Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What's the Economics Blogosphere Good For?

I'll give the blogosphere credit for some things.
1. Writing in this medium is addictive. I can swear off it for a while, but sometimes I feel I need a 12-step program.
2. For writers - of textbooks, academic journal articles - this is an excellent workshop for figuring out how to express complicated ideas in ways that people can (hopefully) understand.
3. I have worked in a subfield of economics which has been something of a cult. In days of yore, my work was known mainly to a close family of monetary economists. Now, when I travel and meet professional economists, some of them know who I am because I write this blog. Whether that's good or bad, I have no idea.

Paul Krugman appears to think that the blogosphere has achieved great things. According to Krugman, blog writing is advancing economic science in important ways. Not only that - he thinks the blogosphere is a key outlet for important ideas that have somehow been blocked by Bad-Guy powerful academics who have a tight hold on economics journals. Basically, academic work is bad science, and blog writing is good science.

So, Krugman has been very successful as a blog writer, and he's happy to point out to us that he shows up as #1 on top-100 blog lists. He's like the Eminem/Rihanna of economics. But, if you took a poll of successful academic economists - say the top 2000 on the REPEC list (that's the top 5%) - you know what they would tell you. Some version of: Peer review works, formal economic science is making progress, and most of what is written in economics blogs is schlock. So, who's right?

Please tell me:

1. What evidence do we have of progress in economic science that comes out of blogosphere writing and discussion?
2. What evidence is there that ideas coming directly out of the blogosphere actually influenced policymakers?
3. What are the great ideas that were somehow unjustly shut out of academic journals?


  1. In general, I agree with you.
    Point #1 - no evidence, cero, nada.
    Point #2 - no evidence, I think, at least as fas as I can tell.
    Point #3 - none.

    Now - having said that, there is one tangential aspect to this post, which I think I disagree with you. It is not the point of your current post, but tangential to it, which is regarding academic publishing. I have the impression (from past posts) that you seem to think that academic publishing/peer reviewing is this nice, clean, honest process, where good papers actually are evaluated by good, honest to God, above all reproach peer reviewers and editors. I may be wrong on my impression, but it seems to me that this is what you think.
    It is on this point that I differ. Academic publishing, at least for me, is very, very far from being nice, clean and honest. But again, it is a discussion for another time.

    1. "Academic publishing, at least for me, is very, very far from being nice, clean and honest."

      I agree. It's certainly not perfect. I've been doing this for 30 years now, and have run across my share of clueless referees, bad editors, referees who would prefer that work critical of theirs not be published, etc. We're working with human beings, so whatever the process is, it's going to be colored by the seven deadly sins (maybe not lust and gluttony). That said, it works. Journals compete, and people who are unhappy with the powers-that-be can start their own journals - as they have done in many instances in the past.

    2. I think the general point is that blogs have opened up the debate by reducing the influence of journals, "the establishment" etc and that this is a good thing.

      Wasn't clear to me from your post whether you agreed with this general or not? ie was Krugman just exagerating a correct point or you think the argument is wrong all together?

    3. "...reducing the influence of journals"

      A couple of questions. First, who is being influenced, and why? Second, if that's happening, is it good or bad?

  2. Just ot clarify. I meant Economics academic publishing, not academic publishing in general.

    1. Actually, I think your criticism applies generally. See this:

  3. I think the "blogosphere" has done an excellent job of popularizing the economic way of thinking. I'm an economics "hobbyist," so for me there is a lot to be gained from the blogosphere. This comment itself is a case in point: When else would I have the opportunity to communicate with an economist of note, and actually stand a chance of getting a reply? For me, this is a huge boon; although, admittedly it is far less beneficial to you, on the other side of the exchange. :)

    I have learned more from keeping up with the economics blogosphere than I ever could have learned on my own. Still, I haven't learned nearly as much as I would have, had I simply enrolled in graduate school. But of course there are steep costs associated with that.

    I'm selfish. I look at what the blogosphere has given a layman like me, and I'm blown away. I am the beneficiary of positive externalities which, if quantified in terms of educational value, probably amount to thousands of dollars per year, just to me.

    Another big benefit I see is the fact that noteworthy new journal papers are popularized through the blogosphere. Sometimes old, forgotten ones gain a new lease on life when they are "noticed" and linked-to by popular blog authors. That's a clear benefit to the science itself.

    I think the case for your questions 2 and 3 is probably pretty weak.

    1. Very good. Here is where the blogosphere has its key benefits. People who don't have the technical background can get access to ideas that have been worked out formally, peer-reviewed, and then expressed in less formal terms. So this is different from what Krugman is talking about, which is actually working out the ideas in the blogosphere - i.e. his argument seems to be that the informal reasoning is good enough.

      Here's a question for you: Do you read blog posts critically? Can you manage to sift the plethora of things that people write, and separate what you think are good ideas from bad ones?

