Paul Krugman, one of the best known economists in the world today, announced he is leaving his position at Princeton University. Krugman writes and blogs frequently for the New York Times, won a Nobel Prize, and is an outspoken liberal force when it comes to left-wing policy. He is a highly skilled writer in communicating economics to a wide audience and appealing to the general population’s intuitive side. He’ll be leaving Princeton for CUNY. That Krugman will likely survive and continue to thrive without the backing of a top university is a part of a growing trend across different industries.

For ever and ever middlemen were needed in different industries to distribute, promote, support, and financially back those more directly connected with the substance of goods and services. Musicians needed record companies to distribute their music to record stores, get them on the radio, promote them, and get them booked on tours. Now, a plethora of bands have made it based on Myspace presence or self-distribution. With spotify, iTunes, and other music services, the consumer no longer needs the record company to get access to music. With internet virality and social media, promotion can be left more in the hands of the masses (for better or for worse).

Ezra Klein, blogging/wonk prodigy, recently left his well-supported Wonkblog at the Washington Post to launch his own “Project X” with Vox media. Klein reportedly asked Jeff Bezos for an eight figure investment into a new project that Bezos declined to provide. Klein has made enough of a brand from his own writing that a large media corporation like the Washington Post is no longer needed for him to thrive. Before, earning enough of a reputation individually was difficult to attract enough traffic. The Washington Post gave him server space and people that were going to read WaPo were going to be exposed to his writing. That purpose is no longer needed. Andrew Sullivan is also among the few able to do this, as he showed with his subscription-based site when he left the Daily Beast.
Academics in the past have needed the support of a formal institution like a university, the Federal Reserve, or think tank in order to get exposure. Institutions are also able to give salaries. An individual like Paul Krugman does little teaching as far as I am aware at Princeton, especially with undergraduates. The affiliation is mutually beneficial in that his presence boosts Princeton’s ranking and prestige and Princeton provides a salary for him and the name “Princeton University” on his business card. But if Krugman no longer needs Princeton to pay his salary or give him exposure, the university has become another obsolete middleman. I could see academic journals – you know, those things that cost tens of thousands of dollars that no one reads – becoming an obsolete middleman in the near future as well.
What this pattern shows is that technology is allowing for individuals to no longer be dependent on those old businessmen to support their endeavors. They used to serve a function when massive startup capital was needed to distribute or promote one’s work. I think this is a change for the good. It gets rid of a superfluous middleman. What is also does is emphasize the economics of superstars. As technology allows more people access to all these best, everyone else in the distribution struggles a little more. On one end, you have the long-tail fringe musicians that still can find listeners through Spotify. On the other hand, it means musicians like Beyonce or athletes like Lebron James (the 0.001%) take home an increasing share of the industry.
What if you’re a writer that doesn’t manage to work a 30-hour day like Ezra Klein? What if you’re an academic that needs an institution to support you with tenure while you blog and revolutionize monetary economics? Ezra and Krugman being able to make it on their own is a terrific advancement. But it could also mean that as more insitutuions whither away that used to support writers and musicians, only the superstars survive. I’m not sure if this is necessarily bad, or whether we really have any power to do anything about it. But getting rid of superfluous middlemen seems like it will reward those closer to making actual content.
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