Nobel Prize winner and a rabble-rousing federal judge rattle the blogosphere

Smart Bombs: 2 high-powered Chicago thinkers (a Nobel Prize winner and a rabble-rousing federal judge) rattle the blogosphere one intellectual grenade at a time by
Maureen Ryan
Chicago Tribune
April 7, 2005

Though the blogosphere is gaining in respect and influence, the word "blogger," for some, still brings to mind an image of a wild-haired ranter a guy in his basement, clad in pajamas, railing at the world from behind the glowing screen of his computer. Which is why Judge Richard A. Posner and professor Gary S. Becker, world-renowned academics and authors, still encounter the occasional raised eye-brow when the topic of their new blog, www.becker-posner-blog.com, comes up.

"My guess is that some people think it's in somewhat questionable taste," Posner said in a phone interview. "I don't think people would be disturbed by what I actually say in these postings, but they might feel it's unusual for a judge to be doing a blog."

Blogs are increasingly popular in areas in which academia, public policy and law intersect. Yet in some legal circles, they are seen as being a little off-the-beaten path. Becker has gotten his share of mixed feedback on the site.

People "were surprised. But it's also true that a number who looked at it and actually read it wrote me back and said, 'Gee, this is an interesting blog,' " Becker said. Given both men's stature as leading intellectuals and authors, the site has gotten noticed plenty; the duo's postings on everything from the controversy over alleged sexist comments at Harvard to Social Security reform have been quoted and commented upon throughout the blogosphere.

But the intellectually challenging comments and the immediacy of blog communi-cation are just part of the attraction for Becker and Posner. Here, they discuss their reasons for starting their blog and what the experience has been like so far.

Richard A. Posner, 66, is a pioneer in law and economics, a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago law school, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit and "the most mercilessly seditious legal theorist of his generation," according to a 2001 New Yorker profile.

Gary S. Becker, 74, is a Nobel prize-winning economist and a professor at the University of Chicago. Becker grew up in Pottsville, Pa., "a little coal mining town in Eastern Pennsylvania." Read more about Becker at home.uchicago.edu/~gbecker/biography/biography.htm

STORY BEHIND THE SITE

Last year Posner guest-blogged for Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law professor, and enjoyed the experience. He later asked Lessig for help setting up the Becker-Posner blog. The site's a little different in that it doesn't have the daily posting frequently seen in the blogosphere. Posner and Becker decide on a topic (say, the future of China), then each writes an entry on it. Both entries are posted about once a week, along with their reactions to comments by readers.

SAMPLES

Becker, April 3:
"Authoritarian regimes can do well economically when they have good leaders, but they can produce disasters when these leaders have foolish economic ideas."

Posner, March 26:
"Let me make clear that I have no ethical objection to performance-enhancing drugs."

RICHARD A. POSNER

Why did you start a blog?

It was actually professor Becker's idea. He had been doing a column for Business Week for a number of years, a monthly column, and I think he'd gotten tired of that but also he felt, as we all feel, that the blog phenomenon is very important, it's an important way of reaching people, it has a degree of freedom that you don't have writing for a magazine. It may seem a trivial point but [it's] actually not; magazines impose very very strict word limitations on their columnists . . . . With the blog, we don't want to go on for thousands of words, but you don't have that kind of mechanical limitation. And you're not tied to a rigid schedule.

And also, I think this is very important, with Business Week or any other magazine, of course, you get letters to the editor. But with the blog, what would be a letter to the editor is a comment that a reader of the blog can just post. It's much easier than writing a letter, it doesn't have to be formal, you don't need a stamp or anything. It's really simple.

Then it's very easy for us to read the comments. And we can respond to them. Again, we don't have space or time limitations, we can respond whenever we have a set of interesting comments, then the commenters, they can go back and forth with each other, so the blog stimulates a kind of interchange that isn't really feasible in the print medium.

And, of course, it's free; we don't get anything and it doesn't cost anything to create the blog; it doesn't cost anything to read it. Once you have [Web access] it's free. You don't have to subscribe, there's no paperwork, no billing. So it has extraordinary flexibility. And autonomy you don't negotiate with an editor what you can write about you write whatever you want to. Is that a liberating feeling?

