Bloggitude: who gets upset by what?

I don’t really think this one is of general interest so I’ll put it all below the jump . . .

I often read Greg Mankiw’s blog because it has lots of interesting little bits. Also, just as it can be fun to read the writings of someone nonideological, because you never know where they’ll stand on any given issue, it can also be enjoyable to read more partisan writings–in Mankiw’s case, you’ll get an educated conservative take on a wide range of economic issues. Sometimes I think Mankiw is misled by his ideology (as in his blogs on his work incentives, recidivism, and Sonia Sotomayor’s savings account); other times he makes a good point (as with the Obama team’s unemployment forecast and effects of tax cuts). But he’s often thought-provoking.

But I was unhappy to see Mankiw’s latest blog entry. Here it is, in its entirety:

Three on Health Policy

1. John Cochrane

2. Robert Samuelson

3. Charles Krauthammer

What sort of value is Mankiw adding here? He’s across the river from an excellent, excellent department of health care policy. Wouldn’t it be more helpful for Mankiw to read some of their papers and give his comments, from the perspective of a conservative economist? What does he gain by linking to newspaper pundits (links 2 and 3 above)?

This is not to say that a blogger should only ply the areas of his comparative advantage. For example, I sometimes like to recommend novels. Mankiw’s post is different, I think, in that he’s linking to arguments about economics–but arguments that are being made by people with much less expertise than he has! It would be like me approvingly linking to a Dilbert cartoon that endorses Bayesian statistics.

I guess the real question is why this bothers me. I guess it’s because Mankiw’s job description (researcher/educator in a technical field, blogger for fun and for public education purposes) is so close to mine. Conversely, lots of people in the so-called blogosphere get upset by the rantings of various bottom-feeder journalists and bloggers on the left and the right, things that don’t bother me much at all, I have no problem just ignoring them.

I’m certainly not saying that Mankiw has any duty to be commenting on the top papers in health care policy research for his blog–after all, he has a day job, he can blog on whatever he wants, and, as noted above, he has a lot of interesting things to say and he says them well. I just don’t see what he is offering by linking to newspaper op-eds. I think he’d have much more to offer, even as a blogger, by critiquing the work of academic health-care policy researchers from the perspective of his expertise in macroeconomics.

I guess this is a sign that I spend too much time blogging, if I start offering unsolicited advice to other bloggers.

27 thoughts on “Bloggitude: who gets upset by what?

  1. The problem with Mankiw blogging is that he has accrued some legitimacy based upon his positions affecting policy.
    His biases come through in his blog posts too much for anybody to take him seriously, I'm afraid. He may be very bright, but I don't think he's trustworthy. He should be commenting on the top papers of the day. He doesn't. This is problematic.

    I suspect, but can't really be sure, that his refusal to look at the current literature is inspired by his inability to reject his biases.

    It's not untypical. I think anyone reading this blog should be able to notice this.

  2. I believe he explained these types of links without comment before in a different context (stimulus instead of health care). He wrote:

    Let me make one thing clear: When I link to another economist here on this blog, it is typically because I think his or her arguments are worth hearing and thinking about, not necessarily because I agree with all of them. I don't have the time (and, in some cases, expertise) to offer a refereeing service for every article I mention. So when I say, "Here is an article by Professor X," I mean "Here is an article by Professor X," not "Here is an article by Professor X, and I approve of everything he says."

    Although these are not all economists this time, I think he's just passing on food for thought. I dunno. I appreciate the links even if they are given without comment, and assume he's linking to writings that he thinks are worth considering, even if I understand your point as well.

  3. Professor Gelman, great post.
    At a meta-level I've been interested in how policing (kind of what you're doing here) seems to me to be a major driver of the animal spirits.

    I think it would be informative if you took an "epistemological tour" of how you think ideology might be deforming the conclusions, positions, and blogging epistemological styles of some of the other blogging experts your read.

    I think that by being a little less nice to your fellow experts, you're being a lot more informative to your readership.

  4. I unsubscribed from Mankiw's blog a while ago because of the same issues. I started getting irritated by his custom of just linking to conservative writings. I thought it was dishonest because he doesn't tell you why he links or if he agrees or not but his intention is clearly to support conservative views and use his blog rating to promote those writings. And I don't buy his "I don't have the time" because he clearly has the time to argue silly things when he wants and writing a tiny sentence on why he is linking takes about 60 seconds. But what did it to me was his constant promotion of his textbooks.

