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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"On Blogs and Economic Discourse"

Going back to the subject of modern macro and who should talk about it, and more particularly, the nature of discourse, I've been surprised to hear some critics of New Keynesian models -- those who have been quite critical of the discourse of their intellectual opponents -- explain that it's OK for them to be shrill, call the other side names, and so on because, you know, they're right and the other side is wrong. But I am going to leave that alone and try to turn the conversation elsewhere.

Rajiv Sethi says economics blogs are here to stay, and that's a good thing:

On Blogs and Economic Discourse, by Rajiv Sethi: I was making my way back from a conference yesterday and completely missed the uproar over Kartik Athreya's provocative essay on economics blogs. Athreya argued, in effect, that most such blogging is done by ill-informed hacks who ought to be ignored while properly trained experts (such as himself) are left in peace to do the difficult work of making progress in the field. The original post has been taken down but (as a telling reminder that no public statement can subsequently be made private in this day and age) a copy may be viewed here.

The response from the accused was swift and brutal (see Thoma, DeLong, Sumner, Rowe, Cowen, Kling, Avent, Yglesias and Wilkinson for a sample). I don't want to pile on, and there's little I can add to what others have already said. But I'd like to take this opportunity to reiterate and expand upon a couple of points that I have made in previous posts about the rapidly changing role of blogs in economic discourse.

My view of the matter is almost diametrically opposed to that of Athreya: I consider these changes to be both irreversible and potentially very healthy. In a post commemorating the birthdays of two excellent economics blogs, I made this point as follows (see also Andrew Gelman's follow-up):

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...
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.

In fact, the refereeing process for blog posts is in some respects more rigorous than that for journal articles. Reports are numerous, non-anonymous, public, rapidly and efficiently produced, and collaboratively constructed. It is not obvious to me that this process of evaluation is any less legitimate than that for journal submissions, which rely on feedback from two or three anonymous referees who are themselves invested in the same techniques and research agenda as the author. 

I suspect that within a decade, blogs will be a cornerstone of research in economics. Many original and creative contributions to the discipline will first be communicated to the profession (and the world at large) in the form of blog posts, since the medium allows for material of arbitrary length, depth and complexity. Ideas first expressed in this form will make their way (with suitable attribution) into reading lists, doctoral dissertations and more conventionally refereed academic publications. And blogs will come to play a central role in the process of recruitment, promotion and reward at major research universities. This genie is not going back into its bottle.

Conventional research is mostly backward looking. Academic economists look at an event like the 73-74 recession, ask what caused it, build models to try to understand it, and they try to find policies that would have worked better than the ones that were actually implemented at the time.

That's fine for many issues, but when big shocks hit the economy that do not fit into the standard models, there's no time to wait for academic economists to take their usual approach -- it can be several years or more before the research is complete.

This is one place blogs have an advantage. When the current crisis hit and economists looked into their tool boxes for models and policies that could effectively offset the problems we were seeing -- or at least explain what was happening -- we came up empty. The models weren't there and there was no time to wait before deciding what to do in terms of monetary and fiscal policy. Action was needed, that was clear, but without a model to rely upon, what type of action is best?

Suddenly, it was like being in an emergency room when a very sick patient shows up, and you are not quite sure what the cause is, or what to do about it. Blogs stepped in and began analyzing these issues in real time in a way conventional research never could have done. Online conversations among the best macroeconomists in the business, among others, were very helpful in understanding what was going on and in developing policy responses to it. Was it a solvency issue? A liquidity issue? Both? Should banks be nationalized, should we buy bad assets from them, should they be bailed out or allowed to fail, etc., etc., etc. There were so many answers that were needed and very little time to wait. The ability of blogs to step in and fill this void is a good and helpful development, one that the profession ought to embrace more than they have. It's not easy at all coming up with new theory and policy recommendations on the fly, especially when the answer is as important as it was -- the proper response could make a big difference in the outcome, and the wrong response could be devastating -- and blogs were very helpful in filling the void.

    Posted by on Tuesday, June 29, 2010 at 10:08 AM in Economics, Weblogs | Permalink  Comments (22)


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