Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Two Blog Birthdays and the Democratization of Discourse

Two notable economics blogs - Cheap Talk and The Money Illusion - celebrated their first birthdays yesterday. Each marked the occasion with highly readable (but very different) posts that got me thinking about the origins and purpose of my own blog, and the extraordinary democratization of economic discourse that the technology of blogging has set in motion.
Jeff Ely's birthday post at Cheap Talk describes how his collaboration with Sandeep Baliga finally got off the ground after a sequence of mislaid and misinterpreted emails, and how they finally settled on a name:
And so we started thinking of a name.  Sandeep had a lot of bad ideas for names
  1. hodgepodge hedgehog
  2. platypus
  3. bacon is a vegetable
  4. release the gecko
  5. coordination failure
  6. reaction function
and he is too much of a philistine to appreciate my ideas for names:
  1. banana seeds
  2. vapor mill
  3. el emenopi’
so we were at an impasse.  Somehow we hit upon the name Cheap Talk. Sandeep ran it by some folks at a party and it seemed like a hit.  (That name was taken by a then-defunct blog and wordpress does not recycle url’s so we had to morph it into
I'm surprised they didn't consider babbling equilibrium. Here's the birthday message I left for them:
Jeff and Sandeep, congratulations! Reaction function would have been a good name but too modest for what you guys are doing. You have a mix of analytical clarity and offbeat humor that really appeals to my taste. I have to say, though, that your rational choice approach to torture made me a bit uneasy (not to mention queasy).

I know a bit about blogging stamina (or lack thereof). I started my blog in 2002 and had a total of 13 posts over the first seven years. Then I wrote a piece on the Gates arrest that the New York Times declined to publish, so I decided to bring the blog back to life. Most of us have more ideas than we could possibly turn into research papers – might as well make them available to everyone else.
It's not easy to find first-rate economic theorists with an abundance of style and wit, but the creators of Cheap Talk both qualify. I'm very glad they got this project going.

Meanwhile over at The Money Illusion, Scott Sumner's birthday post (which I reached via Tyler Cowen) was very different in content and tone. In part it was an attempt to justify his reasoning and policy recommendations over the past year, but it was much more than that: a serious and moving reflection on the blogging experience, the state of macroeconomic methodology, and the role of the public intellectual. Here are a few extracts from a long post that is worth reading in its entirety:
Be careful what you wish for.  Last February 2nd I started this blog with very low expectations... I knew I wasn’t a good writer, years ago I got a referee report back from an anonymous referee (named McCloskey) who said “if the author had used no commas at all, his use of commas would have been more nearly correct.”  Ouch!  But it was true, others said similar things.  And I was also pretty sure that the content was not of much interest to anyone.

Now my biggest problem is time—I spend 6 to 10 hours a day on the blog, seven days a week.  Several hours are spent responding to reader comments and the rest is spent writing long-winded posts and checking other economics blogs.  And I still miss many blogs that I feel I should be reading [...]

As you may know, I don’t think much of the official methodology in macroeconomics.  Many of my fellow economists seem to have a Popperian view of the social sciences.  You develop a model.  You go out and get some data.  And then you try to refute the model with some sort of regression analysis.  If you can’t refute it, then the model is assumed to be supported by the data, although papers usually end by noting “further research is necessary,” as models can never really be proved, only refuted.

My problem with this view is that it doesn’t reflect the way macro and finance actually work.  Instead the models are often data-driven.  Journals want to publish positive results, not negative.  So thousands of macroeconomists keep running tests until they find a “statistically significant” VAR model, or a statistically significant “anomaly” in the EMH.  Unfortunately, because the statistical testing is often used to generate the models, and determine which get published, the tests of statistical significance are meaningless.

I’m not trying to be a nihilist here, or a Luddite who wants to go back to the era before computers.  I do regressions in my research, and find them very useful.  But I don’t consider the results of a statistical regression to be a test of a model, rather they represent a piece of descriptive statistics, like a graph, which may or may not usefully supplement a more complex argument that relies on many different methods, not a single “Official Method.” [...]

