Monday, March 22, 2010

Yglesias to Me: How Stupid Are You?


Oh Hai! 

you're probably looking for Matt's new digs at Slate, which can be found here. I noticed a recent uptick of hits on this post because people are Googling "Yglesias Slate" and come here. You can read on if you like, but to me this is a dead issue and I'd just as soon you read other more recent blog posts of mine as opposed to this one.

That said, I'm writing this addendum before the post to set a few things straight:

Matt and I are cool. We're not going for ice cream together any time in the forseeable future, but this was a spat from nearly two years ago because neither of us was feeling particularly charitable toward the other. I didn't understand where his unspoken shift from businessman meaning 'business owner' to businessman meaning 'rent-seeking Master of the Universe' was and the subsequent placement of nominally anti-immigrant condescension in the MOTU was somewhat unfair, but I overstated it. Likewise, he has a tendency to bite the heads off trolls on Twitter now and again, so it's totally understandable that he reacted the way he did.

Thanks for stopping by. JPB

So, in the mess that was the Health Care vote last night, I was checking Twitter for the various 140 character reax from conservatives, liberals and libertarians whom I follow. I noticed a tweet from Tim Carney referencing a post on rent-seeking earlier in the day from Matt Yglesias, late of the Atlantic and now a blogger at ThinkProgress: (In its original entirety)

As long as we’re talking about intellectual influences, I thought I might talk about an idea that’s important to me that, as best I can tell, I thought up all by myself. I don’t want to claim that it’s actually original—and certainly one way to think about it is that it’s just public choice economics looked at through the other end of the telescope—but I didn’t read it anywhere.

This is an idea about the simple story you’ll find in your intro micro textbook about the behavior of a perfectly competitive market. The normal way people seem to react to this story is that people with right-wing views start talking about how bad government intervention is and people with left-wing views start talking about how unrealistic the assumptions underlying the model are. But another way is to think about it from the point of view of a businessman. This competitive market sure looks like a horrible place! You might make a living there, but you sure as hell aren’t going to get rich. Think of the immigrant family that owns the dry cleaning shop around the corner—long hours, hard work, modest income. That’s your capitalism and it pretty much sucks.

Obviously the whole reason to become a businessman in the first place is to get rich. Operating a business in a competitive marketplace is for suckers, or immigrants with limited English ability. The whole name of the game is to do something else. Get a license for something. Get into a line of work with network effects. Win government contracts. Get your hands on some intellectual property. Become a monopoly. Find some barriers to entry. If you think about Bill Gates, who’s about as successful a businessman as they’ve got, and he’s doing a whole bunch of those things simultaneously. That’s how you get rich.

From a formal point of view, you could consider this a libertarian analysis. But I don’t think the formal aspects of ideology are very important, and it has relatively little to do with any concrete political program I see anyone trying to advance. And to me it suggests that people overrate tax cuts as a means to spur capitalistic growth.
Having read this--and not really knowing what to make of it--I tweeted:
Shorter @mattyglesias: Working immigrants' life "pretty much sucks" || wonder why they don't all leave then? #opportunity
As befits an Ivy League educated journo/talking head, Yglesias picked up and responded with the title of this post. Stay classy, Matt.

Given that we have a number of mutual friends and that my few brief personal encounters with him have been generally positive, I have developed a certain respect for Yglesias. I don't agree with what he says more often than not, but usually his writing is thoughtful and I have learned from him.

But the post I reprinted above is simply garbage, and well beneath him. Despite my deficiencies, I would like to flesh out my thoughts on the post.

The first paragraph sets no discernible tone for the piece. It's simply superfluous, but I'm as guilty as anyone for writing my train of thought too literally and, additionally, working without strict editing constraints sometimes leads to sub-par posts. c'est la blogging.

In the second graf, Matt moves from banality to straw-man land. He couches his forthcoming argument about rent-seeking in political Left versus Right terms, but then puts the reader in the position of an entrepreneurial businessman and the narrative takes an unsettling turn: (again):
But another way is to think about it from the point of view of a businessman. This competitive market sure looks like a horrible place! You might make a living there, but you sure as hell aren’t going to get rich. Think of the immigrant family that owns the dry cleaning shop around the corner—long hours, hard work, modest income. That’s your capitalism and it pretty much sucks.

