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March 18, 2007
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Ceci N’est Pas Un Blog

After five years, people still ask, “What do you envisage for your blog?”  The short answer is, “It’s not a blog; it’s a weekly.” The longer answer, which I elaborate below, is that my hopes for it are constantly changing.

The confusion is understandable. www.economicprincipals.com  launched on March 17, 2002, about the same time that web-logs were coming into vogue in popular culture. Until then, these personal sites had been the province mostly of technologists — little more than online diaries (the term apparently was coined in 1999). As software evolved to make them easier to produce and more fun to read, however, blogs have emerged as an important new form, taking their place alongside newspapers, magazines, radio and television as a source of news, commentary and entertainment (and a competitor for mindshare to films and videogames).

Among their advantages are cost (they’re free), timeliness (nothing cycles more quickly), and, above all, reader feedback (some of the best blogs have the tournament-like quality of radio talk shows, except they are well-ordered, written down and permanently available).

Today there are perhaps some 60 million blogs. Thanks to the magic of search engines and collaborative filtering (a fancy name for the array of linking mechanisms that drive traffic from one site to another), it is possible to identify a rough hierarchy, including a handful of star performers in every field. Take a look at the 2007 Bloggies to get some idea of the state of the art. The best bloggers are in love with their subject, info-omnivores, funny, shrewd, ironic, full of opinions they are eager to trumpet to the world, and bound by no particular rules.

In contrast, EP is a descendent of a newspaper column, begun nearly 25 years ago, unceremoniously shut down by The Boston Globe in 2002. The column was well-read in Boston, well-regarded in the news industry.  I was disappointed when no other newspaper picked it up.  But soon enough, it became apparent that newspapers themselves were about to go over a waterfall.

It turned out to be possible to continue writing at a fairly high level on the Web, thanks to the heavy investment the newspaper already had made in my accumulated background knowledge. I discovered in due course that EP had ceased to be a “column”; it no longer existed in juxtaposition to the “everything else” of a coherent whole. It stood alone. It had become a weekly, distributed via the Internet instead of by mail. Gradually, I shrank its focus, cutting out the political commentary that had been part of diversified life on a daily newspaper, until the weekly was only about economics and closely related topics, like higher education and social science.

Today, EP is a relatively rare specimen — a reader-supported weekly distributed free on the Internet, the idea behind it resembling that of public radio or television. It has a distinct voice and a distinct purpose — to cover, from an independent perspective, as much as time and money will permit, developments in technical economics, and their reception. Nearly 300 people have paid $50 to subscribe for a year. So far, the renewal rate is close to 85 percent. Subscribers get home delivery via email on Saturday night, a quarterly subscriber report — and, mainly, the satisfaction of knowing that they are enabling another 15,000 or 20,000 persons to read it every month for free, in a hundred countries around the world.

This quality of independence, of standing apart from the subject field, is the big difference that sets journalism apart from sophisticated marketing. The most prominent economics bloggers that I read have day jobs, often more than one. Their loyalty is to the profession through which they make their living. For example, Harvard University professor N. Gregory Mankiw posts a daily stream of interesting and graceful content on his site, much of it news to me; but, at bottom, Mankiw is promoting his enthusiasms, including the Republican Party, the Harvard economics department and his introductory textbook. Similarly, J. Bradford DeLong, of the University of California at Berkeley is wicked funny, penetrating, and hardly ever shrill, but he wishes that reporters for The Washington Post were his students and that Bill Clinton was still in office. The author of the Freakonomics blog, Steven Levitt, of the University of Chicago, and co-author Stephen Dubner, energetically promote their chipper views of their subject. Don’t look for admissions against interest from these bloggers. They are mainly burnishing their personal brands.

Not that EP lacks spin altogether, but rather that its ambitions resemble, in miniature, the lofty goals of newspapers. Daily newspapers are in the business of regularly gathering news and forming judgments about matters of significance to their readers. The idea is to listen to all sides, fairly present conflicting views, and arrive at a tentative conclusion about what is going on, and then move on. The reportorial self is supposed to drop out of it, at least for the most part, in favor of the interests of the reader. That is a fiction, or course, or perhaps an ideal:  we reporters all have our convictions. But chief among them ordinarily is the notion that a certain sort of impartiality is possible and desirable. We are civilians in a world of professionals. The idea is to find one thing of general interest, sometimes of major import, sometimes of minor significance, find out which,  pin it down, go on to the next question, and altogether form a whole, a pattern. 

But finding things out takes time. The truth is that I don’t read blogs very much at all. Instead, I look at the Financial Times, The New York Times, The New York Sun, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, the local dailies (the Globe, the Boston Herald, and The Harvard Crimson), a couple of newsweeklies (Science and The Economist). To say that I read the papers would be an exaggeration; I scan them, turning the pages, thinking that even the Web-savviest organizations will continue to offer a paper edition for many years to come. But I pay close attention to their coverage of economics. And I am alert to changing fashions. 

