Bryan Caplan  

Why Do So Many GMU Economists Blog?

David Brooks, Tyler Cowen, and... Boudreaux to NYT on Brooks on ...
I've heard the question many times: "Why do so many GMU economists blog?"  The number and ratio are indeed extraordinary: I count 9 bloggers out of the 28 tenure-line faculty on the department's homepage - not to mention our students and adjunct professors like Arnold Kling.

Sour Grapes is one popular explanation.  Since GMU econ faculty can't publish "real articles" in "real journals," we took our marbles, went home, and started blogs.  But there are three big problems with this story. 

First, the GMU economists who blog the most also publish the most conventional journal articles.  See Tyler Cowen.

Second, most econ faculty who don't publish in academic journals don't blog; they don't write anything at all. 

Third, while most people do like grapes, few intrinsically enjoy academic economics.  Don't believe me?  Ask yourself this: If econ were a hobby rather than a profession, how many leading economists would do conventional research in their spare time for free?  If you can say "10%" with a straight face, let me know.

To understand the real story of GMU econ blogging, you have to know our biographies.  (Several are right here).  None of us discovered economics in a mainstream econ class, found it fascinating, then decided to try to ascend the academic hierarchy.  Instead, our inspiration came from libertarian books, libertarian friends, and libertarian intellectuals, plus our broader reading in philosophy, history, and the history of economic thought.  Once we fell in love with ideas, we asked, "How can I make a career out of this?"  We would have preferred to be instantly anointed as public intellectuals.  But the best realistic path, we learned, was "Become a professor of economics." 

To secure academic positions, we all endured years of grad school boredom.  Some of us even spent years boring ourselves doing conventional research to get tenure.  (See my dissertation).  But our ultimate goal was always the same: Get paid to pursue the kind of ideas that inspired us to study economics in the first place.

Once you know these biographical patterns, you should be amazed if lots of GMU economists hadn't started blogging.  Think about it: Here's a forum where you write for a sizable, high-quality audience about anything that interests you.  Here's a forum where you can eternally debate other people obsessed with ideas.  Here's a forum where you can instantly pose as a public intellectual - and try to "fake it till you make it."  Here's a forum that actually penalizes atrocious academic writing! 

None of this is very appealing to most academic economists.  They're content to spend their lives doing normal science.  But for professors who've always wanted to live the life of the mind, blogging is a dream come true.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (21 to date)
John V writes:

Very well put. I have always sensed what you are saying here....partly because I can relate somewhat in my own way.

While I am not an economist in any way, the things that interest me about it and the way in which I became interested mirrors yours and your colleagues...just on a much smaller scale that didn't lead to a career.

I think all you guys are great and very informative and unlike many who technically do the same job that you all do, you guys all live and breathe this stuff in a way and with such a passion that makes other economics professors seem like robots who just teach from a book.

Perhaps I am biased in saying that but it's really how it seems. There's a level of genuine love for the totality of economics (and the intertwined disciplines of public choice, philosophy and history) that seems lacking in most other cases of economics professors.

Noah Yetter writes:

I aspired to the same life (I'm sure you don't remember my one semester there, but Russ and Don would), just couldn't stand the "years of grad school boredom" and "years boring ourselves doing conventional research to get tenure" parts. Oh well, turns out my comparative advantage is in software after all!

Love the blogs, keep 'em up. Enjoying your twitter feed also.

Josh Foster writes:

And I am thankful you all do blog...keep it up.

Douglass Holmes writes:

So, we're a "high-quality" audience? Good work, Bryan. Keep talking up your audience. Give Arnold some pointers. I actually own books by you and David, (and Russ Roberts) but I haven't bought my first book by Kling. He just doesn't spend enough time telling me how smart I am.

ColoComment writes:

I am so thankful that, at 65 yrs old, I have survived long enough to enjoy & benefit from the internet/techno/blog-o communications revolution, of which your site is one of the more excellent examples.

Just think of all the discussion, the ideas, the pointers to informative books and articles, and, yes, the banter, that I would never had had access to otherwise.

I can learn from the most engaging and informative instructors, be it economics, history, finance, language and politics, and I, for one, am lovin' it.

