Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Is Blogging Useful?

I started this enterprise back in April as an experiment. I work at various levels - academic papers, teaching, textbooks - and I learn something in each medium that I can use in the others. I saw other people writing blogs and thought: Why not? What do I have to lose? Some people I talk to worry that this will burn up a lot of time, but I find it doesn't. It's actually useful discipline for me, that forces me to pick up institutional details and facts about data that I otherwise would be too lazy to spend time on. If no one else is learning anything, at least I am. As Neil Young said once (or something like this - you can find this somewhere in your blu ray Neil Young Archives): "I do this for me. F*** the audience." Actually, that's not really true. I do care what you think.

Now, sometimes this is a tough business. I have opinions, or I wouldn't do this. I've aired plenty of those opinions in public outside of the blogosphere without much adverse reaction, but apparently there is a segment of the blogosphere where opinions like this are seen as the equivalent of attacking someone's religion. My friend Kartik Athreya certainly suffered for posting something on his personal web site suggesting that economic research published in traditional venues might be somehow superior to a typical blog entry. I would characterize most of the reaction as bullying. I can see why people who write blogs would be upset that someone would express disdain for what they do, and I understand that the freewheeling and democratic nature of the blogosphere is refreshing. However, most assistant professors in serious research universities who are worried about getting tenure are not going to learn their economics from blogs. I would not counsel my graduate students to devote any of their precious time to reading blogs. Kartik's opinions are not unique. I think they are widely held in academia, though of course I have not taken a poll.

Yesterday I was feeling a little down about this whole enterprise, but I think I feel better this morning. What makes me feel bad is perhaps surprising. While one might think that free entry into blogging would produce a plethora of opinions and freewheeling exchange of ideas, the outcome is actually rather monolithic and intolerant, at least in terms of what I see in the macroeconomics blogosphere. The blog readers I find to be fair, for the most part (though people drop occasional turds in my comment box), but the blog writers (at least the guys with the big audiences) are prone to exaggeration, ideological rigidity, and misrepresentation of positions they oppose. I feel that it's not fair to pick on people who aren't endowed with some power. For me, Woodford (I know him well and he is a nice guy and has a sense of humor), Kocherlakota (a good friend - he's not going to take my criticism personally), and certainly Krugman (never met the guy, and I'm sure he doesn't give a hoot what I say about him) are fair game. Picking on some poor guy working at the Richmond Fed who is relatively unknown outside of the macro conference circuit and the group of scholars working on bankruptcy is not really fair.

Anyway, to get to the point, here's my game plan from now on. What I'm shooting for here is more Neil Young (old, irreverent, maybe a little sloppy, but aiming for integrity, with a Canadian lack of pedigree) than Lady Gaga. I don't want a large audience, as that would mean going for the Macro 101 Keynesian-Cross approach of most of the macro blogosphere. Trying to keep Krugman honest is obviously a waste of time. Krugman's blog writing and his recent NYT columns are like Fox News or organized religion. It's either obvious to you what its faults are, or you are committed to it, and I'm not going to change your mind.

One last point. Where are the women in the macro blogosphere? All the bloggers are men, and any non-anonymous commenters I get are also male. Look at the pictures of my followers - a bunch of men except for the Canada Goose. There has to be something wrong if we're scaring the women off. Obviously too much aggression is floating around.


  1. That's sexist, women can be pretty aggressive too! Just kidding!

    I'm glad you're staying.

  2. Yes, I was thinking about that after I wrote this. I think you know what I mean, though. Thanks for the support.

  3. Economics blogs can be very valuable to the well educated public and to trained economists who aren't specialists in your area of macroeconomics. Such people may not see, or be able to quickly confirm, alleged flaws in some of Krugman's reasoning just because they don't have the advanced and specialized training that you do, not because they are so biased and Fox News type loyal that they are impervious to the logic. So if your logic is compelling, I assure you it can convince people like Mark Thoma, Ezra Klein, and myself. You would be doing us and society a great service if you would let us know that logic and evidence when you think a Krugman post or column has flaws, rather than ignoring it. One of the best things you can do is read all of Krugman's posts and columns and let us know what any flaws are and why.