For instance, a couple of years ago I compared the economic blogosphere to a virtual corridor, along which innumerable professors posted clippings, cartoon, notes, etc. on their office doors. Close, but no cigar, for the metaphor failed to take account of the Web’s potential for intense interactivity. This phenomenon of peer review is not something new under the sun: we have had footnotes for a long time, and always there has been word of mouth. But the speed with which such collaborative filtering operates on the Web is remarkable. It is a corridor, all right, but every so often, some doors along it swing open; we see who is going off to lunch with whom; we are invited to listen to virtual lunch-table discussions, and even to chime in.

Not surprisingly, these public discussions flourish best at the up-and-coming schools. Emblematic of the excitement at George Mason University are Robin Hanson and friends at Overcoming Bias; and Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution. The Hacker Social Science Experimental Laboratory at Caltech features links to other leading labs around the world. Economists at Washington University in St. Louis keep tabs on the intellectual property debate at Against Monopoly. A fruitful collaboration between research partners at the Copenhagen Business School and the University of Missouri is on display at Organizations and Markets. And the extensive group that puts out the Private Sector Development Blog for the World Bank regularly demonstrates that there’s a dance — or three — in the old dame yet.

Thus EP’s modus operandi is much the same as that of any news organization. I scan the major economic journals when they come in the mail. I go to conferences, and call on college and university departments when I am able. I expect that people who know my interests will send me things, and I rely on background knowledge to pick out particular skeins, especially skeins neglected elsewhere, and give them something like newspaper treatment.  Sometimes this amounts to serving as watchdog.

A case in point is the Harvard Russia scandal. This has been a heartbreaker, involving not only Professors Andrei Shleifer and Lawrence Summers, but senior administrators of Harvard University and the economics profession itself. For a decade, Harvard insisted that its star economist Shleifer had done nothing wrong when he started loading up his own portfolio with Russian investments, even as he was advising the Boris Yeltsin government on behalf of the United States. A distinguished federal judge in Boston decided otherwise, finding that Shleifer had committed various forms of fraud, and ordering Harvard to return most of the money it received for sponsoring the ill-fated mission to Moscow. The New York Times and The Washington Post all but ignored the extraordinary story (and so, of course, did Mankiw, whose colleague is Shleifer, and DeLong, who worked for Summers at the Treasury Department), but The Wall Street Journal, Economic Principals and Institutional Investor gave it full play. Nor has it gone away, at least as long as Hillary Rodham Clinton is in the 2008 presidential race. To what extent will she depend on those who staffed her husband’s Treasury for advice?   

Other times EP provides perspective on economics from a certain distance.  A much more important story that regularly receives attention here concerns the  changes in our understanding of economic growth  that have unfolded in the last 25 years, ever since economics began to take a serious interest in the implications of falling costs. Long ago EP discovered that this story couldn’t be laid out persuasively in newspaper format — it would be necessary to back off and take a longer view. The proper forum was a book. So now the weekly has its counterpart in book stores and libraries. Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery, will appear in paperback on May 14. Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese editions are in the works.

The book has not persuaded everyone of the central significance of the “new growth theory” that is its topic.  I was reminded of this earlier this month, in the course of an interview with Bloomberg’s peripatetic Tom Keene. Why, he wanted to know, is this book so controversial? What does Robert Solow think of it?  What do conservatives say? Is this just bunch of latte-sippers out on the West Coast coming up with a bunch of technological mumbo-jumbo?  Thus both the book and the theory itself continue to generate waves.

But spending much time writing in EP about the rumpus would involve a conflict. With precisely that in mind, last year I established a separate site at www.kwonbook.com to give the book some visibility. Starting March 20, I am going to reinvigorate it, in order to deal with some of the issues raised by the reception. This is not an open-ended commitment. I wrote two newspaper columns a week for many years, and am well aware of the extra effort required. Nevertheless, having spent ten years on the book, I do want to clarify some of the issues that have arisen.

Inescapably, Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations and Economic Principals pull in different directions.  One drills down deep.  The other skims along the surface of events, seeking to identify interesting developments wherever they occur. Since this attempt to see the field whole is at the heart of the whole enterprise, I have committed to write another book for Norton, a somewhat broader history of technical economics for those who are curious about how it has developed.

Meanwhile, the weekly will go forward as before, crimped slightly because of the writing schedule. Goodness knows that a great deal happens in economics to which EP does not attend, or even take notice. But the idea remains to try to be fairly even-handed — to communicate a balanced view.

* * *

John McMillan, professor of economics at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and former editor of the Journal Economic Literature, died last week after a valiant nine-year battle with cancer. He was 56.

McMillan was a man of uncommon grace — intellectual, athletic, personal.  He was the author of Games, Strategies and Managers (Oxford, 1996) and Reinventing the Bazaar: A Natural History of Markets (Norton, 2002).  David Kreps’ obituary notice is here.

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