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July 5, 2009
David Warsh, Proprietor


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The Perpendicular

The morning that I visited him last week, Mark Thoma had fielded back-to-back calls first thing from Reuters and Bloomberg. The day before, The Wall Street Journal had sought to arrange for a photograph; the day after, N. Gregory Mankiw, of Harvard University, proudly pointed on his blog to a Thoma item about a speech that Mankiw had made some years before, as former adviser to George W. Bush. Paul Krugman, of The New York Times and Princeton University, had done as much the week before. No wonder, then, that during a recent meet-and-greet, the president of Thoma’s university, upon discovering himself to be shaking hands with the proprietor of Economist’s View, made a fuss and introduced the self-effacing professor to the assembled throng.

 

Not too shabby, considering that we were lunching in the leafy little city of Eugene, where the 52-year-old Thoma teaches at the University of Oregon. The WSJ last week was preparing to include Thoma in an article about the most popular economic bloggers. Earlier in the year he had been an invited guest at Kauffman Foundation and Milken Institute conferences. How did Thoma achieve a position of influence three times zones and a world away from the financial and political capitals back East?

 

The first part of the answer is, of course, the Internet. Thoma is an economic blogger of an unusual sort – a mostly disinterested editor and re-publisher of a selection of items from the daily torrent of informed opinion available on the Web.  There are many other highly-rated economic bloggers:  Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, of George Mason University, conduct a peripatetic patrol at Marginal Revolution; J. Bradford Delong, of the University of California at Berkeley, dispenses caustic wit and insight at Grasping Reality with Both Hands; Stephen Levitt, of the University of Chicago, and Steven Dubner and friends hold forth at  Freakonomics; Yves Smith (a clever nom de net for a former lady banker) writes on Naked Capitalism from Wall Street; Dani Rodrik’s Weblog dispenses common sense on development economics; Baseline Scenario badgers governments with an above-the-fray sensibility rather like that of the International Monetary Fund. Krugman and Mankiw on their blogs are talking heads much more timely and topical, and only a little more gray, than when they began taking turns with one another at two-week intervals at Fortune magazine fifteen years ago. The ranking of these and other bloggers is continually appraised by the powerful collaborative filtering mechanism that is the heart of the custom of exchanging links.

 

But Thoma is the most nearly perpendicular of them all. He stands at a right angle to the plane of mainstream debate, selecting and presenting the various arguments fully and fairly. Anybody who builds anything knows that trueing things up – making them level, square, concentric, or, in this case, fair and balanced – is a crucial step along the way. Nobody does a better job of digesting online economic commentary than he does. 

 

Economist’s View is a lightly-edited aggregation of items from around the Web – newspaper columns and blog posts mostly, plus the occasional podcast or video, continually updated throughout the day and augmented periodically by Thoma’s own commentary, all the package distinguished by a selecting principle that is lively, informed, inclusive and nearly straight up-and-down. In this respect, Thoma’s site resembles Romenesko on the news industry, Johnson’s Russia List, or Real Clear Politics on the US scene (minus the slowly-increasing volume of Real Clear Politics-produced filler). Thoma monitors nearly 300 feeds, culls them, links thirty items or so, and himself writes as many as a dozen annotated entries a day. The easy-to-use site is an alternative to the sort of RSS feed-reader you might laboriously build yourself. Though the demarcation criteria are not quite so clear as on those other sites – the topic is vast, after all – I find Thoma pretty close to one-stop shopping for the sort of economic news and analysis that interests me qua news – a digital fire-hose, to be sure, but a manageable one.  Looking at Thoma once a day is enough.

 

The blogosphere is ten years old, more or less. Never has so powerful and disruptive a communications technology appeared in so short a time.  The first serious journalist to defect to the Web, at least the first one whom I read regularly, was Mickey Kaus, formerly of Newsweek, The New Republic and Washington Monthly. He went whole hog, inventing Kausfiles, “a mostly political blog,” first on his own, then as a staff blogger for Slate. Kaus wrote whenever he felt like it, as much as he wanted, about whatever he pleased, and the italicized editor’s queries and snappy comebacks that occasionally punctuated his copy were designed to make the point that it amounted to a stream of consciousness.

 

It was from Kaus, more than anyone else, that I learned how different blogging was from traditional reporting. Not that he didn’t remain an excellent journalist, with a reliable nose for news – he kept on the screen the story of presidential candidate John Edwards’ audacious infidelity, for example, and has been consistently prescient on the crash of the American automotive manufacturers.  But in becoming a blogger, Kaus had become something very different from a journalist who frames his tales, gauges his shots.  He had promoted himself to the role of Personality, continually emitting his views on cars, the Los Angeles Times, immigration, demonstrating opposition to various sorts of self-discipline (brevity, if not accuracy and clarity) that journalism is supposed to be about. Looking at Kaus every two weeks is enough for me now.

 

(Kaus celebrated his tenth anniversary last week with Ten Years at the Mouse: kf’s Greatest Hits, funny, sharp and as eager to contradict as ever, no longer just in pixel-print alone but, with Robert Wright, his friend and fellow author, appearing now on Bloggingheads.tv, the deadpan online talk-show format they invented, an exemplification of the wild profusion of possibilities on the Web. In their discussion of the history of Kaus’s blog, it falls to Wright to utter the melancholy truth: “You have to constantly replenish your traffic with horizontal links [to new communities of readers]. If you just build a following, attrition will ultimately erode it.”)