  5. Dave: I agree with your general point about links, but in this case, Mankiw isn't just linking to "an article by Professor X," he's linking to a couple of newspaper columnists, which might be "food for thought" in that he agrees with their political points, but I doubt represent new or sophisticated economic arguments.

    Hopefully: Actually, I was trying to be nice! I don't know that I can help you with your general question, but I'd say that Mankiw has two different sorts of blog entries:

    1. Thoughtful exploration of some economic issue (often with a playful twist, as in his argument for a height tax or his criticisms of economic forecasts). When Mankiw does this, I think he's aiming to educate his audience and to shift the public debate to what he views as more reasonable positions.

    2. Pointers to political arguments with which he agrees. His entry discussed here is an example of this. I think the purpose here is to link to cogent arguments on his side of the issue. In these cases, Mankiw's blog is serving as a clearinghouse for conservatives to find arguments on their side, not the academic or policy-analysis goal of evaluating arguments.

    Goal 2 is as worthy as Goal 1: once you feel that a position is worth taking, it certainly should be worth supporting in the political arena, for example by pointing readers to easily-digestible arguments that you agree with.

    But lots of people can contribute to goal 2, from "Instapundit" on down. Even though I appreciate why Mankiw does it, it disappoints me a bit because he could be critiquing relevant research articles from the Harvard Department of Health Care Policy instead.

    That said, I'm doing this rather than blogging more about Bayesian spline models, so who am I to talk?

  6. Professor Gelman

    It would be nice for Mankiw to critique the latest academic papers but I have a feeling this would get quite wonkish. A good chunk of his readership that has only a basic understanding of economics or who haven't been following all the intricacies of healthcare would probably get lost. Newspaper pundits who summarize the debate would be helpful to these type of people. My gripe with Mankiw would be that both pundits he chose were conservative. However, aren't other academic liberal bloggers guilty of the same thing in their "links of the day" features? I don't think we need to single out Mankiw for this.

  7. May you are blogging to much, but… Hey, I live in Brazil and cant take your classes and instead I "take" your blog entries! It is not the same, of course, but I do learn a lot.
    For example, I spent almost a year to understand your opinion that p-value is a measure on how uncertainty something is., but I finally understood it!


  8. Andrew –
    it would seem like your disappointment could have to do with the fact that conservatives – or at least their most visible exponents – are not trying to make honest arguments about healthcare. And people like Krauthammer and R. Samuelson are not in the business of making honest arguments, either.
    So if you have someone like Mankiw, who is conservative but _could_ be part of an actual conversation on health care, a topic that pretty much everyone agrees is crucially important, you're especially disappointed.

  9. AJ: Yes, I agree that other bloggers have similar practice of linking to journalists and bloggers whom they agree with. Mankiw's post on healthcare is particularly disappointing because I think he could add a lot if he would give his perspective on the scholarly literature on the topic.

  10. Looking through Mankiw's Jun-Aug archives, I think he has gone into more extended commentary on healthcare than what his latest post might suggest. He has linked to noted healthcare experts far more than conservative pundits(Uwe Reinhardt,David Cutler, Kenneth Arrow, Gary Becker,Donald Marron, the CBO,the CEA, Doug Elmendorf, Kip Viscusi, Milton Friedman, Keith Hennesy, Jonathan Gruber).He has gone into extended disussion a couple of times: on Uwe Reinhardt's paper and in tangling with Paul Krugman over the public option. The only two pundits I found were the ones from the latest post, Samuelson and Krauthhammer. Maybe he was just lazy or thought that their articles were especially good, even if they were not professional economists. That being said, it would be great did less linking and more extended analysis on recent literature.

  11. You're labeling your blog posts appropriately.
    I think you and Mankiw are in a trickier area than, for example, Scott Aaronson, because it's less clear to a lay audience when you step away from your area of expertise.

    Given that you blog at overcomingbias and that your an expert in the quantitative social sciences, I didn't know that this conversation (about how bias can deform participation in the larger social epistemology?) was outside of your expertise.

