Tuesday, January 07, 2014
Heroes of blogging
I thought I'd take a post to write about my personal blog heroes. These are the bloggers not just whose blogs I enjoy - there are a huge number of those - but who have A) inspired me personally, while B) using their blogs to do something really unique, invaluable, and positive for the world. I'll try to keep it a short list, so realize that I do not necessarily consider people not on the list (e.g., your favorite blogger) to be un-heroic. Also, realize that there a ton of blogs I've never read and people I've never heard of, so this is just a list of my heroes, not the heroes. Finally, realize that the heroes are not in any order.
1. J. Bradford DeLong
America is divided between two hive minds, whose psychic force is greater than that of any individual. These are the liberal hive mind and the conservative hive mind. From the late 1970s through at least 2008, the conservative hive mind was more unified and powerful than its liberal rival. As its dominance grew, it overreached more and more, culminating in the insanity of the Bush years, when Karl Rove boasted that the administration "created its own reality". This had to be stopped. Brad DeLong, formerly a moderate, middle-of-the road, technocratic sort of economist, was one of many bloggers who rose to the challenge of battling that baleful reality-bubble. But unlike the others, DeLong brought the intellectual heft of a top-rank economist. When concepts needed explaining, he explained with great patience. But when agents of the overgrown conservative hive-mind needed skewering, he skewered without mercy. And despite fighting against the conservative hive mind, DeLong has never become a thrall to the liberal one.
DeLong is often criticized for being mean - he did, after all, invent the "Stupidest Man Alive Award (TM)" - but I think that the exigencies of the moment justified that meanness; the Conservative Reality Bubble just had to be stopped. But it's also important to understand that the meanness is only a small part of DeLong's blog; a large part is his explanation of difficult economics ideas in simple ways. More than probably any other blogger, DeLong goes out of his way to actually understand his opponents' arguments. More than probably any other blogger, he admits when he's changed his mind, and explains in great detail why he things his old ideas were wrong. And he is better at taking criticism than most bloggers, reposting "Brad DeLong smackdowns" on his own blog. And he does it all with fun Cthulhu references.
But in addition to his own blog (Grasping Reality With Both Hands) and the blog at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, DeLong has worked tirelessly to support blogging as a medium, working closely with the Kaufmann Foundation (where his wife works), helping to organize yearly blog symposia (to which he invites bloggers who vigorously disagree with him), and promoting younger bloggers. Much of the blogosphere as we know it today is the way it is because of the work of Brad DeLong.
2. Cory Doctorow
Besides being one of my favorite science fiction authors, the founder of BoingBoing is another individual who has shaped the blogosphere. In his novels, Doctorow is unrivaled in his ability to portray accurately the culture of modern geeks and nerds, and his blog is basically set up to cater to that segment of society. BoingBoing has everything a nerd or geek could want - cool new technologies, science fiction, weird news, and social commentary. Geek culture itself wouldn't be what it is without Cory Doctorow (who, by all accounts, blogs from a balloon wearing a red cape and goggles).
But besides being the Alpha Geek of the North American information age, Doctorow has also worked tirelessly to support the very best of libertarian causes. His libertarianism is what I would call "pure", unsullied by any connection with moneyed interests or the ghost of the Confederate States of America. Doctorow's idea of freedom is all about what makes individual human beings feel free, not about what Robert Nozick or Ayn Rand arbitrarily defined as "liberty" in order to support an anti-leftist agenda. And Doctorow fights passionately for his idea of liberty. He campaigned vigorously against the SOPA/PIPA bill, and won. He has fought against digital rights management. He turned the death of Aaron Swartz from a simple tragedy into a tragedy plus a scandal and a cause. And his book Little Brother was the most inspiring treatise I've read about the insanity of America's post-9/11 curbs on civil liberties. To think that it came from a Canadian!
3. Phil Yu
America is in the middle of a huge, titanic, epochal change. It is changing from a nation of mostly white people (with a few black people) to a fully multiracial nation. Already, a quarter of Americans are Hispanic, East Asian, or South Asian. That change is causing enormous political and social disruption; if we're going to come out of it as a unified nation, we're going to have to accept the newcomers as "real Americans", the way we once accepted East and South European immigrants into the fold a century earlier. Relatively few bloggers have focused on this problem, but Phil Yu has risen to the challenge. His blog, Angry Asian Man, is less angry than visionary. It started out as a way to battle racism against Asian-Americans, but became an epic chronicle of the creation of Asian-American culture. Yu still alerts the blogosphere to instances of racism (and not just racism against Asians), but his blog is the place to find cool new Asian-American bands and films and artists and read the testaments of Asian-Americans. He has also spearheaded efforts to lobby the American government for a more liberal approach to immigration. And to top it all off, he posted this really cool cover of TLC's "Waterfalls".
