Learning from Greg Mankiw

Posted on October 21, 2007 by

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Gregory Mankiw is a Harvard economist and former head of The Council of Economic Advisers.  He also has a very popular blog (Greg Mankiw’s Blog – Random Observations for Students of Economics). According to Brian Gongol’s rankings, as well as the Aaron Schiff’s rankings, Mankiw’s site ranks in the top five among business and economics blogs. 

Gongol indicates that Mankiw’s blog averages close to 10,000 visitors per day.  To put that in perspective, per day about 1,150 visitors come to The Wages of Wins Journal while about 400 people visit The Sports Economist (the other place I occasionally write).  The WoW Journal ranks in the top 30 at Gongol (out of 133) while The Sports Economist is ranked 53rd.  In sum, the sports econ sites are in the top half of the rankings, but we generate nowhere near the traffic Mankiw sees.

Of course Mankiw is not discussing sports at his website.  No, Mankiw focuses on macroeconomics and public policy.  As hard as it is to believe, there are a lot of strange people out there that find that kind of stuff interesting (yes, weird isn’t it?).  So why am I talking about a non-sports economist today?

Mankiw and Comments

This week Mankiw took a bold step at his blog.  He turned off the comments feature.  Why did he take this step?  Here is his explanation:

Some of you have noticed that the comments section is gone. I disabled that feature of the blog. A friend has asked me to explain why.

This blog started on a lark. It was originally set up for my students in ec 10. After a few weeks, however, the existence of this blog became more widely known, and the readership started to grow. One day last week, more than 20,000 visitors stopped by. This is now one of the top economics blogs, and it one of the few that is free of advertising (well, almost free of advertising). The blog is sometimes even quoted in the mainstream media (such as in this recent NY Times article).

All that is gratifying, but it is also time-consuming. In addition to this blog, I have classes to teach, students to advise, papers to write, textbooks to update, and three children to raise. Oh, yeah, my wife likes to see me now and then, too. It is fair to say that among all those activities, this blog ranks as my last priority.

To put it simply, this blog is a hobby. My late colleague Zvi Griliches collected coins; I blog. As far as I can tell, Zvi never let his hobby interfere with the rest of his life. I am trying to do the same.

The comments sections has been, for me, a source of both fun and frustration. Originally, I had hoped that it might provide a way for my students to debate one another on economic issues. It never quite worked out that way. Some of my current and former students did participate (and shared with me, privately, their sometimes odd screen names). But a vast majority of the commenters fell outside this category.

The growth in the comments section was fine with me, as long as the discussion remained civil. Mostly it was, and I learned a lot from the comments. But unfortunately, a few (usually anonymous) commenters too often crossed the line.

I just don’t have the time to police comments and enforce good behavior, especially since some posts were generating more than 100 comments. And I don’t want to host a party in which a small vitriolic minority consistently tries to ruin the event for everyone else. So I decided to turn the comments feature off.

The absence of comments may deter some readers from coming by. I hope not. But if attendance falls off a lot, I will start looking for another hobby. Maybe golf.

Kobe Myths and Comments

It was my plan to comment on Mankiw’s bold move as soon as I saw this earlier in the week.  Friday at the WoW Journal, though, made this discussion even more relevant. 

Thursday night I posted “Kobe Myths“, a column examining the relative value of Kobe Bryant and his teammates.  Henry Abbott – at TrueHoop – then linked to my story with the following statement:

David Berri of Wages of Wins, prepare to get a lot of comments:

Abbott, as is often the case, was quite correct. There were two comments prior to Abbott’s post.  As of right now, 39 more people have posted thoughts on Kobe Myths (and only one of these was mine). The commentators appear to be in two camps – those who have read the Wages of Wins (or at least, faithful readers of this site) and those who have come from elsewhere and do not understand or care for the arguments advanced in The Wages of Wins.  For the most part the discussion seems fairly civil, although I think I have a pretty low standard for what counts as civil.  I tend to only delete comments if they are a) spam or b) use the F-word.  So maybe I’m not the best judge of what is “civil.” 