    I think you may have missed the mark on this instance of Mankiw criticism, but you may have hit the mark about the spirit of his blog. It's annoying that so good an "empirical macroeconomist" is at times so self-limiting in his lense.

    Also, (and this may be self-serving), I think there's a difference in engaging weird nonexperts (like Steve Sailer or TGGP) and in engaging folks who are essentially promoters of myths that advance the interests of subpopulations in the USA, in the process deforming the larger social epistemology.

    Focusing on nonideological expertise seems to me to be one of the better correctives against this.

    After all, shouldn't Mankiw be studying the mechanics of columnists, myths, subpopulations, and policy rather than picking a side or being flirty with a side?

    And yes, now someone may come back and criticize you too.

    Guess who may end up benefitting? Me, and other stakeholders vested in experts coming up with the best models of reality.

    I guess there's a tension here between best models of reality, and the feeling one is part of a subpopulation that can benefit by "working the refs" regarding consensus models of reality.

  12. AJ: Yes, I agree that Mankiw has a lot to offer, and he seems to have been thinking a lot about health care policy. Hence my disappointment about his link to newspaper pundits. At some point, I think he'd do well to engage the most serious arguments out there, especially those from the Health Care Policy Dept at Harvard, since they're at his institution, so such discussion could possibly lead to productive collaboration or at least debate.

    Hopefully: I'm not saying that this area is outside my expertise, just that I'm not planning to look into your general question anytime soon. There are a lot of interesting questions out there, but I don't have the time or inclination to look at all of them. Regarding your other point, I think we can all learn a lot from scholar-bloggers such as Mankiw as well as from journalist-bloggers such as Sailer. We can pick and choose to get the best of each.

  13. Posting a few links takes much less effort than longer, analytical posts. It doesn't take away from his other work.

    Perhaps the issue is that you feel it damages his reputation or otherwise interferes with his other work. Well, is that not his choice? What do you say to Paul Krugman?

  14. "Regarding your other point, I think we can all learn a lot from scholar-bloggers such as Mankiw as well as from journalist-bloggers such as Sailer. We can pick and choose to get the best of each."

    This seems to me to lean in the direction of a "different magesteria" position.

    Shouldn't "scholars" (I prefer empirical social scientists) be studying "journalist-bloggers such as Sailer", as well as studying fellow social scientists through an expert, "nonideological" (maybe nonideologically-deformed is better) lense?

    I see a motivation gap between your motivation to point out an occasional ideological deformation of a blogger, and your motivation to make more comprehensive quantitative social science models of our reality.

    I'll end with a poorly written paragraph that I decided not to delete: Do you think the motivation gap is the result of motivation capture? (fear of punishment, lack of reward, feeling like you're a stakeholder in prevailing obscurities?)

  15. As an academic, you are more in a position to evaluate Mankiw's arguments and discard the BS. I have never seen him approach is public discourse from the point of view of posting what he believes is correct argument. His filter appears to be posting what he believes is the argument that advances the conservative agenda. That does not mean that everything he posts is wrong, but it does mean that correctness is not part of his filter. This is the very definition of hack and why Mankiw as a blogger is useless to me. I get extremely frustrated with Delong for addressing Mankiw's arguments seriously. Mankiw doesn't care if his posts are correct; he cares that they are conservative so why should I, a non-conservative bother. If you or Delong want to provide a comparative advantage then point out when he is correct (and only when he is correct) since most non-economist, progresive readers will be unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt and won't bother ever reading him.

    Your dissatisfaction with this type of post by Mankiw is that it is useless to you. There is no argument to evaluate and you don't especially trust his opinion in evaluating other's ideas unless he offers context.

  16. Michael:

    Of course it's Mankiw's choice what he wants to blog about, or whether to blog at all. But I do think that, to some extent, linking to Robert Samuelson might substitute for an assessment and discussion by him of the top research in the health care policy field.

    Krugman writes partisan op-eds; that's his thing right now and I have no problem with that, just as I have no problem when Mankiw writes partisan op-eds of his own. Such pieces can be good starting points for public debates. But Mankiw wasn't offering a partisan argument, he was just linking.

