Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 31 December 2012

Advice for potential academic bloggers

I wanted to mark a year of blogging by encouraging other academics (particularly outside the US) to do the same. So lets use my experience to tackle some of the worries that may be holding others back.

1) How do people find out I’m blogging? I’ll be writing to myself!

When I started, I thought my posts would mainly be a useful resource for my students. Things I did not have time to say or elaborate on in lectures. In my case that is all the publicity I gave it, beyond something on my homepage and email signature. But if other bloggers discover that you are writing interesting stuff, it will be picked up. (In my case, I probably have to thank Jonathan Portes, Chris Dillow and - of course - Mark Thoma.) That is one of the great things about this medium.

Now there will almost certainly be a point where you become fixated by audience numbers.[1] But of course it is as much who reads your posts as how many read them. Here I have discovered something that is not that surprising when you think about it, but which should be a great incentive for many academic economists. Economists in policy making institutions read blogs. They do not have time to read many academic papers, but they want something a little deeper than even the FT can provide, and blogs can be ideal from that point of view. So if you have a message you want to get across to those who advise on policy, blogging is the way to do it.

2) I can imagine a few things I could write about, but I’ll quickly run out of things to say.  

Yes, I thought that too.[2] Now I admit macro is a bit special at the moment: events just keep providing material. But even so, you may surprise yourself. You certainly do not have to write as many posts as I do, and they can be shorter. (Who just said they couldn’t agree more!). No one is going to ‘unsubscribe’ you just because you have not posted for a month. How many times have you read a post, or a newspaper article, which you have disagreed with in part because you have better expertise or knowledge? Why keep that to yourself?

3) But I do not fancy getting into online debating contests

This was one issue I had to deal with early on. After writing this, I found myself being drawn into that kind of situation. (I was being provocative, so I’m not complaining.) So I pulled back, as I described here. How much you want to participate in this kind of thing is up to you.

One issue I would be careful about is tone. I once had a colleague who was always politeness personified in face to face conversation, but then could occasionally unleash the most hostile and aggressive emails or memos. I now understand better where this comes from. As I described here, when writing about contentious issues like austerity it is perhaps too easy to be rude.

4) But who am I writing for: other academics, or the public?

That is up to you. I try and make what I write accessible to non-economists, but I know that I often fail, in part because jargon comes so naturally. There are a large number of non-economists out there who are genuinely curious about economic issues, and know that the stuff they get from the conventional media is either simplistic or just wrong. If you do try to write for that audience, but also want to write something more technical, you can flag that at the beginning of the post, as Paul Krugman and others do.

5) But I should be doing research, or reading papers, rather than writing blogs.

The main activity that blogging has displaced for me is watching TV. I write the initial drafts of most of my blogs between 9pm and midnight. Now I try and avoid posting them immediately, because my mental faculties are not great at that time, but instead post them 24 hours later. By that time my unconscious mind has probably spotted most errors. You can also integrate scholarship with writing posts, as I suggest below.

6) But if I stray too far from my area of expertise, I may make mistakes.

Or, in my case, even if you are writing within your area of expertise. But as long as it does not happen too often, I think admitting and correcting mistakes does you no harm.

7) Do I have to put all those links into my blogs?

It would be easy to say at this point its up to you, but I think its good practice to link to others where you can. Bruegel said ‘Europeans can’t blog’, not because there are not European blogs, but because they tend not to link to each other. You will find your readership increases if other blogs link to you, so you should reciprocate.

This requires a little organisation and extra time. I try to keep a note of what I read, which I probably would not do if I was not writing a blog. No system is perfect, of course, and many a time I have come across a note of a post I really should have referenced. But it is worth trying.  

8) But what if my academic colleagues find out I’m blogging?

I may have to explain this for any US readers. In the UK, and perhaps elsewhere, there is a view that for academics to attempt to write for non-academics is a bit vulgar. I like to think this view is old-fashioned, but I’m not sure. However I think this will change. US academics do read blogs, and are not afraid to say so. And in the UK, there is - in ESRC and REF speak - impact!

9) Still, its not going to actually help my academic work, is it?

I’m not so sure about this. Blogging has undoubtedly improved my teaching. I do not mean students just reading my posts. In many areas, writing posts has helped me clarify my ideas, and my lectures are better as a result. I few weeks ago I wrote a refereed article that I would not have been able to write if I had not been blogging, just because writing posts forced me to think about issues more carefully. I have also occasionally found that an article that I have just read contains material that may be of more general interest, and so I have written a post on that (here is an example). As a result, I am more likely to remember what the paper said, and I hope that paper may have got one or two more readers.

10) Any other advantages?

Well, at the end of the year, you can write: thanks for reading the posts, and happy new year!