Obviously the whole reason to become a businessman in the first place is to get rich. Operating a business in a competitive marketplace is for suckers, or immigrants with limited English ability.
Maybe it's my aforementioned stupidity, but I don't see the argumentative value of the two swipes at immigrants. I have no reason to believe Yglesias is a quasi-nationalist American exceptionalist who views all fer'ners as the "other"--so I can only operate on the assumption that this implicit suckers/immigrants comparison is projected upon the business owner.

As my tweet implied, the immigrants of limited English capacity are probably, in fact, very grateful for the opportunities this country gives them and for the opportunities they could pass on to their children. Yet, I fail to see how their national origin would in any way differentiate their motivations for busting their asses and providing for their families from the businessman in whose mind Yglesias puts his readers. I don't think my father and his now-deceased brothers began a janitorial and security service with the expectations they were going to become the next Brinks or join the ranks of those numerous millionaire janitors that pepper the country. Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be "rich," but I don't think most entrepreneurs start businesses with greatly exaggerated expectations of wealth. After all, the harsh realities would set in rather quickly and all non-millionaire-making ventures would probably fold in short order once the owner realized that so much time, work, and energy was necessary to simply provide for his family and make the lives of his customers and employees better.

I don't know Matt well enough to understand his intentions for projecting this disdain for the sucker/fer'ner into the mind of your average American businessman. One could read either he actually does think their life sucks or that entrepreneurs look down their noses at them. Either way, I don't see what it has to do with anything, and that he did it twice is just odd

I agree that rent-seeking is bad, but your average entrepreneur never gets to the monopolist/professional rent-seeker status he alludes to. Indeed, one has to first attain more than moderate success to influence the government in the ways Matt describes--thus undercutting the crux of whatever argument he was trying to make.

And to that end, the last graf doesn't clarify what exactly that point was. Um, tax cuts? Disparaging the immigrants who work tirelessly to make a demonstrably better life in America than they had in their native country is a novel way of criticizing tax policy, I'll grant you, but hardly illuminating.

The post was crap, and apparently I'm stupid for saying so. Can anyone explain to me what sublime brilliance--or, I'd settle for a cogent point, actually--I missed in his post?


Neil Sinhababu said...

I didn't see any immigrant-disparaging in Yglesias' post. It was more toward the immigrant-honoring side -- these folks play the scrappy competitive low-margin game of capitalism by the book.

And that's the point. That scrappy immigrant version of capitalism makes things efficient creates great social benefit. I don't have to spend a lot of money on stuff when I go to their businesses.

When Yglesias says 'suckers', he's talking in the voice of the corrupt businessman who has plans to be a monopolist or something like that. It's the way cheaters diss honest people.

Yglesias' point is that the big winners in capitalism are the monopolists and cheaters who rip us off, not the scrappy immigrants who make things so much better.

JPB said...

ah, but there's nothing to indicate that the businessman is corrupt, so why is that the default mindset? My argument is that he projects a nasty mindset into the everyday entrepreneur, which is a weak straw-manned argument. Given his thoughts on regulation and government intervention in markets, the absence of clarification between "a businessman" looking to enter the market and "a rent-seeking businessman looking to negotiate an advantage" is not a trifling one.

If the rest of the post was just trying to expound upon rent-seeking and regulatory capture, well, there are much better ways to go about it without maligning everyday entrepreneurs with quasi-nationalist notions.

If I were to assume every regulator at the EPA were some treehugger with a vendetta against business and I just posted something from the perspective of any regulator and his penchant for stifling economies and irrational dedication to mother earth, it would be a similarly weak argument because it's not as simple as all that, is it? Nor, is it likely, that a plurality--let alone a majority--of regulators are like that. Substitute anything there: Think of the perspective of a blogger; or black guy; or woman. In most any other context, without a distinction of which particular kind of businessman he's foisting this mindset on, it's too broad of brush and, while I know that Yglesias is smarter than to think that about entrepreneurs, I've read the comments at TP before, and have no such faith in his readers.

