Friday 12 August 2011

On the paucity of public intellectuals

KiwiPolitico a few months back tried to put together a list of the "coming generation" of left and right public intellectuals in New Zealand. The lists are embarrassingly thin, with minimum standards for inclusion very low by international standards.

A year ago, I'd have said Denis Dutton (for the right) and Jim Flynn (for the left) were the only picks worth noting in New Zealand. Both have built a substantial body of scholarly (not necessarily academic) work and have built on it to engage the debate in public forums. That's the general minimal condition for a serious public intellectual. Internationally, you'd think of, on the right, Chris Hitchens, Theodore Dalrymple, Greg Mankiw, Tyler Cowen. In the younger set, Will Wilkinson's excellent. There's nobody in New Zealand who hits that kind of bar on either the left or the right.


First, thin markets. The very best small number of people in a big country will be better than the very best small number of people in a small country. That's why India's always surprised (or at least the lunchroom tells me) that New Zealand manages sometimes to field a non-embarrassing cricket team despite having a population roughly equivalent to a small town in India. But most kids here grow up holding a cricket bat and despising eggheads.

Second, academia's usually the first place to look for public intellectuals. You've a set of folks who are paid to spend all their time thinking; it would be surprising if a few of them didn't build on that to enter debate. And a few have. But that kind of work gets low to negative weight by University higher-ups: for promotion (Dutton did not make Professor until his 60s), for research evaluation, for salary negotiation. I'm going to put up the blog for the 2012 PBRF research evaluation. But if I had redirected my efforts from the blog to publishing 3-4 really crappy articles in really crappy journals that nobody but the referees would have read [Offsetting's well north of 200k visits and 300k page views, adding RSS would at least double that], I expect that the PBRF panel and my employer would have been happier with me. One of the folks over on the admin side who tries to encourage more adoption of web technologies says other academics he's encouraged to try blogging have always replied "Does it count?". This blog perhaps survives through slack in the principal-agent relationship, though is well supported within the Department.

Third, small markets mean no real think tank environment - the other typical sponsors of that kind of work. Small markets mean few patrons, and it's tough to get public intellectuals without patronage. Roger at the NZBR works hard to make sure that the pro-market folks at least know who each other are, but they're not really resourced for patronage.

So who gets picked in the Kiwipolitico comments? A few newspaper columnists the depth of whose work is limited by the thinness of the NZ market for serious essays, some bloggers, and an academic or two. Lots of folks on the lists are disseminators rather than generators of ideas; lots of others who mostly run play-by-play on local politics. Both are important roles, but it's not really what we expect from public intellectuals.


  1. "Does it count?" sounds like the academics version of "Is it in the exam?"

  2. @Wobbly, there are clear trade offs as a good blog requires a substantial amount of time. If university administration/PBRF considers blogging as a hobby—something that should be done in your own time—there are clear incentives to keep on producing obscure papers in obscure journals.

    @Eric from a positive point of view, shallow markets (or low selection intensity in my field) together with university patronage (at least for now) mean that you have higher chances of becoming influential. Meanwhile, I will update my PBRF records to include a front page mention in Offsetting Behaviour.

  3. @Luis: I am submitting the blog, in its entirety, as one of my nominated research outputs. Let's see what they do with it.

  4. I gather that you are not a fan of the "NZ punching above its weight" mantra. I agree with you that the public intellectual talent bench is thin, and that what passes for "intellectual" is often a poor imitation of the real thing (a few exceptions nothwithstanding).
    I do think that there is more promise on the Left than Right simply because the NZ Right are still locked in circa early 1990s market mindsets that have long been superceded and proven to be based on false assumptions regarding efficiency as well as having lead to sub-optimal outcomes in a range of contexts. The Left has had a few decades of contemplating its failures in theory and practice, so has a more critical approach to received wisdom of any sort.
    Good luck with the PBRF exercise. When I was in NZ academia I was asked to list op eds and media appearances as research outputs, so I am inclined to believe that your blog is more worthy than that (or, for that matter, than publication in crony edited volumes and journals)

  5. @Pablo: I'd say rather than "punch above weight", the tyranny of distance, small market size, failure to achieve agglomeration effects, and high fixed costs all demand that our policies be a couple steps better than those in place abroad just for us to keep up. We can't afford as much stupid as other places can if we want to have a standard of living on par with OECD.

    I'll have to disagree about the merits of markets. But at current margins, I care more about civil liberties.

  6. @Luis, your comment seems to support the notion that 'does it count' is a professor’s version of ‘is it in the exam’.

    I can switch in a student for an academic in your comment: There is a clear tradeoff since learning takes a lot of time. If the lecturer is not going to reward non-exam study then there are clear incentives to only study what is going to be in the exam.

    I think a lot of students follow that logic, and I can imagine a lot of professors following the equivalent.

  7. @wobbly I see your point. I would say that the only minor difference between the students and the professors is that we profs still have to do the work; it just happen that the delivery format changes. For example, instead of a blog I choose to travel and meet with industry ,and write for trade rags, both of which give me brownie points with PBRF. Anyway, we clearly do respond to incentives.

  8. @Luis: I get brownie points for trade rags? I've not even been keeping track of those.

  9. Another feature of small countries without a rich culture of independent think-tanks is that the majority of research funding comes from government - hence experts keep their heads down, just in case...

  10. @Eric I think it falls under the "Contribution to the Research Environment" section, "Facilitating Networks" subsection: "...developing and maintaining strong links with end users of research, including active engagement with relevant communities and stakeholders, and dissemination of research outputs; the ability to engage profession, business or industry with the academic sector."

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