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September 30, 2012
David Warsh, Proprietor


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On the Demand for Referees

Much of the success of professional football stems from the fact that its complicated goings-on are relatively comprehensible. Its calendar is well-demarcated: a seventeen-week schedule, September to December, followed by a month of playoffs, culminating in a championship game. On the field, a clear set of rules govern the intricate patterns of play, enforced by expert officials, elucidated and interpreted for a broad audience by a highly-experienced commentariat. The players’ conduct is monitored, on and off the field (“for the good of the league”). There is some scrutiny of the owners as well.  We love sports because they help explain the world. Violent and exciting, pro football is among the most commercially successful of them.

That’s why the refereeing fiasco that ended last week was so instructive. Franchise owners who control the National Football League locked out the refs in a dispute over how future officials were to be recruited, and over pension benefits. The legitimacy of the game suffered when the quality of the order-keeping on the field declined. The replacements weren’t up to the job.  That larger community of sports fans talked of little else.

In football, the problem was easy to fix – $3 million in pension contributions is chump change in a $10 billion industry; the shift to employee refs from the current system of independent contractors will go a little slower.  But the referee business is in trouble in the larger world, too, and what’s broken there will be much harder to fix.

For instance, I have been following the story of Allan Kozinn, a long-time classical music critic for The New York Times, who was demoted earlier this month to a reporter’s job on the music beat – a big comedown to a man accustomed to expressing his own opinions.  It turns out that this may have to do with maneuvers to hire another, younger critic, in which case it doesn’t seem so unreasonable. A commitment to keeping its stable of critics intact and sharp, far into the future, is one of the things I admire about the Times. At least Kozinn is continuing to write about contemporary music.

Music critics, like football refs, belong to a class of occupations concerned with creating and preserving order in the world and preventing its corruption, a class that may be described, for lack of a better word, as the guardian trades.  The use of the word itself goes back to Plato, who, in The Republic, argued that two quite different classes of citizens would be required to maintain a thriving city:  a “public sector” of police, soldiers, government policy-makers and, yes, philosopher kings, supported by taxation and concerned above all else with the integrity if the whole; and everybody else, peacefully going about their business.

A lot has changed since then:  among society’s guardians today are football referees, detectives, marshals, undercover agents, judges, wardens, legislators, central bankers, regulators, inspectors, auditors, watchdogs, whistle-blowers, fact-checkers, reformers, scientists, educators and deans; not to mention broadcast anchors, reporters, critics, cartoonists, editors and public editors.  The category “everybody else” has expanded to include everything under the sun that we call “commerce.”

This much, at least, is still the same: different motives animate the different classes.  Economic theory is uncomfortable with the distinction, especially the branch known as public choice. My favorite text on this subject is Jane Jacobs’ Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics.  It’s not because her discussion, which is couched as a series of conversations among friends of diverse backgrounds, is easy to follow – it isn’t – but rather because she so patiently elucidates the two very different sets of norms  that undergird each pursuit, or “syndrome” as she calls them, guardian and commercial.

(Why do we have so many guardians?  Do we need all of them?  It’s always an interesting question, at the base of much present-day politics, and capable of being framed more spaciously, as, for instance, by exponents of the law and economics school, who argue that competition is such an efficient regulator that we wouldn’t need bureaucrats at all if courts of law would only do their jobs.).

Newspapers were, for a century or more, a major source of referees, guardian types who spent their nights and weekends writing books, graduating to become specialists, critics, columnists or even authors. Almost always these aspirants embodied basic news values, at least to some extent:  they were disinterested, meaning they favored neither side in the rumbles they covered, like a good football referee (or, if their job required opinionizing, they were open and honest about their biases). They welcomed skepticism, dealt with others mainly on the merit of their arguments, not on rank; and were transparent about their motivations, at least in theory.

But that was before the near-monopoly status of newspapers was shattered by the advent of search advertising.  Now those same people (there are many fewer of them) are mainly doing what they are told (which often includes keeping up a steady stream of tweets).

My hunch is that newspapers will eventually re-establish their claim to authority near the top of the explanatory chain. (There is, of course, always a court of appeal above them, in the form of criticism and competition.) They’ll regroup and consolidate their audiences.  But those soft jobs won’t ever come back. A fortunate few will continue to write, under their employers’ gaze.  Most of those who prefer more independent forums have already left. New centers will arise within the press, most of them digital (Bloomberg and Reuters, for example); magazines and agglomerators (like The Browser) will exert influence as well.

And of course the Web, already a mine of information to dwarf, if not exactly to overshadow, the libraries of the world, is becoming the source of an enormous amount of collaborative filtering and old-fashioned refereeing, loosely connected to all the rest.  EconomicPrincipals is one such project, a onetime newspaper column now sailing along with around 10,000 regular readers (20,000 altogether in the third quarter), and, one hopes, more when the next book is done!). G. Pascal Zachary, late of The Wall Street Journal, keeps up a slightly different reconnaissance: his book, Hotel Africa: The Politics of Escape, has just appeared. My old friend Ira Stoll, at The Future of Capitalism, is a third – on the surface we agree on very little, but underneath, at least, we embrace similar editorial standards. In fact you never know who’s going to join the clan.  Blogger Noah Smith, a newly-minted economist teaching at Stony Brook University, has the temperament of a newsman.  Have a look at his Illustrated Bestiary of the Econ Blogworld. Clearly he has your best interests at heart.

We don’t wear striped shirts. We don’t call ourselves guardians, though I think most of us think of ourselves that way. We’re not locked out – just discombobulated by great waves of technological change.  As the advertising world regains is balance, expect the Fourth Estate, led by newspapers but broadly understood, to make a comeback. As the NFL fiasco demonstrates, the great world, unexplained, is unwilling to live without its expert refs.

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One Comment

  1. Dale wrote:

    Dunno… Reporters have often fantasized that they are guardians of society (and thus entitled to a public stipend), but few have really lived up to that standard. My observation is that often they don’t even dig out the basic facts of a situation (“reporting”) and seem to be more enthralled with their role as writers (“journalism”). Innumerable local business stories in the Boston Globe show that the reporters haven’t even had a beer with insiders to find out what the real dynamics of a situation are (when it’s clear that the real truth isn’t something anyone is willing to say in public).

    In the most egregious recent case, I suppose the fact that the Boston Globe never reported in the mid-2000s “There’s a huge residential real estate bubble going on and when it blows, it’s going to take down the entire economy! Get out while you can!!” can be blamed on the fact that real-estate ads are one of the last profit centers. But the fact that the Globe missed the bubble of the late 1980s doesn’t have that excuse.

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