Well, of course the other side of it is, the blogging is not as carefully done as the other extreme, an academic article. For that you would spend more time, do more research and probably confine yourself to a more limited subject matter where you're a real expert. It would be vetted by journal editors and referees and so on.

Nowadays a process like that can easily take a year or more. So that's a big cost and that's avoided by the blog, but the other side of it is the accuracy problem and the depth problem.

What's good about it is that through the comments and through other blogs, as we know from the CBS fiasco, there's extremely rapid communication and correction. So the blogger doesn't have his fact-checking staff, but if you make a mistake, within minutes a bunch of people have descended on you.

That, I think, is a very important advantage over the newspapers.

Newspapers have their fact-checkers, people write in and make corrections, newspapers will print corrections. But you know, I don't think many people read the corrections. And if they do, they've forgotten what's being corrected. [With blogs] the opportunity for immediate correction of errors is very important.

When did you first become aware of blogs?

It's pretty recent. I started reading a couple of them, like Andrew Sullivan's, and this fellow in Tennessee, Instapundit, and Mickey Kaus and a few others maybe a couple of years ago. My real introduction to the process was that a friend of mine, a [law] professor at Stanford, Larry Lessig, asked me to be a guest blogger for a week last summer. And that's when I learned how it works, how you post things and so on. That was my real initiation, and I enjoyed the experience...Having dipped my toes in the water, when Becker suggested this, I was responsive.

What have you thought of what people have posted to the comment areas of the blog?

They have a high-average quality I found it also when I did Lessig's blog. The comments are really interesting, they add a lot to it.

It makes for a more participatory relationship. If you read a newspaper, it's a passive experience. You don't have much of a sense of being part of the enterprise. [On a blog] you have regular commenters; they clearly feel they are contributing to this enterprise. I worry a little about people spending too much time sitting in front of the computer doing this stuff.

GARY S. BECKER

Why did you start a blog?

There's a new medium, the Internet, and it does a lot of different things, but it's a way of conveying information and discussing public policy issues, and I think the latter has not been exploited so much. So it seemed like it would make good use of the Internet. Most blogs are personal diaries [about] sex, a lot of them, but [we wanted] to make it a discussion between two people with related but not the same views on issues and see if that could generate interest among people and further discussion.

I had written a column for almost 20 years for Business Week, and I enjoyed doing that a lot but after awhile got tired of doing that. This seemed like another type of challenge.

Why blog with Posner?

We've been friends for a long time. I have a great deal of respect for him; he's an amazingly able person and I thought we would have enough similarities and enough differences to make it an interesting dialogue.

What can blogs do that other forms of communication can't do?

You instantaneously reach a world-wide audience, in principle...we seem to have a good following and it's certainly beyond the U.S. borders.

People can respond immediately. We usually post Sunday night or Monday morning, and the vast majority of comments that we see are in within a couple of days or so. So this instantaneous ability to be in contact with your readership and get responses from your readership I think is unique to the Internet.

The other aspect I liked about it was the informality of the blog presentation. I didn't have to go through copy editors or anybody. There are disadvantages to that, but to me, it was a relief, to tell you the truth. A lot of the stuff we post there isn't quite finished . . . it's more informal. . . . That appealed to me.

What has the readership been like?

I don't keep close track -- we were informed after the first few [weeks] that we were pretty high up there in the readership among serious blogs, but I haven't kept track of it. But we do get a lot of comments, not only in terms of those posted, but in terms of e-mails and so on.

What has the commentary been like?

I've been impressed by the level of the commentary we've gotten. If we get a comment that's erroneous, somebody else writes in and points it out. We try to address what people write in the comments, but in my last one I said, `Since most of what I thought were mistakes in the comments were answered by other comments, I can be very brief.' [The commenters] engage in a discussion among themselves.

China, Social Security reform, legalizing drugs

The mechanics of Richard Posner and Gary Becker's blog are a little unusual: The two men decide on an idea or theme and then take turns writing the primary post on that theme. The other then writes a response to the first post and elaborates his ideas on the topic; both entries are usually posted early each week. Later in the week, the men respond to reader comments and clarify or expand their thoughts.

Both say the blog is something of a laboratory for various ideas and theories they have about social policy and current events, and they don't by any means always agree with one another. Below are portions.

