Why You Don't Want To Be a Columnist

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From time to time people write to me asking how they can become columnists. I tell them that they do not want to become columnists. Read on.

Many years ago when I was offered an appointment at the University of Rochester, I remember wide-ranging discussions of economic issues with the many distinguished economists who were at Rochester at that time. One Rochester theory that has stuck in my mind these many years is that the news media deals in entertainment, not in information.

This was before I became a part-time columnist, which I did in order to explain supply-side economics, rather than to allow its opponents to define it. In my quarter century of writing columns (Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Script Howard News Service, and Creators Syndicate), I have often wondered whether readers read my articles for entertainment or for information.

The Rochester theory, if I remember correctly, included as entertainment writing that massaged and verified the opinions of the readers. Most readers want to read what they agree with, not to have their blood pressure driven up by the babbling of some fool. Whether a columnist is an intellect or an idiot depends on the prejudices, information, and misinformation present in the reader.

Having had thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of responses over the years, my poll results indicate that there is much truth in the Rochester theory of media. There are always a relatively few thoughtful people who write to express appreciation for a new insight, for giving them a different way of looking at an issue, for exploring ramifications not previously investigated, and for providing new information.

However, most readers either tell you how smart you are for agreeing with them or how dumb you are for writing what you did. Some even read your clear prose and come to the conclusion that you have said something entirely different, often the opposite, to what you did say.

The more misinformed a reader is and the more personally or emotionally involved the reader is with the issue, the more likely the reader is to spew venom and read you out of the human race.

I can illustrate this conclusion with a wide range of examples, but two recent ones will do.

My last column critiqued the Heritage Foundation’s freedom index. I pointed out, correctly, that the index abstracts from the historical definition of freedom: self-ownership. A person who does not own the product of his own labor is a serf or a slave. The Heritage index ranks many countries as free despite income tax systems that claim the same share of peoples’ incomes as feudal lords or 19th century slave owners.

I also pointed out, correctly, that historically, the drive toward freedom was a drive toward equality in law, and that the civil rights revolution had failed in this respect and, instead, revived status-based privileges.

I also noted, correctly, that the Blackstonian principles that made law accountable and a shield of the innocent had been eroded.

In conclusion I noted that if we had a true measure of our freedom, neoconservatives could claim far less virtue for the US and would have a weaker case for imposing our virtue on others.

Libertarians loved this column. Some even wrote that they forgave me for co-authoring that article about free trade with Senator Schumer.

Statists, however, went berserk. Brad DeLong, apparently an economics professor at UC Berkeley, whose load is so light that he has time to run a web site for people who worship government, gave me a new, very long, name: "Paul Slaves Were Happy! And Well Cared-For! Really Happy! Much Happier Than People Like Me, Who Have to Fill Out Schedule C Craig Roberts."

Of course, I said nothing in my column about the happiness or emotional state of slaves. I merely noted that they owned about as much of their own labor (necessary for subsistence and reproduction) as the modern successful American. The modern American, of course, is much more productive due to technology and accumulated capital, so his living standard is higher, but not his self-ownership.

This difference was too much for Professor DeLong to comprehend. The professor, however, was the model of intelligence compared to fans of his web site. Commentators damned me for failing to acknowledge that our government’s claims on the products of our labor are morally justified, because our government uses our incomes to do good for others, whereas the slave’s owner selfishly used what he extracted from the slave.

That I was against race and gender privileges was proof that I am a racist and a sexist. Moreover, it proved Ronald Reagan was, too, because he appointed me to the Treasury.

Many concluded that I was in favor of slaves being raped and lynched and having their families broken up. Some were so worked up against me that I might have been physically assaulted had I been present.

All in all an amazing response to a valid critique of an index of economic freedom. My conclusion from this experience is that the Rochester theory needs to be modified. The statists on DeLong’s web site were having every bit as much enjoyment, if not more, than the libertarians who appreciated the power of my argument. People do seek out contrary opinion, not to test their own, but to beat it up in demonstration of their moral superiority.

Before going to the next example, note the extreme degree of misinformation about basic economics on the web site of a Berkeley professor of economics. The professor and the commentators assume that people purchased slaves in order to mistreat them. A slave’s life consisted of whippings, having his daughters sold into prostitution, having his wife raped, being spat upon, kicked, starved, and murdered.