  4. Economistmom is a female economist blogger with a solid following.

  5. I've been trying, but my impression is that I could read Krugman's blog and columns until doomsday, supply all the compelling logic in the world, and this would have no effect on what Mark Thoma thinks. He's dismissed me as having nothing at all to say.

  6. The problem is the number of women in economics, not their ability to compete with aggressive men, or scared off, or whatever (do you really want to say that?). I'd guess they are present in about the same numbers as in econ generally:

    and a lawyer who posts at Angry Bear:

    That's just a few, but you get the idea. These people have been featured rather prominently in a variety of places, so I'm sort of surprised you don't know about them given that you seem to feel qualified to judge the entire enterprise. Some -- most -- are quite academic in their orientation, e.g. yesterday one of them explained why the US and Japanese yield curves look similar but have very different interpretations. But if you don't know about them (which means there are probably lots of high quality blogs you aren't aware of), I can see how you'd conclude there's little for you, graduate students, assistant professors, etc. to learn.

    What about the blogs that do nothing but explain theorems, or that do mathematical game theory regularly? You know about these, right? They are too technical for my audience, but is it really true that there is nothing to learn from them? That's not my view.

  7. Show me where I've dismissed you. I dismissed a post, but you more generally?

    By the way, I offered to post David's latest paper on my site (one of his latest, I can't keep up), the one that takes on NK models, but he said it wasn't ready yet and to wait.

    If you want to start comparing open-mindedness, I'm not sure you will come out on top.

  8. Hi Mark,

    1. Thanks for the information on women in blogs. I should have said "all the bloggers that fall under my nose..."
    2. I never pretended to be qualified to do anything. The fact that people are willing to pay me to do stuff for them is an immense source of satisfaction for me. I'm obviously a novice at this activity, so you'll have to bear with me a bit.
    3. Sorry. I interpreted what you said about me as applying to the whole blog, not just "Krugman Revealed." By the way, picking that as representative of my work is obviously going to make me look bad. I wrote that early on. It's quite funny I think, but saying that Krugman is conceited and narcissistic is obviously disparaging his character, and I should not have done that.
    4. "If you want to start comparing open-mindedness, I'm not sure you will come out on top." Dial it back a bit. This is not an openmindedness competition. At the moment, I don't think either of us understands the other well enough to evaluate the state of the other's mind. I get worked up about Keynesian economics, but that's not about ideology (I grew up in Canada, so I'm quite comfortable with some degree of socialism); you would best describe my state of mind in this respect as "awaiting further developments."

  9. Professor Williamson, Im glad you are blogging. Its good to see a freshwater economist with so much institutional knowledge.

    Having spent some time in the econ PhD program at the University of Iowa (mostly freshwater), I came to believe the problem with modern macro is "physics envy". I think many academic macroeconomists have aspired for their field to have the prestige of physics, and as a result have engaged in "cargo cult" science by emulation of style instead of substance, i.e. If physicists use a lot of advanced math, then so must we!!

    Thats not to say that math shouldnt be in economics - math is just a language. However, in physics the non-experimental theorists make up a minority-its the experimentalists who get all the glory. In economics, this is reversed.

    I dont understand why fields like agent-based computational macroeconomics are not researched more broadly. This field is very quantitative and lends itself to some experimentation (at least in silicon). Barring the possibility of time travel, this is the best that can be done for a field which by in large has access to only observational data.

