September 10, 2004

Preview: The Economists' Voice: A Manifesto

Economists are losing the battle for mindshare in public debates and discussions about the economy. Too much of what we economists write meets the technical canons of modern economics, but reaches a very small audience (if it reaches any audience at all). Too much of the rest of what we write is murdered by being forced into the Procrustean bed of the 700-word op-ed: a space too small to make any but the most pathetic and oversimplified excuse for an argument. The result is that public understanding of the economy is abysmal, and the intellectual level of the public debate is far too low. We economists all can, no doubt, think of a dozen examples in the past month of hideous errors in the public perception of the economy and hideous mistakes made in good faith (i.e., not by lobbyists) about the effects of public policies. (And, because we are all economists, we economists at least would all largely agree on at least 80% of what are hideous mistakes.)

We--that is, Joe Stiglitz, Aaron Edlin, and I--aim to start an online publication, The Economists' Voice, to be "published" by Berkeley Electronic Press, to try to remedy this situation. The two youngest of us are confident that we have a very good chance of succeeding. Our confidence is based on one fact: Joe Stiglitz thinks that this will work, and his judgment in this area is very good, as is shown by the remarkable success of the Journal of Economic Perspectives which has greatly increased the flow of information across the subfields of economics, and done a remarkable job of welding the American Economic Association into a stronger intellectual community.

The Economists' Voice will aim for pieces longer than an op-ed and shorter than (and much more readable than) a piece for a standard journal. We thus avoid the op-ed problem--the problem that op-ed space is too short for an argument, and only provides space to be shrill. But we also hope to stay short enough to be readable, and understandable. And we will aim for quick turnaround--days rather than the years of journals.

The level will be non-technical but sophisticated: perhaps what one expects to read in the Financial Times and the news pages of the Wall Street or National Journal, or perhaps a notch above. The aim will be to provide an economist's argument and point of view on some salient and interesting issue: a survey of something interesting happening in the economy, or a call for some change in policy or institutions--which would consist of a review of what the principal important factors are, what the objective function is, what the constraints are, why the objective function is maximized at the particular set of policies or institutional arrangements that the author prefers.

We will launch the The Economists' Voice later this year. We will succeed if we become *the* place on the internet where economists, journalists, interested observers, staffers, and others turn in search of high-quality comprehensible economic analysis.

Posted by DeLong at September 10, 2004 10:26 AM | TrackBack

Great news.

Posted by: ls at September 10, 2004 10:32 AM

Thank you, and good luck.

Posted by: rajeev at September 10, 2004 10:42 AM

One thing, which happens, sometimes, at conferences and panels, but not often enough in print, is critical restatement.

If you could find a framework, in which an argument could not merely be presented, but critically restated by someone with a different point of view, your journal would become a place for real intellectual stimulation.

I am not suggesting debates, or "from the right, from the left" juxtaposition. To some extent, I am suggesting respectful peer review in the light of day. In another, I am asking for letters to the editor, without waiting for a subsequent issue.

Good luck with your venture.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder at September 10, 2004 10:46 AM

A big reason why Bush is able to lie so boldly is that economics has become such esoteric gobledygook that his arguments sound as good as any other.

(Imagine if all legal arguments were in Latin; and I were to assert: "Quid hoc secundum ablative decorum est." Sounds good to me.)

Another problem with this is that - while Bush's arguments can always sound plausible - any of Kerry's sound dubious. After all "E pluribus unum" might also just be more goobldygook.

Posted by: Thomas Paine at September 10, 2004 10:49 AM

I hope this succeeds at least in the blogosphere. It will be even better if economists can resist using 10 dollar words when at 10 cent one will do. This is very hard, but can be done. It means looking at things from the layman's viewpoint, an act of empathy that scholars frequently will not try. Please do.

Posted by: Carol at September 10, 2004 10:57 AM

Good luck. I think it sounds like an excellent idea, but I doubt it will have any more of an impact on public discourse than, say, Scientific American or Skeptical Inquirer. Those inclined to seek out more than the 700-word shrill OpEd already have access to more detailed and nuanced sources of information and opinion; I'm not sure those who already can't be bothered to read more than USA Today are going to seek out your new magazine. But I'll be reading it. Thanks.

