baffler or similar) write a serious piece on how this political economy of paid talk-giving works more generally, and how it is reshaping debate over ideas. A friend who moves back and forth between this world and academia described one path towards making it big some months back – you start off on the rubber chicken circuit, then try to move up to mid-range venues like Poptech where people might start to pay attention to you, and then, if you’re extremely lucky, get picked up by TED, after which you can start to demand speaking fees in the tens of thousands of dollars. It’s what Paul Krugman describes in Geography and Trade (if my memory isn’t playing tricks) as a Sierra Madre phenomenon – lots and lots of people working for free, in the pursuit of a prize that only a select few can win. Books play an important role in this world – but less as objects of intellectual interest in themselves, than as symbolic markers of prestige (this can have quite unfortunate consequences). Of course, this problem has been around for a while – but the advent of TED, the Aspen Ideas Festival and their like seem to have systematized it.

Some initial, relatively obvious hypotheses:

(1) On average, these developments will dumb down the world of ideas. Russell Jacoby worried that free-floating intellectuals were being replaced by depoliticized academics who were more interested in pursuing their own arcane fights than engaging in public debate. This was plausibly right – but the current risk is very different. If debate over ideas is increasingly reducible to what you can express in a short talk, complex and interesting ideas are going to get short shrift. This is not to say that the ideas which do get expressed and shared are all bad (although some surely are) – but instead that a lot of good ideas are not going to get shared.

(2) The world of ideas will be more business friendly. Books are becoming less important for the ideas that they convey, than as symbolic markers. Your ideal – if you are a profit maximizing author – is to write one of those books that businesses buy in thousands and distribute to their employees to reinforce a certain kind of corporate culture. Alternatively or simultaneously (the two go hand-in-hand) it is to command very large fees (typically from corporate entities, or risk-averse institutions such as universities) on the lecture circuit. Both of these incentives point in favor of writing books that are not apt to get the servants or the horses all riled up. Not all authors (including some of those authors who have done well in this economy) want to maximize profits. But the incentive structures certainly point in the direction of a certain political blandness, especially on touchy questions such as the allocation of profits, hierarchy in the workplace etc. Given the biases of existing structures (TED, Aspen), they’re likely to be more tech friendly too.

(3) The most efficient style of writing will be that which best leverages both talk-giving and book writing as profitable activities. In other words, books with chapters which are structured around ‘telling anecdotes,’ which may either easily be converted into talks, or, perhaps have been converted from speeches. I’ve heard it suggested that the best way to write a non-fiction book is to road-test each chapter several times as a talk – when you are able to win over your audience, you know that you’ve got the narrative structure right. Again, lots of good books are written this way – but it isn’t the only way to write a good book.

This is a topic which I’m particularly interested in, because I’m considering trying to commit commercial non-fiction sometime in the next couple of years. Not the kind that is even faintly likely to result in a lucrative career of speech giving (I have no principled objection to being showered with large amounts of money, but, as my prospective co-author has noted, businesses are highly unlikely to pay for us to come and tell them that they ought to radically democratize their internal structures). But even so, the world of non-fiction publishing is going through a lot of changes, which I’m busy trying to figure out.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.