    2. Well, one concern I have is that bloggers may misrepresent economic research to laymen who, not knowing any better, often fall victims. A case in point is Noah's post of December 16 titled "A blow to the Prescott theory of labor". I like Noah, a lot, but there is no "Prescott theory of labor" and the Canadian data he cites certainly do not deliver a blow to his 2004 paper if one reads both the data and the paper carefully. But several readers will be left with this impression.

      Having said that, blogs like yours, or Cochrane's, or Andolfatto's, where the discourse often includes reference to scientific work, provide an important service, particularly for those of us working in non-research universities, where such discourse is therefore limited.

      Finally, I do agree with Krugman to a large extent, and believe that the main role of peer-reviewed publications these days is to inform university administrators and departmental colleagues not well-versed in your area that your work has met some minimum quality threshold. But a working paper that has been cited several times has in fact undergone a perhaps more extensive review, by the peers who cited it. It is a sign of the times that working papers published in Federal Reserve Bank outlets are sometimes being cited more than papers published in journals.

    3. The short answer is yes, but it does take time. If other lay-readers are like me, then they spend a few years reading the most popular - and not coincidentally the most political - economics blogs before eventually settling into a blogroll of what we consider "the best of the best." It's an ongoing process because, for example, DeLong and Krugman are likely to reference each other, but not too likely to reference John Taylor's blog. So it takes time to figure out that you'll get a more complete picture of what even Paul Krugman says by reading responses from Cochrane, Taylor, Williamson, and Selgin than you will by just reading Krugman himself and occasionally DeLong.

      I think that's the difference between a lay-reader and an economist who reads these blogs. An economist will read Krugman's blog and know what's really being said beyond the pure politics of it, whereas a layman won't really *get* the economic argument until he/she reads a variety of responses from less-popular bloggers.

      Does that make sense?

    4. Ryan,

      Yes, again, very good. I think you have this figured out.

    5. "to a large extent, and believe that the main role of peer-reviewed publications these days is to inform university administrators and departmental colleagues not well-versed in your area that your work has met some minimum quality threshold."

      Yes, that's the part of Krugman's post I agree with. Economists are somewhat unusual, I think, in how our ideas get vetted. There's a lot that goes on in seminar rooms and conferences before papers are published. You present an idea, you are critiqued in public, and you have to work hard to defend what you have done. Ultimately, you're going to be judged by the Dean, and perhaps your department chair, by the quantity and quality of publications (quality measured by journal ranking). This leads to some problems. For example, I mentioned above that journals compete. But it can be hard to get a new journal off the ground if young people are not inclined to submit because the journal has not yet built a reputation.

  4. Ryan stole my thunder Exactly right, what the econosphere has done is really educated the lay public to ideas. I think the last 5 years have seen this flowering-because of the terrible economic problems we have had.

    Regular guys like myself wanted answers. Now I for one have always been a political animal first and foremost. Of course my blog title is not too political! When politics alone could not explain the reduced world we were suddenly living in, I and many others turned to the economists.

    Now as far as whether I read them critically, I certainly believe I do or try to. When I read about things I don't understand-as the concepts are new and I'm not familiar with them, I want to learn more about them.

    I think in number 2 in particular there has been some movement, very definitely. Steve, will all due respect your position here is kind of tenuous

    You admit that you really enjoy blogging yourself but you seem to be implying that nothing of any real scientific merit comes out of it. Why then do you enjoy it? What I will say for Krugman is he is very good at explaining difficult concepts in way laypeople can understand. He has the ability to speak to both audiences at once-the interested layman, but many economists as well.

    What ideas have come out of the blogosphere: three schools of thought notably-your skepticism of 'schools of thought' being kept in mind. The Economist about a year ago featured three schools of thought that have suddenly garnered a lot of attention: Internet Austrianism, Market Monetarism-Sumner and friends, and the MMTers.

    Now how much have these ideas influenced policymakers? Well first of all, who do you have in mind: there are two kinds of policymakers:

    1. Elected officials

    2. The 'independent' officials that work over at the Fed.

    My personal opinion is that this second 'independent' group has way too much of this independence.

    However, I think that Sumner and friends have had a real impact. The theory of NGDP targeting has been spoken by and debated within the Fed itself In Britian they brought in Market Monetarist idol, Mark Carney. Would any of this have happened without Internet?

    Then again, remember that time that Harry Reid and the Dems had economists before them explaining the DSGE. Bob Solow was a star witness.

    I'm not totally a fan of MM-I'm rather skeptical of Sumner. I read any discussion you have of them with great interest. However, I can't deny they've had an impact.

    I see the econosphere as sort of like our 21st version of the 18th century salons. Ideas reach people they never did before and are widely bandied about.

    When you talk about the academic journals and reviewers, this makes it sound as if they don't read the blogs as well.