Posted by: Tom Beck at September 10, 2004 11:03 AM

"We will succeed if we become *the* place on the internet where economists, journalists, interested observers, staffers, and others turn in search of high-quality comprehensible economic analysis."

If I might be so bold, and I certainly hope that the thought had already occurred to you, you will have a better chance of succeeding if your review process includes members of the target audience, especially the interested observers, staffers (at all levels) and others. Reviewing -- particularly at a level that provides constructive criticism, particularly for a non-specialized audience -- is hard, time-consuming work. I suspect that finding such reviewers outside of the relatively narrow set of positions where you "get points" for such activities may well be your most challenging problem.

Best of luck in the endeavor!

Posted by: Michael Cain at September 10, 2004 11:04 AM

I agree with Tom that there might be some "preaching to the choir" going on. How about getting some regular space in the New York Times Magazine where the word limits aren't so harsh and the audience is diverse? I think a regular NY Times Mag column co-written (or could alternate) by the three of you would certainly raise the level of debate.

Posted by: noto at September 10, 2004 11:14 AM

Good luck with this.

Posted by: Bernard Yomtov at September 10, 2004 11:20 AM

I also wish you luck. However, don't be so quick to walk away from the op-ed format, either. 700 words may not seem like enough space, but a lot can be said in a little if skill is used and care is taken. I guess what I'm saying is, don't leave the op-ed page to the shrill if, by expending some effort (and, perhaps, finding a co-author), the point could be made successfully.

Posted by: Eric at September 10, 2004 11:25 AM

Great news! Will it have a blog?

Posted by: praktike at September 10, 2004 11:26 AM

Is this a free on-line thing? By subscription? membership?

Posted by: Derelict at September 10, 2004 11:27 AM

This is just outstanding. I think there is a widely felt need for something like this among non-economists.

Posted by: Jeff L. at September 10, 2004 11:29 AM

Shorter Brad DeLong: The American people are stupid because they don't realize it is a good thing that their jobs are being shipped overseas.

Posted by: Firebug at September 10, 2004 11:50 AM

Thank you for caring about the greater good and believing that truthful knowledge is power that benefits the common weal.
If there is need for public 'guinea pigs', I would gladly make a sacrifice to serve your purpose.

Posted by: Steve at September 10, 2004 12:07 PM

Great idea! Will comments from we in the hoi polloi be welcome?

Posted by: Martin Bento at September 10, 2004 12:13 PM

A plea: how about including some environmental economics topics. The insights of economists into environmental problems are almost completely neglected in the limited amount of environmental press out there-and even within economics its pretty difficult to get out of the ghetto of environmental economics field journals.

Posted by: CalDem at September 10, 2004 12:20 PM

It is harder to write in "layman's" language than it sounds. Specialized terms really do express things that can't be accurately expressed in plain language without paragraphs of explanation. I'm a patent attorney, and we really do need to say "doctrine of equivalents" and "means plus function" when we are talking about patent law.

Perhaps a glossary running down the side of the page with the key untranslatable economic terms?

Posted by: Emma Anne at September 10, 2004 12:55 PM

Awesome. Will you welcome quality submissions from non-academic economists? Will you welcome relevant submissions coming from other displines?Another thing: I think it would be great if advertising and marketing for this journal were carefully planned.

By the way, in the international realm, there is something that's probably half way between this and the JEP:
The World Economy
Maybe that are a few things to learn from their experiment?

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns at September 10, 2004 01:00 PM

Yes, yes, yes. Still, I may pair with Mr. Stiglitz. I stil do not see the person capable of writing "The Economic Consequences of Mr. Bush" even if the three of you are great economists. JMK is missed, not because of his macro but for his ability to influence the world politics.

Posted by: Miguel Olivera at September 10, 2004 01:07 PM

Cool, I'm looking forward to it! One concern, though. I don't know what Edlin's political leanings are, but with you and Stiglitz, it seems rather skewed to the left. Can't you guys make this broader and get someone like Tyler Cowen on board?

Posted by: fling93 at September 10, 2004 01:16 PM

Ha! Take THAT, Krugman -- you shrill motherfucker!

Posted by: zizka / John Emerson at September 10, 2004 01:39 PM

Sounds awesome. I look forward to reading it.

Will there be a fee, or will it be free?

Posted by: Brian at September 10, 2004 02:00 PM

Fantastic idea.