April 3: Will China Become the Leading Nation of the 21st Century? Perhaps Not! (Becker)

"Authoritarian regimes can do well economically when they have good leaders, but they can produce disasters when these leaders have foolish economic ideas. China discovered this under Mao, with his incredible "great leap forward" that helped kill millions of rural Chinese. While the evidence indicates that authoritarian regimes do not grow slower on average than democratic governments, they do have more unstable growth rates than democracies. I believe China will become more democratic if it continues to grow rapidly, but economic progress could falter badly if they select poor leaders who have strange ideas about how economies should be organized."

April 3: Will China Overtake the U.S.? (Posner)

"But there are definite negatives in the picture. I am struck by the resemblance between China and Wilhelmine Germany (1871 - 1918) two aggressively, at times hysterically, nationalistic countries, paranoid about encirclement by potential enemies (in China's case, Russia to the North, India to the Southwest, Vietnam to the South, and South Korea, Taiwan, and above all the United States, to the East), and possessed of economic institutions more advanced than their political institutions. That is an explosive combination. It may lead China to invest very heavily in military power and even to become involved in wars that could bring disaster upon it."

March 27: The Bankruptcy Reform Act (Posner)

"Critics say that more than half of all individual bankrupts are not reckless borrowers but rather are unfortunate people who have been hit by unexpected medical expenses. But this ignores the fact that whether one is forced into bankruptcy by a medical expense (or by an interruption of employment as a result of a medical problem) depends on one's other borrowing. If one is already borrowed to the hilt, an unexpected medical expense may indeed force one over the edge. But knowing that medical expenses are a risk in our society, prudent people avoid loading themselves to the hilt with nonmedical debt.

"At a more fundamental level, one might ask why voluntary bankruptcy is ever permitted.

"Behind the Bankruptcy Reform Act, as behind the President's proposal for social security reform, is an ideology of giving nonwealthy people greater responsibility for their own economic welfare, which entails subjecting them to additional financial risk."

March 27: Response on Legalizing Drugs (Becker)

"A couple of comments claimed legalization would be a tax on the poor, especially with the market price held constant. I do agree that the demand for drugs by the poor would be more responsive than demand by others to a fall in price produced by legalization. But can anyone doubt that the war on drugs has primarily hurt the poor? They are the ones mainly sentenced to prison on drug charges, their neighborhoods are often destroyed by drugs, and so forth.

"I did not suggest that the legal excise tax on drugs should keep the market price of drugs constant -- I allowed the possibility that the tax could be high enough to lead to higher prices, or low enough to produce lower prices than at present. My instincts as an economist are to favor giving individuals free choice as long as they do not harm others. But as a parent I also understand the desire to keep drugs away from young persons so that they do not get started along that path, although the prohibitionists have to realize that little is known about what behaviors would substitute for drug use.

"Legalization would give the government additional tax revenue if they do not cut other taxes. I have sympathy with the comments that are skeptical of whether the government would use that revenue wisely. But it would still be much better than the present system that involves, among other things, a drain on taxpayers' resources, and hits the poor especially hard."

March 26: The War on Drugs Posner's Response to comments

"Regarding performance-enhancing drugs, such as steroids, one comment points out that sports fans appreciate better performance, and notes that professional football is more popular than college football (alumni loyalties to one side). But there is a difference between skill and strength; if the principal effect of steroids is to increase strength rather than skill, it is not clear that entertainment value is enhanced. But suppose it is. Then what must be considered is the tradeoff between the increased income that steroid-consuming athletes can expect to obtain and the risks to their health. The tradeoff is complicated because some athletes will prefer the higher income and others will prefer to have better health and, being thus at a competitive disadvantage, will drop out of the sport. It is unclear whether there will be a net increase in performance, since some killed athletes will be lost to the sport, though those that remain will be better performers. "Let me make clear that I have no ethical objection to performance-enhancing drugs. Suppose there's a drug that adds 10 IQ points to everyone who takes it, and it has no adverse health consequences. Once some people start taking the drug, this will put pressure on others to follow suit. But I don't see any difference between this effect and that resulting from an effort by a young business person to gain a competitive edge by getting an MBA, which will place pressure on his competitors to do likewise. That kind of competition improves economic welfare."

