When economists blog

A couple of weeks ago, one of the most prominent economics bloggers, Harvard’s Greg Mankiw, turned off the comments feature on his blog. The comments, he wrote, had been “a source of both fun and frustration,” but as his blog became more popular, keeping up with the comments had become a time-sink: “To put it simply, this blog is a hobby … I just don’t have the time to police comments and enforce good behavior, especially since some posts were generating more than 100 comments.” Noting how “time-consuming” the blog had become in general, Mankiw ended by suggesting that he wouldn’t be averse to exiting the blogosphere altogether: “if attendance falls off a lot, I will start looking for another hobby. Maybe golf.”

Mankiw’s move prompted Dani Rodrik, another Harvard blogger, to wonder, “Is the econ-blogosphere unsustainable?” As the smartest economist-bloggers become more popular, he theorized, they will spend increasing amounts of time working on their blogs, steadily raising their opportunity costs without producing much if any income, until at some point blogging becomes, well, uneconomical: “So if economists with high opportunity costs of time start to get out, shall we have a lemons problem on our hands? Will eventually the only prolific bloggers remain the ones that are not worth reading?” Does, in other words, the economics of blogging guarantee that only the mediocre and the worthless will survive – the ones whose time isn’t particularly valuable to begin with?

The Economist’s Free Exchange blogger noted that if prominent bloggers did begin to stop or curtail their blogging, it could have a snowball effect by reducing the incentive for other smart economists to start blogs: “Truly it would be a loss if prominent economists ceased their blogging efforts. Not only would their direct perspective vanish, but the cost to academic economists of not being on the internet would plummet, deterring other notable thinkers from ever testing the waters.”

But at the same time Free Exchange was skeptical about Rodrik’s “lemon hypothesis,” believing that Rodrik underestimated the market power of the comparative-advantage dynamic:

One suspects that an economist like Greg Mankiw, or Dani Rodrik, or Brad DeLong has an absolute advantage in nearly everything economics orientated, relative to journeymen such as myself. But I think it’s quite possible that their advantage in blogging is not at all as great as their advantage in producing world class research. There might then be gains from trade. Very good economists could produce very good research, and tolerable bloggers could analyse and blog about that research for those interested in reading about economics, and all would benefit.

The Free Exchange blogger stressed that he wasn’t saying that academic economists should “leave off blogging,” but nevertheless his point implies that it’s probably not a good idea for the best economists to spend time blogging that might have instead gone into research and journal-writing. They should, to ensure the most efficient possible idea market, focus on the areas in which they hold the greatest advantage, and let the amateurs crank out the blog posts.

Returning to the subject in a later post, Free Exchange suggested that a very different economic dynamic may ultimately shape the economics blogosphere:

While the direct economic return to authoring a blog may not appear to justify the effort, the prospect of actively demonstrating one’s skillset for an interested public, many members of which work in talent-hungry organisations that pay real salaries, is an attractive one. Why waste time submitting CVs, when you could cultivate an audience of potential employers intimately familiar with your talents?

Interestingly, this effect could generate a filtering effect on the blogosphere quite opposed to the market for lemon model proposed by Dani Rodrik. If blog writers generally have employment in mind, we should expect those with strong resumés but lackluster ideas to abstain from extensive blogging, while those whose critical and analytical skills run ahead of the experience and education categories on their CVs should embrace blogging as a means to signal their exceptional fitness. We would expect those with most to gain from blogging to blog more.

Well, yes, but only for a spell. I think that here Free Exchange is making the same error that he spotted in Rodrik’s thinking: giving short shrift to comparative advantage. If blogging is a successful means of establishing underappreciated credentials – of remedying a failure in the idea market – then ultimately the talent will be noticed and the talented economics bloggers will move into positions in which their time will be better applied to other pursuits, such as research or executive decision making, in which they have greater advantage than they have in blogging. Ultimately, you want the smartest economists to devote themselves to something other than blogging, even if blogging may serve a temporary role in helping those people move into positions in which the value of their intellect can be fully exploited.

