The secret about secrets
Matt Yglesias reflects on the media's obsession with government secrets:
In a world drowning with information, it’s remarkably easy to get too caught up in the idea of finding out secrets. Just think of all the banal, publicly available factual information that’s relevant to foreign policy and that most of us can’t rattle off the top of our heads. What’s the age structure of the population of Egypt? Is the Christian population growing faster or slower than average? Because of differential birth rates or differential emigration rates? Does Okun’s law hold up there like in Canada, or has it broken down like in the United States?
It's true that most of us can't rattle off that information. But a lot of the people who can rattle off that information work in the government -- either in the executive branch, in the Congress, or in the bureaucracy. I've never spoken to Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg. But look at his background: "Previous positions included a senior fellowship at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (1985–1987), senior analyst at RAND Corporation (1989–1993), Director of Policy Planning (1994–1996), and Deputy National Security Advisor (1997–2001). He also served on the Project on National Security Reform's Guiding Coalition. He was also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution."
Those aren't the sort of shadowy, globe-trotting positions that leave you with a lot of secrets. They are the sort of positions that leave you with a lot of reports about the relationship between age structure and volatility in Middle Eastern nations. The people who get chosen for these jobs, in other words, don't always know a lot of secrets. But they know a lot of facts. When they get into government, they suddenly have a large apparatus beneath them designed to integrate and analyze even more facts. They become like fact machines.
Reporters like secrets because that's sort of the raison d'etre of reporting: Getting new information into the world. Secrets are the things that you really need reporters to find out. But a lot of the secrets that end up getting attention -- so-and-so said such-and-such about this-and-that -- tend to be embarrassing rather than revelatory. And the relevant policy players aren't thinking about those secrets when they make the relevant policy decisions. They're thinking about age structures in Egypt. Thinking about age structures in Egypt is, after all, why they were hired for the job in the first place.
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