Thursday, January 5, 2006

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What a difference a decade makes

Blogging over at Andrew Sullivan's web site, Julian Sanchez has a young riff about Doug Bandow's bravura final column in the wake of his admission that he took Abramoff money in exchange for writing op-eds favoring Abramoff's causes.

Why do I say young? In a counterintuitive analysis for a libertarian, Sanchez concludes that money is not his greatest corrupting fear as a rising policy wonk in DC:

[T]here is, as Bandow observes, a big gray area involving indirect support by way of institutions, or more tenuous links where a writer has previously done unrelated work from some party with an interest in a topic she later writes about.

I don't worry a great deal about these things. I do occasionally worry, in my own case, about the self-reinforcing nature of Beltway opinion work....

[T]he market value of my opinion is low enough that nobody's ever bothered to try buying it—but if they did, I expect it would be an easy enough lure to resist precisely because it would be so obvious and clear-cut, the devil approaching with horns protruding and eyes glowing red. It's the background pressure of an ideological community that I find more worrying, because the way it operates is far more subtle. At the end of the day, you can't really be sure you wouldn't have changed your mind on this or that issue in a different context, because there's no big flashy crisis point—instead you're looking for the dog that didn't bark, the internal dialogue you didn't bother having because (as you and all your friends know) such-and-such counterargument isn't worth taking all that seriously anyway.

That kind of pressure, I hasten to add, is pretty clearly not "improper" in the sense of running counter to canons of journalistic ethics. It's probably an inevitable upshot of having a commmunity or a social network. But from the point of view of personal, more than professional, integrity, it's the kind of "contamination" I find most troubling.

A few thoughts:
1) My all-too-brief interactions with Sanchez, combined with the very fact that he is worried about social conformity at all, suggests to me that he is unlikely to alter his views because of social pressure.

2) It's just a matter of time before someone wants to pay Sanchez good money for the use of his pen.

3) As someone with a decade on Sanchez in terms of life experience, I'd strongly recommend the book and movie Thank You For Smoking to him in order to understand the ways in which getting married and having children affects one's world view (side note: the trailer looks pretty good, and Aaron Eckhardt seems perfectly cast). The protagonist's mantra, when asked why he'd be a lobbyist for Big Tobacco, is simple -- "I have a mortgage." As previously noted, the financial rewards of a successful policy wonk are not exactly meager, but they are not commensurate with the money people with similar education levels earn in the private sector. And this would be fine.... until you start looking at your children and calculating just how much it costs to pay their way through an elite four-year institution for higher learning.

Sometimes children aren't even necessary -- as David Brooks pointed out in Bobos in Paradise, intellectuals who climb to the top of their professional pyramid develop Status-Income Disequilibrium, craving the material rewards that other successful people appear to reap.

I'm not saying that all policy wonks are destined to take money the way Bandow did -- merely that the temptation is a bit more imposing once there are dependents in the equation.

[This means you've leased your pen out, doesn't it?--ed. No, I haven't, unless shilling for Pamela Anderson counts. But I am receiving more substantial offers, and it's something I'm going to need to guard against for the future.]

UPDATE: This Laura McKenna post does point out one small counter-trend to what I blogged about -- the guilt that comes with ever-increasing consumption. But I suspect that most wonks are not as angst-ridden about it as the ever-charming Ms. McKenna.

posted by Dan on 01.05.06 at 11:07 AM


Informally, I've been around a number of top second-tier popular writers (think of people just a bit less popular than Carl Hiassen). One of the lines that always gets repeated in conversations with them is that writing is a job. It pays the bills. Debt collectors are not nice people. Etc...

While this is not directly related to influence peddling, at the end of the day, I'm sympathetic to those who realize that $1000 can go a long way in making ends meet.

posted by: Foucault's Ghost on 01.05.06 at 11:07 AM [permalink]

As usual, it's the Poor Man or Giblets which says it best:

posted by: Barry on 01.05.06 at 11:07 AM [permalink]

"...the financial rewards of a successful policy wonk are not exactly meager, but they are not commensurate with the money people with similar education levels earn in the private sector."

I forget where I read it but someone once asked how come people who believe they are reincarnated are always King Louis IV or Ramses in a previous life, never Joe the barrel maker?

Well, how come policy wonks all seem to believe that they are worth millions in the private sector? I believe the people at the most upper tier of income in the private sector generally have a bachelor's coupled with incredible drive, tenaciousness or some other charismatic intangible quality. The Phd's are the engineers, lab people, etc. Very rarely are they the CEOs making the bizillions.

posted by: former wheelwright on 01.05.06 at 11:07 AM [permalink]

I think that journalists / bloggers / talking heads ought to feel free to lease out their pens, keyboards, voices, as long as they provide the information that they're being paid.

How different would it be for Dan to take money to write a review of a product, or present in the strongest way he can a policy recommendation, than it is for columnists or reviewers at media outlets who are subject to the political predilictions of their editors and/or the threat of lost advertising revenue.

The only thing that I can see that the relationship between the source of the influence and the voice being used would be a lot clearer.

And basically, what buyer is going to want to commission a piece from someone who doesn't agree with them?

posted by: TWAndrews on 01.05.06 at 11:07 AM [permalink]

Altering his views because of social pressure isn't the problem, not altering his views is. Sticking to your guns on a position you already hold, when all around demur, is a walk in the park.

posted by: Cerebus on 01.05.06 at 11:07 AM [permalink]

"No, I haven't, unless shilling for Pamela Anderson counts. But I am receiving more substantial offers, and it's something I'm going to need to guard against for the future."

More substantial than Pamela Anderson? Wow! :)

posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw on 01.05.06 at 11:07 AM [permalink]

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