As Emma Anne I would have non-economists (say undergraduate volunteers) read the manuscripts to know what terms, proper names, etc. need to have hyperlinks to a glossary. Articles in the mold of Slate's "Explainer" would be welcome: How do we measure employment? How does the Fed influence interest rates? What are the different types of trade agreements?

Good luck.

Posted by: Ted at September 10, 2004 02:04 PM

Wonderful idea. I think a glossary is necessary. And in the let's have a pony with that category, it would be nice if there were a sort of carefully managed blog that would permit honest inquirers to get some basic tutoring or even detailed responses.

Posted by: masaccio at September 10, 2004 03:59 PM


Please make sure
a) It's free -- impact wins
b) It has an RSS feed
c) You have perspectives from across the political spectrum.

Posted by: Dan G at September 10, 2004 04:53 PM

Please let me know when I can begin subscribing--to the online, electronic, non-tree-killing, PDF'd edition.

And I second the call for the letters to the edtiors to be printed with the articles. Perhaps something along the lines of the Economist's occasional "By invitation" feature?

Posted by: Paul at September 10, 2004 04:53 PM

A lovely idea, much needed. After all, Dear Paul Krugman only has 700 words though those words do count for so much. Lovely.

Posted by: anne at September 10, 2004 05:13 PM

Good show!

Posted by: luci phyrr at September 10, 2004 05:22 PM

Great idea. Good luck. Can you start right now? And please make articles on macro and social insurance much more comprehensible than the average newspaper article, as well as the average academic journal.

And you will have a section for high school and college students, right? How about a section for critiques of press coverage?

If you can get a scholars from a variety of viewpoints to discuss the theory and evidence in plain, understandable English, that will be a very important accomplishment. And if you can get a rep as a reliable place for information, stuff you publish on macro and social insurance might find a much wider audience than you think.

If it works, somebody should cook up a prize for you folks.

Posted by: jml at September 10, 2004 06:00 PM

I hope the journal explores some of the "non-economic" foundations of economics ie; philosophical anthropology and the like.

Homo economicus does not exist except in theory. People make economic and other decisions based on more than "self-interest".

Perhaps you should get a Maussian theorist to write a few words now and again.

Posted by: evagrius at September 10, 2004 11:42 PM

A couple of questions:

- will it have anything to say about the 70% of the world economy which isn't in America? Most of the more interesting economic stories are abroad (Japan, Argentina, the introduction of the euro et al.)
- will it welcome contributions from others besides its authors, especially those who don't share the authors' political views?

If the answers are both yes, it will be a very useful addition to the Internet.

Firebug - would you think it a good idea if Chinese or Indian jobs, with their ghastly labor conditions and low wages, were shipped to America (or Europe) instead? Because that's what full protectionism would do - it's a recipe for impoverishment all round.

Incidentally, it's not only economists who suffer from needing to get very technical arguments into soundbite or op-ed length. Virtually any experts, from environmentalists to engineers to foreign policy specialists to insurance industry people have this problem.

Posted by: PJ at September 11, 2004 02:38 AM


What an excelent idea and I look very much forward to reading it.

I think it would also be an excelent resource for professors teaching introductory courses to undergraduates - before I left academia I was always searching for non-technical, readable material on current economic events to make my courses more interesting to the students - which they greatly appreciate, not suprisingly, as intro economics can often seem dry and abstract to 20 year olds. I will spread the word to all my graduate school friends currently teaching at university.

best luck


Posted by: Erika at September 11, 2004 04:20 AM

Interesting, and one hopes not some years too late. Speaking as a someone who who has written an economics column in a large-circulation literate publication, I have mixed feelings about the glossary idea: one the one hand you do need the jargon to be precise, but on the other once you've got people wandering off tracking down the way that economists' use of some words differs from their meanings on plain english you've lost almost precisely the audience you want and need.

You're also going to have to figure out what proportion of the material published should be effectively in reaction to current events and conditions and what proportion should be Stuff People Should Know in order to be economically literate. The former gets you readers, the latter gets you readers who can do useful things with their knowledge.

If it's half as good as JEP it will be fine reading.

