Never answer mailbag questions angry!
Profiling my profile, the GOP's identity politics future, and my favorite conspiracy theory
There’s been a lot of positive economic news lately. Pessimism about America is concentrated in news junkies, not the objectively worst-off people; at the same time, I liked Richard Hanania’s defense of the media against his fellow conservatives. We got a potential breakthrough in using solar power to manufacture hydrogen. In Texas, they’re building a giant new plant to use wind power to manufacture hydrogen.
And of course there’s always housing progress news to report, as Jared Polis is making land use reform his top priority of 2023, while over in Montana, Greg Gianforte is bodyslamming NIMBYism with an ambitious set of land use reform proposals for Montana.
On to some questions!
Marie Kennedy: It felt like your WaPo profile was a very weird Rorschach test... I saw people who like you and thought it was good/fair, people who like you and thought it was bad/unfair, people who dislike you and were mad because they thought it was too positive, and people who dislike you who were happy that it seemed appropriately negative. What do you think, both of the piece itself and the reaction to it?
My guess is that from Dan Zak’s point of view, the varied reactions to the article suggest he did a good job of writing a textured story that captures some of the complexity of the real world. From my point of view, it would obviously have been nice if the story was 100 percent flattering, but I didn’t see it as particularly mean-spirited or negative.
The main knocks on me that he gave voice to — that I’m kind of a dilettante and that over the course of two decades of writing multiple takes per day, I’ve tossed off a few real duds — seem basically correct. I would rather not have that Uvalde tweet brought up, for example, because it was an embarrassing error of judgment. But it really was an embarrassing error of judgment, so I think it’s totally fair.
I guess if I were to litigate the piece a little bit, I would make a few points.
One is that the mere fact that people who want to criticize me tend to bring up the same small number of takes, often ones that are years old and usually ones that are on subjects that are outside my normal range of coverage, tells you something — especially because my usual range of coverage is itself pretty large. People are not saying “wow, Matt really blundered when over a decade ago he made the economic costs of land use regulation a major theme in his work.” They’re not saying my advocacy for more stimulative macroeconomic policy in Obama’s second term aged poorly. When I wrote “Swing Voters are Extremely Real” in the summer of 2018, it was an unfashionable and mildly contrarian point, but I don’t think people seriously dispute it today.
Another is that everyone makes mistakes, and I think I am unusually open-minded about criticism and willing to admit to error.
The last, which links the two, is that I don’t think enough attention is paid to sins of omission, and I almost never hear anyone own up to having committed any of them. The controversy over defunding the police that raged in the summer of 2020 ended up being a big turning point in my life. Today, I think basically the same thing I thought at the time — that the defund movement was pushing something politically unworkable that was at odds with the empirical literature — and I think subsequent events have tended to vindicate my position. And while I completely respect hard-core defunders who continue to defend their stance today, what doesn’t sit that well with me is the knowledge that lots of columnists just kind of watched the fad wash over the media without ever doing a piece where they kicked the tires on the research or asked whether activists were depicting the situation correctly. Obviously nobody is required to weigh in on every controversy that passes through the world. But this was a really big controversy that raged for a long time, and I don’t really believe that everyone who went through those months without writing about it was just genuinely incurious about the topic. I think a lot of people either just didn’t want to say something unfashionable when emotions were running high or else didn’t want to look into it for fear that they’d discover the truth was something unfashionable.
And I’ve never seen someone say “you know what, I was too reluctant to engage in this hot-button policy controversy.” Now obviously if you play it safe all the time, you reduce your odds of stepping in it. But I think erring too far in the other direction has its own costs.
At any rate, if I were writing a profile of myself, that would be my key thesis. But I liked the piece. One of the big things I try to convince other journalists of is that they should be less afraid of “cancellation.” I’m someone who’s critical of “cancel culture,” but I’ve also become uncomfortable with the extent to which cancel culture critics tend to tell exaggerated scare stories of the threat of cancellation. I think the story Zak told makes the important point that I have a good life and a successful career and more people should be more outspoken about things they believe in and have more confidence in their ability to succeed that way.
Peter Wilcynski: Why are you consistently being so mean about RDS's height / physical appearance. It seems broadly out-of-character - we're not in elementary school...
Look, there were people who didn’t think America was ready for a Black president and Barack Obama proved them wrong. Donald Trump showed that you don’t need to know anything about American public policy to get elected president. Joe Biden defied the idea that he was too old to win. Maybe Americans want a short, stocky president? But I’m skeptical.
B Schack: Which widely despised conspiracy theory (fake moon landing, CIA killed JFK, birtherism, Paul is Dead, communist fluoridation, New Chronology, Roswell, flat Earth, etc.) do you believe in, or at least find most intriguing?
I’m into Epstein conspiracy theories. The fact that we have still never gotten a clear explanation of why he got the plea deal he did is very fishy to me.
I also really resent that American liberals have become so respectable that they let this become a right-wing conspiracy theory. Bill Barr’s dad hired Epstein. Epstein was a known Trump pal. Epstein got his sweetheart plea deal from a Bush-appointed U.S. Attorney who went on to serve as a Trump cabinet secretary. Epstein died in a federal prison system overseen by Barr. Right when he died, I remember there was this immediate impulse among progressives to rally around the idea that there was nothing even slightly suspicious about the circumstances of his death other than that it highlights the systemic problems in the prison system. Maybe yes, maybe no. But I just wanted everyone to gut-check their credence on “Epstein didn’t kill himself.” Am I at 90 percent on that? No. But aren’t you at 15 percent? Isn’t that high enough odds to be worth looking into?
When then-secretary Alex Acosta started facing increasing criticism for his prior role in the Epstein case as a U.S. Attorney, he immediately resigned.
Well, okay, fair enough. But why did it end there? How come he wasn’t asked to testify before Congress? How did this become exclusively a conspiracy theory about the Clintons? It’s never sat well with me.
Dean Siren: Should US-friendly businesses who want to move their supply chains out of China consider moving them to Africa?
Consider everything, but I think the U.S. government should be trying to encourage more sourcing of low-wage imports from Latin America.
Taylor: Do you think anger can be productive? I see a lot of people in progressive spaces who say things like, “If you're not angry, you're not paying attention.” This seems kind of dumb to me. It's like if you're not furious all the time, you're somehow complicit in all the bad things in the world. On the other hand, I've seen people scold others for being angry at real injustices because, “anger isn't productive” and systemic problems require systemic solution. Being angry at an individual for behaving badly isn't productive, these people say, and maybe even be counter-productive. Do you think there's a happy middle ground?