Thursday, May 02, 2013

Repeating Myself Repeatedly

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

About six months ago, a surprisingly obvious point suddenly occurred to me: I repeat myself for a living.  (I am fighting the temptation here to retype the same sentence several times.)  Like all teachers, it is part of my job to say things again and again, to make sure that my students "get it." And because people are not perfect information processing and storage machines, teachers must repeat themselves. In addition, when a new group of students is enrolled in a class, it is necessary to repeat everything all over again (with appropriate revisions).  Earlier this week, Paul Krugman was musing on the same topic, and he was his usual pithy self: "[I]nevitably there are moments when you feel exasperated at the class’s failure to grasp some point you know you explained at length — then you realize that this was last year or the year before, and it was to a different group of people."

It is, however, unnatural for me (and, I suspect, other teachers) to repeat myself without being self-conscious about it. It smacks of absent-minded-professor-ness.  This carries over especially into our writing, where we not only know that we have written something already, but we can even point to it: "If you want to know my views on this issue, there they are." There are even professional standards regulating the republishing of the same work.  The usual expectation for scholars is that we should "contribute to knowledge," which means that we write an article that advances the intellectual conversation, it is published, and then we move onto other questions -- often in the same line of thinking, but never merely repeating ourselves.  (Even in legal academic writing, which notoriously involves lengthy regurgitations of the extant literature, each article is expected ultimately to say something new.)  Once a point has been made once, it need not be made again.

I think many scholars also wish to avoid repetition because we view ourselves as engaged in a job that counts as "higher level," in some meaningful sense.  We understand that bus drivers do the same thing every day, that janitors clean the same spaces every day, and that even the skilled trades (masonry, carpentry, etc.) involve a great deal of sameness.  What we usually forget, I think, is that nearly every job becomes routine.  Even the "creative professions," like acting and directing in films and television, involve constant readings, re-shooting of scenes, etc.  Stage actors do exactly the same thing eight times a week, when they are lucky enough to be paid to do anything at all.  Ditto for musicians.  Medical doctors, especially in the age of specialization, see dozens of patients presenting eerily similar symptoms (with occasional exceptions), day after day after day.  There is nothing unusual about "smart people" or "creative types" engaging in repetitious behavior for pay.  Yet the desire to be fresh, and to convince oneself that one is not in a rut, is palpable among scholars.

This concern most definitely carries over to my attitude about blogging.  At least of the type that Professor Dorf and I engage in here on Dorf on Law, however, blogging is a unique form of teaching: engaging in policy analysis, explaining it to a sophisticated lay-ish audience, and doing so in something close to real time.  Krugman's point above -- that a professor needs to remember that this is a new semester, and that the current crop of students was not there to hear what the professor said at an earlier date -- is made more complicated in the blogosphere, because the flow of people into and out of one's audience is both continuous and essentially invisible.  There is always a combination of new and old readers, making it difficult to know when and how completely to repeat oneself.

This would not be as big a problem, of course, if the policy and political debates in the U.S. had not taken on a Groundhog Day-like quality over the last few years.  One could, I suppose, respond to this in academic fashion: "I wrote about that in 2009.  See cite."  For various reasons, however, policy analysis must be "new," even when it is merely reheated from earlier writing.  New readers and old ones reasonably want to know what the blogger thinks now, because as much as things might stay the same, circumstances are always slightly different, and those differences might call for slightly different conclusions.  If the conclusions are the same, that itself is worth explaining.

On the big questions about which I write so often, Krugman has recently described the blogger as being afflicted with "The Curse of EconoSisyphus," or (leaning on an unpleasant image) "beating a dead horse."  And indeed, as is clear to anyone who (like me) reads Krugman's columns and blogs regularly, he not only repeats himself, but he pretty much covers the territory of macroeconomics with both intellectual depth and rhetorical verve.  If he feels like he is repeating himself, then how do the rest of us feel?

Often, I find myself having just finished a blog post on a Friday, at which point I open the NYT op-ed page to find that Krugman has made essentially the same arguments that I have.  This is actually unsurprising, because we are responding to the same political conversation, relying on the same evidence, and applying our common understanding of Keynesian economics to current issues.  Even in cases where I can point to one of my posts having an earlier publication date (or minute) than one of his, that does not always mean that I might not have learned from Krugman's writing, because he often previews arguments in his NYT columns on his blog.  If it were necessary to prove that I "got there first," then it would be a complicated forensic exercise, indeed.

