I’ve heard the question many times: “Why do so many GMU economists blog?”  The number and ratio are indeed extraordinary: I count 9 bloggers out of the 28 tenure-line faculty on the department’s homepage – not to mention our students and adjunct professors like Arnold Kling.

Sour Grapes is one popular explanation.  Since GMU econ faculty can’t publish “real articles” in “real journals,” we took our marbles, went home, and started blogs.  But there are three big problems with this story. 

First, the GMU economists who blog the most also publish the most conventional journal articles.  See Tyler Cowen.

Second, most econ faculty who don’t publish in academic journals don’t blog; they don’t write anything at all. 

Third, while most people do like grapes, few intrinsically enjoy academic economics.  Don’t believe me?  Ask yourself this: If econ were a hobby rather than a profession, how many leading economists would do conventional research in their spare time for free?  If you can say “10%” with a straight face, let me know.

To understand the real story of GMU econ blogging, you have to know our biographies.  (Several are right here).  None of us discovered economics in a mainstream econ class, found it fascinating, then decided to try to ascend the academic hierarchy.  Instead, our inspiration came from libertarian books, libertarian friends, and libertarian intellectuals, plus our broader reading in philosophy, history, and the history of economic thought.  Once we fell in love with ideas, we asked, “How can I make a career out of this?”  We would have preferred to be instantly anointed as public intellectuals.  But the best realistic path, we learned, was “Become a professor of economics.” 

To secure academic positions, we all endured years of grad school boredom.  Some of us even spent years boring ourselves doing conventional research to get tenure.  (See my dissertation).  But our ultimate goal was always the same: Get paid to pursue the kind of ideas that inspired us to study economics in the first place.

Once you know these biographical patterns, you should be amazed if lots of GMU economists hadn’t started blogging.  Think about it: Here’s a forum where you write for a sizable, high-quality audience about anything that interests you.  Here’s a forum where you can eternally debate other people obsessed with ideas.  Here’s a forum where you can instantly pose as a public intellectual – and try to “fake it till you make it.”  Here’s a forum that actually penalizes atrocious academic writing! 

None of this is very appealing to most academic economists.  They’re content to spend their lives doing normal science.  But for professors who’ve always wanted to live the life of the mind, blogging is a dream come true.