Are Public Intellectuals AWOL? A Test Case

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

This past Sunday,  New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof caused a stir among academics by publishing a column carrying the well-meaning title: "Professors, We Need You!"  (Apparently, in some editions of the paper, the article's title was, "Smart Minds, Slim Impact.")  The article has generated plenty of reaction, including five Letters to the Editor that the Times selected for official publication.  Because Kristof's column is on such an important topic, but especially because he so badly misses the mark in more than one important way, I am going to respond to his column in my Dorf on Law posts today and tomorrow.  In today's post, I will argue that Kristof completely misdirects the blame for the problem that he describes.  Tomorrow, I will discuss his laughably dangerous descriptions of various academic disciplines, and their places in the media and political universe.

To give Kristof his due, his column was apparently motivated by a high purpose.  The country and the world face serious, complex problems that call for expert input and independent-minded analysis.  The United States also is the home of the finest university system in the world.  (This might, of course, not last much longer.  Years of underfunding, and anti-academic pandering by public officials, are seriously undermining America's colleges and universities.)  Why, Kristof wonders, are so few professors heard in the public square, when the need is so obvious?

One sign that Kristof is being sloppy is that he quickly undermines his own premise: "There are plenty of exceptions, of course, including in economics, history and some sciences, in professional schools like law and business, and, above all, in schools of public policy."  So, professors in some of the most policy-relevant academic fields, as well as in the professional schools (he could also have mentioned medical schools and schools of public health), are the exceptions, but "over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago."

Although I think that at this point he has completely negated the force of any argument that he wishes to offer, we can at least imagine that his assertion is true.  Therefore, let us stipulate that the public square is lacking voices from academic experts.  What is causing this?  Kristof's answer: Blame the professors!  After quickly mentioning the rampant anti-intellectualism that has long infected American politics, he argues that the reason professors are not being heard from is that they have chosen to make themselves irrelevant.  Not only do they write obscure nonsense, Kristof claims, but they refuse to engage with the public through non-academic writing and, in particular, they refuse to engage with the public via modern forms of communication, such as blogs and social media.

The implication of Kristof's argument is thus that, if one or more professors were willing to engage with an important public policy topic, and to do so in plain prose and to present it to the public in accessible forms, the public debate (and political outcomes) would improve.  I have two words in response: Debt Ceiling.

The last three years have provided a perfect test case for Kristof's argument, which is essentially that the suppliers of expert commentary are not doing their part to improve political outcomes.  What about the demanders of such commentary?  That is, if academics were to do exactly what Kristof claims they do not do (often enough), would they have any meaningful impact on media coverage, or on political outcomes?  The answer is clearly no.

The debt ceiling is an especially good example, for at least two reasons.  First, it is an issue of the highest order of importance, posing immediate threats to people's continued well-being.  The Republicans' use of the debt ceiling threatened unprecedented damage to the economy, as well as to the constitutional order of this country.  Second, the unprecedented nature of the Republicans' debt ceiling hostage-taking meant that there was almost no existing body of academic research on the issue, circa early 2011.

By contrast, in debates about the minimum wage, or budget deficits, or campaign finance reform, there are plenty of academics who have written for years on those topics.  If only a few of them are heard from, while others are ignored, it might be because of simple limitations on how many voices can be heard at one time in the public square.  (It also has a lot to do with what Noam Chomsky once called "the bounds of thinkable thought" -- such that who is included and excluded from policy conversations has more to do with politics than expertise -- but we can set that aside for now.)

If Kristof were right, then then there would have been a tremendous desire by media and politicians to hear from people with actual expertise about the debt ceiling, if only such people could be found.  That the debate was (and continues to be) so absurdly confused would then be the fault of professors who insist upon writing about, say, the hermeneutics of pre-Columbian tax policy and gender identity, rather than engaging in the public square.

Professor Dorf and I naively (though unconsciously) believed that Kristof's assumption was close to being correct.  Like a few other professors, we first engaged in the rapid-fire world of blogging about the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, but we then became the only two professors in the world to develop a sustained academic body of work on the issue.  All the while, we continued to write about the issue here on our blog, and also on Verdict.  (Both of those venues, meanwhile, use Twitter to publicize their content.)