Krugman, of course, admits -- in fact, he makes a big point of the fact -- that even he is not doing anything special or new.  Textbook Keynesianism has worked marvelously well in understanding the Great Recession and its aftermath, and Keynes's latter-day opponents have repeatedly embarrassed themselves.  Krugman has the biggest platform of any economist on the planet, and he uses it well.  But he is almost never applying cutting-edge economic theory (which, to be clear, is all too often obscure and pointless) to the issues of the day.  It is usually just a matter of applying a very well-developed model to the latest data.

I am hardly the only one making many of the points that Krugman has been making.  Brad DeLong, Mike Konczal, Martin Wolf, and many others could each be told: "Hey, Krugman already said that."  We are all, however, engaged in an activity that is all about repetition.  In fact, one of the claims to which Krugman has had to respond recently is that "No one listens to Krugman anymore," i.e., that he is a lonely crank.  Of course, nothing could be further from the truth; but if other Keynesians were to say, "Look, Krugman's got the loudest megaphone in the world, so we can move onto other things," then there would be no evidence that other economists and commentators are reaching similar conclusions.

So part of what I am doing on this blog and on Verdict is to affirm that there really is a group of economists out here who understand that austerity is crazy, and that needless suffering is being visited upon millions of people in the U.S. and around the world, because too many people are willing to ignore decades of accumulated economic knowledge.  There is also, of course, some non-overlap of audiences, so that as a group we are covering the terrain more broadly than even an NYT columnist otherwise would.

In addition, there are some cases in which the intramural disagreements are especially interesting.  I thought, for example, that Krugman was out of his mind in January, when he was enthusiastically advocating the "big coin gambit," urging President Obama to order the Treasury to mint trillion dollar platinum coins.  He was wrong, in part, because he is not trained in law.  But seeing why he was wrong was part of what made the whole debate perversely fascinating.  I and others also disagree with Krugman about the connection between inequality and stagnation, which also leads to a healthy ongoing discussion.

In addition, each of us (Krugman, DeLong, et al., as well as me) has a slightly different set of interests.  In addition to criticizing fiscal austerity, for example, I tend to write more often (and more emphatically) about Social Security.  (Obviously, no other Keynesian writes annual posts about being a vegan, as I do.)  As a critic of mainstream economists, I also bring a more jaded view to the state of the academy in economics.

One of my favorite topics, with which Krugman is most likely sympathetic (although he has not written much about it), is capital budgeting.  I have been writing about that at least since I wrote the first draft of the first chapter of my Ph.D. dissertation, decades ago.   I published an article in 2011 in Virginia Tax Review (downloadable here) in which I advocated that the federal government adopt a system of capital budgeting -- having the government separate its spending on long-term investments in future economic growth from its other expenditures, so that it can borrow to finance the long-term investments and balance the remainder of the budget, in what macroeconomists (even non-Keynesians) call "The Golden Rule" -- and I described an administrative structure to discipline that system.

Similarly, after Hurricane Sandy hit last Fall, I wrote both Verdict and Dorf on Law pieces describing the public investment that should have been our natural response to that disaster.  In late March of this year, I further argued in a Verdict column that public investment should be treated like business investment, for similar reasons.

Even with all of that, however, I admit to being stunned recently when a commenter on this blog claimed that "nobody" advocates doing government accounting like business accounting.  In my mind, that was something like going on Prince's Facebook page and saying that nobody writes songs with sexual content, or saying that Jon Stewart should try using sarcastic humor sometime.  If anything, I have often felt hesitant to go back to the capital budgeting well.  This is why I so often precede such arguments with, "As regular readers of this blog know all to well," and similarly self-conscious stipulations.

All of which tells me that there is still much to be written, even on the most familiar topics.  Austerity is still a terrible idea, a point that needs to be stated again and again.  The long-term budget picture is still entirely driven by health care costs, and nothing else matters.  Social Security is still either not in trouble at all, or fixing it is very simple analytically and economically.  Future generations are still going to be harmed, not helped, by Republicans' plans to "prevent debt from being piled on our children and grandchildren."  Too many economists still think that they can "commit politics" without really having a clue what they are talking about.  Obama is still not being dragged to the center-right on economic policy, because that is where he has always been (and wanted to be).

And veganism can still be independently justified on the grounds of ethics, environmental justice, economics, and personal and public health.

When reason or evidence call for revisiting those conclusions, I will do so.  In the meantime, with occasional forays into other interesting topics that arise from time to time, I will be a bit less self-conscious about repeating the classics.  My thanks to all regular readers for their patience.