Criticism of the ideas industry comes from four different positions. The “materialist” argument suggests that ideas are irrelevant, since material influences are so powerful. The “defeatist” argument bemoans the endless platforms for debate because they drown individual voices. The “pessimist” argument says complex ideas fail because no one can understand them. Finally, the “nostalgic” argument criticizes current public intellectuals in comparison with the great minds of the past. The absoluteness of these arguments reveals their internal problems.
“Eroding confidence in authority and expertise is the most obvious trend in the new Ideas Industry.”
The materialist argument’s extreme position forgets that ideas enter the marketplace and make changes. For example, years passed while proponents made steady arguments on behalf of free trade before it gained general consensus. The defeatist position ignores how the rise of new platforms helps a broader group of intellectuals find spaces to voice their ideas. People repeat good ideas they find on Twitter, blogs or other platforms. The nostalgic argument forgets that the public forum always hosted many voices, but only the best endure in history. Despite the seeming anti-intellectualism of the United States, history shows that American attitudes toward intellectuals wax and wane. The current disdain and resentment is not likely to be permanent.
Changes in the Ideas Industry
Trust in public institutions fell in the second half of the 20th century, affecting organizations from the highest reaches of government to schools and churches. In 1973, 42% of the US population trusted Congress, but in 2014, that number was 7%; 56% of people had faith in the Supreme Court in 1988, but that dropped to 32% by 2015.
“Most academics tend to think that most plutocrats succeed because they are standing on the shoulders of giants.”
The loss of confidence in authority figures means public intellectuals – who speak from positions of authority springing from extensive scholarship – can’t cultivate audience trust. Listeners embrace speakers’ arguments from the perspective of their personal experience, which is also how many thought leaders argue their ideas.
“The thought leadership of both management consultants and political risk analysts serves a marketing objective as much as any intellectual purpose.”
The erosion of trust in authority fuels greater polarization. Since polarization makes knowledge irrelevant, common ideologies become the basis for connection. Having flexible, even changeable, attitudes about issues used to be more common, in Congress and among the public.
The media reflect this partisanship with cable networks that devote themselves to each circle of thought. This enables people to avoid critiques of their beliefs and hear only support. This division expands the idea industry’s population, since networks need more intellectuals to speak on and represent specific, limited positions. Speakers also have become less likely to alter their positions, lest they lose their ideological audience and network platform.
Those who become involved in politics or who engage most deeply in public debates tend to be wealthy. In the first phase of the US presidential election in 2016, more than half of campaign contributions came from 160 families. Super PACs received more than 40% of their funding from only 50 families. Fully 87% of the US public supports spending whatever funds are necessary to improve education, but only 35% of wealthy Americans feel that way.
“Having one’s identity defined by ideology [makes it] much easier to stigmatize those who held contrary views.”
Many political advocates from Silicon Valley refuse to believe that longstanding policy challenges aren’t simply “faulty code that needs to be hacked.” Working to reform current policies appeals to them less. When these plutocrats provide money and participate actively in political parties, action committees, think tanks and universities, the beneficiaries – political leaders and public intellectuals – find it difficult to disagree with their ideas. Those who believe disruption is best will draw big donors who believe in success because their wealth stems mostly from their individual efforts, not from supportive public structures.
Policies and Where They Come From
Academic speakers suffer under the “standard indictment” that they don’t know how to talk to a general audience and, therefore, can’t influence the marketplace. Political pundits are as likely as academics to use specialized language, since those insiders’ terms indicate specific ideas that would otherwise take several sentences to explain. Thought leaders and those who succeed in public generally try to offer their ideas with “speed, clarity” and “wit.”
“The risks of alienating the funders of the Ideas Industry was a significant barrier to engaging in criticism.”
Academics learn to analyze because their profession rewards thorough, scholarly articles that take months, if not years, to write. Many in academia feel that attaining public popularity would discredit the seriousness of their ideas. Thought leaders succeed in promoting policies through easily digestible, marketable ideas, though their concepts may be unsubstantial and unviable.
“The superstar economics rewarding those at the top creates a powerful incentive to stay active in the Ideas Industry.”
Political scientists and economists vie for public attention and influence in the ideas marketplace. Critics regularly fault political scientists for the complexity of their interpretive models. These complaints apply equally to economists, who use “game theory, advanced econometrics, randomized control trials and more arcane methodologies.” When economists agree on a new policy’s nature and goals, their recommendations become part of policy faster than when political scientists similarly agree. Economists generally agree on “Pareto optimization” – that is, they support a move that improves the situation of at least one person and doesn’t damage anyone else.
“Politicians have different incentives than market participants – a fact that sometimes escapes for-profit actors when they think about the world.”
