Explaining It All To You

The persistence of Vox…

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Do you know what your problem is? Your problem is not that you are uninformed. That is what you might have thought your problem was. Your problem is also not that you lack information. This is a common misconception. In fact, people nowadays have lots of information. Too much, even. No, your problem is the opposite. Your problem is that you cannot interpret the information you have. You lack the guiding hand of expertise. You need a vox dei, a little Voice of God whispering in your ear, helping you along, telling you what it all means. You need someone to let you know what’s what, to find the truth for you and analyze it and put it in orderly stacks of notecards with little suggested opinions on them.

For the past two years, Ezra Klein’s philosophy in running Vox.com has been precisely this: people do not need facts, they need explanations. The ordinary person is ill-equipped to interpret the facts, to figure out what they mean. Klein rejects what he calls the “More Information Hypothesis,” the idea that a better-informed citizenry could have more productive political debates. In fact, because we see facts through partisan lenses, facts alone are useless. People are irresponsible with knowledge; facts just make them “better equipped to argue for their own side.”

Thus for Klein, the job of experts is not to give the public raw information, so that it can come to its own conclusions. The job of experts is to process the information themselves, and tell the public what it ought to have concluded. They are not here to help you figure out what you believe. You are a hopelessly irrational consumer. They are here, rather, to tell you what to think.

Vox therefore does not hesitate to make strong judgments. Its headlines frequently declare that “No, X is not what you think it is…” or tell you “Here’s the real reason why…” It promises to give everything you need to know on a subject, eliminating the need for further curiosity on the reader’s part. If you don’t know what the 18 best television shows are, Vox will tell you. (Quantification is its specialty; Vox builds trust by knowing the numbers, by having the data.) The Vox “explainers” say it plainly: about this, there can be no doubt.

Yet strangely, Vox staff would likely bristle at being called mere manufacturers of “opinion” or “commentary.” This is because when a Vox-er declares a scandal to be “bullshit,” he intends it as fact rather than opinion. There is no attempt to distinguish between the journalistic and the editorial. It all blurs together as “analysis.” Vox is therefore an exercise in the simultaneous having and eating of cake; it wishes to both make strong value-laden assertions and be trusted as neutral and dispassionate. This means that Vox inherently practices a crude and cruel form of rhetorical dishonesty: it treats matters of profound complexity as if they are able to be settled through mere expertise. If anyone disagrees with what the wonks have concluded, they must be dumb, delusional, or both.

As conservatives quickly pointed out after Vox’s debut, this ends up meaning that liberal political values are implicitly assumed to be factually correct. It has also meant that over the course of 2015-2016, Vox became a powerful propaganda outlet for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It would run features like The 11 moments that define Hillary Clinton” (Of course there are exactly 11). These would include important milestones like “How the 2008 loss turned Hillary into a hipster” but would completely leave out Goldman Sachs and Clinton’s devastation of Libya.

Clinton appeals so perfectly to the Vox sensibility that its writers become puzzled when trying to figure out how anyone could oppose her. So Ezra Klein will ruminate on the mystery of why Hillary Clinton is distrusted by the public but liked by those in her inner circle, concluding that it is because Clinton is a careful listener who prefers paying attention to the views of others rather than explaining her own. (Klein doesn’t mention the equally plausible thesis that Clinton is distrusted because she tells lies about things and treats the public with cynicism and contempt.) Or Dylan Matthews will wonder why Hillary Clinton is not being given credit for her incredibly ambitious socially progressive policy platform. (Failing to consider that almost nobody thinks Hillary Clinton will ever actually make any attempt to put that platform into action.)  

As Fredrik deBoer says in his critique of Vox, the “explainer” stance is insidious, because it disguises partisanship as objectivity, falsely assuming that there can be such a thing as a “view from nowhere.” He shows how Vox used selective and highly unreliable empirical data in order to attack Bernie Sanders, while cultivating the illusion of rigor and neutrality. For example, by producing a calculator showing people how much each candidate’s policies would cost households in taxes, without disclosing how much these policies would save households elsewhere, Vox made it look as if Bernie Sanders was simply planning to drain families of all their money. As deBoer argues: “The whole notion of ideology-free explanation of complex subjects is of course itself ideology-laden… The pretense of neutral explanation simply deepens the potential dangers of bias.”