Michael Wiebe writes:
None of us discovered economics in a mainstream econ class, found it fascinating, then decided to try to ascend the academic hierarchy. Instead, our inspiration came from libertarian books, libertarian friends, and libertarian intellectuals, plus our broader reading in philosophy, history, and the history of economic thought.


Chip Hessenflow writes:

Hear hear!

Maxwell writes:

I too am thankful all of you blog. If only you could get my former professor, John Nye, to join in!

Josh Blackman writes:

Fantastic post Bryan. I think the same reasoning applies to George Mason School of Law. See

James writes:

So you guys were libertarians first and then got into economics, huh? You must realize how this would sound to most non-libertarians.

Ray writes:


I'd love to hear your thoughts on the relative influence of blogging versus writing academic articles.

My guess is that blogging allows you guys to be more influential than you would be otherwise, but then again I'm someone who reads these blogs but not very many academic economics articles.

Scott G writes:

Prof. Caplan,

Thanks for great post and for pointing me to your and other GMU's profs libertarian transformation stories.

Another Ray writes:

Nicely put.

The ability to write about what thoughts intrigue you and get feedback from those interested enough to read them is really very cool.

21st century salon

Dave writes:

See James's comment. This post certainly makes the professors seem ideological, rather than truth-seeking, even if I happen to agree with many of their opinions.

Bill L. writes:

As a retired academic myself, I delight in the broad horizons within the blogosphere. You articulate people perform a valuable public service by turning Milton's marketplace of ideas into a fascinating bazaar.

I attribute my current lack of dementia to the effort of keeping up with you all.


Michael writes:

I am right there with you!
I took boring economics as an undergrad and consequently went on to pursue interesting engineering instead. It was only after I had already earned a PhD in EE that I met and fell in love with those same ideas to which you refer (HT to my dad who gave me a copy of Frederic Bastiat's "The Law").
If I had discovered these ideas earlier in life, I have no doubt that I would be an economist today. In fact, at some point I see myself retreading the drudgery of grad school, just so that I might "wax economical" for a living. (I have already begun taking prerequisites.)

You said: "Think about it: Here's a forum where you write for a sizable, high-quality audience about anything that interests you. Here's a forum where you can eternally debate other people obsessed with ideas."

That's what I love about writing investment newsletters... Plus, I didn't have to do any of that horribly boring (and expensive) academic work.


Steve Horwitz writes:

What Bryan said.

This is why I blog too.

Thomas A. Coss writes:

This from Joe consumer.

It appears that there is something about GMU that values expression over conceit, I think this is a good thing. When economics is more of a verb than a noun, an action shared over letters at the end of one's name, something changes - little surprises occur.

I have a posse of people who follow you and Cafe Hayek, and we discuss posts, all the time. Some like me just have an undergraduate degree in Economics, some never went to college at all. We're working stiff in a start-up, some middle and senior managers in large firms, often applying much of what is discussed here to which the GMU contributors have no idea. Can that be said of academic writings read largely by other academics?

I'm all for a good academic paper upon occasion,still things are changing. Note Cowen's "The Great Stagnation", relative small, succinct and very enjoyable book which in is current form would not very likely have been picked up by a traditional publisher without another 100 pages.

What's amazing to me is why similar departments in other universities aren't doing similarly. Still that's OK with me, GMU does an outstanding job, sufficient that I'm trying to get my daughter to go there.

Thanks to all for letting us know what's on your mind.

Victoria writes:

I am just reading Mises' /Theory and History/ and thought the following quote was appropriate to Bryan’s comment that most GMU bloggers did not discover economics in a mainstream ECON class but through self-directed learning:

“Whatever differences exist between individuals are caused, it is maintained, by postnatal circumstances. If all people equally enjoyed the benefits of a good education, such differences would never appear. The supporters of this doctrine are at a loss to explain the differences among graduates of the same school and the fact that many who are self-taught far excel the doctors, masters, and bachelors of the most renowned universities. [...] No matter how efficient school training may be, it would only produce stagnation, orthodoxy, and rigid pedantry if there were no uncommon men pushing forward beyond the wisdom of their tutors.” (1957, Yale ed., p. 263)

Keep up the great work.

kate writes:

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