I have about eight different bloggers in my “Must Read” category on Feedly. One of them is Tony Yates, lately of the Bank of England and now at longandvariable. His most recent post has a go at its own medium, with the self-explanatory title “Blogging is still mostly unpaid hot air”.
The thesis is almost self-evidently correct. Blogging is unpaid. And it is hot air, if you define hot air as conversation that mostly goes nowhere. As far as this non-academic can tell, he is right that academic plaudits and funding follow the real stuff – the peer reviewed papers stuffed with models and citations – and not the instant, knocked it out on Android stuff of the Blogosphere. He is also right that the really prominent, influential bloggers (Cowen, Krugman, DeLong spring to mind) have first of all earned their stripes in the academic sphere, or working in government, or both.
I think a key insight of his piece comes with this sentence: “the natural function of the econoblogosphere is to sift through the outputs of this [academic] activity, not to supplant it”. This is critically important: as another of his posts reminded us, on just one topic (bubbles, panics and credit, say), the world of academia has for decades had the raw material to help us understand what went wrong in the last few years. Mostly, what policy makers have needed has been a reminder of this work and agile application of its theoretical lessons to real-life problems. All this guff about “economics doesn’t have the tools to judge what went wrong” indicates a dismal underappreciation of the dismal science, and sort of adolescent contempt towards history. It is all there, already, somewhere. Econ blogs are now a major means of showing the world where that “there” is.
But I think econ-blogging does more than just hand these fine theoretical insights down from on high, and here I think Tony underestimates its power and vigour. Economic events take place in real time. The disputes they spin off take place in real time. Eighty hears ago when Keynes jousted with Hayek, or fifty years ago when Friedman started overturning the postwar Keynesian consensus, you needed a special ticket if you wanted access to the arguments. Now you can watch the to-and-fro as it happens. Readers of economic blogs are eavedropping on a giant virtual commonroom, where Nobel-level professors joust. (In fact, it is far better, because in the physical world people naturally congregate into likeminded groups. ) I will always remember and bookmark the furious, intricate and well-illustrated arguments between DeLong and Krugman on one side and Cochrane, Fama and Niall Ferguson on the other (yes, I know …). This sort of entertaining teaching just isn’t available to we civilians without the medium. I could list any number of Nick Rowe teaching posts to make the same point.
I also suspect that the threat of real-time discussion has changed the way academics think and write in a way that is good. Academia surely thrives on openness, and this is one of the means by which that openness is magnified. Finally, (and here I bet I stray into an area where Tony would disagree) it represents a democratisation of the economics discipline, opening it beyond the standard academic hierarchies. I think that in the blogosphere good arguments win. I don’t regard Scott Sumner’s ascent from relative obscurity in the last five years as anything other than meritocratic – and the merits I refer to are the quality and rigour of his arguments. Arguing requires continuous to-and-fro.
As Tony recognises, there is a continuous spectrum, from the highly academic paper at one end, through to think tank pamphets, magazine articles, newspaper columns and finally blogs. Each has their place. I think he underestimates the impact of this medium to which he has taken so well.