More than any other blogger, Phil Yu makes me excited about the future of America.
4. Richard Florida
By all accounts, America is already very urbanized. But much of that "urban" area consists of endless, sterile rows of suburban houses, connected by crowded highways to office parks or strip-malls. That kind of faux-urbanization was poorly done; in an age of high gasoline prices, continued population growth, and increased "agglomeration economies" and "knowledge spillovers", that kind of sprawl is increasingly disadvantageous to our economy, in addition to being socially isolating and community-killing. Thus, one of America's biggest challenges over the next few decades will be to "fill in" the land we've developed, turning suburbs into walkable "new urbanist" communities. But how? Americans have spend decades fleeing the urban blight of old manufacturing cities like Detroit, Cleveland, or St. Louis. We need ideas to guide us through this transition, and give us a template and a model. We also need people to keep inspiring us, and keep reminding us that New Urbanism, in whatever form it eventually takes, will be good for us.
Enter Richard Florida. The writer of books like The Creative Class, and the co-founder and editor of The Atlantic Cities, the best New Urbanist blog. Florida disseminates important facts and information about cities, identifies trends and patters and examples, and constantly promotes the idea of cities in a very inspiring way. But - unlike most bloggers - he is also willing to admit the limitations of his ideas, and to recognize the trade-offs that life in cities requires. All in all, if New Urbanism has a prophet, Richard Florida is it.
5. Paul Krugman
Paul Krugman is a very famous guy who paid attention to me when I started blogging back in 2011, and who is thus partly responsible for whatever tiny amount of fame I myself possess. Because of this, I am sometimes accused of being a Krugman yes-man. In actuality, Krugman's de-facto patronage has caused me to go out of my way to disagree with him as much as I can without sacrificing intellectual honesty. The truth is that my blog actually dramatically underrepresents the degree to which I like Krugman.
What does Krugman do? First, he does a bit of what DeLong does - he assaults the Conservative Alternate Reality Bubble, and brings the intellectual heft of a top-rank economist to bear. But he has also helped improve the public debate about macroeconomic policy. In particular, much of the thinking of our business and political class was (and still is) dominated by the stagflationary experience of the 1970s. We just went through an episode that was much worse than the 70s, and much more akin to the Great Depression. But people's minds were not prepared to deal with that, and as a result you had lots of people warning about inflation when the real danger was unemployment. Those sorts of warnings, though they are still being issued by some, have now largely been discredited in the public sphere, and I think Krugman helped speed that process along. (In the academic sphere, models were modified as new data came in...but those changes have not yet trickled up to the pages of the Wall Street Journal and the screen of CNBC.)
In addition, Krugman helped spark a very public debate about macroeconomic methodology. That debate, which was somewhat similar to the debate about string theory in physics, drew in lots of smart people from outside the economics field, who suddenly peered into the murky world of macroeconomics and said "Hey, what are y'all doin' in there?". Krugman and I don't always see eye-to-eye on modeling issues, but in opening that public debate, he has done the academic field itself a great service.
6. Barry Ritholtz
There is a huge amount of financial disinformation and misinformation and just plain bullshit out there in the world. Most financial news is random noise, and some is even worse than that. And there's a good reason why there is all that bad financial information out there: it makes money for the people who put it out there. Thus, it is kind of a wonder that Barry Ritholtz exists at all.
Barry Ritholtz works in the financial industry, giving people advice and helping them manage their money. But in addition, he offers lots of free advice on his blog, The Big Picture. That in and of itself is highly unusual. Much of his advice is about how you shouldn't trust the finance industry of which he is a part. That is even more unusual. And when Barry makes a correct prediction - such as when he nearly perfectly called the bottom after the 2008 stock market crash - he attributes it to luck. That is pretty extraordinary. Along with his partner and fellow blog hero Josh Brown (The Reformed Broker), Barry is helping to bring honesty to financial media.
Barry is, to my knowledge, the first popular finance blogger to report extensively on behavioral finance. Since most individual investors (read: YOU) tend to make a ton of investing mistakes - trading too much, chasing trends, being overconfident, etc. etc. - behavioral finance is probably the single most important thing that most blog readers can learn about. Well done.