    I don't think that this means that these things are going to disappear-in all honesty I don't think Krugman was quite claiming that either just that the blogosphere has brought a new intensity of interest and awareness-and this can have an impact in 'the real world' as well.

    Honestly, I read somewhere that 25% of married couples now met on the Interent initially. If that's true it's hard to see why economics can remain the one impregnable discourse.

    1. I guess I just like explaining things to people. Krugman seems to think that the blogosphere can achieve much more - that you can use simple language and informal modeling and actually make scientific progress.

      "The Economist about a year ago featured three schools of thought that have suddenly garnered a lot of attention: Internet Austrianism, Market Monetarism-Sumner and friends, and the MMTers."

      Yes, they have garnered a lot of attention on the internet. Ask Nobu Kiyotaki if he knows what a Market Monetarist is, or Jim Bullard if he knows what Internet Austrianism is.

  5. Good post.

    To add to your initial 3 points:

    1. Blogging is very addictive. It's like crack: instant hits, but fast withdrawal.

    2. Don't forget teachers too. We need to be able to explain complicated ideas simply to our students. Reading and writing blogs is very good for that.

    3. It is much easier for me to get familiarity with other fields and subfields via blogs. Like yours. Plus criticism of my own blog posts from people from other fields, including totally outside economics.

    On your questions: It's too early to say. And we can't observe the counterfactual. Give it 10 years or so.

    1. "It's like crack: instant hits, but fast withdrawal."

      Rob Ford should blog, I think.

    2. Nic, have you actually done crack cocaine before? The effects are not quite the way you describe them.

    3. Rob Ford definitely looks like what he is, i.e. mafiosa crackhead. I have only met Nick once - at the time he looked like an amiable academic Brit. Patches on the elbows. May have even smoked a pipe - no, not that kind.

  6. Stephen Williamson offers something for everyone

  7. I'm curious as to your viewpoint on Noah Smith's post on the Prescott Theory of Labor

    1. Nothing new there. The income tax schedule matters for labor supply. The question is how much, and through what mechanisms - intensive margin (hours of work per worker), extensive margin (number of people working), or occupational choice. Prescott compared the US to some countries in Europe and argued that the elasticity was large. I think most people would agree that his estimate of that particular elasticity was on the high end, relative to other estimates in the literature. The important thing about Noah's post is to draw attention to the Canadian labor market data that Andolfatto showed us. That's very interesting, particularly if you think about what is going on during the last recession and afterward, and think about it in light of what people have said about that episode.

  8. Great post. On your question 3:
    "What are the great ideas that were somehow unjustly shut out of academic journals?"
    I would say all of my work that gets rejected would fall into this category ;)

  9. I started writing a blog during my grad school days primarily as a way of clarifying concepts and ideas to myself. It gave a feeling of engaging with the subject actively. Something like learning to think like an economist- a precursor to more serious writing to be followed (hopefully!). As a professional economist, I think it helps to put your ideas out there and see what people have to say. It could be thought of a preliminary but informal peer review process. Questions and responses help clarify the idea further and may reach the form of an academic paper sooner. In that sense blogging and professional writing are complements. And of course it widens the audience- spreads economic literacy- which, as an educator, I think is an important objective. Macro and monetary economics blogs (Andolfatto’s and Yours particularly) have also allowed me to incorporate latest economic thinking in several my higher level undergraduate courses. I have seen students getting excited as they browse through the debates and bring their thoughts on it to the classroom. I think that is half the battle won in terms of learning.

  10. "2. What evidence is there that ideas coming directly out of the blogosphere actually influenced policymakers?"

    The trillion dollar coin was born in the econ blogosphere. It got all the way to the ears of Obama. His legal team kiboshed the idea -- but it goes to show that the blogosphere can be very influential. I don't think it's a long shot to say that some major policy idea spawned in the blogosphere will be adopted in the next ten years.

    1. Yes, the trillion dollar coin was a cute idea - just the sort of thing that would go over big in the blogosphere. Simple and controversial. But of no use whatsover, and thus kaboshed.

      We'll update this in 10 years and see if you're right.

    2. "...that would go over big in the blogosphere."

      No, you missed the point. The trillion dollar coin wasn't just a blogosphere phenomenon, it actually made its way to the policy maker level, and therefore qualifies as a legitimate answer for #2.

  11. 1. Economic blogs are exposing the rifts within the community to a non-economist audience.

    2. Economic blogs are making the discipline more accessible to journalists and a broader conversation about economic policy in general.

    1. The problem is that sometimes those things are misrepresented. For example, in some cases, people are talking about rifts that existed 30 to 40 years ago - some of those battles have been fought and resolved, and people have moved on.

