Cowen: What is the Ross Douthat production function? What is your productivity secret that maybe is undervalued by other people?
Douthat: Undertaking family obligations certainly helps, as a motivating force. I think that male productivity is – I don’t want to say this isn’t true of female productivity too, but I only have the male experience to go by – I think male productivity is often... It’s often closely linked to being bound to and linked to other people, and having kids and a family and so on. I think that that’s a not uncommon root of greater productivity. And I’m certain it’s true in my own case. I wasn’t married that young, but I was married younger than many people in my cohort.
...[with] journalism, you go to events with wonderful hosts and audiences and so on and people sometimes introduce you as a public intellectual. Sometimes they even say “thought leader,” and that’s the worst...
But journalism is a trade, right? I mean there is obviously an intellectual component. And we wouldn’t have been able to sit here and have this conversation with me babbling at you if I didn’t have intellectual pretensions. But the work of journalism – this is less true in the age of the internet – but it is linked to a very physical thing that comes out every week, or every month, or every day, and it comes out and it has to be filled.
There is a place on the New York Times, on the printed New York Times, that would be blank or have an ad stuck on it if I didn’t write my column. And so you write the column. You write the column. And it’s useful for journalists to think about it this way – it’s useful for anyone inclined to over-romanticize or over-admire journalists to think about it this way.
But there is a sense in which writing a column is – it’s like you’re a plumber. The toilet has to be fixed, so you fix the toilet. The column has to be written, so you write the column. And getting lost... There’s another version of myself that was going to write novels...
Cowen: Fantasy novels.
Douthat: Fantasy novels – that was going to follow these aesthetic and narrative ambitions, that you rightly discern lurking below the surface of my analysis of the Republican tax plan, or whatever. And maybe that version of myself would have produced the great American novel, some great work.
Certainly I like to imagine that – or at least something that sold as well as George R. R. Martin. But it also might be the case that if I had spent my life sitting around with my unfinished novels, I never would have produced anything interesting. And so it’s better to be a tradesman, and that’s at least part of how I think about my job.
The whole interview is good.