Politics, Ideology, and Journalism

Conor Friedersdorf has a very smart piece at The Atlantic calling out The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein for characterizing himself as data-driven and Paul Ryan as ideological. It’s impossible to disagree with the central claim of the piece:

I’ll never demand that Klein self-identify as a movement liberal or progressive. But he is deeply mistaken when he avers that policy can be grounded in no more than currents of data, or that his writerly output is divorced from disputed value judgments and philosophical foundations. As Will Wilkinson once told him, “There’s no avoiding the fact that, if you’re doing anything with policy at all, you’re trying to achieve some goal. If you think that the goal is one that’s worth having, you have to have some rational justification for why that’s the end that we ought to be aiming at.” Following facts where they lead is smart and necessary, but it is not sufficient.

Yep. And frankly I’d love to read a post by Ezra outlining for his readers his moral philosophy. But I still think there’s a very real sense in which Klein’s manner of analysis is in fact pragmatic and Ryan’s is, at least arguably, more ideological.

That sense is one I’ve thought about a lot in the context of similar debates about Obama, who loves to claim that he’s just a pragmatist. Conservatives happily point out essentially just what Friedersdorf did here: that it’s impossible to advance policies without some ideology pointing the way.

But in the context of today’s American politics, I consider “pragmatism” to mean, simply, that one’s ideology is agnostic on the proper role of government. Take the example of the utilitarian. Her ideology seeks to maximize happiness. She’s certainly not valueless, she holds an ideology, yet her ideology says nothing specific about one of the biggest questions in U.S. politics. When asked what the proper role of government is, she looks to the evidence to see which policies optimize happiness.

Even a Rawlsian, for whom justice is specifically about the role of social institutions, consults the evidence to determine whether government should be bigger, smaller, more or less active.

Contrast that to small government conservatism, in which a central value is that, all else equal, less government is better. Sure, the most sophisticated conservatives, particularly those who work in think tanks and the like, aren’t likely to hold such a principled view. They’d rather couch their support of small government relative to values like liberty, self-reliance, or welfare. But it’s hard to deny that the principle that less government is better plays a serious role in conservative politics.

It’s in this sense that I think Klein is in fact data driven in a way that Ryan probably is not. Sure, Klein’s not a blank slate when he considers the proper role of government in the healthcare system, but nor does he place moral weight on one side of the scales. I doubt the same can be said of Ryan; it certainly can’t be said of many conservatives.

None of this detracts from Friedersdorf’s point. It’s possible to take the ‘driven by data’ perspective so far as to fall into the same traps as the ‘view from nowhere.’ But once all the ideological disclosures are on the table, I suspect the difference outlined above would still remain. Political pragmatism, to me, does mean something. Everyone has values, but some of us hold values that directly answer the policy questions we’re asking, before evidence is ever brought to bear.

Yes, Open Matters

I’ve been following a very interesting back and forth kicked off by legal scholar and author Tim Wu in The New Yorker on the merits of open vs. closed, and countered by author John Gruber. To catch you up…

Wu: 

Accuse me of overreading, but I propose a revision of the old adage: closed can beat open, but you have to be genius. Under normal conditions, in an unpredictable industry, and given regular levels of human error, open still beats closed. Stated a different way, a firm gets to be closed in exact proportion to its vision and design talent.

Gruber:

Allow me to start by putting forth an alternative rule of thumb for commercial success in any market: better and earlier tend to beat worse and later. That is to say, successful products and services tend to be those that are superior qualitatively and which hit the market sooner.

I liked Gruber’s response quite a bit, if only because my bias is strongly with Wu, and Gruber’s arguments were well formulated. But Wu responded today, and I think ultimately his response captures why the value of open systems can’t be underestimated:

The study of centralized and decentralized decision structures in an economic system is hardly my invention.   It goes back to classic economic debates between Oskar R. Lange and Fredrick Hayek in the 1940s.  Lange was an advocate of centralized planning, and argued that closed, state-run economies would be more efficient than open / decentralized market economies.   Hayek, responding in 1945, argued that the advantage of an open system was largely informational.  A theoretically perfect central planner would, Hayek conceded, outperform an open system, but in a reality of imperfect information, the open market system could usually be expected to perform better.   There’s been much economic thought on the issue since that time, but I’ll skip it: the bottom line is simply that open and closed systems perform differently under different conditions and have differently strengths and weaknesses.  I should add that this kind of analysis is relevant for any system and any product ecosystem, not just tech — it is really the study of institutional design.

(It’s worth noting that one of the points of Wu’s book is that often when closed systems do win, it’s at the expense of innovation.)

Zooming out like this is helpful to illustrate the relevant intellectual history; on the other hand, the case that open beats closed is strongest where the scope of he task is largest, because of the related uncertainty. Designing an economy is beyond the ability of any planner; designing a toothbrush is not.

In what follows, I’m referring to this particular formulation of “open” which Wu offers in his original piece:

First, “open” and “closed” can refer to how permissive a tech firm is, with respect to who can partner with or interconnect with its products to reach consumers. We say an operating system like Linux is “open” because anyone can design a device that runs Linux.

These questions get very complicated quickly, and “openness” not only becomes a matter of extent, but its merits will also differ layer to layer. How much control the maker of a piece of hardware exerts over what software can be run on it is separate from how much control an OS exerts over what applications can run on it is separate from how much control those applications have over what plugins can be added and which 3rd party apps can be integrated.

My intuition is that as the scope of the activity governed by the piece of the tech stack in question gets smaller, the case for (relatively more) closed technologies becomes stronger. In other words, the interoperabiltiy of an OS matters more than the interoperability of Snapchat. The complexity and uncertainty surrounding the latter should be less than in the case of the former, meaning the latter is more amenable to the closed planning model.

All of this is to say, I agree basically with Wu’s conclusion:

as Michael Arrington points out, you really can’t pretend to understand what has happened over the last twenty years without some understanding the relative advantages of open and closed systems  (or if you prefer, decentralized and centralized decision hierarchies.)