Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dr. Johnson, Call Your Office

Harvard economist Greg Mankiw wrote a column for the NY Times about how increasing taxes on those who make over $250,000/year may result in those people deciding to work less, and raised rather more anger in the process than he might otherwise have done by using himself as an example. UC Berkley economist Brad Delong fires back with a blog post in which he declares, among other things, that if people are primarily motivated to write news paper columns by thoughts of money, then they won't write good columns and without good columns the republic will be no more:
Greg says that it's worth it for him to write columns if they generate $2000 in net bequeathed wealth in 2040 but not if they generate $1,000. But that shouldn't be why anybody writes columns. Indeed, if people write columns not because they are driven to inform and educate their readers but rather because it is a way to make money to leave to their children--well, then those columns will be written not to inform but to entertain, and so they will be worthless as sources of information and education (rather than as sheer entertainment) to their readers.

I do not think society can survive if the voices writing on political-economic issues in our public sphere are doing so not to inform but merely to entertain. I think that society can only survive if those who write columns are driven by a geas to make Americans better-educated citizens but rather to leave more wealth to your children. We ought to write columns not because we think our children will need extra money in thirty years, but because we think our fellow-citizens need better information now.
Of course, Samuel Johnson disagreed, and said rather more pithily that none but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. Johnson doubtless knew what he was talking about, having lived by writing for much of his life, and suffered grinding poverty at times which DeLong can at best only imagine. When Johnson was granted a royal pension such that he no longer had to write for a living, he pretty much stopped writing. More pity for us, for who could not desire that Johnson had left us more of his writing.

Yet for all that DeLong's writing ideals sound much more high flown than Johnson's, I think what he says about the relative quality of writing for pay versus writing out of a selfless desire to inform is pretty clearly false. Good writing is good writing, regardless of the motive that led to it, and mediocre writing is mediocre no matter how idealistic the writer. If one doubts this one need merely consider how many people still read Johnson 250 years later -- and contrast that with the likelihood that anyone will read DeLong 250 years hence.


blackadderiv said...

If you look at the sidebar on DeLong's blog you find the following notice:

The Eighteen-Year-Old is going to college next year, which means that I need to think about making more money. (The idea that one might write checks to rather than receive checks from universities is now strange to me.) So I have signed up with the Leigh Speakers' Bureau

Apparently while writing for money is horribly corrupting speaking for money is fine and dandy.

RL said...

It's silly, really. What's missed are things like work and vocation. It's perfectly reasonable for a person to choose a career that will allow him to maximize the return on his talents and for the very fortunate be something he truly enjoys doing.

I would think that is probably the case for most people who pursue a career in writing. Why should a writer be any different than say Darwin who, while staying in his general line of work, recently left one company for another, betraying his loyal friend, in large part for more money?


Tertium Quid said...

My blog is a hobby which I wish could be syndicated for millions in residuals. However, I am paid as an attorney to write motions and briefs and make legal arguments. Writing pays my bills, even if my blog does not. Once upon a time I wanted to be a professional pundit. I'm not sure I lost much without it.

Art Deco said...

Why should a writer be any different than say Darwin who, while staying in his general line of work, recently left one company for another, betraying his loyal friend, in large part for more money?

From his description of affairs at his former worksite, it looked imperative for Darwin to get outta Dodge before one of his superordinates made him the scapegoat.

Jamie said...

Andrew Gelman wrote a couple of responses to the Mankiw piece:

OH ARGH this computer has lost its mind and I cannot get back to my full-sized browser. There's a second Gelman post but I can't link to it at the moment -- easy to find from the first link, though. I was going to say more but this little window is blinking in and out when I touch the scroll button on the mouse. Not sure whether to tackle the problem with holy water or a hammer (or, you know, checking out the KDE settings and pretending that they make sense to me).

Darwin said...

I can certainly see ceding to Gelman that Mankiw's example isn't totally bullet-proof, but I think he allows his decision theory torun away with him a bit. Mankiw does not, after all, assert that if he's taxed more he'll stop all activities such as writing columns for pay, he just says that he'll probably do a bit less of it at the margins -- which seems an obvious enough claim I'm not sure why Gelman is disputing it. It seems to me the point Gelman's heart is really in is when he basically says that any rational outside observer would think by this point that Mankiw's kids are well enough provided for already.

But really, I think it's perfectly legitimate for people to respond that they don't care if people at Mankiw's income level work less or not (and suspect they're probably going to go ahead and work for the remaining marginal I come), my big objection to DeLong's post was his righteous discourse about how writing done for pay was necessarily of far inferior quality, and we probably don't need such writing anyway. That, I think, is pretty clearly rubbish, and as BA points out, rubbish DeLong doesn't even seem to believe as regards his own work.

CMinor said...

The idea that one might write checks to rather than receive checks from universities is now strange to me.

A fascinating observation. If only colleges and universities could get away with adopting a policy of preferential hiring for instructors with children under eighteen, the quality of the education provided by those institutions might improve.

Amy said...

It seems to me that being paid could mean better quality work rather than lesser quality. If well and fairly paid, you want to do a good job so as to keep getting paid work, right? You start phoning it in, offers to pay you will dry up.

DMinor said...

It would appear that whoever pays Mr. DeLong for his next written piece is a fool: he does not write for pay, but will do it because he knows what we need to read. The real result will be fewer written pieces by Mr. Delong, which could arguably be a good thing.