Wednesday, July 12, 2023

#193 / Take It From Paul


Paul Krugman, a respected economist and a regular contributor to the opinion pages of The New York Times, delivers this news flash in one of his recent columns: "The Rich Are Crazier Than You and Me." 
Krugman wants to let you know this - just in case you haven't already figured that out! Could it be that the reputed brilliance of Elon Musk is not as great as Musk would have you believe, or as popular opinion seems to have certified? Krugman is providing a reminder. 
One of the bolded sub-headlines in Krugman's column (in the hard-copy edition of the paper) reads this way: "Why does Silicon Valley love R.F.K. Jr. and reject expert opinion?" My purpose in this blog posting, today, is to suggest that you read Krugman's column, and to urge you to take it to heart. I fear that some of my "liberal" or "progressive" friends may be seduced into believing that "old Joe" Biden is somehow past his sell-by date, and that Democrats should be looking for a new candidate, and.... that the candidate we should be looking for is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. 

I have already tried to make clear that I think this would be a mistake. However, having now read the Krugman column, which agrees with what I just said, I am hoping you will "take it from Paul." 
Here is a significant excerpt from Krugman's commentary: 

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a crank. His views are a mishmash of right-wing fantasies mixed with remnants of the progressive he once was: Bitcoin boosterism, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, assertions that Prozac causes mass shootings, opposition to U.S. support for Ukraine, but also favorable mention for single-payer health care. But for his last name, nobody would be paying him any attention — and despite that last name, he has zero chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination.
Yet now that Ron DeSantis’s campaign (slogan: “woke woke immigrants woke woke”) seems to be on the skids, Kennedy is suddenly getting support from some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley. Jack Dorsey, who founded Twitter, has endorsed him, while some other prominent tech figures have been holding fund-raisers on his behalf. Elon Musk, who is in the process of destroying what Dorsey built, hosted him for a Twitter spaces event.
So what does all this tell us about the role of technology billionaires in modern American political life? The other day I wrote about how a number of tech bros have become recession and inflation truthers, insisting that the improving economic news is fake. (I neglected to mention Dorsey’s 2021 declaration that hyperinflation was “happening.” How’s that going?) What the Silicon Valley Kennedy boomlet shows is that this is actually part of a broader phenomenon.
What seems to attract some technology types to R.F.K. Jr. is his contrarianism — his disregard for conventional wisdom and expert opinion. So before I get into the tech-bro specific aspects of this weird political moment, let me say a few things about being contrarian.
One sad but true fact of life is that most of the time conventional wisdom and expert opinion are right; yet there can be big personal and social payoffs to finding the places where they’re wrong. The trick to achieving these payoffs is to balance on the knife edge between excessive skepticism of unorthodoxy and excessive credulity.
It’s all too easy to fall off that knife’s edge in either direction. When I was a young, ambitious academic I used to make fun of stodgy older economists whose reaction to any new idea was “It’s trivial, it’s wrong and I said it in 1962.” These days I sometimes worry that I’ve turned into that guy.
On the other hand, reflexive contrarianism is, as the economist Adam Ozimek puts it, a “brain rotting drug.” Those who succumb to that drug “lose the ability to judge others they consider contrarian, become unable to tell good evidence from bad, a total unanchoring of belief that leads them to cling to low quality contrarian fads.”
Tech bros appear to be especially susceptible to brain-rotting contrarianism. As I wrote in my newsletter, their financial success all too often convinces them that they’re uniquely brilliant, able to instantly master any subject, without any need to consult people who’ve actually worked hard to understand the issues. And in many cases they became wealthy by defying conventional wisdom, which predisposes them to believe that such defiance is justified across the board.
Add to this the fact that great wealth makes it all too easy to surround yourself with people who tell you what you want to hear, validating your belief in your own brilliance — a sort of intellectual version of the emperor’s new clothes (emphasis added).
The wealthy and the otherwise entitled (and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. qualifies on both scores, I believe) often do end up thinking that they know better than the rest of us what is right, and wrong, and what to do, and how to act. From "tech bros" to politicians named Kennedy, they often act as though the normal rules don't apply to them. You are invited to consult Seymour Hersh's book, The Dark Side Of Camelot, if you would like evidence to support my assertion about politicians named Kennedy.
In the United States of America, our governmental system is not premised on the idea that the government should rest upon the shoulders of the wealthy and the well-born, or that political leadership should naturally be provided by those whose families have, historically, played leading roles in government. In fact, our governmental system rests upon a completely different idea, which is the idea that ordinary people are the people who should assume responsibility in our system of self-government. As any frequent reader of these blog postings of mine knows, I spend quite a bit of time trying to encourage us (ordinary people, all) to take our personal responsibility more seriously, and to trust ourselves, and to understand that we can't have "self-government" if we are not directly and personally involved in government ourselves. 
Nostalgia can be "ominous," as a recent article in The New York Times said, with a specific reference to "politics." I think that's true, and I think that interest in the R.F.K., Jr. presidential campaign comes directly out of such nostalgia. 
For those who think I may not have a real handle on the topic, since my analyses and adjurations appear only here, and not in a national newspaper, I am hoping you can "take it from Paul."

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