7. James Pethokoukis
American conservatism needs to start thinking again. The Reagan-era package of "cut government, whip inflation, beef up the military, squawk about traditional Christian values, and make white people scared of nonwhite people" reached the end of its usable shelf life sometime in the late 90s and went plunging off a cliff in the Bush years, finally degenerating into the dead end that is the Tea Party. Many people have been cited as thinkers who were destined to reform the movement - Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat, to name a couple. But as I see it, Jim Pethokoukis, a blogger for the American Enterprise Institute, is the best of the crop.
First of all, Pethokoukis has taken on the "inflationista" crowd, including goldbugs, hard-money folks, and paleo-cons of all stripes, who have convinced themselves that "government money-printing" is a dire threat to human freedom. He has aggressively promoted the monetarism of Milton Friedman, which says that monetary policy ("printing money") is the best way to get out of a depression, and that inflation is not the big danger when there is slack in the economy. Also, unlike the old Reagan conservatives, Pethokoukis actively worries about the plight of the unemployed, the unemployed, and families for whom income has fallen. He worries about the "rise of the robots" and the replacement of human jobs with automation. But he's no liberal convert - he's trying to find a new way for conservatism to be relevant to the majority of working, struggling Americans, not to cave in and embrace the positions of the Left.
More Heroes of Blogging (i.e., I'm getting tired of writing these big long paragraphs)
Mark Thoma - The tireless, irrepressible, indispensible curator of the economics blogosphere. If not for Thoma, our online community would be a hollow shell of what it is, and most good posts would languish in obscurity.
Miles Kimball - I originally left Miles off the list because we frequently co-write articles, and to include him sounded too much like calling myself a hero. But Miles is heroic in his own right, using his blog to fight for smart policies like electronic money and a U.S. sovereign wealth fund, and also writing "sermons" that contain great perspective on life and religion. So he must be included.
Annalee Newitz - The very best online surveyor of futurism and science fiction, and editor of the excellent website io9
Ed Yong - The web's best science link aggregator, and a campaigner for realism in science writing
Josh Brown - Another one of the web's best finance bloggers, and partner of Barry Ritholtz
Ta-Nehisi Coates - One of the most insightful, thoughtful, trenchant writers on racial issues in America.
Jake Adelstein - A fearless reporter on organized crime, corruption, and government oppression in Japan.
Ezra Klein - The guy who turned blogging into a vehicle for serious policy research
David Andolfatto - The most serious macroeconomics blogger out there, bringing real academic macro into the blog realm
Nate Silver - The guy who beat the political noise machine (now mostly retired from blogging)
John Aziz - The most open-minded person on the internet
Matt Yglesias - The guy who got me into blogging in the first place, and the king of well-placed snark
(What's missing from this list? Women, mainly. There are lots of good female bloggers out there, but in economics there are sadly many, many more men, and the men tend to get more attention and fame. I really wish I knew more female blogger heroes' I should try to find them. Luckily, many of my favorite Twitter people are women, such as Garance Franke-Ruta, Jennifer Oullette, and Lisa McIntire.)
Note: This is not an exhaustive list of bloggers I think are great. Please do not read it as such. There are MANY other excellent bloggers I like and read. An incomplete list would include: Tyler Cowen/Alex Tabarrok, Ramez Naam, Menzie Chinn/James Hamilton, Sean Carroll, John Cochrane, Matt O'Brien/Derek Thompson/Jordan Weissmann (The Atlantic), Garance Franke-Ruta, Carola Binder, Kevin Grier, Owen Zidar, Jeremie Cohen-Setton, Antonio Fatas, Peter Dorman, Izabella Kaminska/Cardiff Garcia/Kate Mackenzie/Tracy Alloway (the Financial Times), W. David Marx, Dean Baker, Erik Brynjolfsson (when he blogs), Ramez Naam (when he blogs), Nick Rowe/Frances Woolley/Stephen Gordon, Mike the Mad Biologist, Felix Salmon, Justin Fox, Jonathan Chait, Tim Harford, Bill McBride, Kevin Drum, Timothy Taylor, Simon Wren-Lewis, Ryan Avent, Diane Coyle, Roger Farmer, Dan Drezner, Alexis Madrigal, Tim Carney, Catherine Rampell, Nancy Folbre, Ramesh Ponnuru, Bryan Caplan, Robert Waldmann, Timothy Johnson, Tony Yates, Cosma Shalizi, Larry Wasserman, and (yes) Stephen Williamson...Let none claim that these bloggers are un-heroic.