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December 26, 2004
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Same As It Ever Was: A Report to Readers

Economic Principals started life as a newspaper column. A little less than three years ago it became an on-line weekly. If EP were an airplane, these weekly reports would be its wings.

Its engine, however, the thing that makes it go, is no different on the Web from what it was during newspaper days — it is a book, or rather a series of books, interpreting and conveying the situation of modern technical economics to lay readers.

The Idea of Economic Complexity appeared in 1984; Economic Principals: Masters and Mavericks of Modern Economics, a collection of columns, in 1993. 

The next in this series, Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery, is scheduled to be published by W. W. Norton in the autumn of 2005.

“A stimulating and inviting tour of modern economics centered on the story of one of its most important breakthroughs…,” says the publisher. “Not since Robert Heilbroner’s classic work, The Worldly Philosophers, have we had as attractive a glimpse of the essential science of economics.”  

(Of course the publisher would say that. Still, this account of the events leading up to the “discovery” in the 1980s of intellectual property, and of the reasons why it took so long to work out the economics of knowledge,  really does make pretty good reading — 120,000 words about one topic instead of the usual 1200 or so.)

Even in its newspaper incarnation, the idea behind EP was always to have a mix.  Some things can’t be said in short form. Yet there is something indispensably enlivening about daily journalism (or in this case, weekly). Not the least of it is that, ordinarily, it pays.

Economic Principals ran from 1983 to 2002 in The Boston Globe, for some of those years in The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune as well. That all came to an abrupt halt when The New York Times took control of The Globe, and discontinued the column.

So I quit the paper and started writing on this website, in order not to lose touch with readers. When no other newspaper evinced much interest in keeping the column going, I concentrated on the website and looked for other ways to make a living.

There were immediate advantages to this. Suddenly I was the editor. I could write about what I pleased. I could take the weekly to Germany for five months as a fellow of the American Academy in Berlin.

This was still journalism, or so I thought, although my migration to the Web coincided with rise of the blogs. (I’ll write more about this distinction in the coming weeks.) Often the weekly seemed to operate as something of a shadow economics column, its sensibility somewhere in the middle of the road between, say, Paul Krugman and Robert Samuelson.

EP also reported the news; not all of the news, of course, but some of it, including goings-on in economics that other news organizations for the most part ignored or overlooked. Of special interest was continuing coverage of the US government’s lawsuit against Harvard University and economics professor Andrei Shleifer.

But there wasn’t much money in it. I wasn’t getting paid. Travel to meetings was sharply curtailed. There was no JSTOR (the journal retrieval service) or Lexis-Nexis. Nor was I part of a truth-seeking collectivity, except as a member of the loose group of other newsfolk who cover more or less same the thing around the world.

In the summer of 2002, the Sabre Foundation seemed a good possibility. It was an old-line operating foundation with an extensive history of good works (its book donation program in poorer nations around the world) and a project in the philosophy of institutions. A couple of years before, it had incubated and then spun off the Michael Oakeshott Society. Its greatest asset was my friend and neighbor, the philosopher and activist Josiah Lee Auspitz.

While under Sabre’s sponsorship, EP considered and discarded a number of possibilities. For a time, it seemed that the project might emphasize links to other sites; or that it might serve as an op-ed page for university economists; or seek to involve readers interactively.

But mainly these confused the issue.  In the end, the project turned out to be traditional journalism, after all.

You don’t need a 501.c.3. organization for that.  (That being section of the tax code relating to tax-deductible contributions.)

You do, however, need an income.

Contributions from individuals kept EP afloat.  Institutions, meanwhile, shied away in droves — not surprisingly, in retrospect, given EP’s ineradicable independence. The presence of the Sabre button on the site, however, conveyed to most of the audience the distinct (mis)impression that, financially, everything was somehow taken care of.

So, as of the end of next month, I will leave Sabre’s shelter for the unabetted marketplace — the market for economic journalism. Down comes the “sponsored by” button.  Up goes the motto, “An Independent Weekly.”

For years, I told people who asked that I was a newspaperman. Now I tell them that I’m a writer. I expect to spend much of the next two years discussing Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations. Various other projects are in the works.

And the weekly? In earlier eras, independent journalists sold subscriptions to their weeklies and distributed them by mail. The avalanche of free information that is instantly available on the World Wide Web today makes that revenue model implausible. (EP regularly reaches more than 10,000 readers in some 80 countries.)

So I plan to continue the weekly as a kind of free sample, relying on the traditional sources of income of a solo author to support the site — book sales, articles, visitorships and speaking fees. Economic Principals thus more nearly resembles The Borowitz Report than I.F. Stone’s Weekly.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I expect that Economic Principals will have no impact.  There’s too little economic journalism as it is.  Every little bit of the good stuff helps.

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