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The Atlantic Is Well Rid of the Aspen Ideas Festival

The world doesn’t need more Ideas. Just better ones.

Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson interviews GE Chairman Jeff Immelt on a stage at an ideas festival.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson is joined by G.E. Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt as they try to come up with an idea.

Now The Atlantic knows how France felt when the United States and Great Britain muscled it aside to build nuclear submarines for Australia. NBC announced Wednesday that, starting next year, it will be the “exclusive media partner” for the Aspen Ideas Festival, for many years a reliable cash cow for Atlantic Media (though probably not since the Covid-19 pandemic began). But I think The Atlantic is better off without the Aspen Ideas Festival. That’s because I have an idea, developed through Council on Foreign Relations panels and TED Talks and private side meetings with Silicon Valley disrupters at the World Economic Forum at Davos, that ideas are overrated.

We begin with some disclosures. I have never attended a Council on Foreign Relations panel, or given a TED Talk, or gone to Davos. That was a joke. I have never been to the Aspen Ideas Festival. I have never been even to Aspen, Colorado. I have contributed to The Atlantic, if you care, which probably you don’t.

A final caveat is that criticizing the Aspen Ideas Festival, I’m well aware, is the surest path to getting invited to speak at the Aspen Ideas Festival. I experienced that nine years ago, when I published on this website a short essay titled “The Idea Biz.” The essay complained that the Aspen Ideas Festival:

1) fetishized ideas for their own sake (“Microfinance is an idea, but so was the Holocaust”);

2) failed to recognize that the best ideas typically come from “weirdos with bad table manners” whose other ideas are often quite bad when they aren’t downright offensive and that such people “couldn’t get an Aspen invitation to save their life”; and

3) was inhibited by corporate sponsorship from entertaining subversive ideas. (“Deciding which ideas to save and which ideas to discard is one of society’s most important tasks. Let’s not entrust it to IBM.”)

A friend who was on staff at The Atlantic wrote me, jokingly, that there were easier ways to get invited to the Aspen Ideas Festival than to trash it in a rival publication, and not 24 hours later, I received an email from someone else at The Atlantic inviting me unironically to sit on a panel. The email made no mention of my New Republic critique but said I was just the guy to moderate a panel on energy policy. I replied that I knew nothing about energy policy. My correspondent then gave me a list of other panels and asked which I fancied. I looked the list over and said none of these much interested me but that I’d just published a book about income inequality, and if she wanted an Atlantic panel on that topic, I’d be glad to participate. That ended the conversation.

My sketched-out 2012 critique of the ideas marketplace was greatly expanded and improved by the Tufts political scientist and Washington Post columnist Daniel Drezner in his 2017 book, The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats Are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas. Drezner, who teaches at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, is interested in foreign policy ideas, a marketplace where I seldom venture, and I doubt he read my earlier piece before publishing The Ideas Industry. But much of his book is readily applicable to the full range of ideas discussed at the Aspen Ideas Festival (which scores three mentions) and similar forums.

The ideas marketplace, Drezner explained, arose in the 1990s with the decline of the public intellectual and the rise of the thought leader. After making certain necessary exceptions (public intellectuals got us into the Vietnam War, etc.), Drezner wrote that public intellectuals maintained an admirable independence of mind, whereas the thought leaders who displaced them were typically hacks trained slavishly to follow market signals. (He didn’t put it quite so rudely as I do here.) Increasingly, these signals came from wealthy foundation benefactors who no longer relegated funding decisions to social scientists but instead directed such funding themselves, favoring voguish principles that mimicked and flattered their own wealth-creating strategies. Hence, “West Coast philanthropy is marked by innovation, it’s about disruption, it’s about change,” as the Silicon Valley Community Foundation explained in 2015 to Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times.

Under the old regime, the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation sometimes made stupid funding decisions, but these were stupid decisions made by trained experts, which at least guaranteed some diversity. Under the new regime, stupid funding decisions tend to resemble one another because they reflect the blinkered worldview of the rich. “The lived experiences of global plutocrats,” wrote Drezner,

alters their perspective on public policy. Today’s philanthropists attend glamorous international gatherings, set up their own intellectual salons or foundations, and sponsor other high-profile confabs. Many of them participate in the same circuit of events, mingling with each other to the exclusion of anyone from different economic strata.

Drezner didn’t have any brilliant ideas about how to fix this, and neither do I. The Aspen Ideas Festival’s migration from The Atlantic to NBC will reduce its cachet, which should benefit society but will also expand its reach, which may bring greater harm. Atlantic Media, however, stands to become a better institution by reducing its dependence on these blatherthons. Losing the Aspen Ideas festival is an opportunity for The Atlantic to reorient itself away from Ideas and more toward sound convictions and inconvenient facts, setting a good example for the rest of us. If we’re to have ideas, let’s have fewer ideas, better ideas, and ideas more likely to annoy the sort of people who bankroll Ideas conferences.