Economic blogs. Why start them? Why read them? How do you get them to fly?

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Study advice, career advice, blog posts


Study advice, career advice, blog posts

It is well known that blogging can be a useful, if not essential, tool for expanding networks, creating academic dialogue, and generally fomenting ideas. Alas, as wonderful as this may sound, like always, it is not always quite that easy. It also requires time, which tends to be tight; energy, at times lacking, and dedication. With this in mind, we wanted clarity; in practice, how can blogging benefit one’s work? And, what role can it play in the career development of an aspiring, young economist?

We brought in the experts

To answer these questions, and better elucidate the realities of blog writing we thought it best to turn to the experts - eight of them to be precise. As a group, they are among the best-respected economists around, blogging to large and loyal audiences in their respective fields. Each was asked to share their experience of cyberspace, and to pontificate on the perks of publicising one’s personal musings on the web - they had much to say.

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A crisis as motivation

For all our participants, blogging was an activity that was added to an already tightly packed schedule, begging the immediate question: what was your motivation to begin? In response, a number referenced the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession as their starting point. As Antonio Fatas explained, the rupture brought economic matters to the forefront of public consciousness, and prompted people, often with no prior economic interest to query ‘why is this happening?’ and, ‘which policies could we implement to alleviate the situation?’

Fatas believed that a discussion of this kind – public, charged and highly fluid - demanded the ‘transparency and accessibility’ that only blogging could afford - the blogosphere was beckoning. Author/Economist Leigh Caldwell was similarly enticed, seeking a public space to deliberate such questions, approaching them, as is his wont, with a psychological perspective. For him too, blogging was the answer.

should I start an economics blog?

This desire, to serve and engage with the public, was a rather common motivational theme. John H. Cochrane, for instance, was driven by a growing frustration at the ‘bloody idiots’ behind the poorly researched morning op-eds and inaccurate nightly news stories he saw proliferating. To counteract this - and bring about some personal catharsis - he used blogging ‘to bring economic common sense to policy issues’. John, we thank you for that.

A pragmatic approach

Responding to external stimuli, however, did not account for all. Miles Kimball’s blogging career, for example, was born, in part, from pragmatism – given his standing, young economists take note. Although like many other bloggers, he wanted his blog to have an impact on public policy, it was also designed as a ‘sounding board’ for new ideas, an arena where they ‘could be sharpened’, and thus a space in which larger scale research could be incubated. He also believed, in an opinion roundly shared, that the instantaneous exchange between peers was imperative for the production of relevant research in a rapidly changing world.

Such sentiment was reiterated by Robin Hanson, for whom blogging was, and remains, an excellent means of ‘joining the conversation’, the associate professor lauding its inherently dialectical nature. In particular, he appreciated the newfound ability to ‘make an intellectual contribution in just a few hours’ and get feedback, compared to the weeks or months a research paper demands.

American economist Timothy Taylor adopted a similarly practical tact. From its outset, his blog doubled up as a personal archive or library, proving ‘a considerable time saver when pulling together a talk or lecture’. His works are collated and chronologised all in one place – meaning his whole canon is condensed and navigable at the click of a button. Quite the utility!

But who should be able to blog?

This is all well and good, but let us not forget that these bloggers are seasoned professionals, established names in their respective fields, with years of experience already behind them. Perhaps blogging is just a luxury pastime, an activity to be considered only by those who have already ‘made it’? How appropriate is it really for young economists, students, recent graduates, and the like? Is it worth their time too? Well, we posed this question to the panel and received insightful, and interestingly, rather varied responses. For those still unsure whether blogging really is for them, the below is essential reading.

On questioning, a consensus quickly emerged that blogging should be approached with, if not caution, at least some consideration, especially by those inexperienced and perhaps un-established in their field. Epitomising this viewpoint was Diane Coyle – herself a strong blogging advocate - who warned ‘young researchers not to let any [blogging] activity diminish the effort available for the outputs that may help get your career off to a good start’. ‘In many cases what matters [still] might be something else’- whether academic papers published, client contacts recorded, etc. In her eyes, one should always prioritise; keep abreast of all formal commitments, and only then, if left with a spare moment, consider blogging.

Econometrician James Hamilton was even more circumspect, imploring young economists not to simply jump on the blogging bandwagon, but rather ‘carefully manage their time according to their own interests and talents’. Blogging, he reaffirmed, just isn’t for everyone. And yet, even in these cautionary words there remained the understanding that for those with organised and well-managed schedules, there is much to be gained, as long as the practice is viewed, as Kimball describes, ‘as a complement’ to existing commitments, rather than a substitute. This mindset assumed the potential benefits of blogging are vast.

Among the more restrained endorsers was Taylor who recommended something of a halfway house, suggesting that young economists with a specialised focus participate in a group blog. A collective of this kind could provide the benefits of blogging - the synthesis and distilling of ideas - without its drawbacks - the consumption of time, and the ever-present risk of an online feud. Hanson, was more convinced, assuring that even for those with fledgling portfolios it could be a great source of marketing: ‘people will read your other things because you’ve blogged’. Although such advice is maybe not applicable for bachelor students, it should certainly be contemplated by recent graduates and certainly young professionals.

Marketing, research and scope

From others, endorsement was less fettered. Asked whether they would recommend blogging to economists at the beginning of their careers, Caldwell and Cochrane both responded - presumably sharing the same thesaurus - with a unanimous: ‘absolutely’. They did, however, diverge in explanation. Caldwell, with a more marketing tilt, placed emphasis on the practice’s ability to raise one’s profile, whilst also acting as a useful barometer of current economic trends. Cochrane, on the other hand, issued something of a rallying cry, proclaiming that blogging was essential to the overall discipline: ‘we should be batting around the basic research ideas more often and in more accessible and timely forms’. It is true; debating the building blocks of research, and as a by-product refining them, helps save time and makes academic sense. Increased accessibility also is hugely significant.

In Cochrane’s case the increased circulation of his work, facilitated by his blog, has helped him become a well-known name within public policy circles - certainly no mean feat. Fatas echoed this enthusiasm, appealing to all economists - not just those starting out - to take up blogging, recommending it ‘in particular [to] those writing on topics that are more applied in nature’. He justified this by submitting that all research ‘benefits from the discipline of having to put ideas in a different language than the usual academic paper’, and that dialogue, ‘via the comment section’, can be hugely constructive.

Go forth and blog!

Well, there you have it; the experts have spoken. Clearly, there is agreement: blogging has become an influential and heuristic tool that, given sufficient time, and when not too great a sacrifice to other commitments, is a worthwhile endeavour. There remain question marks, however, as to how much students, particularly those of bachelor or master levels, should commit to it. While still cutting teeth on the basics, one should think carefully whether it really is a sensible undertaking. Waiting a few years is hardly the end of the world, and trust us, the bandwagon isn’t leaving anytime soon.

For those who are ready, who feel the time really is now, we advise you to blog in adherence to the following principle, as distilled from our interviewees’ responses:

Blog good; blog niche; and blog dedicated.

Over to you.

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