Where is the Failure?
By Arnold Kling
Economists are losing the battle for mindshare in public debates and discussions about the economy. Too much of what we economists write meets the technical canons of modern economics, but reaches a very small audience (if it reaches any audience at all). Too much of the rest of what we write is murdered by being forced into the Procrustean bed of the 700-word op-ed: a space too small to make any but the most pathetic and oversimplified excuse for an argument. The result is that public understanding of the economy is abysmal, and the intellectual level of the public debate is far too low…
We–that is, Joe Stiglitz, Aaron Edlin, and I–aim to start an online publication, The Economists’ Voice, to be “published” by Berkeley Electronic Press, to try to remedy this situation.
I share some of their concerns. In my forthcoming book (I’m hoping it will be available in October), I write
I believe that some of the fault lies with the top graduate schools in economics, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I obtained my Ph.D. The focus on mathematical training in these programs is so intense that they tend to produce a sort of idiot-savant, competent only to publish in academic journals. It pains me to see economists for whom expounding economic principles and speaking in plain English are mutually exclusive activities.
Is the problem the “Procrustean Bed of the 700-word op-ed?” I don’t think so. Paul Kruman’s occasional longer pieces for the Sunday New York Times Magazine are hardly models of economic education.
I think that the idiot-savant problem is real, and Joseph Stiglitz is an example of someone whose economic reasoning and policy analysis strike me as disjoint.
something like this is badly needed.
More conceptually, I view this attempt as an implicit criticism of Google. There is nothing stopping economists from posting such writings right now, and of course longer pieces can be linked to. But who will find/read them?
The Internet is fundamentally a “pull” medium, not a “push” medium. I do not think that the average citizen is going to run to the Internet to “pull” a journal written by academic economists.
The Internet also fosters a division of labor, between linkers and essayists. For example, in the blog world, Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds is the classic linker, pointing people toward interesting material. So is Arts and Letters Daily’s Denis Dutton. Russ Roberts and Don Boudreaux are more essayists. I, too, am more of an essayist.
There is actually a lot of content on the Internet that seems to me to fit the mission of The Economist’s Voice, and just finding that material and linking to it would be a full-time job. So I second Tyler’s suggestion of “What about an additional economics blog or journal that simply selects the best material already out there, analogous to www.aldaily.com or www.artsjournal.com?”
Instead, DeLong and friends seem to be saying that we need more essayists. In that case, Project Syndicate should be getting lots of hits. My guess is that it doesn’t.
My guess is that the market for The Economist’s Voice will turn out to be economics professors. They will look for essays to use in their courses, and they will also assess the state of debate within the profession.
That is a perfectly fine market, of course. I think that it would be especially nice to see economic issues debated using reason, rather than rhetoric. If that is where The Economist’s Voice takes us, then it will be a valuable resource. But I think that the New York Times could just as easily be the home for a rational debate–I don’t believe that the failure is due to lack of space.
For Discussion. Would readers of this blog like to see two blogs–one consisting mostly of links and the other consisting of mostly of longer commentary?