Blogger, Post at Your Peril

Whenever a writer composes anything more elaborate than a grocery list and allows it to be published, even on the Web, he bears a certain resemblance to Christopher Columbus in the navigator’s voyage of 1492. Which is to say, he knows where he wants to go, but he is not sure that the course he follows will take him there. Moreover, when he does reach land, it may not be the India he sought, but a miserable Caribbean island whose inhabitants are not especially pleased by his arrival.

To consider the most recent such voyage of mine, we must go back about three years. At that time, the Independent Institute had just begun to publish at its website a group blog called The Beacon, which was (and still is) overseen by my colleague Anthony Gregory. I have never had a personal blog; nor have I wanted one – my attitude was, and should have remained, that nobody had an interest in my rants, so I might well spend my time more productively or enjoyably in alternative employments. However, Anthony prevailed on me to join the group at The Beacon, and eventually I did so, although I warned him that I probably would not contribute much.

Alas, I have failed miserably to keep my promise. According to the counter on The Beacon’s main page, I have now posted 190 contributions, great and small, or about one every six days, on average. It would have been a splendid accomplishment if all of these posts had been dazzlingly expressed, highly informative, keenly argued, and wisely concluded. As a rule, however, they were utterly mundane. Occasionally I attempted to lighten the tone with my homespun humor, but I must confess: I am no Will Rogers. Writing funny stuff is not as easy as it looks.

Moreover, being funny and making a serious point simultaneously is much more difficult than either being funny or making a serious point, by itself. A master such as H. L. Mencken or Fred Reed can pull it off, but a plodding economist such as I should stick to his more humdrum knitting. Nevertheless, just as a happily married middle-aged man knows that it is stupid to launch into an affair with a 22 year old bimbo he met at a bar, but does so anyhow, I do not always follow the rules I have discovered will bring me the best outcome. The urge for adventure takes hold of me, and I run off trying to be funny and serious at the same time.

I made this sort of mistake most recently in a post about the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. The cheese that attracted me into this mousetrap was a photograph I saw posted at Facebook (another imprudent Web entanglement into which I have blundered). So, like that middle-aged guy who buys a red convertible sports car to impress the bimbo with whom he’s trying to hook up, I made haste to my keyboard and began to type in excess of the posted speed limit.

As any accomplished literary humorist would have done, I chose my words to suit the desired mood, beginning my screed by writing, “Texas A&M University, which is a more or less legitimate institution of higher education, harbors something called The Bush School of Government and Public Service.” And then I went on, which was not very difficult because from that point it was all downhill.

If I had continued to plow the same furrow that I’d begun, my post might have done little harm, amounting to nothing more than another insignificant drop of failed humor in a sea of lame jokes. But because I’m not Russell Baker or P. J. O’Rourke, I could not leave bad enough alone. I had to inject the serious stuff into my narrative.

After all, as any moron can tell you, there’s simply nothing funny about mass murder. So when I insisted on throwing a few stones at the former killer-in-chief for whom the Bush School is named, I violated a cardinal rule of coherent writing: don’t mix voices. Mea culpa. Like that middle-aged guy, when his wife’s lawyer presents him with the news that his wife wants a divorce (and most of the wealth he’s accumulated by keeping his nose to the grindstone for twenty-five years in the accounting department at the Acme Co.), I was brought to an acute realization of my sin when the comments on my post began to arrive.

Now, to be sure, some readers claimed to have got my jokes. So I was not a complete flop at stand-up. And some readers expressed agreement with my brief assessment of George H. W. Bush and the havoc he unleashed on the hapless Iraqis in 1991. But such positive feedback scarcely set the tone.

Indeed, the most vividly expressed comments went more along the lines of a reader who advised me: “Get your head out of your ass, clean off the fecal matter, and get yourself enrolled in The Bush School so that you might be able to write with some manner of knowledge of your subject as well as presenting yourself as something more than a male child of Sarah Palin.” Now that’s spirited writing! However, inasmuch as it was written by someone who claims to be a student at the Bush School, I was tempted to attribute this writer’s ire, at least in part, to the very natural human tendency to defend one’s turf (and one’s personal identity).

More distressing to me was the message signed by “Paul from Texas,” who commented: “Dr. Higgs, you lost a lot of your credibility today. . . . Very disappointing. Very revealing.” Now, I’m not begging for sympathy, gentle reader, but please consider where this judgment leaves me. I spent more than forty years building up what little credibility I had, and then in a mere blink of an eye – in no more time than it took for me to describe Texas A&M as “a more or less legitimate institution of higher education”―I destroyed my reputation.

 I now find myself in a most unenviable situation, rather like an old man who is starting to walk across the Mojave Desert in August with only six ounces of water in his canteen. At my advanced age, I must return to cranking out those articles for the hard-to-please American Economic Review, the Journal of Political Economy, and the Journal of Economic History, among many others, as I did in my salad days. Somehow I must find the strength to write another dozen books, digging up all of those arcane footnotes and esoteric tidbits with which I established my reputation when I was younger. I must also retrace my steps through that maze of op-eds, speeches, seminars, and whatnot in order to restore the credibility that Paul from Texas has authoritatively informed me I have squandered. Woe, indeed, is me, because I am anything but convinced that my present physical and mental equipment suffices to carry me to the end of this newly required journey.

The moral of this sad tale is doubtlessly plain enough at this point, but because so much is at stake, I beseech the reader’s forbearance while I state it as clearly as I can: If you have acquired any reputation at all as a writer, analyst, or thinker, don’t post at blogs; and whatever you do, don’t try to be funny, ever. Quicker than a flash of lightening, you may find the entire edifice of your human capital blown to smithereens by a denunciation that took your detractor less than sixty seconds to type.

You might think, of course, that by writing the foregoing lament, I have already disregarded my own advice. But it’s okay, you see: At this point, I have nothing left to lose.

Addendum: In order to ensure that I have made myself completely clear in this post, I place here a partial list of more or less legitimate institutions of higher education in the United States: Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Penn, Cornell, Johns Hopkins (from which I was awarded a Ph.D. degree), Duke, Northwestern, Washington University (St. Louis), Ohio State, Indiana, Penn State, NYU, Stanford, University of Washington (where I was once a tenured full professor), Illinois (Urbana), and Texas A&M (where I have made seminar presentations to faculty and students, as I have at all of the other schools listed, among many others). I am sure that students, faculty, and defensive tackles at Texas A&M will agree that they are in mighty highfalutin company and will take no further offense at what I wrote in a previous blog post (although, in truth, I never wrote those scurrilous words; my evil twin did).

Simple rule. The United States has two kinds of institutions of higher education: those that are more or less legitimate and those that are not.

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