His post was irresponsible and petty, and his reaction on Twitter was doubly so.

JPB said...

Furthermore, given the comments on his feed, his (stupid?) readers were also perplexed/conflicted as to what exactly he was saying ( thus supporting my point that his post was muddled, conflated issues and maligned people on behalf of straw men to ends clear to neither me nor his readers.

And one more thing: I have no idea who these people are that set out from day one to become a monopolists. Sure, monopolists and oligopolists exist, but I find it unlikely that too many people's dream job is to become a corporate welfare case. They certainly take advantage when given the opportunity, but the road he lays out for the aspiring monopolist-to-be doesn't exactly strike me as plausible as a widely held business plan from day one. But even if this is Gordon Gecko Business model 2.0, assigning the rent-seekers this mental narrative obscures the point: which is to say, as far as I can tell, is "um, rent-seeking is bad" some piffle about tax breaks tossed-in from left field.

Matthew Yglesias said...

I apologize for calling you stupid. I just don't see how any honest reading of my post can view it as denigrating immigrants. It's meant to denigrate business executives.

That should be obvious! I'm a liberal, right? Who do I hate? Business executives!

Matthew Yglesias said...

Which is just to say, if your point is basically "I am a conventional free market libertarian and therefore disagree with Matthew Yglesias' political values" then fair enough. But your efforts to portray this as an anti-immigrant post have left me wondering about your reading comprehension. Suffice it to say that I didn't mean anything like that.

I'm also not really sure that "entrepreneurs" fall on one side or the other of the argument. The immigrants who own the dry cleaning shop are entrepreneurs creating value for their community.

JPB said...


Apology accepted.

In my defense, your post is operating on an assumption that the reader knows that by "businessman" you mean "crooked rent-seeking executive"

(Your “businessman” starts off thinking about greed and then falls into this quasi-nationalism/thinly veiled racism to illustrate what, exactly?)

It doesn’t take a large leap to bridge the gap between projecting oversimplified thoughts into a made-up man to suit your needs—which reflect a bias you admit to, if half-seriously, in your comment above—and condescending to people you deem so silly to fight the crookedness and endure the hoop-jumping that is required to start a small businesses in the face of all the regulatory obstacles you (rightly) decry in your post.

My tweet was hyperbolic, but no less absurd than your general caricature of a businessman. Had you said “crooked business exec,” while I still think your post went too far, it would have been clearer. But your characterization of the “businessman” is, frankly, preposterous in most instances of entrepreneurship—where you set the early part of your argument.

Any negative feelings about capitalism and businessmen could be read into your description of his motives, so reading a certain amount of foolhardiness into your description of the immigrants for trying is, I think, forgivable. To that end, I’m sorry for misreading you, but your post was so disjointed that it was hard to tell where Matt Yglesias stopped talking, Mr. Evil Businessman assumed the narrative, and then surrendered it.



Neil Sinhababu said...

JPB, this may just be the progressive mind-meld between me and Yglesias, but I was pretty sure that the businessman was corrupt from the get-go. That's why your reaction that the post denigrated ordinary immigrant entrepreneurs struck me as bizarre. It was pretty clear to me (perhaps given the broader context that I have from reading Yglesias for the last 7 years) what was going on.

JPB said...


yeah, that seems to have been the issue. While I read several left-leaning blogs on a daily basis, most are criminal justice related and thus I don't read Matt until he pops up in my reader shared by a friend, wherein he's making some cogent and balanced point on some other topic.

I was hyperbolic in my tweet, he thought I was dense for misinterpreting his narrative style and let me know about it in no uncertain terms, I took offense and wrote a post expressing said offense over a post that was essentially benign, if somewhat poorly aimed.

I'm over it and am sure Matt is too. Water under the bridge, etc.

That said, your comments are very welcomed and most appreciated.

Best regards,


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