Several commenters after the controversial Kaminska post noted that it was unfortunate the brouhaha had overshadowed some interesting issues in the rest of the post. So today I thought it might be useful to provide examples of what I see as a huge problem: miscommunication.
Brad DeLong mentioned that most people find Izabella Kaminska easy to follow and useful. I think that’s because most people have a more “finance-oriented” view of the world than monetarists, who tend to rigidly separate “credit problems” and “money problems.” Her view is heavily finance-oriented.
In my case the money view is so extreme that I sometimes lose my fellow monetarists. I alluded to a London conference where I felt I had trouble getting other monetarist to see things my way. If I say it all boils down to the supply and demand for base money then other monetarists get frustrated. They think the monetary base is both a poor indicator and poor target for monetary policy. They look at the broader aggregates, and take a Nick Rovian “median of exchange” approach whereas I take a Fama-like “medium of account” view. But here’s the thing, I actually agree that the monetary base is a poor indicator of monetary policy and a poor target. That’s not my point! But it’s hard to get an entirely different “medium of account” approach across in a brief discussion, and they are likely to write me off as a fuddy-duddy who thinks the base is important.
In monetary economics the distinctions are so subtle that meaning is easy to get lost. Do things like “interest on reserves” matter? And if so, how much? The question is almost meaningless without much more context. What are you assuming about the future path of the Wicksellian equilibrium rate? What are you assuming about forward guidance? If the Fed changes IOR do they also change other instruments to keep NGDP on target, or is this a tool (or “signal”, and is there a difference?) that a higher NGDP target is implicitly being adopted? Context matters. (I recall Nick Rowe often makes this point.) But conversation is necessarily sound bites. ”I think IOR does blah blah blah,” and you are never able to get across all the background assumptions and worldview to really connect. We all fail in communication, every time we talk with someone else about any issue more complex than; “What is the capital of France?”
Fortunately, failure is almost never as complete as in the unfortunate Kaminska post. We can make incremental progress. But we could make even more progress if we understood the miscommunication problem. And here another human defect comes into the picture, we are all wildly too overconfident about almost everything:
3. Whether that holding penalty in the endzone on “our team” was a bad call.
4. Whether the other side of a debate is making sense.
5. Whether we have correctly understood the other side’s point before rejecting it.
6. That language is transparent, like glass.
7. Whether the other side is using fair or unfair techniques.
8. Whether we are using fair or unfair techniques.
9. Whether arguments are ad hominem
Thus not only is communication very difficult, we grossly underestimate how much of our differences are due to failure to communicate.
As always Tyler Cowen was way ahead of me on these perceptions, talking about how you need to try to put the other side’s argument in the best possible light, not the worst possible light.
PS. Bob Murphy wins for best comment on the Kaminska post. He pointed out that something similar occurred in a recent post where I discussed Noah Smith’s God post:
For what it’s worth, Scott, had I not known your personality and style I would’ve assumed you were hitting her pretty hard. Imagine Krugman saying of a Republican economist, “The easy way out would be to assume he doesn’t really care about the welfare of black people, but let’s look at the logic of his case.” That would clearly be a swipe by Krugman, not an affirmation that the guy WASN’T a racist.
You may remember that I totally misunderstood a similar move you made a couple of weeks ago about Noah Smith on the super-God. I thought you were being snarky and criticizing him, when (apparently) you were being serious.
Not sure what the moral is here; maybe too many of us are sarcastic and so we attribute it to everyone? But, I’m surprised that you are surprised at the reaction you’re getting. It reminds me when Landsburg gets into trouble…
Actually in the post about Noah Smith I was making a very narrow point about . . . miscommunication! I was arguing that Noah’s post looked “liberal” at first glance (and may have been intended that way for all I know) but that looking at it from a different angle you could equally well get a conservative message across. So why the miscommunication? I think Bob saw it as obvious Smith was trying to make a liberal point, and that made my post an implied criticism of Smith. I do get that, and even at the time I probably understood some would read it that way. But in that case I didn’t give it much thought, as it was an unimportant point. (Maybe even a plus, another chance to teach “miscommunication!”) I would have cared a lot if I knew how the Kaminska post would be misread.
So what lessons can I draw:
1. People are tribal. Since I’m seen as being in the conservative “tribe” all my posts will be read that way, to some extent. Since I’m seen as being in the “doesn’t understand Kaminska tribe” all my post mentioning Kaminska will be viewed as anti-Kaminska unless I scream from the mountaintops “DON’T ASSUME THAT JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN’T UNDERSTAND KAMINSKA IT’S HER PROBLEM.”
2. You can be terse. And you can be counterintuitive. And you can use words in a hyper-literal quasi-autistic fashion that is blind to tone. But if you do all three, don’t expect to avoid getting into all sorts of trouble. Unfortunately I’m a fatalist and a determinist and a pessimist, so I expect to have to keep relearning these lessons over and over again. Painfully. But maybe a bit less frequently as I age.
PPS. Miscommunication may serve an evolutionary purpose. And what would dating and romance be without miscommunication? Dry and sterile. Imagine Shakespeare without miscommunication. So it’s not all bad.