Coffee House Economists

One of my favourite articles from The Economist in 2011 is entitled ‘Back to the Coffee House’ (7 July 2011). The piece is not (at least directly) an ode to the world’s most coveted beverage, but rather a recognition that information and communication technology has now made communication more sociable, direct, open and integrated into daily life. Much as the situation was 300 years ago before the rise of printed newspapers.

Then, as The Economist writes “news travelled by word of mouth or letter, and circulated in taverns and coffee houses in the form of pamphlets, newsletters and broadsides”. Today, with the circulation of printed papers declining, news is travelling increasingly via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, email, texts, and internet sites.

How and what we communicate through these social media and other high-tech pamphlets, newsletters and broadsides have in 2011 been major topics of conversation in our virtual coffee shops, from the Arab Spring, the Wikileaks media leaks, to the News of the World hacking scandal.

Even academics seem to have caught on in 2011, with Jason Priem writing on the LSE’s Impact of Social Science’s Blog that scholars are slowly but surely undertaking “a great migration to online publishing”.

For economics, this can only be a good thing. Following the global financial crisis, the economics profession itself came in for stinging criticism. Academic economists have become, locked in their academic ivory-towers, largely out of touch with policy and practice.

Mark Thomas calls this the ‘Great Disconnect’, remarking that “as the ties between academic economists and the practitioners who use the models and techniques they produce have diminished, the questions economists ask have drifted away from the questions of most interest to society. To a large extent, economics has become separated from its real world users and applications”.

Social media offer economists opportunities to re-connect with society. Despite the growing popularity of a number of economics blogs there is still an undersupply of good economics blogs — and on average only 1 in 40 scholars is on Twitter (see Jason Priem).

This is the conclusion from Berk özler and David McKenzie from the World Bank, who having studied the impacts of 50 economics blogs found that a blog can “transform attitudes about some of the topics it covers”.

Transforming attitudes is a good start if one wants to influence policy and practice. Let us welcome more and more economists – and other scientists for that matter – back into the coffee house in 2012.

Wim Naudé, Professorial Fellow, UNU-Maastricht

One thought on “Coffee House Economists

  1. Very interesting post. It´s true that the economist are very out of touch with reality, and both blogs and social media can take them to “the trenches” (as they should).
    I also hope that they can come back to the coffee house, we really need them. Specially after all the bad things they have done (indirectly, but still bad).

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