26 Mar 2012

Four years of aguanomics

Take a camel if you're going on a long walk...
Wow. I am, as usual, overwhelmed by the amount of work and reward that aguanomics has brought me in the past year (update from last year).

Let me begin by thanking everyone who sends me new material (whether or not I post it, I look at EVERYTHING you send), reads this blog, comments on posts and generally contributes to one of the finest discussions on water economics and policy that I've ever run across (seriously -- I'd read this blog if I wasn't writing it :).

Speaking of "AGuanomics," I recently heard about a book -- AQuanomics: Water Markets and the Environment by Gardner and Simmons -- that seems to cover some familiar topics. I emailed Simmons to inquire about the title, and was told that the publisher was not too worried about the similarity of the names (check out koka-kola.com). I am not sure if I am flattered or annoyed at this "brand borrowing." I reckon that quite a few people will think that their book is mine (recall that The End of Abundance is published by Aguanomics Press :).

The Numbers

Here's a short summary [PDF] of visitor traffic by country. The main news is that visitor numbers have fallen by a little compared to the year earlier. 53,000 unique visitors made just over 90,000 visits to the blog (unique visitors is overestimated, since it's by IP address not some form of user name). These numbers do not include traffic from about 1,400 RSS subscribers. There is an uptick in "new" visitors, but average time on the site has fallen from 1 min 45 to 1 min 17 seconds. This last statistic is a little annoying, since I prefer that people stay and read ALL the posts :)

Speaking of which, there are now over 3,700 posts on the blog -- about 500 more than last year -- so that's quite a bit of reading for those of you who have not kept up.

One of the most common questions people ask is "how much time to you spend on the blog?" I reckon that I spend about an hour per post, if you include sorting through all the stuff I get (most of it discarded), analyzing, writing and editing. That's about 500 hours in a year or 10 hours per week.

That time is perhaps the most fun I have as an academic and economist. It may also be the most productive time I spend, which leads us to...

Blogging versus academic writing

Earlier this year, I wrote posts on my changing business model, the failure of academic writing, and the contribution of blogging to learning and public debate. In the past month, I have written or revised 3-4 academic papers, and that process has stimulated me to think more about writing, persuasion, ideas and scholarship.

First and foremost, I am dedicated to finding and developing the best ideas I can. I am not interested in creation, ownership or control of ideas as much as borrowing, using and passing along the best ideas I can find, whatever their origin. I have these goals for reasons personal (I like to understand the world) and professional (I need to be intellectually honest and trustworthy). Last week, I had to deal directly with this fact, as I was accused of "selling out" my academic integrity. Although I am familiar with many examples of people -- and professions -- who rent their reputation to the highest bidder, I am not one of them. I am here to learn and discuss the truth, not to spin words into prepaid formations suited to commercial or personal bias.

This observation leads me to a interesting thought on "scholarly communication." My intellectual ancestor, Adam Smith, was a professor of moral philosophy. Smith wrote to persuade, and his two books (Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations) are masterpieces in the "reasonable analysis" method of debate that dominated the Age of Reason. That era ended in the 19th century, as formal logic and science gained in stature during the Industrial Revolution. Soon "political economy" split into the political and economic sciences, distinct disciplines that lost in their generality as they gained in exact analysis. The move to the rigor and formalism of mathematical economics helped for a time, as it forced economists to specify the logic in their ideas and remove inconsistencies. These methods soon dominated nuanced discussions that did not benefit from the Foundations of Economic Analysis.

Although some saw immediately the flaws in mathematical models that abstracted too far from human behavior and creativity, many others liked to use math to "prove" their theories of human behavior. Mathematical economists frequently "won" debates because their models used logic to connect causes and effects, but their models only worked with formal relationships and assumed parameters. One of the most important -- the assumption that "homo economicus" only cared about himself -- ignored other regarding preferences because it was difficult to find closed form solutions to equations that involved too many moving parts. Economists created a simple, elegant and logical world that did not really exist, a world in which people did not care for each other. This method -- combined with an increasing reliance on citing others as a source of intellectual authority (Zetland 2010) -- meant that economists spent less time on persuasion from a foundation of common sense and more time bludgeoning opponents with citations, statistical significances and lemmas.

And so it seems that we have come full circle: political economists used to describe the world we had and suggest ways to get the world we wanted. Those techniques were replaced by "rigorous" techniques that turned into a caricature of scientism and sophistry (relevant podcast). And what have we got? Experts who "prove" that kids who drink more have more unsafe sex [PDF], models of behavior that never happens, and other forms of mathturbation (see figure at right).

Why does this matter to you? First, there is the opportunity cost of very smart people spending their time on the equivalent of digging holes and filling them in. Many economists work in echo chambers, ignoring other scholars without adequate self-referential "proof." Blinded economists -- like conspiracy theorists -- sees flaws in outside critiques at the same time as they ignore their own weaknesses. Everyone has a hard time changing their opinions, but economists -- as professional thinkers -- should be better at adapting our ideas to new data and perspectives.

The second problem is that economists often get attention, and their bad ideas can lead to bad results. Some economists should be blamed for the financial crisis, either because they were blinded by their faulty ideas or because they were corrupt whores. Other economists have defended poor policies (e.g., corn ethanol) using sophistic rationalization instead of relying on common sense.

I do not like the excessive formalism of academic writing, its narrow perspective or its reliance on borrowed authority. I like clear, direct writing that addresses real problems at the same time as it integrates real constraints. That's why I blog. Blogging is about a return to common sense and a discussion that anyone can understand. The idea here is not to "prove" anything, but to engage, learn teach and persuade. I will continue to write as a scholar but my writing is moving towards the style of Adam Smith and others who engaged regular folks as peers in a discussion.

Bottom Line: I've enjoyed four years of blogging here and will continue. I hope that you're also enjoying the blog. Even better -- for all of us -- I think that we are starting to see more "aguanomics" in the debates over water policy. Yay!