April 23, 2021    PhilosophyAmericaPolitics

Noam Chomsky Should Start His Own Business

I respect Chomsky for his tenacity, but philosophically, I have a hard time agreeing with him. It sounds odd to describe a 92-year-old man as “naive,” but that is the word that keeps coming up in my mind as I listen to him talk on this podcast.

In general, I feel his critical posture is analogous to a young person without children criticizing his parents. As long as he never assumes the role of a parent, he can continue to criticize other people’s parenting without ever becoming a target of criticism himself.

He should have left his job at MIT and practiced what he preaches in the real world by starting his own business. Chances are it would fail, as most businesses do.

Ezra Klein, being a business owner, made a salient point: advertising fails. In fact, in my career, I’ve seen many of my clients try advertising their business. The vast majority of them failed. I’m pretty sure Google is making most of their money from these failed advertisers. Chomsky should try advertising something to see how hard it is.

He often uses cigarette advertising as the prime example of how advertisers control the masses, but advertising always works very well at the beginning of a new medium. As consumers wise up, it stops working. For instance, the new trend now is for advertisers to use texting. Because texting has been free of ads for a long time, most of us assume that every message is important and pay close attention to it. Now that many advertisers are abusing this (in my experience, most of the spam texts are from nonprofits and political campaigns), we’ll stop paying attention to texts, and it will stop working. Chomsky cannot keep using cigarette ads from the golden age of advertising because it’s not golden anymore. It’s equivalent to saying Climate Change is a hoax because it’s really cold today. Advertisers wished they had the kind of power Chomsky thinks they have.

He also talks about having a job as an abomination, but he himself had a job at MIT most of his life. He rationalizes it by saying nobody at MIT is motivated by money, but there are many forms of capital. Money, financial capital, is just one of many. Not everyone is motivated by financial capital. Most academics are motivated by social and cultural capital. Which form of capital you prefer is personal; one form is not superior to the others. (See how Bill Gates is now buying social/cultural capital with his financial capital. They are convertible.) Chomsky claims that researchers at MIT are motivated by their desire to “solve problems.” If solving problems was the primary motive, they should stop crediting work in their papers. If they didn’t have to worry about crediting anyone’s work, they could “solve problems” that much faster. Everyone should be free to plagiarize anyone else’s work. Yet, in reality, failing to credit is the greatest sin in academia. Why? Because that is the only way they can get paid in social and cultural capital.

His greatest enemy is “power.” I can certainly understand his own preference for not having a “master” (although MIT’s management is his master), but why should it be any of our business to tell other people that they shouldn’t subordinate themselves to a master? He is always putting himself in a paternalistic position, the one who knows better than the masses know themselves. He infantilizes them.

I admire his work ethic and relentless pursuit of justice, but sadly, I think he is too unbalanced. That is, he is too theoretical. Politics and economics are not like mathematics; if you keep theorizing without testing and verifying it in the real world, you end up with theories that are too disconnected from reality.

It reminds me of Long-Term Capital Management, the hedge fund that lost 4.6 billion dollars in 1998 and had to be bailed out by the government, even though two Nobel prize-winning economists were working for them.

This distance between theories and reality is what comes across to me as naive. It’s the negative effect of overspecialization that Western academia enforces.