In fact, it is curious that Klein and Vox should have embraced the label of “explainers.” After all, the word has some interesting connotations. Explanations (rather than, say, “explorations”) are the provenance of the hyper-confident and the sometimes-criminal: one explains away one’s misdeeds; the villain caught red-handed shouts “I can explain!” as he is dragged away. Indeed, what Vox does much of the time involves explaining away, usually pointing out why the empirical data make it irrational to oppose Hillary Clinton’s policy preferences. “Explanation” has also increasingly become associated with the notorious act of “mansplaining,” the ubiquitous tendency of male know-it-alls to buttonhole passing women and show off their learning at generous length. Fittingly, the experience of reading Vox can often feel like a protracted blind date with a garrulous male Capitol Hill staffer.

It should be no surprise that the main thing these explainers love to explain is “policy,” the more complicated the better. Policy wonks love policies because they get to explain them. Everyone else hates complicated policies, because everyone else has to be subjected to them. The more inscrutable and byzantine the policy (and the more confusing and misery-inducing those policies are for ordinary people), the more jobs there are for wonks. Hence the site’s ongoing love affair with the Affordable Care Act, which in its abstruseness, ineffectiveness, and elitism has every ingredient dear to the heart of the wonk. And hence everything from Matthew Yglesias’ hilariously erroneous early prediction that Obamacare’s implementation is going to be great and people will love it” to his current cheerful call for a more punishing mandate

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The site’s founders are perfectly open about their passions. Witness the promotional blurb for the site’s podcast, “The Weeds”:

Everyone is always warning you not to get lost in the weeds. But not Vox’s Ezra Klein, Sarah Kliff, and Matthew Yglesias. They love the weeds. That’s where all the policy is. This is the podcast for people who follow politics because they love thinking about health care, economics, and zoning.

Nobody sensible loves thinking about zoning. For most of us, zoning regulations are a tedious necessity in the service of a particular administrative end. It’s amusing that Vox-ers deliberately disregard the old warning not to get “lost in the weeds.” That phrase is supposed to offer an important caution: if you fetishize policy detail, you lose sight of the actual broader purpose of policy, which is to improve human living conditions. For Klein et al., however, the policy is the purpose. (This is not an exaggeration: “The point of politics is policy,” Klein writes.) Policies are ends in themselves.

Klein might object to this. “Actually I understand full well what policy is for.” (Every sentence spoken by a Vox-er begins with an implicit or explicit “Actually.”) Klein would insist that, of course, policies are not the point. But then why does he like zoning? Why doesn’t he like buildings and see zoning as a means? This is how we know wonks don’t care about the ends of politics: they never talk about their actual political visions. What, for example, is Ezra Klein’s utopian ideal? What kind of world does he wish to build? Nobody knows, because he never tells us. He probably doesn’t even think about it. Whenever I meet a progressive wonk-type, I always make sure to ask them: “If you could wave a wand and fulfill your every political goal, what kind of world would you build?” The answers inevitably consist of more policy. “A nationwide jobs program,” “universal pre-K,” or “guaranteed annual income.” (And those answers are from the true dreamers and visionaries among the wonks. Frequently their utopias consist of things like “a 2% drop in the unemployment rate.”) Each of these is a policy dream that forgets what policy is supposed to be for.

The failure to think about ends and ideals is important, because it reveals the fundamental oversight of progressive wonk-ism. This is the idea that there ever can be such a thing as a “correct” and “rational” political solution, that one can discuss health care policy without discussing one’s values and convictions. As The Federalist pointed out, this is a fallacy: you may haul out your chart showing that ObamaCare decreased the numbers of the uninsured, and believe you have proven it is the rational policy choice. But those who object to ObamaCare see an individual mandate as a form of unjustified coercion, and disputes over the nature of coercion are philosophical and cannot be resolved through the display of empirical data. Focusing on “the weeds” is sly, because it carefully avoids having to discuss and defend your underlying moral assumptions. And by keeping the focus on “explanation” rather than “discussion,” one can avoid difficult questions that might force the interrogation of one’s preconceptions.

