Paul Krugman: In Praise of Econowonkery


Mike Konczal has an interesting piece on the general question of whether wonk-blogging — the practice of putting up fairly analytical data-heavy posts bearing on policy issues directly on the web, rather than going through more traditional publication channels — is a good thing. He puts it in the context of liberal politics, which it mostly (though not entirely) is; but I’d like to think about it more generally as a way in which data and analysis can be brought quickly to bear on policy discussion.

And not to create any unnecessary suspense: I think it’s had an enormously salutary effect.

First of all, what are we talking about here? Obviously the econoblogs — Mark Thoma, Brad DeLong, Konczal himself, Marginal Revolution (although it plays a surprisingly, well, marginal role in the big controversies), Yglesias, and many more. But also some of the more institutional blogs, notably FT Alphaville and Business Insider, and columns by the likes of Martin Wolf. And as a practical matter some official institutions are effectively part of the ongoing blogospheric discussion: the IMF, both through its official blogs and, if truth be told, via its semiannual World Economic Outlook and other publications, is in effect participating in the discussion more or less on Internet time. Working papers from some of the Feds, notably New York and San Francisco, do the same.

The overall effect is that we’re having a conversation in which issues get hashed over with a cycle time of months or even weeks, not the years characteristic of conventional academic discourse. Is that a problem?

OK, first point: many people seem to have a much-idealized vision of the academic process, in which wise and careful referees peer-review papers to make sure that they are rock-solid before they go out. In reality, while many referees do their best, many others have pet peeves and ideological biases that at best greatly delay the publication of important work and at worst make it almost impossible to publish in a refereed journal. Gans and Shepherd wrote about this almost 20 years ago, and the situation has surely not improved.

I’m told by younger colleagues, in particular, that anything bearing on the business cycle that has even a vaguely Keynesian feel can be counted on to encounter a very hostile reception; this creates some big problems of relevance for proper journal publication under current circumstances.

A second point is that events are moving fast, and the long lead times of conventional publication essentially guarantee that it will be irrelevant to current policy issues.

Still, all of this would be cold comfort if wonkblogging was just generating noise and confusion. But from where I sit, the reality has been just the opposite.

Look at one important recent case — no, not Reinhart/Rogoff, but Alesina/Ardagna on expansionary austerity. Now, as it happens the original A/A paper was circulated through relatively “proper” channels: released as an NBER working paper, then published in a conference volume, which means that it was at least lightly refereed. Proper science!

Except that it was all wrong. And how did we find out that it was all wrong? First through critiques posted at the Roosevelt Institute, then through detailed analysis of cases by the IMF. The wonkosphere was a much better,much more reliable source of knowledge than the proper academic literature.

And I would say that in general the quality of economic discussion we’ve been having in recent years is the best I’ve ever seen. Yes, there’s junk economics out there, but when was that not true? And yes, it can be hard for lay readers — or for that matter, it seems, quite a few people with heavy economic credentials — to tell the junk from the real insights; but again, when wasn’t that true? As far as real, insightful, useful discussion of matters economic is concerned, this is actually a golden age.

Of course, these useful insights have been largely ignored by policy makers. But once again, when was that not true?

So wonk on proudly. As Martha Stewart would say, it’s a good thing.

In Praise of Econowonkery –

This entry was posted in academic literature, Paul Krugman, Wonkosphere. Bookmark the permalink.

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