Thursday, January 1, 2015

Achieving Disagreement: Annual Report for 2014

In the quiet shadow of New Year's Day, it seems useful to offer some thematic reflections on what I'm seeking to accomplish with this blog. For example, at the end of my first year in blogging in 2011, I tried to describe my overall approach:
[M]y goal is not to rehash the topic-du-jour of the blogosphere one more time, with my own dose of snarky. Instead, I'm aware that sitting at my desk as managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives gives me an eclectic reading list, and I'm trying to pass along some thoughts and insights that readers who don't have such peculiar jobs might not otherwise see. 
At the end of 2012,  I explored how I view the role of my own opinions on this blog--and specifically why I tend to focus on facts and insights and arguments, with less emphasis on my own opinions. I wrote:
I am ever-mindful of the advice from the classic work on expository prose, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White (Third Edition, 1979, Section V, Rule 17):
"Unless there is a good reason for its being there, do not inject opinion into a piece of writing. We all have opinions about almost everything, and the temptation to toss them in is great. To air one’s views gratuitously, however, is to imply that the demand for them is brisk, which may not be the case, and which, in any event, may not be relevant to the discussion. Opinions scattered indiscriminately about leave the mark of egotism on a work."
I am fully aware that expressing concern about "the mark of egotism" while writing for social media in the 21st century marks me as a person out of step with my time.
Last year, in my Annual Report for 2013, I considered some evidence on how I use this blog to complement my memory, helping me to keep track of what I read. But using the web as a memory partner has its tradeoffs. I wrote:
But as we offload our own memories and sense of intelligence to the web, we need to beware of some cognitive biases. For example, it is troubling to me that people feel "smarter" when they get an answer from a search engine. It is troubling to me that we may outsource our memories to the Internet, in effect choosing to remember less. Wegner and Ward write: "The psychological impact of splitting our memories equally between the Internet and the brain's gray matter points to a lingering irony. The advent of the "information age" seems to have created a generation of people who feel they know more than ever before--when their reliance on the Internet means that they may know ever less about the world around them." Ideally, of course, a person might try to rely on the Internet as a repository for facts and background, thus freeing up some mental resources for analysis and creativity. This blog is in a way an experiment in which I try to learn how to strike that balance for myself.
As I sit down at the tail end of 2014, I find myself thinking back to the style of dispute and disagreement that seems particularly prevalent during the election season, but has perhaps become a 24/7 feature of many societies. The kind of dispute and disagreement I have in mind isn't a new thing, of course: indeed, one clear statement of this kind of disagreement is from the semi-famous diary of Edmond and Jules De Goncourt, who wrote about their lives in the fervent days of Paris in the 1860s. The entry for June 8, 1863, reads like this (Pages from the Goncourt Journal,  translation by Robert Baldick originally 1962, 1978 edition, p. 85): 
“Coming away from a violent discussion at Magny’s, my heart pounding in my breast, my throat and tongue parched, I feel that every political argument boils down to this: `I am better than you are’, every literary argument to this: `I have more taste than you’, ever argument about art to this: `I have better eyes than you’, every argument about music to this, `I have a finer ear than you’. It is alarming to see how, in every discussion, we are always alone and never make converts.”
Personally, I sidestep much of the day-to-day skirmishing of this sort. My own hope as the Conversable Economist is not to "make converts"--although if a few converts come my way, I won't complain. Instead, my goals is to push for a broader base of facts, and a clarification of insight and analysis, so that even when people disagree, there is at least some deeper basis for understanding. The phrase often attributed to the Catholic writer and scholar John Courtney Murray is that "achieving disagreement" is a difficult and worthy goal. Murray wrote in a 1958 essay:
As we discourse on public affairs, on the affairs of the commonwealth, and particularly on the problem of consensus, we inevitably have to move upward, as it were, into realms of some theoretical generality—into metaphysics, ethics, theology. This movement does not carry us into disagreement; for disagreement is not an easy thing to reach. Rather, we move into confusion. Among us there is a plurality of universes of discourse. These universes are incommensurable. And when they clash, the issue of agreement or disagreement tends to become irrelevant. The immediate situation is simply one of confusion. One does not know what the other is talking about. One may distrust what the other is driving at. For this too is part of the problem—the disposition amid the confusion to disregard the immediate argument, as made, and to suspect its tendency, to wonder what the man who makes it is really driving at.
Murray's distinction between disagreement that is achieved by reading, thought and dialogue, and disagreement that is merely confusion, captures part of my purpose here. To all my readers, I hope to achieve disagreement with you. And like water on rock, maybe this kind of dialogue can help us soften some of our sharp edges.

As 2014 comes to a close, this blog is typically attracting 2000-2500 pageviews per day. The pageviews, of course, don't count the 380 people who are signed up to receive posts by e-mail, or those who receive the blog via an RSS feed (for example, about 1,000 people are subscribed to this blog on There are about 1,100 subscribers to my Twitter feed, which is almost always just the title of the latest blog entry and a link. Thanks to all my readers, but especially to the regulars who check in a few times each week or each month. Special added thanks go to those of you who use social media to recommend blog posts to others. Although one purpose of this blog is to help me keep track of what I read for my own purposes, it wouldn't feel worth doing if I didn't have readers along for the ride.

Side note: John Courtney Murray was prominent enough in his time that he made the cover of TIME magazine on December 12, 1960, at at time when America had just elected John F. Kennedy as its first Catholic President and was wondering what that might mean after he took office in January 1961. An even odder note is that I was born on December 12, 1960, on the day of this magazine cover.