One Surprising Way to Change Government Policy

One Surprising Way to Change Government Policy

Are blogs dead? A few prominent bloggers who have moved on to more traditional media sites, or sites of their own creation have proclaimed that they are. That’s not surprising. Of course they believe they moved on to bigger and better things, and that their exit signals the end of one era and the beginning of another. But those of us who still blog every day – I just passed my ten-year anniversary as an economics blogger – believe that economics blogging continues to play a very important role in the public discourse

I began blogging just after George Bush was reelected due to dissatisfaction with how economic issues were being presented in the mainstream media. The idea that tax cuts could somehow pay for themselves and the economics of Social Security were particular issues where I found reporting to be unsatisfactory, but there was also a dissatisfaction with economics reporting in general. To me, it seemed like the media had been largely captured by particular interest groups on the political right. 

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Privatization of Social Security would somehow allow markets to do wondrous things, but discussion of the market failures that led to the creation of Social Security and the role it plays as social insurance was much harder to find in the reporting on this issue. Similarly, the wonders of tax cuts were promoted broadly in the media. Tax cuts would supposedly spur economic growth, reduce inequality through “trickle down” effects, and at the same time pay for themselves and improve the budget outlook. The other side of these issues was not entirely absent in the reporting, but it was much harder to find. 

Blogs have changed this. The reporting today on economic issues is so much better than it was then, and that is due in no small part to the interaction between reporters, the public, and academics willing to blog and put complicated, technical matters into terms that the general public can understand. Reporters have access to a much broader array of informed voices than ever before. They are much better able to understand the underlying economic issues, where the right and left disagree and why, and so on. The reporting is now far better, and far more balanced. 

It is not perfect however, as some of the reporting on austerity shows. Many in the media were too quick to report that austerity would promote economic growth by building confidence in the future, and that there were debt thresholds of 90 percent that, if crossed, would inevitably lead to disaster. These ideas have been mostly refuted in the media, and that happened much faster than it would have without academics in the econoblogosphere making it clear that the pivot to austerity in the middle of an economic crisis was a mistake. 

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The public has also benefitted from the emergence of economics blogs. Many people have no idea if they can trust what they read about economic issues. Is a particular article a legitimate piece of information, or an attempt to sway people toward a particular ideological view? Economics blogs can help to overcome this uncertainty by aggregating and curating content – pointing to information that will help people understand economic events such as the Great Recession, and help them to evaluate proposed economic policy. Today, because of blogs, the general public has an unprecedented ability to access non-technical explanations of important economic issues. 

Blogs also help policymakers. If there is an important economic event, it doesn’t take long before analyses of what happened and what policymakers need to do to overcome it begins to appear on economics blogs. I have been told that during the financial crisis and Great Recession, both the Fed and the Treasury monitored economics blogs closely, and on a few occasions reevaluated or changed policy based upon what they read. Before blogs, that type of “real-time” analysis was much harder to find. 

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Those who have proclaimed that blogging is dead as they move on to new ventures have forgotten how much they learned from academic bloggers in economics. Without this human capital, their new ventures would be much less likely to work. Many of them gained trust with readers as a consequence of their own blogging, and from other blogs pointing to them, and their ability to move on is largely due to blogs. If blogs die, where will the next generation come from? 

It may be true that enthusiasm for blogging, especially for personal blogs, has waned. But that doesn’t mean that blogs are no longer important means of correcting bad reporting on economic issues, training those who want to write for the “mainstream” media, and as important sources of information for reporters, policymakers, and the public. They may not get as much traffic as traditional media sites, but it would be a mistake to underestimate their influence. 

Blogging was once frowned upon by economics departments. It wasn’t the type of activity that they valued. But that has changed slowly over time, and some of the top people in the profession now regularly provide valuable insight into important policy issues. A few people who wrote about economics in the blogosphere, mostly non-economists, have moved on and I wish them the best of luck. But economics blogging isn’t dead, far from it. It is just getting started. 

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