But what’s left out of all these economic equations is the ego-gratification that comes from being a popular blogger. Because blogging is such a personal pursuit, with strong and immediate ego-rewards, it can be irrationally seductive, particularly to highly competitive overachievers. The hazard – and this applies as well to disciplines beyond economics – is that extraordinarily talented individuals may end up, like lab mice drinking sugar water, spending more time blogging than they should, even though their comparative advantage is smaller in blogging than it is elsewhere. Distorted by noneconomic but nonetheless powerful rewards, the idea market would become less efficient than it should be, and we’d all suffer as a result. The real danger, in other words, may not be that the “lemons” – the “tolerable bloggers” – will take over as the mainstays of the blogosphere but that they won’t.

Please stop blogging, Greg Mankiw. You have better things to do.

7 thoughts on “When economists blog

  1. George Geist

    Ah, the joy of post-modernism, irony, and self-reference :-). (Or maybe it was snarky comments like this that made Mankiw stop blogging….)

    This post does raise an interesting point. There is an economic cost and benefit to our actions. While economics should not be the only filter, it is one filter that should be applied to test the various hypothoses floating about the Internet and elsewhere. The value of Mankiw’s blog may not be just its content but the reminder that economics is much more than the guns-and-butter analogies we suffered through in school.

  2. Seth Finkelstein

    I think your analysis neglects some very important factors which drive blogging:

    1) The lottery-like nature of the success argument.

    Lotteries have negative expected value. This is very obvious. But people don’t make good expected-value calculations overall (the ones that do, don’t play lotteries!). This is apparent in the common evangelism marketing represented by the part about “actively demonstrating one’s skillset for an interested public”. There are very few winners in that game. But an unlimited number of aspirants can be induced to buy a (losing) blog-ticket in hopes of becoming one of the lucky few.

    2) The objects-in-mirror-are-smaller-than-they-appear

    It’s really easy to think that your blog is far more influential that it is. A niche celebrity will attract enough of an audience to seem impressive, even though objectively, it’s likely not. But still, you can readily get the impression it’s more effective than rationally justified.

    3) Random reinforcement

    The occasional high-atention hit is great for misleading the blogger that they matter.

    Now, one could say that economists should know all these tricks. But they’re human too, and as vulnerable to vanity and narcissism as anyone.

  3. dubdub

    I think the article is completely self-evident (and humorous!) if you replace the fancy/confusing word “blogging” (and its variants) with “writing for free”.

    Try it — It’s fun:

    “Ultimately, you want the smartest economists to devote themselves to something other than [writing for free], even if [writing for free] may serve a temporary role in helping those people move into positions in which the value of their intellect can be fully exploited.”

  4. alan

    Fun, frustration, time-sinks and under appreciated credentials aside, isn’t blogging about immediate communication and hopefully feedback that’s more or less a two way sounding board even if it is a virtual one. Of course there’s plenty of ego gratification on both sides of the equation.

    And not only an “idea market,” there must surely be instances when lights go off and images loftier that markets come to mind.

    By the way, who makes the lemon call?

    Where else can one share immediate yet fairly safe conversation time about matters both important and useless with such an eclectic group?

    All this heady tripe will come to naught but re-vamped thinking six months or so down the road. Bloggers and their readers, both great and small, will still be there cranking out whatever it is that makes us search for the power inherent in language, after all isn’t language the harbinger of consciousness’?


  5. mathewi

    Nick, I think you’ve fallen into the economists’ trap of only seeing as valuable any activity that has direct monetary value.

    You say: “Distorted by noneconomic but nonetheless powerful rewards, the idea market would become less efficient than it should be.” But why the artificial distinction between monetary and non-monetary rewards?

    I think even some economists might agree that ego-based and other rewards are a powerful part of any economy. In that sense, economist bloggers are acting rationally, and deriving benefits from their behaviour — benefits that may even translate into monetary advantage.

  6. Sophos

    Thanks for some very insightful posts.

    While I must concur with Rodrik that blogging can represent a substantial opportunity cost, I also see a benefit in using technology to communicate ideas and leverage the abilities of an economist to reach and influence millions.

    It is strange that we are engaging in an activity that until a few short years ago did not exist.

    The internet is evolving as a marketplace to serve our needs in almost every aspect of our lives. The internet isn’t just for crime or pornography but it can actually be a force that allows people access to ideas that can transform their lives.

    Heady stuff for any blogger.

  7. Chindogucci

    It strikes me that the economics of economist-bloggers is directly comparable to opensource programmers. It is very clear that enough programmers are sufficiently motivated by the meritocratic benovolence to go and create works of enormous quality and value. Why should economists be any different?

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