We also wrote several op-eds, which we attempted to place in major media outlets (including Kristof's newspaper).  One of our op-eds was published by last January, but none of the others were picked up.  One Times guest op-ed last Fall, by an economist at Brookings, did summarize our arguments, and he credited us for the argument, thus putting out the word that there really were two professors who had studied the issue closely.  Even better, those professors were arguing that both sides had it wrong.  This, according to the myths that Kristof propagates, should have led to a seismic shift in the debate.

As I say, Professor Dorf and I both expected that our arguments would have an impact on the media and political conversations.  I should emphasize, however, that we were actually dreading the exposure that we were sure would follow.  Although we are both willing to give live interviews on television and on the radio, we both find it frustrating and even somewhat exhausting.  Professor Dorf is somewhat shielded from media demands by being located several hundred miles from a media center, but I am in Washington, DC.  I worried about the toll on my academic work and my teaching that the media firestorm would take.

To a large degree, those fears were realized.  During the political standoff last September and October, each of us ended up being interviewed at least once by reporters from all of the top newspapers.  We appeared on four-minute sequences on various non-network news programs (each of which takes several hours out of the interviewee's day), and we took time to talk with people at smaller newspapers and local radio stations.  It is the most media-related work that I have ever done, and Professor Dorf (even from Ithaca) found that the time commitment rivaled his efforts after Bush v. Gore in 2000 (when he lived in NYC).  My students noted how exhausted I was, by the time it all abruptly ended in mid-October.

On the other hand, nothing really happened.  People like Kristof would go on the Sunday morning talk shows, and on the cable news shows, opining on an issue about which they possess zero expertise.  Most of them did not even know the difference between a government shutdown and a debt ceiling-caused default.  Almost none of them understand that debt can be (and necessarily is) limited, even if there is no debt ceiling.

The "usual suspects" nature of the high-profile commentary was thus on full display.  Even though our arguments had gained some currency, it never occurred to even a single producer of a major network show to see if there were professors who could speak knowledgeably (and accessibly) about the issue.  Better just to have Newt Gingrich and some former Democratic Senator spout off about it!

Perhaps more importantly, and certainly more to Kristof's point, the wide (though still strangely limited) media exposure that our arguments received did not change the political conversation.  No one in Congress called on us to explain our argument, either in formal hearings or even in conversations with staffers.  Our argument is ultimately nonpartisan (limiting the power of the Presidency -- an argument that one might expect to resonate with current Republicans), which apparently means that no one wanted to listen.  The Republicans did not want to hear that they were acting irresponsibly, and that their tactics must ultimately be deemed unconstitutional.  The Democrats did not want to be told that the White House was wrong, because their political advisors had obviously decided that our argument was too politically dangerous for the President.

To be clear, even though we obviously stand by our work, we have never said that our academic work is better than anyone else's --for the simple reason that there is no other academic work out there on this subject.  It is easy to be the two top experts on a subject when no one else has even tried to gain any expertise.  (We are the top two, out of two.)  Our oft-expressed frustration has been that the people who have publicly disagreed with us (including a few legal academics) have not only not bothered to offer a scholarly response, but they do not even seem actually to have read our work (even our shorter, more social media-friendly writing).

For present purposes, however, it need only be said that, had Kristof been right, our worst nightmares would have come true.  Our efforts to craft and disseminate arguments that we thought were important would have led to even more drains on our time, and to time spent in the uncomfortable glare of political controversy.  What was a relief for us, however, demonstrates the folly in Kristof's argument.  The media conversation interacts with the political conversation, such that actual expertise is only opportunistically demanded.  At least in the one case about which I have direct knowledge, the problem is not that professors "cloister [them]selves like medieval monks," as Kristof puts it.  It is that the people who participate in the conversation, on both the political and journalistic sides, have only occasional interest in actually understanding the issues.  Most of what they do is performance art.  For Kristof to claim otherwise is either naive or disingenuous.