[1] Blogger says I get around 3,000 pageviews a day, and feedburner says I have around 1,750 subscribers. Is this a lot or a little? Google reader does in principle allow you to compare subscriber numbers across blogs, but it has been saying I have exactly 842 subscribers for about six months, so something tells me this may not be reliable. So,  using myself as an example again, this tells you that you do not have to know much about the technicalities of blogs to be a blogger.

[2] I should have known better. My grandfather on my mother’s side loved spending hours arguing about all kinds of things, my father wrote newspaper articles and books about a wide range of topics, my mother was a sort of journalist for a short while, and my brother is head of a media studies department, so I guess it comes naturally. On the other hand my father-in-law also liked pontificating on political issues at great length, so maybe this just says something about what many men of a certain age like to do.


  1. ... thanks for writing the posts! happy new year (from France)

  2. Happy new year blogging : )

  3. Thank you Simon. I really enjoy your blog. I wish you a very successful and happy 2013!

  4. Happy new year Prof. Wren Lewis, keep it up, love the blog.


  6. Absolutely agree. All very good advice. I've enjoyed reading your posts over the last year. (And I would say 3k pageviews/day is extremely healthy for an individual blog which has been running for a year).

    One thing you might consider doing is setting up a Twitter account and sending a tweet containing the title/url each time you publish a new post. A lot of people tweet and retweet links to your posts. That would probably happen even more extensively if they could follow a Twitter account associated with your blog. You can do the tweeting manually, but you should be able to automate it so once it's set up it wouldn't take any maintenance.

    All the best for another successful blogging year in 2013.

  7. Thank you for your wise words. As you say, macro is special and you are one of its clearest exponents. Please keep up the illuminations :-)

  8. Very well said; nice post. FWIW, some of my own thoughts on the same topic:

  9. As a non-economist, I would simply like to say that I very much enjoy reading your blog, Thanks and have a nice 2013.

  10. I have just discovered your blog and I have hugely enjoyed the posts that I have read so far.

    There are some views or descriptions of the monetary system that I have read which seem very compelling but are, as far as I can tell, largely ignored by mainstream economists and commentators. I don't really understand why this is the case. It would be useful if you could indicate whether you think these are wrong and, if so, explain why?
    Here they are....

    1. Commercial banks create almost all the money that circulates in the economy, by extending credit. This is, of course, matched by debt, so they do not create net new money. However the electronic money that they create provides almost all (97%) of the spending power, with a small amount provided by physical cash. This view is promoted by

    2. The financial balances of the government and non-government sectors must add up to zero. It follows, therefore, that government deficits are needed in order for the non-government sector to accumulate net nominal financial assets. Government debt represents the accumulated net financial assets of the non-government sector. This is the sectoral financial balance approach of the late Wynne Godley.

    3. Since, in a fiat currency system, the government is the monopoly supplier of money, government spending, which introduces money into the economy, must occur before taxes paid with the same money can be collected. It is therefore a logical fallacy to consider taxes as funding government spending. It is government spending that funds taxes. Taxes remove from the economy money introduced by government spending. This is the foundation of Chartalism or modern monetary theory.

    1. Anton,

      You ask why “mainstream economists” tend to ignore this debate. I suggest the reason is that this particular debate is currently a very lively one, and frankly it’s a rough and tumble. Many of those taking part (e.g. me) are not professional economists. In contrast, perhaps many professional economists don’t want to be seen entering that sort of arena.

      Re your three points, I have no quarrel with the first two. Re the third, I agree that government / central bank supplies the economy with money first, and then grabs some of the money back in the form of taxes. That has been going on for thousands of years. E.g. Henry I did that using tally sticks shortly after the Norman Conquest. But I have a problem with two of your sentences. You say, “It is therefore a logical fallacy to consider taxes as funding government spending. It is government spending that funds taxes.”

      The statement that “taxes fund government” is a perfectly reasonable statement. Taxes withdraw spending power from the private sector, which makes room for government spending. The fact that government issued the money in the first place is immaterial, I think.

    2. Fair point. However, while stating that ’taxes fund government spending' may be reasonable shorthand, I think it leaves the mistaken impression that government deficits and debt are feckless and should be avoided. It would be more accurate to say that taxes are needed to moderate private sector spending to ensure that aggregate demand does not exceed supply, which would result in inflation. If the private sector as a whole has a desire to accumulate net financial assets then, to allow this, tax revenues must fall short of government spending , and the national debt, which represents the stock of the private sector's accumulated net financial assets, must obviously also increase. This is normal and healthy and I would argue that this portrays more accurately what government deficit and debt actually represent in a fiat currency system.

  11. How to re-establish economics as a realist and relevant social science-Professor Lars Pålsson Syll
    27 december, 2012

    Economics – and especially mainstream neoclassical economics – has as a science lost immensely in terms of status and prestige during the last years. Not the least because of its manifest inability to foresee the latest financial and economic crisis – and its lack of constructive and sustainable policies to take us out of the crisis.

