Thursday, May 17, 2012

TED Gets In Touch With Its Inner Weenie

Updated May 18 with a quote from TED

You'd have to think, if you think the way I do at least, that any place that talks about all the “Ideas Worth Spreading” one can encounter there must be full of crap. Turns out, TED, that online place where geeks can go to learn all about stuff like Internet bubbles, is such a place, as National Journal explains:

There’s one idea, though, that TED’s organizers recently decided was too controversial to spread: the notion that widening income inequality is a bad thing for America, and that as a result, the rich should pay more in taxes.

TED organizers invited a multimillionaire Seattle venture capitalist named Nick Hanauer – the first nonfamily investor in – to give a speech on March 1 at their TED University conference. Inequality was the topic – specifically, Hanauer’s contention that the middle class, and not wealthy innovators like himself, are America’s true “job creators.”

“We’ve had it backward for the last 30 years,” he said. “Rich businesspeople like me don’t create jobs. Rather they are a consequence of an ecosystemic feedback loop animated by middle-class consumers, and when they thrive, businesses grow and hire, and owners profit. That’s why taxing the rich to pay for investments that benefit all is a great deal for both the middle class and the rich.”

Too Hot for TED: Income Inequality

Here's the talk, by the way. Apparently, someone rescued it before it hit the black hole:

Especially interesting is the point Hanauer makes at about 2:20 into the video, which is accompanied by this slide:

Hanauer TED Talk: Slide 7
Frankly, there isn't much news there, provided you've been paying any attention at all to what real economists have been saying for the last few years. In one way or another, Bruce Bartlett, Center For American Progress, Motley Fool, (among others), have found and demonstrated this inverse relationship. Of course, it's not going to be a particularly popular point with all those libertarian geek types, but that's a long way from saying it's wrong.

So, what was the problem? National Journal elaborates:

In a May 7 email to Hanauer, forwarded to NJ, Anderson took issue with several of Hanauer's assertions in the talk, including the idea that businesspeople aren't job creators. He also made clear his aversion to the "political" nature of the talk.


"But even if the talk was rated a home run, we couldn't release it, because it would be unquestionably regarded as out and out political. We're in the middle of an election year in the US. Your argument comes down firmly on the side of one party. And you even reference that at the start of the talk. TED is nonpartisan and is fighting a constant battle with TEDx organizers to respect that principle....

Too Hot for TED: Income Inequality

Doesn't that sound ever so much like so much of what amounts to progressive political strategy these days? Don't upset people. For crying out loud, don't say something that might happen to be compatible with some political party's platform. By the way, which political party is Anderson referring to, the Greens? The Socialists? It's sure not the Democrats.

So, yes, TED have turned out to be weenies. Go figure. What else can you expect from people who write software all day? Perhaps the only thing surprising is that they didn't make Hanauer put pictures of cats in his slides.

(h/t Taylor Marsh)

UPDATE (May 18): TED issued a statement regarding their decision to not put this video on the site. This quote, I think, represents its central thought:

At TED we post one talk a day on our home page. We're drawing from a pool of 250+ that we record at our own conferences each year and up to 10,000 recorded at the various TEDx events around the world, not to mention our other conference partners. Our policy is to post only talks that are truly special. And we try to steer clear of talks that are bound to descend into the same dismal partisan head-butting people can find every day elsewhere in the media.

TED and inequality: The real story

Note that I have not accused TED of "censorship". Editorial decisions have to be made by anyone in TED's position, and sometimes authors feel unjustly left out for one reason or another. They noted that the audience that saw the talk didn't rate it all that highly, and that this is one of the reasons the talk wasn't published. I don't have an argument with that assessment. As I wrote above, I don't think it's ground-breaking. If there's anything remarkable about it, it's that a venture capitalist, someone who has profited from the system as it is, has leveled a serious and accurate criticism against it.

My argument was with TED's own words, both in that e-mail and here. What they said was that this talk was too "partisan", as if Hanauer was discussing the platform of one party or another. What he was doing was saying that a view very widely held among politicians about economics policy, and not just politicians of one party, is flawed.

Much as TED might want to believe otherwise, it's their own words that brought this on as much as anything, not what others may have said about it.

Ideas about economics are nearly always political. If TED doesn't like ideas that have resonance in politics, then it should stick to kittehs and Internet bubbles.

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