    I can, of course, simply ignore any blog entries by Mankiw etc. that I don't like, so why am I complaining? Basically for the same reason we complain when Robin Williams is acting in some crappy movie: we think he can do better, and we hate to see his talent wasted.

    Again, I suspect this particularly bothers me because Mankiw's job description is so close to mine.

    Hopefully: I agree that studying bloggers and other public writings in a systematic way is a worthy task for a social scientist. Just because I'm not doing this right now–because I'm reading newspapers more as a consumer than a critic–doesn't mean that I don't think it would be good for people to do this.

    And, no, I don't feel like "a stakeholder in prevailing obscurities." I just don't have the time and energy for all things.

    (And yes, I realize that the "Robin Williams" argument holds for me too: by writing this comment, I'm potentially taking time away from actual research on statistics, public opinion, toxicology, etc., that I am particularly qualified to do. All I can say in my defense is that I find these questions interesting (recall the original question of why did Mankiw's post bother me in a way that all sorts of bloggers don't).)

    Elliottg: I agree that, with enough effort, I could evaluate some of these economic arguments from my own perspective. I do this sometimes on the blog but in many cases this would represent so much effort that I think I can make the best contribution by simply highlighting the key statistical issues and let others take it from there. See here, for example.

  17. Call me lazy, but I like blogs that give links to articles, which is also one reason I follow a lot of just link-posters on Twitter. If Mankiw found those articles interesting then I'll read them. Most of the articles he links to make good discussion articles to use for Eco 101, which is what his blog is primarily designed for.

    I should note that his textbook publisher also categorizes each of his posts according to chapters in his textbook to make for easy use by instructors using the text. I think there are some articles he links to just for that reason–to give the guy assigned to his blog something to do.

  18. I don't read many op-eds, but if I'm going to read them, I'd rather read ones recommended by top social scientists with different ideologies.

    Now, if the op-eds that are being recommended don't add much to the debate, then I can see being critical. The whole reason I like recommendations is because some op-eds are better than others.

    I also might be concerned if it was shown linking actually takes away from analytical posts.

    Note: I rarely read Mankiw and I'm politically to his left. I'd probably prefer your recommendations to his.

  19. That's a great example and I read both of the posts you had highlighted where you sought to offer a defense. (The other ones were uninteresting because they were about Mankiw getting it wrong.)

    This particular one on the Romer/Mankiw/Silver issue points out all of the best parts of the blogosphere. It changed my mind (slightly) about Mankiw in that I no longer believe he deliberately misrepresented the work in question. It reinforces my belief that he chose this argument not because he believes it is correct or not.

    P.S. My takeaway on the specific issue of Mankiw/Silver is that Silver gets it wrong that Mankiw is lying, but gets it right (for the wrong reasons) that Mankiw is being intellectually dishonest.

  20. Mankiw did warn readers back in July that he is on vacation for the rest of the summer so that posting will be light for August…

  21. Thanks a lot for this post. Mankiw can add a lot of substance to the policy debate if he is so inclined. But it is clear that he is mainly interested in advancing partisan politics.

  22. HA, aren't your examples of weird nonexperts also often myth-promoters for subpopulations?

    I know there are fields of media studies and scholars who specialize in the behavior of journalists, as well as sociology of academia. From what I know of Gelman's work, it tends to focus on the masses who, at least according to Converse, don't even have an ideology or know what the parties are supposed to stand for. In attempting to explain the behavior of those one is "policing" I'd expect most people would be apt to lapse into Bulverism, so I'm skeptical of much good coming out of your proposed research agenda.

  23. TGGP You're wildly more literate than me, so throwing obscuring descriptors like Bulverism are just going to make our discussions less productive from an enlightenment perspective.

    "HA, aren't your examples of weird nonexperts also often myth-promoters for subpopulations?"

    Yes. I think they can be different in kind than hegemonic myth promoters (I think the columnists Mankiw linked to are more within the hegemonic, myth-promoting pageantry) who serve to deform our larger social epistemology, and probably constrain how far even our best social science empiricists feel motivated to venture in trying to understand and model our social reality.

    Sure if Sailer's voice became dominant tomorrow we'd have a whole new set of constraints on epistemology and the research motivations of our best empiricists.

    I have more to say about how I think weird myth promoters can help us improve our epistemology in ways that hegemonic myth promoters don't, but I'm out of steam on this.

