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Fed economist slams econ bloggers

Publishing date
04 July 2010

What’s at stake: Going back to the subject of modern macro and who should talk about it, there’s been uproar this week on the blogosphere over Kartik Athreya's provocative essay on economics blogs. Athreya argued that most blogging is done by ill-informed hacks. His argument that bloggers should either shut up about economics and economic policy or be treated to a general boycott of attention has, as one would expect, elicited a mostly hostile response from economics bloggers.

Kartik Athreya says that he’s totally puzzled by the willingness of many who fearlessly and breathlessly opine about economics, especially macro- economic policy. Deficits, short-term interest rate targets, sovereign debt are all chewed over with a level of self-assuredness that only someone who doesn’t know more could. The main problem is that economics, and certainly macroeconomics is not, by any reasonable measure, simple. When a professional research economist thinks or talks about social insurance, unemployment, taxes, budget deficits, or sovereign debt, among other things, they almost always have a very precisely articulated model that has been vetted repeatedly for internal coherence. Critically, it is one whose constituent assumptions and parts are visible to all present, and can be fought over. Comparing, even momentarily, such careful work with its explicit, careful reasoning, its ever-mindful approach to the accounting for feedback effects, and its transparent reproducibility, with the sophomoric musings of auto-didact or non-didact bloggers or writers is instructive. The issue is that there is extremely low likelihood that the speculations of the untrained, on a topic almost pathologically riddled by dynamic considerations and feedback effects, will offer anything new. Moreover, there is a substantial likelihood that it will instead offer something incoherent or misleading.

Mark Thoma argues that blogs stepped in when the current crisis hit and began analysing crucial economic issues in real time in a way conventional research never could have done. Online conversations among the best macroeconomists in the business were very helpful in understanding what was going on and in developing policy responses to it. 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.

Ryan Avent argues that writers are there to analyse economic issues in a broader context, which includes all the messiness of real life and politics. "Real" economists often fail badly at these kinds of tasks. Athreya’s essay furthermore errs in missing the breadth and richness of the economics blogosphere. He seems unaware of the fact that there are many very good economists writing blogs. There are even some very good macroeconomists putting down their thoughts online, including some which have advanced the science.

Nick Rowe, from a Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, writes that blogs are a great way to bring together the disparate knowledge of widely dispersed people. Individually, each of us knows little. But we know different things. The problem in society is to bring individuals' disparate knowledge together. Hayek's point was that a price system is a good way to bring disparate knowledge together. Rowe makes the same point but for blogging. Blogging is a different form of conversation, and in some ways it is a better form of conversation than academic interaction. It's much easier to listen in and join in. It's like a 24-hour seminar held everywhere at once with a record of what everyone said, so you can even arrive late at the seminar and not miss anything.

Rajiv Sethi, professor at Columbia University, argues that 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. 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. Sethi suspects 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.

*Bruegel Economic Blogs Review is an information service that surveys external blogs. It does not survey Bruegel’s own publications, nor does it include comments by Bruegel authors.

About the authors

  • Jérémie Cohen-Setton

    Jérémie Cohen-Setton is a Research Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Jérémie received his PhD in Economics from U.C. Berkeley and worked previously with Goldman Sachs Global Economic Research, HM Treasury, and Bruegel. At Bruegel, he was Research Assistant to Director Jean Pisani-Ferry and President Mario Monti. He also shaped and developed the Bruegel Economic Blogs Review.

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