Posted by: paul at September 11, 2004 07:57 AM

Not to sound offensive, but the problem lies squarely on the shoulders of the discipline. Economists routinely claim that their discipline is "scientific" and "mathematically accurate" when their procedures only bear a rough relationship with the scientific method and their mathematics typically represent subjective personal opinions. The problem is that economics is more a social than natural science but economists (and those with political interests in certain scholarship) have refused to admit as much. The end result is the public persception of a failed natural science, something akin to scalp reading or astrology, where it looks like they're measuring something objective but where all the conclusions are just plain wrong.

But there is IMHO a deeper problem: can economics really teach us anything more than common sense? And if not, what's the point of it being a separate discipline from social statistics? C'mon, the Nobel Prize two years ago was awarded to a team of three(!) economists who figured out that people pay more for products from reputable dealers. Duh.

Name one major, unambiguous contribution to society from the field of economics. All I've seen lately have been veils for selfish behavior (Laffer Curve, market-based corporate governance). Alan Greenspan is reduced to watching the sales of cardboard boxes when determining how much money to pump into the economy while no major economists admit to the public that massive deficit financing is nothing less than intergenerational warfare, and yet we're constantly told that economics is a pure, objective science that can solve all our problems. You guys have got to do better.

Posted by: Max at September 11, 2004 08:05 AM

Truly excellent idea! Of course, we hope you maintain your webblog too.

Posted by: PGL at September 11, 2004 12:36 PM

I think Brad's column is an excellent idea. I, for one, will be looking forward to it.

Max, your comment is cynical without being thoughtful. Especially in this global economy where money moves so quickly and seemingly abstract and meaningless policy can have enormous ramifications on our everyday lives it's an imperative to respect economics and strive to improve it as a science. Using the laffer curve to 'prove' that all of economics is junk is like saying, "Well, those leeches never did anybody any good. So much for medicine."

Posted by: Angelica at September 11, 2004 01:27 PM

Max: I'm not an economist; I'm a computer scientist. Here are three ideas that I learned from economics, all of which I find true, unobvious, and profound.

3. The theory of comparative advantage. I find that almost no one believes this unless you draw a picture, at which they understand. And five minutes after the diagram is out of sight, they stop believing it. The idea that gains from trade are possible is apparently deeply unintuitive.

2. The idea of prices reflecting marginal demand. It's a deep intuition that prices and wages reflect some mystical, intrinsic notion of the "value" of a good. This intuition is also completely wrong -- and the Marshallian idea that replaces it, that a price reflects the marginal demand, is totally radical and brilliant.

1. Accounting for time by computing net present values. The basics of decision theory -- pick the strategy that maximizes the payoff -- is obvious. What is totally unobvious is how to compare strategies over time: how much should I sacrifice now for a future payoff? The answer to this question can be found in the idea that interest rates represent the time value of money, and that you can use this to price an annuity.

Posted by: Neel Krishnaswami at September 11, 2004 03:00 PM

Neel, I was unclear about what type of "economics" I had a problem with. I don't mean that all theoretical ideas from the field of economics are useless. What I mean to argue I clarify below: that economics has not been nearly as socially useful from a political policy standpoint as it should be.

Angelica, you made precisely my point--given the increased role of government, the tighter integration of economies, and the sheer scale and speed of monetary behavior these day, there has never been a greater need for sound economic policy.

And yet, for whatever reason, upon application all economics has been able to provide us is a bunch of hemming and hawing and in the end ideological cover for fantastically bad policy, from the opening up of currency markets before goods and services in developing nations to the widespread use of uncovered derivatves (i.e. bets) to the budget insanity of the US.

I really don't mean this as a strike at Delong or economists in general, and I'm always supportive of smart, well-written people finding new ways to get their thoughts out, but what will this new journal actually provide? To be 'respectible,' it will have to hem and haw and avoid reaching strong conclusions. But to be useful it would have to do exactly that: outright say that some policies are worse than others and provide concrete, accepted data and methods for assessing why one policy is worse than another.

As it stands, economics is simply unable to provide the same useful, concrete answers of many other comparable social sciences.

Posted by: Max at September 11, 2004 03:40 PM

Tutorials: you should include tutorials written in plain English, at the level precisely the same as NYTimes or Washington Post, or maybe even USAToday or Knight-Ridder. Preferably, the argument would be more coherent than the NYTimes or Washington Post, though.

The tutorials would be on important macro and social insurance issues and controversies. For example, how does social security work, history of post-WWII business cycles.