These disputes are philosophical and cannot be resolved through the display of empirical data.

But one should be careful about affirming Vox’s self-conception as an “news explainer” site to begin with. Despite the hype, much of Vox is the same old dreary #content as the rest of political media, with a bit more condescension and bar charts. These range from pointless banalities (“If America were Canada, the election would have been over long ago”) to clickmongering contrarianism (“3 Reasons the American Revolution Was a Mistake”) to obsessive considerations of the plusses and minuses of daylight savings time and time zones. There’s a hefty dose of the usual Democratic Party innuendo about Trump’s supposed Russian connection (“Trump is covering for a Putin plot against American democracy”—as Frankie Boyle has recently pointed out, it’s amusing to see those who whine about the rise of “post-truth politics” suddenly turn and declare that Donald Trump is a Russian agent), as well as copious free advertising for Elon Musk (Is he too ambitious? How will he meet his next challenges?) The rest is the same insipid horse-race stuff, plus the usual torrent of disdain for Trump and his supporters (“Actually, Trump supporters and Brexiteers are racists”).

Peculiarly, Vox is only loosely edited. For its core writers, it functions mostly like a blog. The lack of editorial oversight means some truly oddball content sneaks in, such as this 5,000 word piece from Todd VanDerWerff which begins as a defense of the Hamilton musical then digresses into a extended discussion of how VanDerWerff’s late father may or may not have been a rapist. The hands-off approach to content control lets wild and interesting things sneak in sometimes, such as the work of Current Affairs editor Yasmin Nair or Emmett Rensin’s skewering of Daily Show-type liberal sanctimony. (It was odd to see Vox publishing something that implicitly condemned the bulk of the site’s own content, although Rensin was soon after suspended from the publication for being too interesting.)

The lackadaisical approach to quality control has also led to some extraordinary factual pratfalls. (Remember, though, that it is not facts but explanations that Vox promises.) In 2014, Deadspin had fun compiling a list of “48 times Vox totally fucked up a story,” including the site’s infamous assertion that Israel contained a road bridge between the West Bank and Gaza. One might have excused these as mere hiccups inevitable in a publication’s early life, but six months after the Year of 48 Fuckups, the site ran an embarrassingly error-ridden attack on Seymour Hersh, which managed to misstate the dates of both the My Lai massacre and the Abu Ghraib scandal within a single paragraph.

Vox’s factual unreliability is not merely a product of Klein’s sloppy oversight, however. It is in many ways inherent to the site’s model of content production, which depends entirely on having incredibly young writers assume a position of omniscient expertise. As Deadspin’s Kevin Draper observed:

These Bright Young People may well be near-experts on one or two subjects, or at least close enough to pass as such online, but Vox publishes at the same rapid pace as the rest of the internet, on an exceptional and ever-growing number of topics, and there’s only so much authoritativeness to go around.

Vox’s difficulty at getting the facts right emerges from its confidence in the wisdom of 22-year-old D.C. clickbait-churners. It is “an explainer site by people who live way too much of their own lives outside reality.” Corey Robin has noted that the main qualification of the “Vox generation of punditry” is that they “know their way around JSTOR,” yet have a broad historical amnesia that leads to them to be totally oblivious to the place of contemporary events in larger patterns over time.

James Fallows, in his deliciously scathing 1991 look at The Economist, suggested that the magazine’s intentionally anonymous bylines “conceal[ ] the extreme youth of much of the staff,” quoting Michael Lewis’ observation that “if American readers got a look at the pimply complexions of their economic gurus, they would cancel their subscriptions in droves.” But Vox proves Fallows’ thesis false. The pimpliness of Vox’s writing and editorial staff is evident in every word they write. Yet instead of discrediting Vox, it is part of their brand.