    2. Even when arguing against Noah, you seemed to express agreement that there were "tribes" in macro struggling to push their brands of possibly schlocky economics. And the paper Noah cited did seem to establish pretty well there is a "divide", even if it's not some gaping chasm that never gets crossed.

    3. You get groups of researchers working together on research projects, and they tend to congregate in physical locations. That's what the study was picking up. That's pretty obvious, and is well-known. But, it's a different world from what it was 30 or 40 years ago. It's more useful to look at the ideas and how they evolved. I know that undergrads and blog readers love to imagine fights going on along particular dividing lines. But that's really not very interesting.

  12. If one cannot explain an important economic idea to a layman one has either not really understood it or, assuming that it is one's own idea, it is plain wrong.

    Not that economists do just speak in maths, of course they use ample of prose in their papers. But if you cannot transform the key idea into a story and tell it your buddy all the formal work is pointless.

    This buddy might even be another economist. After all even the professionals do not have the time to read all papers from from til end (the usual approach is to read the introduction and the conclusion and skim over the formal part; only few people take the hours necessary to work through the maths).

    Blogs are one way to sum up key economics ideas. Furthermore they force professors to expose themselves (and their nonsense). And last but not least, bloggers like Krugman are excellent at summing up complex ideas and presenting some data at the same time.
    You can easily notice the bad blogs, they are the ones who talk about theory without presenting data.

    So yeah, blogs are no substitute for serious work and reading books or papers is obviously more worthwhile than reading blogs. But why read a long book by an author if his blog does not pass the bullshit test (I like guys like Noah or DeLong as they regularly do point out the BS out there :D).

  13. 1. Krugman's main point, that academic publication lags disciplined discussion, is wine from old bottles. The new bottles are slipperier inside and out, so more is drunk and one has to wear a glove (one's own blog) to party hearty.

    2. That being said, it also depends what one is wearing. The default standard is shirt and tie, i.e. references to more formal writings, and working links to them.
    2a. One sub-type though, wears silk ties, linking mostly to gated journals. This species (mostly frat. types) often ignores its responsibility to the R.O.W. and fails to clip relevant passages.
    2b. Many other types, too numerous to name, are like the kids in class chatting and texting with each other nuisances, to be borne,
    2c. The remainder can participate in a 24 hr. seminar.

    3. Well, the whole kerfuffle over Reinhart-Rogoff, that pretty much answers your point about good ideas and policy implications.

    3a. The rest is still housekeeping issues: Miseans - marginalized, Peterson institute - deprecated, Superstructural equation types - challenged.

    3b. Still evolving are the relationships w. academics. Probably, the most important thing just beginning to happen is replication. Yours on the grilled cheese is an example; but hard to follow up on in comments.

    1. Amazing. This post literally contains nothing that makes even a little sense. Congratulations, sir, you have exceeded even John D's capacity for idiocy.

    2. anonymous:

      amazing, your comment contains nothing that makes even a little sense.

    3. Sorry, I thought when you said "post" that you meant me. Ronald is hard to parse, but it's strong to say it's devoid of sense.

  14. Kartik, in "Economics is Hard," got it perfectly right; sort of like Moynihan's 1965 report. The problems he identified have only gotten worse.

    1. That was pretty blunt, and got set off a rather furious response, which is interesting in itself. I think ultimately Kartik didn't like the attention.

  15. I think you are asking the wrong questions, or at least you are not asking the most important one.

    The question is not whether blogging has added anything to economic science. The better question is whether blogging is the best way to add to that science. I can pitch hay all day with a pitchfork, and that adds to the hay pile, but that's not the most efficient means to do it.

    By your own admission, blogging is addictive. That means it consumes a tremendous amount of your finite time. The real question then is whether blogging adds more to the science than the alternative(s). I'm not an economist, but I think you'd say this has something to do with "opportunity cost".

    1. There are three questions here, I think. (i) How should I productively use my time? (ii) How should other economists use their time? (iii) What should we do with the output that gets produced from this allocation of time?


      (i) I'm just joking about the addiction. This year, for example, I wouldn't say this burned a tremendous amount of time. I wouldn't do it if I thought it was a waste of time, or if I thought it was of no use to anyone else. In terms of opportunity cost, it's actually complementary in some ways to other things I do, and not a substitute. So, I'm not killing my research by doing this - not at all.

      (ii) Some economists don't do any research. In many cases those people can do an excellent job of teaching undergraduates - probably better than what I can do. They may also be able to communicate some ideas well to lay people in blog posts.

      (iii) It's expecting way too much of blogging if you think that a blogger who spends 20 minutes writing a blog post is going to make great strides in advancing economic science. Great advances are made with long periods of quiet concentration and hard work.

      Conclusion: Krugman is taking the blogosphere far too seriously.

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  17. I am biased, but I think one important idea from the econoblogs is the explanation of hyperinflation, as it is the eventual downfall monetary and fiscal stimulus.