Public Intellectuals

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The 2020 Alex Tabarrok Example, with Covid

George Mason economics professor Alexander Tabarrok has vigorously advocated for intelligent covid-19 vaccination policies. His ideas are not profound, but they are startling to simple folk-- things like "Instead of giving 100 people two shots of vaccine, how about giving 200 people one shot each, since 95% effectiveness is not all that much better than 80%?" Ezra Klein wrote a New York Times op-ed about him titled,"Are We Much Too Timid in the Way We Fight Covid-19? The debate among doctors, epidemiologists and economists is still going strong" (it's NYT, but not gated). Tyler Cowen has an April 1, 2021 Marginal Revolution post titled "In praise of Alex Tabarrok" about his efforts. The comments to Cowen's blogpost are worth looking at. Some people note that Professor Tabarrok's ideas are not profound or original. That is true, but it's beside the point. What matters is the vigor with which he has advocated for them.

This makes me think of Schumpeter. Schumpeter wrote in his 1911 or 1912 book, originally in German but in 1934 translated into Enlglish (The Theory of Economic Development, English edition, Internet Library (1934)) that the economic entrepreneur is not necessarily an original thinker:

It is no part of his function to “find” or to “create” new possibilities. They are always present, abundantly accumulated by all sorts of people. Often they are also generally known and being discussed by scientific or literary writers. In other cases, there is nothing to discover about them, because they are quite obvious.

Rather, his role and talent is in doing, not thinking:

What is to be done in a casual emergency is as a rule quite simple. Most or all people may see it, yet they want someone to speak out, to lead, and to organise. ... It is, therefore, more by will than by intellect that the leaders fulfil their function, more by “authority,” “personal weight,” and so forth than by original ideas.

There are lots of smart people around, in absolute if not in relative terms, so there are lots of good ideas, but a good idea is useless if it doesn't get pushed. And there are fewer smart pushers than there are smart thinkers:

Economic leadership in particular must hence be distinguished from “invention.” As long as they are not carried into practice, inventions are economically irrelevant. And to carry any improvement into effect is a task entirely different from the inventing of it, and a task, moreover, requiring entirely different kinds of aptitudes.

What counts for the entrepreneur is an obsessive desire to push an idea, despite frustration, obstruction, stupid reactions, and continual failure. His leadership is of an odd sort, and his talent, aside from the relatively common one of seeing that an idea is good, consists of focus more than anything else:

It has none of that glamour which characterises other kinds of leadership. It consists in fulfilling a very special task which only in rare cases appeals to the imagination of the public. For its success, keenness and vigor are not more essential than a certain narrowness which seizes the immediate chance and nothing else.

Schumpeter is thinking of the economic entrepreneur in the sense of a businessman who innovates, who does things in a new way, whether that be a new product, a new method, a new market, or a new management technique. His idea applies, however, to the political or intellectual entrepreneur just as well. Those roles, to be sure, are much more glamorous than that of the guy who starts a new toothpaste business, but the notion is the same: the entrepreneur takes a new idea that has been neglected by everyone else and pushes it till other people realize it's good and it starts being self-sustaining.

That's what Professor Tabarrok has done. He's kept advocating for good vaccination policy, despite being mostly ignored. And, in the end, some policymakers are listening. Bravo!

Goals of the Public Intellectual

Not written yet.

Should Scholars with OK Verbal Skills Become Public Intellectuals?

In economics, more of us are good at math than at English. Should those of us with verbal skills devote our talents to translation instead of production? If the producer is unintelligible, he is useless. Think of the Wu-Hausman Test in econometrics. No one should look down on the translator.