    We all know that many activities, relations, processes and events are uncertain and that the data do not unequivocally single out one decision as the only “rational” one. Neither the economist, nor the deciding individual, can fully pre-specify how people will decide when facing uncertainties and ambiguities that are ontological facts of the way the world works.

    Neoclassical economists, however, have wanted to use their hammer, and so decided to pretend that the world looks like a nail. Pretending that uncertainty can be reduced to risk and construct models on that assumption have only contributed to financial crises and economic havoc.

    How do we put an end to this intellectual cataclysm? How do we re-establish credence and trust in economics? Five changes are absolutely decisive.

    (1) Stop pretending that we have exact and rigorous answers on everything. Because we don’t. We build models and theories and tell people that we can calculate and foresee the future. But we do this based on mathematical and statistical assumptions that often have little or nothing to do with reality. By pretending that there is no really important difference between model and reality we lull people into thinking that we have things under control. We haven’t! This false feeling of security was one of the factors that contributed to the financial crisis of 2008.

    (2) Stop the childish and exaggerated belief in mathematics giving answers to important economic questions. Mathematics gives exact answers to exact questions. But the relevant and interesting questions we face in the economic realm are rarely of that kind. Questions like “Is 2 + 2 = 4?” are never posed in real economies. Instead of a fundamentally misplaced reliance on abstract mathematical-deductive-axiomatic models having anything of substance to contribute to our knowledge of real economies, it would be far better if we pursued “thicker” models and relevant empirical studies and observations.

    (3) Stop pretending that there are laws in economics. There are no universal laws in economics. Economies are not like planetary systems or physics labs. The most we can aspire to in real economies is establishing possible tendencies with varying degrees of generalizability.

    (4) Stop treating other social sciences as poor relations. Economics has long suffered from hubris. A more broad-minded and multifarious science would enrich today’s altogether too autistic economics.

    (5) Stop building models and making forecasts of the future based on totally unreal micro-founded macromodels with intertemporally optimizing robot-like representative actors equipped with rational expectations. This is pure nonsense. We have to build our models on assumptions that are not so blatantly in contradiction to reality. Assuming that people are green and come from Mars is not a good – not even as a “successive approximation” – modeling strategy.

  12. 1. Things depend imho on what you want to do with it. Like: be able to tell the academic issue in easy language; test new ideas; etc..
    Also if you want a lot of visitors or you donot care.

    2. In general simpler language works better (more visitors), but is in general much more difficult to write especially consistently.
    More jokes, funny names etc.; more direct, bit rougher language also works.
    Usually people scan blogs more than that they read them (at least at first), easy accessible helps in that respect (and academic papers are usually awful in that respect (summary is nearly always not extended enough, you are often forced to get through the whole thing, which costs a lot of time (for management or blogs (probably) that structure is not really working well).
    In general people like discussions. People like an answer on a comment. But a lot of people like to read the discussions and for them it is as important as the OP. You often need the writer of the post to bring a bit of line or a few 'usual suspects', who do.

    3. To attract more visitors you need regular content, preferably daily. Even different sorts of posts work (shorter ones for when there is nothing relevant or you have no time.

    4. On tone. As said a bit rougher language is in general appreciated. One way or another visitors often like a good fight-style discussion. But that is one of the choices you have to make.
    Too rough and topo often too rough however keeps often commentors away. Another choice you have to make.

  13. A lot of the issues listed can also be mitigated by starting group blogs, which I think aren't common enough. They not only motivate those who are less active to blog (by guaranteeing them that other days will be filled by co-bloggers), but help more frequent posters to slow down and improve quality rather than targeting quantity.

    1. Agreed. You had beat me to it.

    2. Jonathan and Nick

      I agree that if a single blogger felt pressure to write too many blogs that would be bad. But why should they? In my post I say that once someone has subscribed to your blog, their only concern is that the quality remains good - they do not care about quantity. On Google Reader I have a number of blogs that post every fortnight or so, but this does not bother me in the slightest.

      On the other hand, a potential problem with group blogs (not all, I hasten to add) is that a reader may only be interested in the topics covered by some of the contributors and not others. Its a small cost for the reader to sort themselves, but its a cost nonetheless.

      So are there other advantages of group blogs that I'm missing?

  14. Really enjoyed this. Thankyou. As a public policy type person who wants to know what academics think about issues, this is sound advice.

  15. As a lay person I think yours a Jonathan Portes's blog posts are very informative. Thanks and keep blogging!

  16. Thank you, Simon. A very interesting and useful piece.

  17. I've been a fan of Chris's work for a while, I learned of that from a student forum. Having this blog simply by googling you (I'm a PPEist) I was pleasantly surprised that your respective blogs often refer to each other. I intend to start my own once I have some free time.

  18. I was with you until you suggested watching less TV.


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