Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Annual Report from the Conversable Economist: 2012

At the beginning of each year, it seems useful to reflect on what I'm doing with this blog. Last year's report is here.

For me, there are two main reasons for sustaining the Conversable Economist blog: one personal, one social. The personal reason is that writing these posts helps organize and motivate my own reading and thinking. It encourages me to spend a little extra time tracking down a report or reading through a working paper. When I need to track down a figure or a table or a quotation that I just know I saw someplace, I use the "search" command on the blog to find it. Thus, the blog extends the capacity of my own memory and improves my ability to access past information.

My social motivations for the blog seem less obvious to at least some readers, who occasionally send me notes suggesting more opinions of my own and more day-to-day commentary on the opinions of others. As I see it, the world and the web are overflowing with opinions, and pure opinion is a devalued currency. Instead, my approach is every post should give you some facts or background or analysis that you might not otherwise have seen. I am ever-mindful of the advice from the classic work on expository prose, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White (Third  Edition, 1979, Section V, Rule 17):

"Unless there is a good reason for its being there, do not inject opinion into a piece of writing.  We all have opinions about almost everything, and the temptation to toss them in is great. To air one’s views gratuitously,  however, is to imply that the demand for them is brisk, which may not be the case, and which, in any event, may not be relevant to the discussion. Opinions scattered indiscriminately about leave the mark of egotism on a work."

I am fully aware that expressing concern about "the mark of egotism" while writing for social media in the 21st century marks me as a person out of step with my time.

But of course, I'm making no particular effort to hide my opinions, either. They are manifest in my choices about what to read, what topics to blog about, what figures or tables to reproduce, and in comments I often include in the posts. I'm just not expressing my opinions in the sweeping generalizations and  "you're an idiot" vernacular of the web.  As I explain on my FAQs page, the "Conversable Economist" name for this blog is drawn from an essay by David Hume, who lamented the "separation of the learned from the conversable world." Hume wrote: “I cannot but consider myself as a kind of resident or ambassador from the dominions of learning to those of conversation, and shall think it my constant duty to promote a good correspondence betwixt these two states, which have so great a dependence on each other.”

When I think about the style of exposition appropriate to acting as an ambassador from academic economics to the conversable world, I'm reminded of a comment from another classic work on expository prose, H. W. Fowler's  A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926). (And yes, when you work as an editor, you have a shelf full of such books.) Under the heading on “French Words,” Fowler offers advice about how to use specialized knowledge or vocabulary with readers who aren't necessarily familiar with the terms. Although he is writing about the use of French terms in English composition, the lesson applies to the use of economics terms in English composition, too.  Fowler wrote:

"Display of superior knowledge is as great a vulgarity as display of superior wealth — greater, indeed, inasmuch as knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth towards discretion & good manners. ... To use French words that your reader or hearer does not know or does not fully understand, to pronounce them as if you were one of the select few to whom French is second nature when he is not one of those few (& it is ten thousand to one that neither you nor he will be so), is inconsiderate & rude."

And yes, I am fully aware that expressing concerns about how excessive use of terminology is a "vulgarity," about how "knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth towards discretion & good manners" and about a distaste for being "inconsiderate & rude," while at the same time writing for social media in the 21st century, marks me yet again as a person out of step with my time.

Because one of my purposes in continuing this blog is social, I do care about readership. During the last few months of 2012, about 1000 people were signed up to receive each blog post by RSS or email. In addition, the blog is receiving an average of about 2500 pageviews per day. Pageviews are somewhat seasonal--for example, they dropped off in July and August when much of academia is on summer break--but overall the number has been rising through 2012. In November, my desire to find ways to connect to more readers overcame my innate aversion to Twitter, so now it is possible to receive a tweet each time I put up another post at the blog.

If you are someone who enjoys the blog, I encourage you to check in regularly, sign up, and recommend it to others. As always, I'm glad to hear from readers of the blog with either general or specific feedback, at