The limits of doing this for free
Fairly few political commentators know enough to decide which research papers are methodologically convincing and which aren’t. So we often end up touting the papers that sound right, and the papers that sound right are, unsurprisingly, the ones that accord most closely with our view of the world. So Alesina’s paper gets a lot of conservative pickup, but if it had found the opposite, it would’ve been ignored by conservatives, or maybe torn apart by experts sympathetic to the conservative approach to austerity, even as liberals championed its findings.
This is one of the reasons I tend not to blog as much I’d like about a lot of debates in economic policy. I just don’t know who to trust, and I don’t trust myself enough to not just tout work that confirms my biases. This is also why I tend to worry a lot about methodology in my policy papers. How much can we trust happiness surveys? How exactly is inequality measured? How exactly is inflation measured? Does standard practice bias standard measurements in a particular direction? Of course, the motive to dig deeper is often suspicion of research you feel can’t really be right. But this is, I believe, an honorable motive, as long as one digs honestly. Indeed, I’m pretty sure motivated cognition, when constrained by sound epistemic norms, is one of the mainsprings of intellectual progress.
I couldn’t agree more.
I’d like to add, also, that this becomes even more difficult when you aren’t doing this for a living. When you have to fit blogging in as a hobby while working at a regular job to make ends meet, even having the time to read enough policy or economic blogs (let alone papers) is pretty difficult.
This is one of my huge frustrations with blogging. I find that it’s very difficult to keep up with the paid professionals who have a great deal more time on their hands, more resources, and therefore better perspective and, generally, better material to show for it. Whatever expertise got them into those positions in the first place is given even more room to grow and evolve.
Sure, in the age of self-publishing anyone can blog and they can do it fairly cheaply. But unless you’re being paid well for your efforts or you’re independently wealthy, then you probably need to hold down another job or jobs, and that ties up a lot of time and energy and resources.
I don’t mean to complain by any means. I could have a much worse blogging set-up. But I do often find myself wishing that I had the time and resources at my fingertips that many A-list bloggers do. It’s tough to keep up.
In many senses I think this is all that really differentiates the really good A-list bloggers from everyone else. They have the time and the resources to burn on their writing, while the rest of us fit what we can into our busy days and hope it sticks. If it’s hard for Ezra Klein or Will Wilkinson to determine “which research papers are methodologically convincing and which aren’t” it’s even harder for the rest of us.
That’s my rant and I’m sticking to it.