Ryan Avent, the economics writer at The Economist, and I have been corresponding about the role of the economics blogosphere, for the Christmas issue of the magazine.
I don’t know what parts of our conversation will actually show up there, but having assembled my thoughts I might as well put some of them here.
The concern, or maybe just issue, is whether the rise of econoblogs is undermining the gatekeepers — whether any old Joe can now weigh in on economic debate, whereas in the good old days you had to publish in the journals, which meant getting through the refereeing process.
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My take is that the system never worked like that — or at least not in my professional lifetime. And when you consider how economic discussion actually used to work, you see the blogs in a different and more favorable light.
First of all, policy-oriented research was never as centered on refereed journals as we liked to imagine. A lot of the discussion always took place via working papers from the Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund, and even reports from the research departments of investment banks. The rise and fall of Fed policy via targeting of aggregates, for example, was not a debate played out in the pages of the Journal of Political Economy and the Quarterly Journal of Economics.
Second, even for more academic research, the journals ceased being a means of communication a long time ago — more than 20 years ago, for sure. New research would be unveiled in seminars, circulated as National Bureau of Economic Research Working Papers, long before anything showed up in a journal. Whole literatures could flourish, mature, and grow decadent before the first article got properly published — this happened to me with target zones back in the late 1980s, where my original 1988 working paper had spawned a large derivative literature by the time it actually got published. The journals have long served as tombstones, certifications for tenure committees, rather than forums in which ideas get argued.
What the blogs have done, in a way, is open up that process. Twenty years ago it was possible and even normal to get research into circulation and have everyone talking about it without having gone through the refereeing process — but you had to be part of a certain circle, and basically had to have graduated from a prestigious university department, to be part of that game. Now you can break in from anywhere; although there’s still at any given time a sort of magic circle that’s hard to get into, it’s less formal and less defined by where you sit or where you went to school.
Since there’s some kind of conservation principle here, the fact that it’s easier for people with less formal credentials to get heard means that people who have those credentials are less guaranteed of respectful treatment. So yes, we’ve seen some famous names run into firestorms of criticism — justified criticism — even as some “nobodies” become players. That’s a good thing! Famous economists have been saying foolish things forever; now they get called on it.
And this process has showed what things are really like. If some famous economists seem to be showing themselves intellectually naked, it’s not really a change in their wardrobe — it’s the fact that it’s easier than it used to be for other people to get a word in.
As you can see, I think this is all positive. The econoblogosphere makes it a lot harder for economists to shout down other people by pulling rank — although some of them still try — but that’s a good thing.
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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.
Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including “The Return of Depression Economics” (2008) and “The Conscience of a Liberal” (2007). Copyright 2011 The New York Times.