In the category of Luddite rants against the Internet, nothing will ever top John R. MacArthur’s famous exposition of his belief that this Internet fad is nothing more than a “gigantic Xerox machine.” But Robert Samuelson’s column in the Washington Post Sunday is surely a minor classic of the genre. Earlier this summer, Samuelson wrote, “If I could, I would repeal the Internet,” but couched his argument in the form of a warning against cyberterror. Sunday’s column scrapes away the cold policy rationale and strikes right at the heart of his fear of journalistic modernity, the cyberterror he already experiences every day.
Samuelson freely intermingles appeals to the public good with confessions of personal anxiety. He is stunned that Don Graham, a friend since college, would sell the newspaper; he considers journalism distributed via the Internet “spotty and unreliable” in comparison with journalism distributed via newsprint; he devoutly wishes we could return to the old days: “I’m a dinosaur. I’ve got three manual typewriters at home awaiting the Internet’s collapse, which I would celebrate.” Not one but three manual typewriters! When the collapse comes, Samuelson will command a mighty publishing empire, churning out vital commentary in triplicate, while desperate Ezra Klein pounds helplessly on his door.
One ought to feel some natural sympathy for anybody presented with larger social change they cannot adjust themselves to. But the plight of the displaced newspaper columnist tugs less at the heartstrings than the plight of any number of other people struggling to adapt to economic change. Writing a weekly newspaper column was never a demanding job, but it used to be harder when I started at the dawn of the Internet age. The easy availability of information now — reports, statistics, books, and quotes that used to take hours to track down can now be found instantly — dramatically increases potential output. Yet Samuelson churns out his same two columns a week, and while he senses his influence has fallen into eclipse, he attributes it not to the rise of very smart, hardworking economic policy writers who vastly surpass him in quantity and quality but to a general reduction of standards on the Internet.
The most poignant thing about Samuelson’s essay is that he begins it by citing the decline of steel as a precedent for the plight he sees in newspaper journalism. “I never imagined then — I doubt anyone did — that newspaper reporters and editors would become the steelworkers of the 21st century.” Now, like steelworkers, Samuelson is exposed to what he laments as “the Internet’s Darwinian hyper-competition.”
Samuelson relates that he used to have a job “covering” the steel industry, but does not repeat his usual opinion line on the subject, which he has been repeating for years. The Samuelson line on steel is that workers and management are lazy and reactive, railing against necessary change, and unworthy of help. He wrote this 30 years ago:
… Steelworkers and auto workers urge import protection. Many in Congress now favor legislation preventing reduced long-distance subsidies for home phone service.
Treat these arguments skeptically. They are largely self-serving. Old habits aren’t easily altered by new realities. Early in 1983, major airline unions (not including the pilots) received a three-year increase from TWA exceeding 30%. That completely ignored the industry’s economics.
Again twenty years ago:
The investor class behaves like other aggrieved groups, from farmers to steelworkers. When they have problems, they look to government for sympathy and help.
Also twenty years ago:
Victims clamor for protection: Farmers want more subsidies; steelworkers want tariffs. The desire is natural, even if the help proves ineffective.
And a decade ago:
What do AT&T, the civil aeronautics Board, steelworkers and Kmart have in common? Answer: all are victims of competition.
Despite the upsets, competition helps more than it hurts … Living with competition is hard. Living without it would be harder
Samuelson has spent 30 years lecturing Americans threatened by competition that they should suck it up. Only now, in the twilight of his career, does he see himself among them, and his response to this misfortune — a still-theoretical threat to his comfortable sinecure — is to wish the source of that competition out of existence.
The most portentous Samuelson sermon of all may be one he wrote in 1986:
The moral is a warning against faith in a static society. A little insecurity is better than false overconfidence. The courage to recognize change and adapt to it is wiser than futile denial. Steel’s struggle to perpetuate its pre-eminence – reinforced by public policies, such as import restrictions – made its decline more traumatic. The myth that the industry was simply the victim of broader problems caused by others distracted labor and management from dealing with their own shortcomings. There’s a lesson here for everyone.
A lesson for everyone, that is, but Robert Samuelson.