The Burden of Influencing Thought

Newspaper Op EdHow should those who enjoy thought leadership operate?   As Dave Hoffman notes below, Richard Posner criticizes economics professors for taking political positions on momentous questions of current debate, often at odds with academic positions they have taken.  In reply, those and other professors dubiously challenge Posner’s credentials and knowledge on the subject.  

In the exchange, there is more about style and ethics than about substance.  It raises fair questions about the responsibility borne by those in positions to influence public thought on policy questions.

In a similar vein, Susan Antilla at Bloomberg notices two influential authors of op-ed pieces this week adopting contrasting styles.  In The New York Times, Warren Buffett, cautions readers about the hidden costs of the massive federal budget deficit rising in the wake of the otherwise prudent government responses to the financial crisis.   Buffett’s style and effort are characteristically politically neutral, sober, thoughtful and public-minded. 

In contrast, Charles Schwab, in The Wall Street Journal, effectively litigates parochial matters arising from pending investigations by the New York Attorney General into practices at his investment firm.    The piece is a stirring defense of his firm.  True, there is a dose of a publicly-minded case against excessive litigation and regulation.  But the style and import are primarily an advertisement and apology for  the Schwab firm.

The point Posner and Antilla are both making is that those in a position to influence thought bear a burden to exercise that power responsibly.  Posner is saying that academics who assume political roles must be candid about that switch and not mislead people into thinking they are maintaining academic objectivity.   Antilla observes that Buffett appreciates his influence and exercises it for the public good, not for personal gain, while Schwab has done the opposite.   

The newspapers and blogs publishing related material have a like responsibility.  It may not be enough simply to distinguish the news pages from the opinion pages, as mainstream media have traditionally done.   Editors should also consider whether those offering opinions present themselves fairly and offer contributions worthy of the outlet’s own power in influencing thought.  

On the other hand, for most readers of such newspapers and blogs, it is easy to see through veils and distinguish public from personal interests.    In these examples, there is little question that the Buffett op-ed is far more persuasive than the Schwab piece and Posner’s critique withstands the apologists’ retorts.

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1 Response

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    Is there some irony in Posner’s position, given that he is a federal judge and yet feels free to pontificate on an ever-expanding variety of subjects? I think that the Levi article Dave linked to, esp. Posner’s comments quoted at 1796-1797 about the thought processes of judges, raise the question of whether Posner always “make[s] clear to the public that [he is] on holiday” from the standards that apply to his role as a judge “and that what they say in their public-intellectual … careers should not be thought identical to their [judicial] views” (quotes are from Posner’s blog post). And I think most readers of this blog would agree, even if ruefully, that judges have a lot more influence on the real world than do academics. So even if you think attacks on Posner’s expertise are ill-based, his hypocrisy may be a better target.