  10. I guess we did not cross paths at Iowa. I think 30 years ago one could make a big impression on some economists by flexing one's math muscles, but I don't think that is true now. Hopefully we all understand now that a simple story is best, though I've been known to get carried away in my papers, to the point where my audience loses the thread. Math allows us to make our ideas precise, but we don't want to hit people over the head with too much of it. If I understand what you mean by "agent-based computational macroeconomics, this stuff was part of the program at the Santa Fe Institute (and could be still - I haven't kept track). One of my former colleagues, Scott Page (at Michigan now I believe) did this type of work, applied to problems in economics and political science. A complaint about the approach is that it imposes no discipline - you don't get any restrictions on observable behavior, so the theory is not testable, and you don't learn anything from it. The Minnesota macro view is that all models are wrong, but that they are nevertheless useful. You can't do the experiments you want, so the second-best approach is to make the model your laboratory. You want the model to fit some features of the data you are interested in, but the work is all in constructing the theory so that you can do the policy experiment you want to study.

  11. Mark Thoma
    """What about the blogs that do nothing but explain theorems, or that do mathematical game theory regularly? You know about these, right? They are too technical for my audience, but is it really true that there is nothing to learn from them? That's not my view."""

    I'm sorry, but I did not get this. Are you talking about some real blogs,name?, or making a point?

    Max Manus

  12. Sure, these are real blogs. I was avoiding naming names to stay out of trouble. There is of course much serious stuff disseminated online. Sometimes it's hard to draw the line between what is a blog and what is not. My colleague David Levine has a nice site here

    that collects together a lot of interesting stuff he thinks about. I was only trying to say that I could see Kartik's point. The traditional academic filter is very good at weeding out crap. Of course, the counterargument is that the academic filter is not perfect, that cliques of powerful people can monopolize a profession and shut down dissent, and that blogging creates some healthy competition. Obviously here I am blogging, so I can't think it's that bad.

  13. Probably reflecting that I was already sitting in a section of the choir to which he was preaching, I found a good deal of what Kartik had to say to be on point. The message that the problems to be dealt with may very well not be as easily solved as some suggest is an important one. That said, for my tastes a bit of humility with respect to whether the modern macro research program has necessarily been on track would not have hurt him in making his case, e.g., conditional on all the macro fun we've been having since August of 2007, an inquiring mind might wonder if all the post-Lucas (1987) efforts into exploring the welfare costs of business cycles were well spent (is there much doubt now that, even in the post-Depression era, those welfare costs can be quite large?).

    By way of Kartik's essay I learned about this blog, and I look forward to reading your stuff. In fact, I'm quite sure I'll even 'learn' from it. As a consumer of some economics blogs, I consider the better ones as providers of timely and short snippets of JOURNAL OF ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVE-type articles which can be esp. insightful for non-specialists; your blog easily satisfies this condition.

  14. Good point. I think most people who have absorbed the lessons of the last few years (and that includes Lucas) recognize that strands of the economics literature missed the boat. Views that I think should be thrown out are:

    1. Business cycles are not worthy of study.
    2. It is useful to think of fluctuations as being driven by shocks to aggregate productivity (Prescott still clings to some version of this, by the way).
    3. Sticky prices and wages are important for fluctuations (more controversial in some venues, apparently).

    There are off=the-shelf models of financial frictions that go some way toward explaining what is going on, and people are working hard on new theory that can be used to understand the problems we are faced with.

  15. Of course blogging is useful.

  16. It is important to have someone represent the new monetarist school on the blogosphere. Besides that it always pays to read some serious debunking of quasi economics arguments floating around ;) so keep blogging!

  17. Stephen,

    Are you going to do a blog post on why #2 (Real Business Cycle Models explain business cycles) should be thrown out?

  18. Yes, I was somewhat cryptic wasn't I, and obviously the whole thing shouldn't be thrown out. The basic model is the starting point for most everything we do - representative agent, and basic technology and preferences. I'll expand on this later, probably after the SED in Montreal this week.

  19. "I would not counsel my graduate students to devote any of their precious time to reading blogs."

    I am a graduate student, and I think it is important for any "wanna-be" academic in economics to be aware of what is happening in the world, especially regarding policy discussions, assessment of the crisis, etc. More importantly, some blogs (like yours) are very useful in understanding academic topics and strengthening intuition.

    So thanks for all your posts, though... boooooo on the quote above :)

  20. Nice post. Great blog. Thanks for the share. It was very interesting and informative.
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