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The Age of Verbiage

In our oversaturated media landscape, instant theorizing and glib generalizations are rewarded so long as they are delivered with absolute confidence. While voluntarily reducing one’s profile may not seem appealing to many experts and intellectuals, it is the only way to avoid debasing the public discourse.

PROVIDENCE – The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos used to be the premier destination for renowned academics and public figures to comment on the state of the world. But nowadays, the destination is just a click away. Our social-media-driven news ecosystem is virtually drowning us in expert opinion, inundating us with so much verbiage that little room is left for thoughtful analysis and focused debate – the oxygen of healthy public discourse.

Consider, for example, how quickly and how often the expert consensus shifted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. China did a far better job containing the spread of the virus than many liberal democracies, until its draconian zero-COVID strategy demonstrated the failure of autocracy. And, despite the surge of infections in the weeks since policymakers abruptly abandoned the strategy, it is still possible that China will have fewer excess COVID-related deaths than the United States. Others argued that polarized societies like the US would fare worse than countries with high levels of social trust, until Sweden became a cautionary tale. And India was considered to be performing relatively well until the catastrophic death toll of the Delta variant revealed the scale of the government’s mismanagement – and the latter, too, seems slightly less severe in hindsight, following the country’s successful vaccination drive.

Then there is the great US inflation debate. Initially, it seemed like Team Transitory – the inflation doves who predicted that prices would go down quickly – had it right. But then the persistence of high inflation vindicated the hawks who had called for the Federal Reserve to engineer a massive recession to restore price stability. Nowadays, the doves are flying high again, as inflation seems to be declining without the Fed having to inflict excessive pain on US labor markets.