As Corey Robin notes, the Vox generation of pundits know their way around JSTOR yet have a broad historical amnesia…

No writer better represents the Vox ethos than co-founder Matthew Yglesias. Yglesias went straight to blogging as a Harvard philosophy undergrad, and his primary qualification for punditry has been his ability to produce a large volume of words at considerable speed. Along with Klein, he in many ways embodies what Vox-ism is all about. 

Much of Yglesias’ work is simply boring (Yglesias likes writing about burritos). But it’s also somewhat stunning for its extraordinary combination of arrogance, erroneousness, and callousness. Yglesias is a perfect case study in how highly-educated people can be embarrassingly stupid, making consistently ludicrous factual and analytical statements. Yglesias muses aloud “I’d been interested to know what, if anything, is legally or practically preventing [Miami] from just expanding further and further west if anyone happens to know” (Many wrote in to point out the existence of a rather large expanse of swamp known as the Everglades.) Or he portentously announces that “in many ways, the Chipotle burrito is very similar to the iPhone.” Yglesias is perhaps the man whose work is most synonymous with the “#SlatePitch,” the intentionally irritating, click-hungry denunciation of some perfectly innocuous truth or convention (hence “The Case Against Eating Lunch Outside“).

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The Yglesias oeuvre…

But if Yglesias were simply naive and pompous, one could comfortably laugh at him. However, like the similarly contrarian Nicholas Kristof, he delights in taking up noxious positions designed to unsettle liberal sensibilities and thereby prove his independence of mind (and perhaps reassure him that he is less of a bore than his C.V. implies).

Hence articles like “Against Transparency,” in which Yglesias insists that journalists shouldn’t be able to view government email, without ever considering the potential real-world effects of giving the powerful new ways to conspire free of public accountability. One senses that Yglesias makes arguments like this with a delighted smirk, aware that he is annoying people, but convinced that their annoyance proves their irrationality rather than his intolerability.

The worst of Yglesias’ mischievous endorsements of horrendous moral stances was his column on factory safety. Immediately after the 2013 collapse of the Bangladesh garment factory that killed over 1,000 people, Yglesias took to Slate to explain why workplace safety regulations actually inhibited the operation of free markets. Yglesias explained that high-risk jobs have high compensation, and just like people might choose to be lumberjacks, they might choose to work in highly dangerous garment factories for a premium. Thus “it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum.” The article was accompanied by a photograph of Bangladeshis loading dead bodies onto a truck.

The column was classic Yglesias, in managing to be both ignorant and appalling. Appalling since Yglesias published it the same day as the factory collapse, as the rubble was still being cleared. Ignorant because Yglesias adopted the most delusional Heritage Foundation economic myth, that somehow people in Bangladesh work in dangerous garment factories because working in dangerous garment factories is what they most want to do. As Mark Brendle summarized:

Yglesias champions one of the most horrifying and widespread implements of oppression and misery yet conceived—factories taking advantage of cheap labor, lack of environmental regulations, and a disregard for human life by those who profit most from having those factories in their countries—then pretends that it exists in a vacuum, where people in “those countries” are happy for these jobs, instead of acknowledging the closed system of the global economy, where those conditions are not only systemic, but inevitable and structural, in order for the wealth and prosperity of the “first world” to exist at all.

When confronted with this outrage, Yglesias simply wrote another explanation of why his original work was justified, admitting that his reaction to the criticism “as a writer and a human being” was annoyance. (It should go without saying that if one’s first reaction “as a human being” to being asked to show a little compassion for dead Bangladeshis is “annoyance,” then one is not a human being at all.) Here is Vox-ism in a nutshell: it is impossible to stop explaining and think, impossible to understand that there are more questions in heaven and earth than “What do the data say?” (Like perhaps, “Am I a good person?”)

Yglesias perfectly demonstrates the operation of “Pundit Tenure,” a phenomenon by which established political commentators can never become discredited no matter how wrong they are. Provided they continue to emit a sufficient daily wordcount, and provided they do not question too many Beltway orthodoxies, they can bounce from publication to publication for the duration of their natural lives. Yglesias semi-seriously tweets “the Nazis had a lot of good ideas” and titles articles “Dumb Jewish Politicians,” yet none of this affects him. If any merit-based criteria were operating in determining who gets to be a pundit, Yglesias would long ago have ceased to make a living putting words together. And yet he persists.

