Thursday, August 25, 2005

Do You Need a PHD to Write a Good Economics Blog?

For the last month, I’ve been pretty carefully reading many economics blogs. I’ve wondered what determines whether a site is popular and I’ve tried to learn about what blog authors consider to be a “good posting”. In my opinion, a large (90%?) of the blog entries posted on Economics Roundtable require no graduate training in economics to produce. Is this surprising? Is this bad?

Many blog entries seek to help readers save time by pointing them to interesting articles out there on the web. These bloggers are economizing on transaction costs for time poor readers. The bloggers have paid the search costs of finding interesting stuff for like minded readers and are kind enough to lead the readers to these posts. These blog entries sometimes offer a witty line or two about the posting and then verbatim quote the source. In many cases these quotes are not from the American Economic Review or NBER but instead are from popular outlets such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or the Economist.

A second set of blogs focuses on political economy/macro topics such as privatizing social security, the Fed’s Monetary Policy, Housing Price bubbles and the Bush Presidency. Many of these blog entries seem to feed off of Paul Krugman’s New York Times pieces; either agreeing or disagreeing with the Man. Here I am not sure how modern graduate training in economics can inform these pieces. Ed Prescott won the Nobel Prize in Economics in the year 2004 for his work on dynamic general equilibrium models applied to macro. The macro bloggers are not basing their entries and predictions based on such models.

A third set of blogs, and I view this as the minority group, are using economic theory to discuss real world issues. My favorites blogs here are Becker/Posner, Jim Hamilton, and the Freakonomics blog. I would like to hear more from Steve Levitt on that site.

In general, I am surprised by how few of the big ideas economists have generated since 1970 are reflected in the Roundtable postings. The posting rarely use incentive theory, or game theory (strategic thinking) to discuss real world issues. New empirical work is rarely discussed for helping improve our understanding of causality and what is effective policy and how we know this. For example, I really like the monthly thursday pieces in the New York Times by Alan Krueger and by Hal Varian (see page 2 of the business section). These guys are "modern". Why aren't other smart economists following their lead?

Why are modern ideas "under supplied" in this market? It must be related to supply and demand factors in the blogging market. What are the suppliers (the bloggers) maximizing? It isn’t profits! If its “hits” to their website, then we have an incentive to simplify our message to attract more folks to our sites. After teaching intro economics at Columbia for 7 years, I certainly believe that sophisticated points can be discussed without getting too fancy with math and econometrics. This is exactly what Krueger and Varian have done so well in their Times pieces.

What do blog readers demand? As I discussed above, it appears that many want to be pointed to the “new news” of the day on the topic that moves them.

My friends keep asking me: "why are you blogging?". My
quick answer is that I'm trying to learn a new style of writing and I enjoy being able to post my thoughts. My wife appreciates that I waste her less of her time with my random outbursts and that I watch less TV now.

I’ve read a post on Dan Drezner’s blog where he asked why there weren’t more top political scientists blogging. Would Roundtable be better on average if economists from the top 25 schools participated more?


Econblogger said...


Great posts. I've linked to you here. My answer to your question is "No". (I have a Ph.D. in economics from the University of the Philippines.) But it certainly helps - sustained academic study helps you get the meat of all the theory, and see connections to the real world. A lot depends on the student too - one can get lost in all the theory and flail about helplessly, unable to see concrete applications. (I think that's a problem afflicting the "post-autistic" critics.)

Just a bit more amplification on the supply-demand explanation you've suggested: The very act of blogging means that economists are writing for a general audience of noneconomists. On the demand side, they consider: what are the issues that may interest this audience? It turns out that a lot of it can be analyzed with elementary macro and micro. Stuff like oil price trends, fuel rationing and conservation measures, protectionism, criticisms of the free market, and so on. Why? Because the depth of knowledge of the general public on these issues is very shallow to begin with. So you need to start from there.

On the supply side, it seems easier to apply elementary economics (with a brief paragraph or two, or even just a few lines) or point to something someone else has written (after all, many business analysts without Ph.D.s have a pretty good grasp of elementary economics.) Meanwhile writing about, say Greenspan's legacy in terms of the "rules versus discretion" or "dynamic inconsistency" or the "real business cycle" is gonna take more a lot more time and thought, especially to introduce and simplify the stuff.

Ronald Rutherford said...

Yes, The Roundtable would be better.
But who am I to say.

Mr. Econotarian said...

My blog (Econotarian.Org) concentrates on the appropriate policies for economic growth, especially in the developing world.

I am purely an amateur economist, and I generally don't go too deeply into "recent" economic concepts because most people (and voters) on the planet don't even understand Adam Smith or Ricardo!

It is like trying to teach Quantum physics to people who think if you spin a weight on a string and let go that the weight moves in a curved path.

You need to start simple, and economists have to date been unable to make people believe in even simple economic concepts.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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