Blogging Thoughts

Still, Mankiw’s removal of comments led me to think a bit about what economists like Mankiw and I are doing blogging and what the people commenting are contributing to the process.  So here are some thoughts.

1.  I agree with Mankiw, blogs are a hobby.  Although Mankiw says he uses the blog to sell his textbooks, I think he’s joking.  As far as I can tell, blogs don’t sell books.  That has been our experience at The Wages of Wins, and Darren Rovell indicated that was his experience with respect to First in Thirst (an excellent book on Gatorade) and Rovell’s Gatorade blog.

2. And like Mankiw, I also have classes to teach, papers to write, children to raise, and a wife who likes to talk to me once in awhile.  So the blog is not a priority.

3. Still, the blog is a great deal of fun.  Thirty years ago if you wrote a book like The Wages of Wins the discussion would be fairly one-sided.  Basically the authors would speak, the readers would read, and that would be that. The blog has allowed people to read and react, and that keeps the conversation going.  All in all, that’s a good thing.

Comments Policy

Of course, some of the comments cross the line of civility (wherever that might be).  So perhaps it might be a good idea to have a policy on comments. Before Mankiw ended all comments, here was his policy:

In the past, I have deleted only a very few comments that readers have posted. But I think it may be time to turn down the volume of the shouting in order to raise the level of the discussion.

Here is my new policy: Anyone is free to disagree with me, or with other commenters, as long as it is done politely. Comments that take a belligerent approach to economic debate are at risk of being deleted.

Please approach this blog with the civility you would bring to a college seminar. Don’t post anything here that you wouldn’t say to a fellow seminar participant face to face.

Mankiw’s characterization that a blog is like a college seminar seems like a good one to me.  Of course, I like college seminars.

That being said, I really have little interest in policing comments and deleting those that “cross the line.”  That seems like a great deal of effort.  And it would require I establish “a line.”  Again, my current standards have only led me to delete about two comments in the history of this forum.  And only one person ever got completely banned from the site (and he had to do quite a bit to earn that honor).

Still, I imagine some of “the regulars” might be troubled by comments people post that are lacking in civility. Unfortunately, I am not sure what to do about people who can’t behave themselves.

I can offer some simple advice. If you don’t like a comment, don’t read it. You can choose to debate these people, although I think that might be wasted effort.  When I see an argument that begins with “I know so-and-so is a great player because I have watched lots of basketball” I am fairly sure a lengthy debate is not going to be a good way to spend my time.

I would encourage everyone to think like an economist. Consider the debate in terms of costs and benefits.  Continuing a debate with someone who doesn’t know much, or is not willing to listen, imposes a cost upon you (you lose time).  And it’s not likely to provide many benefits.  And in a standard college seminar on economics we teach that when the relevant costs of an action exceed the benefits, don’t take the action (economics is really quite simple).

The cost-benefit approach to comments is going to motivate The WoW Journal Comments Policy.  I would prefer people behave as if this is a college seminar. That means you are free to disagree but you must be polite.  However, although I read most of the comments, I am not willing to spend my time policing behavior.  Like Mankiw, the cost of policing far exceeds any potential benefits. 

Unlike Mankiw, though, I can’t see a time when I would remove the comments feature. The benefit-cost ratio of these comments is clearly greater than one.  As long as that continues, people should feel free to comment as they wish.  If the benefit-cost ratio reverses, though, I might need to find a new hobby.  And that might be a problem since I really have no interest in taking up golf.

– DJ

For more on economists being introspective about blogs (something we all seem to do every few weeks), see the following post:

Why should a good economist blog? by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution

Is the econ-blogosphere unsustainable? by Dani Rodrik

The benefits of econoblogging by King Banaian at SCSU Scholars

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