    "I know there are fields of media studies and scholars who specialize in the behavior of journalists, as well as sociology of academia. From what I know of Gelman's work, it tends to focus on the masses …"

    I agree there are probably more niche specialized academics, and they'd be a good place to start. So, who are some of these scholars? We can continue on my blog or yours.

  24. I am fascinated by commenters' reaction to partisan expert bloggers, of which Mankiw and Krugman are the only two I read regularly.
    I have been scanning a lot of comments to try and get some insight as to who is more trustworthy. I have my opinion, but I would like to get an independent one free of my biases. It has been futile. The best I can tell, commenters's reactions these two are nothing more than reflections of their own leanings. The right leaning ones think Krugman is a dishonest liar and the left leaning ones think the same of Mankiw. The ones closer to the center are milder in their criticisms.

    Prof. Gelman, I read your blog regularly (for the statistics insights) and I don't believe you have expressed any political leanings. Even your comments on Mankiw don't obviously reveal anything. But I am going to guess from the fact that you have criticized Mankiw while mostly letting off Krugman, that you lean to the left.

    I consider myself right leaning (I am a big fan of M.Friedman), but strangely, I actually support a single payer health-care. I do agree with Krugman that a rich country should guarantee decent health-care for all citizens.

    However, on the blogging styles, I feel that Mankiw is mostly fair – he is biased right but he admits it and he also allows for honest left leaning ideology (he has a post talking about ideology being a matter of what one believes are the various elasticities). He does tend to selectively present arguments that advance his ideology. But at least he doesn't claim to be presenting the whole truth. OTOH, Krugman claims to have the whole answer and feels that informed people can disagree with him for only one reason – intellectual dishonesty.

    I agree Mankiw seems less than fully honest; he appears to be with holding his full analysis of controversial issues. Instead he selectively makes (good) points that support his ideology. I am yet to see a single educated reply to his (and now Thaler's) point that public option can only be meaningful with a taxpayer subsidy, but that automatically makes it unfair to private insurers. Krugman has just lied about the public option being good for competition, never directly addressed the valid criticisms, just as he shamefully ignored that wager from Mankiw after he insulted Mankiw for doubting his stance.

    I half-think Krugman has chosen to cash in his Nobel capital for his cause (whose nobility I can see); Maybe he will admit this in a memoir 15 years from now.

  25. Ram:

    I notice Mankiw more because I can surf to his site straight from the link at Marginal Revolution. Also he often has pleasant bite-sized posts to read.

    Regarding ideology, popularization, etc., I can only assume that both Mankiw and Krugman have decided several years ago that political issues are important enough that it was worth trading on their scholarly reputations to have an impact on policy debates. As you say, such a choice is completely reasonable but can make it harder for outsiders such as ourselves to evaluate some of their arguments.

    I don't think either Mankiw or Krugman is a dishonest liar.

    My complaint above about Mankiw is just that he isn't doing all he's capable of here: even if his goal here is to make a partisan point, I think he'd be more interesting and effective if he were to engage some of the health care policy research being done by his Harvard colleagues. As I noted in a comment above, this the same reason we complain when Robin Williams is acting in some crappy movie: we think he can do better, and we hate to see his talent wasted.

  26. H.A, I made a post where we can continue our conversation.

    There seems to be an agreement that the barriers to entry in the hack-industry are rather low, so we are in no short supply. Competent macroeconomists are a whole 'nother story. Mankiw could concentrate on what he does best and let some other conservative link to such things. Instapundit seems to have made a niche for himself in that respect. Maybe Mankiw could have a co-blogger handle those duties? Maybe he ALREADY DOES! Who knows what lurks in the heart of Greg Mankiw?

    Krugman seems to take on much more the role of the dirty-partisan scrapper, while Mankiw maintains plausible politeness. This leads the former to call the latter a "concern troll" which is one of those phrases that always makes me roll my eyes. I think Krugman is prestigious enough that he can get away with it (how much higher could he rise with a Clark award and Nobel prize?), whereas Mankiw has to nurture his reputation as a reasonable conservative that liberals should read. Gelman is similar to Mankiw in politeness, although he doesn't let his position (liberal) show nearly as clearly. Hardly at all, really.

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