I like Rorty’s pragmatism; his view that scientific models don’t literally correspond to reality, or mirror reality.  Rorty says that one should look for models that are “coherent,” that help us to make sense of a wide variety of facts.  I want people who read my blog to be saying to themselves “aha, now I understand why the economy continues to drag along despite low interest rates,” as they recall that low rates are not an indication of monetary stimulus... It’s all about persuasion.  And people are persuaded by coherent models [...] 
So that’s the goal of my blog, to constantly use theoretical arguments, empirical data, clever metaphors, and historical analogies that make people see the current situation in a new way.  Whatever works, as long as it is not dishonest [...]   
Regrets?  I’m pretty fatalistic about things.  I suppose it wasn’t a smart career move to spend so much time on the blog.  If I had ignored my commenters I could have had my manuscript revised by now.  But I think everything happens for a reason...The commenters played an important role in the blog.  By constantly having to defend myself against their criticism, I further refined my arguments.  In addition, I got a better idea of how other people look at monetary economics.  I don’t have any major regrets...
Happiness isn’t based on anything you achieve, but rather the anticipation of future happiness.  As sports fans know the most fun position to be in is the underdog challenging the evil empire... whether I in some sense “win” in the long run isn’t really that important to me.  I’ve already got most of what I wanted, which is for people I respect to find my arguments intriguing...
I used to think I had just a few ideas, and once I used those up I’d have nothing more to say.  As you’ve noticed (sometimes painfully) that is not my problem.  I suppose it came from being a loner for several decades... If you’d told me last year “write 1000 pages on monetary policy,” I would have recoiled in horror.  I figured I’d do a couple dozen posts, run out of ideas, and then merely comment on current events.  I had no idea that writing is thinking.  But now here I am a year later, and my blog is 1000 pages of sprawling essays.  Yes, there’s plenty of repetition, but even if you sliced out all the filler, I bet you could find a 200 page book in there somewhere.

Still, at the current pace my blog is gradually swallowing my life.  Soon I won’t be able to get anything else done.  And I really don’t get any support from Bentley, as far as I know the higher ups don’t even know I have a blog.  So I just did 2500 hours of uncompensated labor.  I hope someone got some value out of it.  Right now I just want my life back.

But I suppose I could do one more post.

And after that, maybe one more final post wouldn’t seem so difficult.

But please don’t ask me to become a blogger.  It’d be like asking me whether I ever considered becoming a heroin addict.  Just one more post.  One day at a time. . . .
This entry (not surprisingly) attracted a number of supportive and encouraging comments, among which was my own:
This is a wonderful, heartfelt post. You’re a far better writer than you give yourself credit for. Congratulations on the first birthday of your blog; I hope that there will be many more to come.
I really meant that. There was much in Sumner's post that struck a chord with me. I also see my own blog as a sequence of short interlocking essays that present what I hope is a coherent vision. And I too have been fortunate enough to have been visited by a number of thoughtful readers with whom I have had long, wide-ranging, and generally civil exchanges.
The community of academic economists is increasingly coming to be judged not simply by peer reviewers at journals or by carefully screened and selected cohorts of students, but by a global audience of curious individuals spanning multiple disciplines and specializations. Voices that have long been silenced in mainstream journals now insist on being heard on an equal footing. Arguments on blogs seem to be judged largely on their merits, independently of the professional stature of those making them. This has allowed economists in far-flung places with heavy teaching loads, or those who pursued non-academic career paths, to join debates. Even anonymous writers and autodidacts can wield considerable influence in this environment, and a number of genuinely interdisciplinary blogs have emerged (see, for instance, this fascinating post from one of my favorites.)
This has got to be a healthy development. One might persuade a referee or seminar audience that a particular assumption is justified simply because there is a large literature that builds on it, or that tractability concerns preclude reasonable alternatives. But this broader audience is not so easy to convince. Persuading a multitude of informed, thoughtful, intelligent readers of the relevance and validity of one's arguments using words rather than formal models is a far more challenging task than persuading one's own students or peers. If one can separate the wheat from the chaff, the reasoned argument from the noise, this process should result in a more dynamic and robust discipline in the long run.

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