Political scientists are more likely than economists to be accused of having a partisan bias. People generally prefer to assign credit or blame for policy outcomes to individual leaders; however, political scientists generally ascribe such influence to structures, not individuals.
Inside Think Tanks
Think tanks produce many policy recommendations, but their dependence on individual donors and grants from foundations makes them susceptible to financial influence and less critical of donor-recommended ideas. To receive significant donations, think tanks must be visible in the marketplace, and that may bias what they present.
“Even as business fads wax and wane, private sector ideas will continue to receive a sympathetic ear in national security debates.”
Think tanks with generous funding from industrial titans first appeared at the turn of the 20th century. These giants of industry believed having nonprofit foundations gave them a way to sponsor research that could overcome partisanship. The next group of think tanks arose after World War II in response to the government’s increased need for foreign policy expertise. Think tanks that started in the 1960s and 1970s tend to be ideological and to advocate set political positions. Donors aligned with their causes give them funding. Given financial constraints since 2008, US think tanks now pursue temporary individual donations and seek funding from other nations.
The Role of the Private Sector
The economic grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa as the BRICS came from a Goldman Sachs employee marketing a new investment strategy to his clients. Investors now dismiss its usefulness as an economic grouping, but the idea became a political talking point. In the later 20th century, consultancies succeeded by marketing policies to governments and corporations. These institutions gained influence by developing reputations as thought leaders. Similarly, political risk analysts who predict the way politics will influence economic ventures became a part of the marketplace discourse.
“Understandably, intellectuals that will thrive in this milieu are those that stress disruption, self-empowerment and entrepreneurial ability – the values that are a core part of the identity of philanthrocapitalists.”
Underwriting or developing private think tanks that offer free reports allows corporate interests to disseminate their ideas, though a report may generally be mostly marketing materials. However, some consultants may lack the knowledge to recognize and understand why their economic proposals don’t influence politicians and global policy. A lack of professional associations or known best practices can contribute to shoddy work. Most agree that much of today’s political risk analysis is “superficial and subjective,” but its business is booming.
“Traditional public intellectuals in the nonprofit sector have merely survived, while for-profit thought leaders have thrived.”
Consultants’ anecdotes and private data appeal to clients because people trust personal accounts more than objective analyses. Also, those in the private sector may explain ideas more simply than university think-tank intellectuals as they analyze their data and what the numbers mean or consider what dangers they indicate for the long term. The multinational corporations who hire these analysts form a clientele of ordinary people who often believe simple, cheerful presentations over complex, cautionary ones.
“Arguing from authority only works if the authority is recognized and legitimated by others.”
Private think tanks have the advantage, as well, of producing data rapidly at their clients’ request. Since they operate as businesses, private think tanks appear less liberal and, thus, appeal more to conservatives who may question proposals that come from academia or public think tanks.
Brand-Name Intellectuals and the Public Online
Walter Lippman, a great public intellectual, co-conceived the “Almond-Lippman consensus,” which states that the public is “inconstant, irrational and ill-considered” on foreign policy. Public intellectuals cultivate awareness and dialogue with online tools like Twitter and blogs. The few superstars who achieve brand-name recognition outside the foreign policy marketplace may receive $50,000 to $75,000 per appearance in corporate speaking fees. Those who create such a brand name must work to maintain it with endless speaking engagements, articles and documentaries. Public appearances limit their research and their chances to adapt their earlier arguments and generate new ideas. Their dependence on undergraduate research assistants can lead to unfortunate errors that keep appearing across years of research.
“What is particularly impressive about economics’ pre-eminence in the marketplace of ideas is just how badly the profession has screwed up over the past decade.”
Young scholars sometimes seek public speaking opportunities before they are ready. Social media provide a semblance of public engagement, but its anonymity creates a different atmosphere. Many public intellectuals try new ideas and get valuable feedback from public forums on the Internet. Anonymity allows some of them to spew rhetoric in comment threads or Twitter replies, railing against public intellectuals whom they dislike for ideological or self-serving reasons. “Twitter mobs” can produce so much virulence toward someone for supposed plagiarism, mistakes or recent gaffs that observers may sympathize with the attacked. Harassing a professional into responding to public criticism validates the harassers’ viewpoint. This trolling makes public intellectuals less willing to engage in public discourse or to listen to criticism.
To abet better public discourse, cultivate a slower, more tempered debate within online platforms. The idea marketplace should acknowledge that private sector funding is a negative influence on its generative abilities. Providing more endowments for universities and think tanks would give intellectuals the financial support to develop new ideas without having to meet the expectations of private sector funders. While advocating ethnic and gender diversity doesn’t directly address the problems of the contemporary ideas industry, having a wider array of voices and perspectives would expand the discourse, and that benefits the marketplace.