Feb. 12: Social Security (Posner response to comments)

"Some of these excellent comments [by readers of the blog] put me in mind of the following crude but suggestive way of stating the difference between liberals and conservatives: liberals think that the average person is good but dumb, conservatives that he or she is `bad' (in the sense of self-interested) but smart. Liberals trust the intellectual elite (because they are good) to guide the masses (because they cannot guide themselves); conservatives distrust the elite (because the elite are bad and therefore dangerous) and think the masses can guide themselves. So in the social security debate, liberals oppose private accounts because they do not think the average person competent to manage money for retirement but think government can be trusted to manage it; conservatives support private accounts because they give the opposite of the liberals' answers to the goodness and competence questions.

"The basic contrast that I have suggested (something of a caricature, I admit) between the liberal and conservative world views has a further implication for the social security debate. Bel[i]eving that people are good and therefore never, or at least very rarely, deserve to be poor, liberals favor redistribution of wealth from rich to poor, which a self-financed retirement system would be incapable of bringing about because everyone would be paying for his own retirement rather than for the retirement of others. Conservatives recognize that people can be unlucky, and also (because in the conservative view people are `bad') that the elderly may free ride on their children, and on these grounds support public welfare for the indigent elderly."

What others in `blogosphere' are saying

Comments on other blogs about the Becker-Posner blog:

"The old joke about Chicago school economists is that they believe you can't find a dollar on the street because it's already been found in our world of efficient markets...The Chicago school's irrational belief in rational actors and efficient markets rarely shows up in quite as ridiculous a form as the dollar that can't be found on the street, but a recent posting on the Posner-Becker Blog by Judge Richard Posner, arguably the most peripatetic legal mind of a generation and an adherent of Chicago school economics, comes mighty close." (exparte.powerblogs.com)

"The question is what [immigration] reforms could potentially gain political support and improve the lives of these immigrants. Counterintuitive as it might seem (and I can already hear some liberal friends screaming), I think Gary Becker's proposal to sell additional immigration slots for $50,000 a green card meets these criteria." (www.nathannewman.org/laborblog)

"Nobel-prize-winning economist Becker and federal circuit judge Posner have made their introductory post and will be blogging over [at www.becker-posner-blog.com]. It has been highly anticipated. By the way, why is it that I feel like such a dork every time I say the word `blogosphere'?" (waynesoller.blogspot.com)

"Posner's take is that [Lawrence] Summers should have kept his mouth shut to begin with, but having opened it, he should not have apologized for what he said." (www.ericsiegmund.com/fireant)

Readers post their opinions

Some comments from visitors to the Becker-Posner blog:

Reaction to "Aids, Population and Policy": "Lots of people ...would rather see Africans die in massive numbers than for the relevant facts to be understood in the West even among the elite audience that frequents this website."

Reaction to a post on Harvard's Lawrence Summers: "The unintellectual witch hunt against Summers is completely disgraceful...But on some level this is the price Summers pays by hitching his wagon to the liberal left. What the heck did he expect?"

Reaction to a post on selling the right to immigrate: "As a wealthy businessman, I would be thrilled to put up the $50K each for a bunch of poor immigrants in exchange for 20-year work contracts. Naturally, I would provide them with room and board (in shacks near my fields/mill/factory/whatever) as well as a couple hundred bucks a month for spending money."

Reaction to a post on China's future: "I am constantly amazed that these discussions about countries constantly bring out this us vs. them mind set. Why do you (meaning some of the other commentators) care if it is the U.S. or a future (possibly Democratic) China that is more economically powerful?"

MORE HITS

Other popular and influential academic and/or legal blogs:

  • Lessig.org/blog: A site from technology-law guru Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Stanford Law.
  • Instapundit.com: Current-affairs site from University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds.
  • Volokh.com: A group blog addressing legal issues; named for contributor Eugene Volokh, a professor at UCLA's law school.
  • Sentencing.typepad.com: Ohio State law prof Douglas Berman's site is one-stop shopping for latest changes to federal sentencing guidelines.
  • www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type: U of C-Berkeley econ prof J. Bradford DeLong tackles economics, politics and current events.

 

 

Faculty: 
Richard A. Posner