 

In hopes of clarifying the distinction between what Mark Thoma does at Economist’s View and commodity blogging, I consulted Scott Rosenberg’s interesting new history Say Everything:  How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters, and, especially, its chapter on journalists vs. bloggers.  There I read about a decade-long collision between the “curmudgeons” of the newsrooms (to name only one sub-species of journalists) and insurgent bloggers. The curmudgeons were defenders of traditional canons of fairness and balance. The bloggers pointed to what newspapers left out, or got wrong, or failed to see altogether.  Both sides had scored some telling points, Rosenberg wrote, and now intransigence was giving way to a better understanding of one another. (Witness that presumably forthcoming WSJ story about the economic blogosphere, I thought.)   But the concern remains that the tendency of the Web has been to produce self-reinforcing feedback loops of like-minded people, that there were at least two blogospheres, not one, red and blue. Nor is that the only respect in which one side talks past the other. Traditional journalists sometimes assert that blogs are about opinion and interpretation rather than fact and reporting, when the truth is that a great deal of new and ultimately reliable material first appears on blogs.

 

Therein lies the significance of Thoma’s blog – and other sites like it, including those of Romenesko and David Johnson, the man behind the Russia List. The proprietors of each are essentially editors. They hew as best they understand it to the perpendicular. They seek to see whole the debate they cover, to present its raw files fairly to readers, to occupy the center ground and treat all comers fairly. They function more like referees on a stylized battlefield than (as Robert Wright distinguishes among bloggers) disc jockeys or musicians. It is no accident that in each of these cases the blogger’s ego is almost totally subordinated to the task, that the proprietors work long hours for little or nothing. (Romenesko is the exception here; the Poynter Institute pays him around $200,000 annually because of the traffic he draws to their journalism site, but even with money in the bank, his habits are those of an ascetic.) “I lose money on the blog,’ says Thoma.  “The state pays me to do this, to be an economist. It would be wrong to take money for it. And if you take advertising, it just feels as though you’re captured.”

 

True, Thoma is an economics professor, not a journalist. His convictions are entailed to a considerable extent by the material he went to graduate school to learn, the texts from which he teaches – a load of four courses most years since 1988. He started his blog in March 2005, taking some instruction in the technology, from Berkeley’s Brad DeLong. Thoma is not given to asserting his opinions. “When I push the button on something I know is going to be controversial,” he says, “my stomach gets butterflies.”

“I try to present what I think is correct. To me, it doesn’t feel as though it is a matter of bias. I do recognize, though, that different people see things differently within economics.” Originally the blog was named Economists’ View. He moved the apostrophe it after the others whom he invited to join him failed to show much interest and he decided to go it alone – just as well, for the angle of vision is strictly his own. (For a glimpse of the man himself, see Thoma’s other blog, or tune in to a lecture on his YouTube channel.)

 

What really makes Economist’s View work is its unmistakable touch of the big leagues.  Thoma is no child of privilege: his family works in a tractor-parts business in California’s Northern Valley; he went to college at California State University at Chico. But when his applications to the economics graduate programs at Stanford and Berkeley were turned down, a favorite professor made certain he got into Washington State University, in Pullman, not far from the Idaho boundary in the extreme eastern part of the state.  There he studied under Gregory Duncan, a recent Berkeley PhD, and Jo Anna Gray, who had been a student of Milton Friedman and Robert Barro at the University of Chicago. “Duncan really cut us in on the inside scoop, told us all the elevator stories, what it was like to have people like Daniel McFadden around. He invited people like Christopher Sims to give seminars. And he gave us a certain ethic.  He made us feel that if we went off to a teaching college, with little or no research requirement, we would be letting down Washington State.”  A two-year post-doc followed at the University of California at San Diego, a department ranked in the top ten, and then the job at the University of Oregon.

 

The result is a certain knowledgeability that is hard to acquire otherwise. It helps that he regularly teaches the core macro course in the graduate program, monetary economics to advanced undergraduates, and the history of thought and econometrics. (He throws on to his site the occasional item of physics news, too, the result of a lingering infatuation with the field.) His other advantage is shoe leather or, in his case, sitzfleisch – up to six hours a day online, not all continuous. “I can take out my iPhone standing in line at the grocery store and process a bunch of comments.” He pats his computer bag. “With this I can blog anywhere.”

 

The blogosphere is not for everyone.  But it is an amazing and durable invention, an invaluable addition to the kaleidoscopic array of media with which we make sense of our lives:  books, movies, newspapers, comics, magazines, radio, television, ad, of course, advertising. Rosenberg describes the new kid on the block this way:

Whatever the drawbacks and limitations of blogging, it serves, today, as our culture’s indispensable public square. Rather than one tidy “unifying narrative,” it provides a noisy arena, open to everyone, for the collective working out of old conflicts and new ideas. As the profession of journalism tries to rescue itself from the wreckage of print and rethink its digital future, this is where its most knowledgeable practitioners and most creative students are doing their hardest thinking.

Perhaps.  But demand for unifying narrative remains strong, at every level, including the version that newspapers traditionally have supplied. This itch for reading on the same page must begin to be satisfied, inevitably, with just the sort of daily record that Thoma and others of his ilk compile from all that fevered discourse in the public square.

 

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