The Agenda

The Changing Market for Words

Matt Yglesias writes:


Richard Cohen is very upset about generous compensation of public sector employees, but what about the generous compensation of newspaper columnists? Suppose the Washington Post had just sent out a tweet on Friday morning saying “we want 750 words by 5PM Saturday on why Scott Walker is right—the three best will be published on Monday.”

Do you think nobody would submit an offering? That the offerings would be of massively lower quality than Cohen’s op-ed? If anything, I think quality would go upsince the submissions would tend to come from the best writers the conservative movement can muster on this subject rather than as a generalist doing a “this is the hot issue of the week” snoozer.

This is an interesting and valuable thought experiment. A few things to keep in mind:

(1) As a large, relatively slow-moving institution, the Washington Post has built up procedures, work rules, and job classifications, etc., that are difficult to change quickly, though of course the paper has been trying to become more nimble in a variety of ways, e.g., with its political pundit talent search in 2009. My understanding is that Matt wasn’t very enthusiastic about it at the time

(2) Fortunately, barriers to entry in the opinion space are relatively low. The Post has struggled with finding an identity in this new landscape, yet it seems safe to say that consumers have benefited from the proliferation of new publications, new voices, etc. If public resources flowed to social service providers in the way that private dollars from to information providers, I imagine that the debate we’re having would look very different. Some social service providers in this scenario might choose rigid work rules and collective bargaining, and find that this supports steady productivity increases. Consumers will presumably choose these high-cost but also high-quality providers in large numbers. And perhaps nimble competitors would fill other niches, e.g., the niche for low-cost goods for those who would otherwise be shut out of the marketplace. We don’t know exactly how this trial-and-error process would play out, which is kind of the point of it.

(3) It’s pretty clear that the opinion racket is not a meritocracy. There are strong early-mover advantages, etc. It is also true, however, that most people working in the opinion racket are at-will employees, who can be fired at any time. Many others are freelancers, who sell their services piecemeal and have to constantly negotiate with a variety of customers. Because writers are a fairly vocal bunch, we’ve heard a great deal about the pros and cons of this approach. You won’t be surprised to learn that I think it’s a very good thing. To be sure, it is particularly good for people who are good at dealing with negative and positive income shocks, who have a good sense of when to say yes and when to say no, and who are disciplined about building an asset cushion over time. It is also good for people with extended kinship and friendship networks, and who are situated well in the heart of their marketplace. Suffice it to say, working independently is much tougher for people who don’t have those advantages, and indeed life is tougher for people who don’t have those advantages. But the consumer is almost certainly better off, in that the consumer doesn’t have to make a risky bet on a difficult-to-fire employee who is dependent on the success of the firm. 

(4) I take it that Matt thinks Richard Cohen is thoughtless, obnoxious, and tiresome, and that there is something deeply unattractive about privileged people attacking less privileged people. Though I don’t share Matt’s views, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from. Cohen may have anticipated Matt’s objection when he referenced his own experiences as a member of a labor union, etc. I don’t personally find Cohen’s words as interesting as I find the larger ecology in which he is situated. My sense is that the economy of prestige, influence, and everything else that falls under the heading of psychic income has a great deal to do with the stances we take, which is why I find performances of solidarity or non-solidarity so interesting. If we embrace Geoffrey Miller’s way of thinking, and I often do, most public discourse amounts to a form of signaling in the competition for mates, esteem, and other positional goods. 


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Language, of course, is generally employed by human beings to distract or deceive. So there is much to be said for critical listening.