They would be written from your point of view, with an introduction to how to interpret stats and figures and arguments seen in the media, with an eye towards giving a simple BS detector to the average person who wants to evaluate arguments he or she hears.

I am surprised how many people have no idea how progressive income tax, or the Fed, countercyclical economic policy, or social security works. I don't just mean some of the extremist commenters here, but sensible educated people I meet in everyday life.

The tutorial feature wouldn't be dry textbook -they would be updated on a regular basis to address current issues in the news and politics.

Also, I think your idea of forcing everything into an extremal problem under a constraint may be to restrictive. And when you do it, that part of it certainly must be presented in very plain and easy to follow English, preferably with graphs and sample statistics to show how the concepts relate to the real world.

I have one question: if you are going to get all fancy and insist everything has to be in an extremal problem framework, why nothing about equilibrium, and endogeneity versus exogeneity? Those concepts are at least as important. Maybe much more difficult to present in plain English and in a way easy to follow, but I have confidence you will find a way, and that is why the site will be a smashing success and will make you all famous!

Posted by: jml at September 11, 2004 05:22 PM

I think you should aspire to the success of Krugman's columns for Slate, which taught economic facts and principles as well in relation to some germane topic. Reach that standard and you will be doing very well indeed.


Posted by: meno at September 12, 2004 08:19 PM

I wish you luck, professor, but I think you misdiagnose the problem.

Economists have little public credibility because they are seen as tools of justification for whatever policy a politician wants to advance.

Disagreements between the various camps of economists are sufficiently technical that most people hear something like 'blah, blah, blah,' and will therefore not be persuaded from the version that provides justification for their preferences.

The economy is viewed as a political award system, so what politicians say matters and what economists say doesn't to the public at large.

Posted by: Jason Ligon at September 13, 2004 08:36 AM

It seems to me that economics is not a "hard" science but a social one.

The theoretical foundations of modern economics are founded on a particular view of human behavior, on what human beings choose as important in their lives. The modern view of humans acting purely on self-interest and that the aggregate self-interest somehow results in benefiting everyone is contradictory to the older view, based on religion, that human beings need to overcome self-interest in order to benefit everyone.

I wonder if economics have really looked at past societies? How do they view ancient Egypt, where economic activity was basically directed to the erection of pyramids, tombs and the like, ( all rather grandiose with no apparent utility)?

How do they view the Inca economy where the Emperor owned everything? Or the Mayans where feathers were a main currency?

Do they view them through the lens of modern views or do they allow these societies their own views and voices?

I'm stating all this because I think Marcel Mauss had a legitimate point.

I think modern economic theory is viewed with suspicion precisely because its presupositions go counter to most people's' moral views, ( I'm always intrigued that few people consider Milton Friedman's Randian atheism could color his economic theorizing ( and don't forget that Greenspan is also a Randian )).

Posted by: evagrius at September 13, 2004 10:00 AM

Sounds good. Let us know if we can do anything to help.

Posted by: dan at September 13, 2004 04:26 PM

Can't stand Stiglitz (no offense), but one of his former students Deirdre (quondam Donald) McCloskey is probably my favorite economic methodologist of all time and indisputibly the smartest. Not sure why anyone would care, but, there it is.


evagrius [are we playing Magic now?]

"I'm always intrigued that few people consider Milton Friedman's Randian atheism could color his economic theorizing."

Do you know what most people "consider"? Also not sure what this has to do with anything.... Although I think most people probably are aware that things color people's theorizing other than hard, cold, asceptic "reality" which does or does not exist, depending on your stripes. We did go to high school, you know.

"...and don't forget that Greenspan is also a Randian."

Actually, he isn't.

Used to be, though.

I guess since you have clairvoyance you could assert that he is indeed a Randian in his private den with The Foutnainhead in his hands but in office he's just another statist who heads up the one public institution more than any other responsible--by definition--for inflation and, oh yeah, that little thing called the business cycle. :)

Good luck with the site. Sounds dull but...I might check it out for kicks.

Posted by: Adam at September 14, 2004 08:45 AM

Max, are you on something??

The rest of the social sciences are no more useful or definitive than literary theory.

Economics is the only one with the possibility of saying anything worthwhile about real life.
Precisely because it can explain why you can't just draw wealth out of thin air like most social theorists seem to believe.

Posted by: Joe at September 17, 2004 07:22 PM