Friday, 8 April 2011

Canadian envy

We're one tenth the size of Canada; we punch well below proportional weight when it comes to academic economic blogging. Canadian academic bloggers are having some influence in the election campaign, through blogs and through Twitter.
While Parliamentary Press Gallery reporters have been telling themselves that this is the first “Twitter Election”, the truth is a bit more focused, and in many ways more important. This is the first election in which a large number of Canadian economists are making direct, unmediated, real-time interventions into the debates over policy and the various party platforms.

These interventions are coming from a number of places. Apart from the usual op-eds in newspapers, the gang over at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative has been adding bodies and blogging up a storm for months. Some of that crew — including Stephen Gordon and Frances Woolley — have joined other big hitters such as Jeff Rubin at the Globe and Mail’s Economy Lab.

But far and away the most interesting development has been the insta-punditry a lot of economists are doing on Twitter. These include Mike Moffat (@MikePMoffatt) from London’s Ivey School of Business, Stephen Gordon (@stephenfgordon) of Laval, and Kevin Milligan (@kevinmilligan) of UBC. Along with old hands like Jack Mintz (@jackmintz) of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, these academics are engaging with journalists, party staffers and spin doctors, and other academics. Very little of it is the usual horse-race political analysis — it is hard-nosed analysis of platform items like the F35 fighter jet purchase, the Liberal party’s Cap and Trade plan, and the relative merits of further corporate tax cuts.

It’s part of a trend that, in the US anyway, has seen a great deal of top-level economic debate migrate from academic journals to the blogosphere (e.g. Marginal Revolution). Canadian economists have been slower to shift their work online, but this election seems to have accelerated the process. This disintermediation of economic expertise will have a profound impact on how policy gets debated in this country, if not actually implemented. This blog will be paying attention; readers should too.
The Toronto Globe and Mail has put together a great team of academic and business economists at its Economy Lab, with great results. The Globe & Mail prints something ridiculous about corporate tax rates - front page story. Within a few hours Stephen Gordon has a rebuttal up at the Globe & Mail's own site calling them on it and telling them what the consensus of the academic literature is. First the tweet warning of the coming demolition; the post four hours later.

Every morning I wake up and see a Twitter feed full of the guys mentioned in the Canadian piece above having useful conversations with top Canadian journalists like Andrew Coyne and Paul Wells about the economic contours of the Canadian election debate. Lots of Kiwi business journalists tweet, and we've some decent business journalists. But not the academic economists here. And business journalists just can't have the academic literature at their fingertips.

I don't know if it's a small country problem or if it's related to incentives inherent to PBRF where public service work of the sort done daily by the Canadian econbloggers noted above counts for less in New Zealand than a sheep's burp. Maybe it's because the kinds of folks who here would best contribute to debate already get to shape policy through discussions with Treasury. Maybe there's no demand for "mainstream consensus of economists on matters of their professional expertise" from Kiwi journalism consumers.

But Kiwi public policy debate is poorer for it.


  1. Maybe there's no demand for "mainstream consensus of economists on matters of their professional expertise" from Kiwi journalism consumers.

    If the comments by your newly acquired troll, Mr Quixote, are anything to go by, then I'd say it goes beyond lack of demand and begins to resemble real dislike for the opinions of economists in this country :) But then ignoring trolls is always the most productive policy.

  2. "But not the academic economists here ... Kiwi public policy debate is poorer for it. "

    Yar. 100% agreed.

  3. I have only one thing to say about your lament, which I consider to be completely justified.


  4. Lets face it the incentives for economic blogging are not great. In fact they are zero. But then the incentives for getting involved in public policy debate in general are zero. Not sure that its all down to PBRF or the fact that if good economics costs votes then the economics will be ignored. So why bother?

  5. Eric, have you thought of inviting some of your compatriots to join you on offsetting behaviour, thereby creating a bit more gravity for NZ economic commentary? Even those that don't blog regularly, but would be willing to post 1 or 2 a week could turn OB into a high profile site.

  6. Entry costs for an academic economist are so low, they would only have to post something once a week and they would get a lot of support - especially if it was quality analysis.

    "Eric, have you thought of inviting some of your compatriots to join you on offsetting behaviour, thereby creating a bit more gravity for NZ economic commentary?"

    Maybe a set of academics could get together, write a few things, then post intermitently - they could even give it a name like the New Zealand economists blog.

    I would love to see academics more explicitly in the policy debates that are around - its normally one of the things I ask whenever I'm talking to one.

  7. @Todd: Seamus posts occasionally. Eventually I'll move to WordPress and that would do more to facilitate guest blogging. But I think the set of folks who'd be willing to blog has little intersection with those I'd want to invite.

  8. It would be quite neat to see this develop into something along the lines of SciBlogs. Although I'd probably contribute less, my brain already hurts enough trying to understand some of Eric's economics stuff, the extent of my knowledge here stops at supply & demand. Maybe I ought to branch out and join the blogosphere myself, just for something a little less highbrow. That would satisfy my need to inflict my opinions on the general populace and result in less humiliation here :)