‘Bartlett’s Notations’ Joins the Economic and Fiscal Debate
Policy + Politics

‘Bartlett’s Notations’ Joins the Economic and Fiscal Debate

Today marks my first appearance as a columnist in The Fiscal Times, and beginning Monday I will begin producing a new blog that I hope will improve the quality of discussion and debate on topical economic and fiscal issues. Every business day I plan to post an annotated list of recommended readings, some generated that day and others that may have appeared in the recent or even distant past.

Of course, many bloggers produce lists of articles and blog posts that came to their attention during the course of a day. Often, they simply represent what’s known as a “tab dump”—things that looked like they might have been worth blogging about but didn’t make the cut.

What I plan to do is different in several ways. First, I am going to make an effort to get off the beaten path and find studies, reports and articles outside the usual places that many bloggers tend to cite and comment on -- the same articles appearing in the same mainstream news sources that don’t have pay walls—often the Washington Post and New York Times (for now)—or breaking news from various wire services.

There’s nothing wrong with commenting on hot news. But as a consequence, one often reads pretty much the same analysis of the same news on every news site and blog. They all seem to take the view that they are the sole source of a reader’s news and feel compelled to cover the waterfront.

The Best of the Internet
My view is that those who get their news primarily from the Internet, which will eventually include just about everyone, seldom if ever get all their news from one source. They consume a variety of news sources and going from one to another is no more difficult than going from one section of a newspaper to another. In effect, people create their own virtual newspapers by assembling national news from one source, economic news from another, foreign news from another, gossip from another and so on.

The publications that succeed in this environment seem to be those that specialize and try to “own” a particular topic. Politico  is a good example. For political junkies it is the go-to source for both breaking political news and in-depth coverage. The Fiscal Times has the potential to be the same go-to source for news about the economy, taxes and the budget—areas of coverage that, sadly, mainstream publications have been cutting back on.

Furthermore, the heavy concentration on breaking news has, unfortunately, led to a sharp decline in long-form analysis. Mainstream publications don’t have the resources to cover issues in depth, except under special conditions, such as the BP oil spill, while bloggers clearly don’t have the time. This has created a vacuum, I believe, that needs to be filled.

The sort of longer form analyses that one used to read in major newspapers and news magazines still exists; it’s just off the beaten track. It appears in publications from academics, trade associations, government agencies and international organizations. The problem is finding and disseminating them.

Access to Data
Younger readers may not have any idea just how hard it was in the recent past simply to lay one’s hands on some new data, congressional testimony or a government report. Copies of such things were difficult to come by and often could only be had by physically going to the source and getting a hard copy. And oftentimes one had to be a reporter for a reputable publication, a member of Congress, or such, to get hold of such materials.

I remember what a blessing it was when I went to work for the Joint Economic Committee of Congress in 1981, and finally had virtually unlimited access to government reports and data. We had someone on the staff whose only job was to go around to various government agencies, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Federal Reserve and the Department of Commerce, to get copies of data releases, bring them back and make copies.

In that era, access to data conferred power and many economists made good livings simply because they had it. Oftentimes, some economist would specialize in one particular type of data and would invest a lot of effort in really understanding its nuances. An economist named Joel Popkin, for example, “owned” the Consumer Price Index and was the go-to guy for everyone who needed a detailed analysis of it. Other economists specialized in unemployment, trade, the money supply and so on.

Today the easy availability of raw data and government reports allows anyone to do his or her own analysis. But because no one can “own” such things the way they used to, fewer people are willing to invest the time and resources to really understand them. I think this is one reason why we had an economic crisis; the coverage of things like the housing market, mortgage finance and other underlying causes by experienced reporters and analysts wasn’t as broad or as deep as it once was.

Coverage of such issues requires not only diligence but a deeper knowledge of how to search the Internet than most people have. A vast amount of important information will never show up in a Google search and one needs to know how to research a topic in depth to know where to find it.

Sharing Information
I think I have a pretty good idea of how to do that and my hope is to share it on a daily basis. My plan is to look beneath the surface and find in-depth analyses of topical issues that mostly escape attention. Reputable academics, government agencies, trade associations, think tanks and other institutions that still have the incentive and resources to analyze issues more thoroughly than bloggers or even major media reporters are able to do. Luckily for me, the Internet provides tools that make it possible for one person to do the work of many.

How exactly I will organize this material will take some time to develop and I hope readers will help. Once people get an idea of the kinds of things that interest me, I hope they will call my attention to materials that may have escaped my attention. Just remember to include a link; I am primarily interested in things that are publicly available on the Internet and aren’t hidden behind a pay wall or demand onerous registration requirements.

My hope is to be ecumenical and not limit my notations to studies that confirm my own biases. The key is quality, being well grounded in hard data, and being interesting. I’m not interested in studies that just rehash old hash or disguise a partisan political agenda behind a façade of fancy charts and graphs; a technique typical of many Washington-based think tanks these days.

Next week, everyone can see what “Bartlett’s Notations” is all about. I will be doing some experimentation at first. It may take me a while to work down the huge backlog of material I have accumulated just since The Fiscal Times agreed to publish this product. Some days I will simply note miscellaneous things that came to my attention, at other times I will do things of a topical nature. I hope to add to the quality of policy debate and become a valuable resource to everyone with more than a passing interest in public policy.