May 14, 2012

Tyler Cowen and Convincing People

There was a recent object lesson in the limits of Tyler's Delphic Oracle approach that I was talking about the other day. He was talking about austerity, and how the anti-austerity faction, broadly speaking, hasn't properly analyzed it:
Going back to my initial post on European fiscal policy, there are many upset commentators but in general they are not grasping these points much less responding to them or showing some level of understanding which is deeper than my own. 
I am more than willing to admit that there are deeper understandings yet than what I offer in this post, but we are not at them yet, not in this discourse at least. 
I don’t wish to respond point-by-point to some of the writings in the blogosphere, but given the above, Ryan Avent also is not looking deeply enough. Both he and Brad Plumer did not see that the posts in question clearly distinguished between spending cuts and “austerity” (Brad did issue what is arguably a correction.) I admire both bloggers and read them regularly, but these two posts both fail; here are some comments from Veronique. I would say there is a dominant narrative, repeated many times in not always precise language, which people find it very hard to think outside of. 
Most of the time “austerity” is a misleading word and more precise concepts — readily intelligible I might add — are available. There really are some times when we should relabel austerity as “mostly tax increases,” but many people are reluctant to do so.
I've read this post a dozen times and I don't really see what he's driving at, and neither did Ryan Avent. I've basically concluded that there is not much of a point here, and that Tyler is flirting with trying to con us again (and jeepers, man, turn down the pretentious a bit). I think Matt Yglesias described it best:
We can argue until the end times about the correct English word to describe these trends. So to try to use jargony value-neutral language let's just say a Noteworthy Change in Spanish fiscal policy occurred. And let's also say that this Noteworthy Change occurred in the direction that you would expect to be favored by people associated with the Mercatus Center and the George Mason University economics department. If the entire argument is really over whether or not this Noteworthy Mercatusward Change in Spanish fiscal policy deserves to be called "cuts" rather than "rapid deceleration" then I suppose we've all wasted our time.
Tyler's "mission of the blog" is to get people to see things from a different light so they don't succumb to simplistic good vs evil narratives. But if you make these sorts of Nostradamus pronouncements (think deeper, man...) without actually spelling out the terms in detail, and impute people's thinking to boot, they're not going to be convinced, they're going to be pissed off. Ezra Klein and Avent both got rather irritated with Tyler on Twitter, and when you're pissed at someone, you're thinking about how to refute their arguments, not how they might be right.

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