Matt Yglesias just can’t shut up

By Razib Khan | March 6, 2013 12:11 pm

There is a blog post going around about the strange interaction of a freelancer with an editor at The Atlantic. The short of it is that the bargaining position of labor has deteriorated a great deal for some individuals over the past 10 years. Matt Yglesias put up a flip response, defending writing for free. This might seem rich coming from an individual who has a well compensated staff position at Slate, but Matt’s response is that he did write for free/low pay for years.

Obviously this ties in with the whole “intern nation” meme, whereby in some fields free to almost free labor is now expected to “break in.” I won’t get into the class implications of this, it is what it is. But the reality is that this is the reality, the world isn’t going to change. I wrote for free for four years, and then for nearly for free, and now for not quite free. But most of my income does not relate to blogging, this is definitely a sidelight. I have done a little legitimate writing now and then, and my own experience suggests that this is not something I’d want to do full time. I can write, but I am not a Writer. Not only am I not a Writer, but the conditions for Writers today are simply not that good, in part because there are people like me who write, but are not Writers.

This is a classic economic situation where the market is flooded with labor/content, and it is difficult to compete with free. There are many people, like Matt Yglesias and myself, who just can’t shut up. What sort of bargaining position do we have? We’d obviously write for free, we have! The whole market has become distorted, and the small coterie of writers who were well compensated professionals has naturally felt the consequences.

But the take home is that focusing on labor is looking at less than half the glass, consider the experience of the end user. When I was a kid to read about science you had to get a copy of Scientific American, Discover, or Omni. Today there are thousands of high quality science blogs, some of them written by the scientists themselves! For the consumer of media we live in a golden age. There are certain high end reportage products which will need institutional backing, but there is now an ocean of content for anyone interested in science.


Comments (13)

  1. I see this in part as an extreme example of the whole conundrum that jobs which are fun/rewarding tend to be lower paid by definition. Hence “creative” fields can get away with paying their employees miserably, because they have the privilege of doing something they love. And NGO type positions are typically lowly paid, not only because of tight budgets, but because employers realize the sort of people who want to work at NGOs are typically not interested in making a lot of money, and willing to take a big potential pay cut to work in “social justice.”

    I foresee this will get worse over time. Look at 3D printers for example, which are nearing mass-market application level. Although it’s plausible that corporations will retain control over designs (making the 3D printing world more like ebooks than mp3s), there will undoubtedly be thousands of geeky engineers who will begin offering open-source designs for free. This is going to, over time, hollow out a huge section of product design.

    Regardless, this ultimately comes down to humans not being the perfectly self-interested creatures that traditional economics modeled them to be. We work for pay if we don’t find our job fun. However, money is just a placeholder for human desire for status, not the totality of it. Other aspects – both internalized ideas of self-worth, as well as the social status being a known quantity on the internet provides – can provide just as much status. I do sort of wonder if the world Cory Doctorow wrote about in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom – where some form of Internet measured status eventually replaces money – is actually a plausible logical conclusion, presuming we reach a post-scarcity society.

    • de Broglie

      Doctorow only suggested that form of currency because it would make him comparatively wealthier. A form of currency based on celebrity is not a good idea.

      • It’s not a good idea in terms of promoting human productivity. However, if we begin creeping towards a post-scarcity society, the utility of money towards status will be less and less, as both the rich and poor will be able to print out essentially the same stuff. This makes it more likely that some form of social currency besides money becomes the predominant determinant of worth in society.

        • Sandgroper

          Let me know when I can print a Maserati Quattroporto. Last I heard, you could print a not-very-good bottle opener.

          I don’t remotely agree with what you’re saying, Karl. I’m sure we’ve had this discussion before about engineering. I know lots of creative people who love what they do and are well paid for it.

          • Sandgroper

            Quattroporte. Whatever.

          • Obviously the technology is still in its infancy, and it’s unlikely that the market for home printing will be much more than D&D miniatures and the like in the next decade.

            Regardless, engineers are well compensated due to particular skills, but they are not as highly compensated as skills alone would suggest. It’s been noted many times despite being much more rigorous academically, graduating in the U.S. with an engineering degree nets you substantially less money than a (generally not rigorous) MBA. Given engineers have excellent quantitative skills, which would allow them to become filthy rich in certain aspects of business (e.g., finance), you can see engineers also as having taken a pay cut from what would maximize their earning potential in order to “do something cool.”

  2. I have a feeling that all those who write for free could put together a pretty good facsimile of Omni today. That would be worth reading.

  3. Jim Kling

    there is an “ocean of content for anyone interested in science,” yes, but most of it is recycled from the “high end reportage products which will need institutional backing.”

    Site after site is filled with reprinted press releases, often with no acknowledgement that the website proprietor is not the author.

    On the other hand, my experience is that original work is generally comprised of crackpot medical theories and science denialism. Or when not, they usually aren’t well written or filled with errors.

    This site falls under the category of high end reportage with institutional backing. It’s a pity that Discover doesn’t pay enough for it.

    • razibkhan

      i’ve been producing this content for 10 years. 4 of those totally ‘independent.’ there are others out there. just look.

      • Jim Kling

        I have, and I’ve found a few. But if it’s an ocean, it’s deeply contaminated. I rely primarilly on those “high end products.” The others are interesting for an occasional amusement, and a rare nugget of something valuable, but they’ll always be peripheral?
        Why? Because as a rule, people who aren’t paid for their writing — no matter how much they enjoy it — don’t feel much compulsion to be accurate. And it takes a lot of work to be accurate, especially when writing about science. .
        I’m undoubtedly biased because I’m a full-time freelance science writer, and I don’t write for free.
        But I really believe that in order to get accurate, reliable reporting, you need to turn to someone who is being paid to do it. It’s just too hard to do consistently well as a hobby.

        • razibkhan

          But I really believe that in order to get accurate, reliable reporting, you need to turn to someone who is being paid to do it.

          i don’t know. being paid can also introduce other incentives in terms of what/how to cover.

  4. marcel proust

    … but there is now an ocean of content for anyone interested in science.

    More like a fire hose.

  5. You may not be a Writer, but you are a writer in the field of science. In that, there is the minimum bar of being able to grasp the subject material, which requires some intelligence. The hollowing out of fiction and poetry is far worse. Not only are there too many writers, there are too many Writers. The best a writer can hope for is hitting the mediocre 50 Shades/Twilight jackpot and the best a Writer can hope for is becoming a creative writing professor.

    As it is, Writing is overrated. You may just be a writer, but Lehrer was a Writer and look where that got him because he was too much Writer and not enough honest. I’ll take a writer anyday over those sorts of Writers. I say this as someone who is very good at Writing, but doesn’t do it anymore because it’s so devalued it’s pointless to do unless you solely derive pleasure out of the act of doing it. I don’t.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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