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.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.
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.
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.