Virginia Postrel is a political and cultural writer who is a contributing editor for The Atlantic, editor-in-chief of DeepGlamour.net, and the author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. She is currently writing a book on glamour for The Free Press. She previously wrote an economics column in The New York Times for six years, served as editor of Reason and has worked as a reporter for Inc. Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights and is a popular blogger and speaker. She was educated at Princeton University and lives in Los Angeles.
Virginia Postrel: I think of myself as a synthesizer and an intellectual arbitreasurer, okay? So I really believe with . . . I think Adam Smith is one of the great thinkers, and I really believe he was on to something about specialization, and that specialization is an absolute key to the vision of labor. It’s an absolute key to economic growth and prosperity. That said, I specialize in being a generalist, and what I do in my work is pull together disparate threads of thought from different realms of business, science, the arts, social science into . . . synthesize . . . I see common patterns among them. And then another thing I do is I’ve done a lot of popularization. So I say, you know, there’s this really interesting thought going on in economic sociology. Let me explain it to you, the lay reader, in the pages of the newspaper in a way that you can understand it, and that it’s accessible. You don’t have to read all these papers. Or there’s these interesting ideas about how economies grow that are coming out of academia that, you know, let me tell you about them, or whatever it may be.
Question: What are you best known for?
Virginia Postrel : Well for me, one of the things that’s best known about me is that I spent 10 years of my life as the editor of Reason magazine,which is the leading libertarian magazine. And there’s sort of two ways to be a libertarian. There’s sort of . . . One is to be always looking for how shocking you can be, and how sort of outré and different you can be. And there are a lot of people that really enjoy that. That’s not me. I have friends who are like that and they’re great people, brilliant and principled, but that’s not me. My way of saying, you know, taking this somewhat out of the mainstream political philosophy, although it’s well within the sort of mainstream of western liberal thought, is to say how can we start from where we are and move forward? I’m an incrementalist, sort of a reformist rather than a revolutionary. And I also want to communicate to people starting from the values that they hold and say, to me it’s not about syllogism. It’s about sort of making a better world. And I think we generally agree on what is the better world. We just disagree on maybe how to get there. So that’s part of it, and a lot of it has to do with mainstream. I was also . . . Before I was at Reason, I was a mainstream . . . I was a member of the mainstream media. I was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal and a writer for Inc. magazine. I was a business journalist, and I brought the tools that you learn in that realm about story telling, and reporting, and being factually accurate, and all those sorts of things into the world of opinion journalism. And didn’t say like there’s a different standard for opinion journalism. So that’s another way that being sort of mainstream, but also different, has been a big part of my life. And I’m a divergent . . . how can I put this? I think differently from other people. That’s my sort of competitive advantage I guess as a writer. I don’t quite understand it. To me the things that I see are, if not obvious, they are certainly things that, after I’ve thought about them for a while, they’re obvious; but people find them interesting. So that’s good for me.
Question: What are you working on now?
Virginia Postrel: :today all my policy work is actually on trying to reform organ donation policy. I want to get rid of the waiting list for kidneys. That’s my goal. And I’m working with some other people on that. I became a kidney donor about a year ago. And from that experience was because a friend needed a kidney, I became aware that there is this really terrible problem. Terrible shortages. It’s not something that can be solved by everybody signing up as a donor on the driver’s license, because there actually aren’t enough deceased donors. Even if everybody donated, the numbers don’t add up because you have to die in the right way. So we need to get more living donors, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how that might be done. And the thing is it’s unlike curing AIDS or making Africa rich, all these things that people try to do. This is really – in the scheme of things – a small, solvable problem that we ought . . . It ought not to be a problem. We have all the tools available, but we do have to change some attitudes and institutions. So that’s my policy work now. Who knows if I will succeed in that? And not just me but some other people who I’ve worked with. That would be a big deal, at least for the 72,000 people who are waiting for kidneys.
Recorded on: 7/4/07