Only a deranged person would treat his investment in these ways. To starve or murder a slave is to destroy one’s investment. To mistreat a slave is to incur his ill will and to receive sullen, less productive performance. A regime of mistreatment creates powerful incentives to run away, thus losing one’s investment.

Some people are self-destructive and do behave irrationally. So does the government when it locks away billionaires like Michael Milken on trumped-up charges and forbids him from practicing his lucrative profession, thus denying the government a life-long stream of revenues at the maximum tax rate.

But, of course, if the government locks us all up, there will be no revenues. Indeed, people would revolt and kill the government. If slaves had been generally mistreated, Lincoln would have succeeded in stirring up a slave revolt when the South’s men were away at war and only women and children were left on the plantations to control the slaves.

To make these points is not to endorse slavery. I don’t even endorse the good kind of slavery that DeLong and his crowd like — the income tax. But it is to wonder about an economics professor and his fans who believe that profit maximization was not operative on cotton plantations.

Now for the second example: my columns on the US invasion of Iraq. When the World Trade Towers were destroyed, I took a hard line toward terrorism, but one far from invading and conquering the Muslim Middle East. I had not paid much attention to neoconservatives and thought of them as people who had opposed Soviet aims and who opposed the deconstruction of American values by cultural Marxists in the universities.

In response to my defense of America, kudos poured in, hundreds at a time, from readers of Heritage’s TownHall site. I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. However, I soon perceived the neocons’ intentions and declared neocons to be Jacobins outside the American tradition. I argued that conquering and occupying the Middle East was beyond our strength, against our interests and against Israel’s interests, as the unintended consequence would be to radicalize and to unify the Muslims.

To those who argued that Jews would suffer a second holocaust if we didn’t establish by force of arms democratic states and a deracinated Islam throughout the Middle East, I replied that such an undertaking would be a strategic blunder. Much better, I said, to offer the Israeli population refuge in the US. It was a rhetorical point to stress the danger to Israel of the neocons’ aggressive agenda.

The TownHall readers who loved me the week before now regarded me as an unpatriotic, pinko-liberal-commie, and a coward to boot, whom they would never read again. And TownHall has seen to it that they don’t get the chance. People started writing about how I had been a left-winger all my life and had infiltrated the Reagan administration in order to destroy conservatism with big deficits.

But this response was mild compared to what my offer of refuge to Israelis was to bring. A few Jews wrote to me and expressed appreciation for my awareness that generalized violence in the Middle East would forever end Israel’s prospects. However, Zionists from all over the world saw nothing but anti-semitism in my offer of refuge to five million Jews. During the 1930s it was anti-semitic to refuse refuge; in the 21st century it is anti-semitic to offer it, even as a rhetorical point.

One comment from a person from Pittsburgh proudly sporting M.D. and J.D. after his name: "Welcome to the vermin’s nest of virulent anti-Semites. Jews and the State of Israel need to be revitalized from time to time by asinine and vicious comments uttered by rotten bastards like you."

The outrage of Zionists was matched by the outrage of anti-semites, who told me in no uncertain terms that I should have been aborted, not born, that there were too many Jews in the US already, that I was a dirty Jew-loving commie pig for wanting to bring 5 million more Jews to America. And these were just for warm-ups.

One well-reasoned column making a rhetorical point produced a flood of virulent denunciation in which Zionists and anti-semites joined, their words and phrases interchangeable.

What I have learned from my life as a scholar, a public policymaker, and a columnist is that issues cannot be addressed until there is a crisis. Until a paradigm breaks down, it is difficult for a scholar with a different view to get a hearing. He is not so much shouted down as ignored. Keynesian demand management was immune from criticism until it collapsed in stagflation. A columnist who tries to check popular impulse is shouted down or run over.

The successful columnist is the one who understands that the job is one of entertainer. He finds an audience to which to play and gives up on educating anyone on any issue.

Dr. Roberts [send him mail] is John M. Olin Fellow at the Institute for Political Economy, Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He is a former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal and a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury. He is the co-author of The Tyranny of Good Intentions.

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