I once attended a public talk Yglesias gave on housing policy to promote on his (62-page) book The Rent Is Too Damn High. Yglesias was placed in conversation with Yale Law School professor Robert Ellickson, a bona fide expert on housing and zoning with approximately four decades of experience in the field. Goodness knows why anyone thought to pair the two up, as Ellickson is notoriously grumpy and does not suffer fools with much equanimity. The discussion was one of the most satisfying I have seen. Ellickson clearly had no idea who Yglesias was, and took pleasure in ripping Yglesias’ pamphlet to shreds for its basic economic ignorance. Ellickson practically pondered aloud why a frivolous 20-something blogger was being treated as an expert on housing, pointing out the numerous ways in which Yglesias’ arguments were flimsy and ill-considered.

But watching Ellickson flay Yglesias, I was most struck by the fact that Yglesias was completely unfazed. Far from being ashamed at his humiliating defeat, Yglesias did not even seem to acknowledge that he was even being defeated or humiliated. He didn’t attempt to defend himself. He just… kept talking, as if the numerous arguments that had been made proving him wrong simply didn’t exist. 

This refusal to back down or admit fault is apparently characteristic of Yglesias generally. When a conservative publication interviewed him about his defense of dishonesty in politics, Yglesias simply told them “go fuck yourself,” and hung up. Recently, Yglesias tweeted a reprehensibly xenophobic remark aimed at Glenn Greenwald, unambiguously implying that Greenwald didn’t care about America because he lived in Brazil. (As is well-known, Greenwald moved to Brazil because of anti-LGBT discrimination in U.S. law, making Yglesias’ remark even more tactless.) When confronted, instead of apologizing, Yglesias doubled down, falsely accusing others of twisting his words. Yglesias is an enthusiastic practitioner of one of the most obnoxious tendencies in the human character: the belief that if people hate you, it must be because you’re right rather than because you’re an asshole. Thus when people criticize you for taking the opportunity of a deadly factory disaster to explain why workplace safety standards are Actually Not As Good As You Think, your default reaction is not contrition or self-doubt but annoyance that people fail to recognize your rationality. 

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This is what is most irritating and dangerous about the Vox mentality. It is the same tendency that afflicts mansplainers generally: the refusal to entertain the possibility that it could be you who is wrong. “Explanation” implies certitude. For the explainer, information flows in a one-way channel, from the mouth of the explainer to the ear of the explained-to. Vox does not need to listen; Vox knows. After all, these are the three charts you need to read about the Trans-Pacific Pipeline. Here’s the real truth about Donald Trump’s taxes, in five simple statistics. Everything you need to know, explained.

People have good reason for not trusting fact-checkers and wonks. That is because they lie. And they torment people with those lies, by portraying disagreement as an irrational refusal to acknowledge objective empirical truth. They treat political disputes as questions of fact rather than value, and steadfastly refuse to acknowledge their own considerable biases. 

When Vox emerged, there was some speculation as to whether it would survive. But it has consistently done well, and of course it will survive. It will survive because we are all insecure and confused, and promises of explanation and certitude are appealing in a chaotic world. Ezra Klein is right that we do not know what to do with the barrages of information we encounter every day, and his let-me-explain-it-to-you business model is savvy.

But the more Vox persists, the less hope there is for American politics. The Vox model is premised on the idea that people shouldn’t think for themselves, that the important parts of political thought and decision-making should be outsourced to experts. Inevitably, these experts will produce solutions nobody likes, because the moment one is convinced that all opposition must be founded in ignorance, one will always be right no matter how many people are hurt or how many people complain. The point of politics is no longer to help us live together and understand one another. The point is policy, and our job is to listen to the explainers. After all, they have the facts. They’ve got them here in 5 charts. It’s everything you need to know.

Author: Nathan J. Robinson

is the editor of Current Affairs.