All these effing geniuses: Ezra Klein, expert-driven journalism, and the phony Washington consensus
Ezra Klein and his data brigade think political science will save us. But expert opinion is why we’re in this mess
By THOMAS FRANK
Sep 14 2014
In a recent article on Vox, Ezra Klein declared that his generation of Washington journalists had discovered political science, and it is like the hottest thing on wheels. In the old days, he writes, journalists “dealt with political science episodically and condescendingly.” But now, Klein declares, “Washington is listening to political scientists, in large part because it’s stopped trusting itself.” Klein finds that political scientists give better answers to his questions than politicians themselves, because politicians are evasive but scientists are scientists, you know, they deal in “structural explanations” for political events. So the “young political journalists” who are roaring around town in their white lab coats frightening the local bourgeoisie “know a lot more about political science and how to use it” than their elders did.
Hence Klein’s title: “How Political Science Conquered Washington.”
Nearly every aspect of this argument annoyed me. To suggest, for starters, that people in Washington are—or were, until recently—ignorant or contemptuous of academic expertise is like saying the people of Tulsa have not yet heard about this amazing stuff called oil. Not only does Washington routinely fill theNo. 1 spot on those “most educated cities” articles, but the town positively seethes with academic experts. Indeed, it is the only city I know of that actually boasts a sizable population of fake experts, handing out free-market wisdom to passers-by from their subsidized seats at Cato and Heritage.
The characteristic failing of D.C. isn’t that it ignores these herds of experts, it’s that it attends to them with a gaping credulity that they do not deserve. Worse: In our loving, doting attentiveness to the people we conceive to be knowledgeable authorities, we have imported into our politics all the traditional maladies of professionalism.
The powerful in Powertown love to take refuge in bewildering professional jargon. They routinely ignore or suppress challenging ideas, just as academics often ignore ideas that come from outside their professional in-group. Worst of all, Washingtonians seem to know nothing about the lives of people who aren’t part of the professional-managerial class.
How well-known is this problem? It is extremely well known. One of the greatest books of them all on American political dysfunction, David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” (1972), is the story of how a handful of poli-sci geniuses got us into the Vietnam War. How political science conquered Hanoi, you might say, except that it didn’t exactly work out like that.
You can see this dysfunction for yourself in the headlines of recent years. Ever wonder why the foreign policy authorities never seem to change, keep coming back, despite racking up shattering failures like the Iraq War? It’s because of the way Washington worships expertise, and the way these authorities have perched themselves atop a professional structure that basically does not acknowledge criticism from the outside.
Ever wonder why the economic experts never seem to change, keep coming back, despite racking up such shattering failures as the housing bubble and the financial crisis and the bank bailouts? Ever wonder why a guy like Larry Summers gets to be chief economist at the World Bank, then gets to deregulate Wall Street, then gets to bail Wall Street out, then almost gets to become chairman of the Fed, and then gets to make sage pronouncements on the subject of—yes— inequality? It’s for the same bad reasons: Because D.C. worships expertise and because Summers, along with a handful of other geniuses, are leading figures in a professional discipline dominated by what a well-informed observer once called a “politburo for correct economic thinking.”
Some people are ignored in this town even though they are often right while others are invited back to the Oval Office again and again even though they are repeatedly wrong—and the reason is the pseudo-professional structure of the consensus. No one has described how it works better than Larry Summers himself. “I could be an insider or I could be an outsider,” Elizabeth Warrensays Summers told her, back in the bailout days.
“Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.”