Is the next stage peace?

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Civility Breaks Out Among Econ Wonks

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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I’ve started to notice a funny thing in the last two years, in the blogosphere and on Twitter. There is a lot more agreement than before, and the discourse on economic issues is a lot less poisonous. 

This will come as a surprise to people who follow Twitter and blogs. These have been the years of Ferguson and Eric Garner, of GamerGate, of the Rolling Stone rape story. The cultural battles around race, gender and identity rage unabated, and the flames are fanned by vicious anonymous provocateurs. 

But in the economics and policy world, the winds have begun to shift. A new atmosphere of comity, patience and rationalism is prevailing, and it’s breaking down barriers between liberals and conservatives, interventionists and free-marketers. I can’t prove this with data, but I can show a few examples. 

One example is the shift in traditionally right-wing think tanks. Younger researchers at these think tanks are exploring policy ideas that sound decidedly centrist. For example, James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute now frequently urges Republicans to move beyond Ronald Reagan’s policy program, and to abandon the fetish for hard-money macroeconomic policy. His colleague Michael Strain has come out in favor of food stamps and other low-income assistance. Salim Furth of the Heritage Foundation is more of an orthodox conservative in his policy prescriptions, but maintains cordial relationships with many left-leaning econ bloggers, and is always rational and thoughtful in debates. And the Cato Institute, perhaps the most right-leaning think tank of all, invites left-leaning professors to its policy symposiums

This could be a result of the natural shift in American politics following the 2012 Obama victory -- an example of thought leaders on the right tacking to the center, much as the Democratic Leadership Council tacked to the center after the electoral victories of Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the 1980s. But I think it’s more than that. Left-leaning economics bloggers such as Nick Bunker of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth or Mark Thoma of the University of Oregon have shown a willingness to retweet and publicize posts by conservatives. There are also more and more policy areas where left- and right-leaning bloggers are on the same page, such as suspicion of the intellectual policy provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

Also, there seems to be a much greater willingness of writers to admit bias. Russ Roberts, an economist, writer and podcaster who is strongly against government intervention in markets, recently bravely admitted that his free-market bias has caused him to be closed to the possibility of stabilizing the economy with fiscal policy. So far Roberts’ case is the first, but it will be interesting to see if more follow, on both the left and the right. 

A recent example of Twitter comity has been between leftist blogger Matt Bruenig and libertarian writer Adam Ozimek, who regularly engage in vigorous and extended debates over every issue imaginable, but are still quick to say nice things about each other, and to hear each other’s ideas out. 

But enough anecdotes. The shift is in the air, and if you don’t take my word for it, so be it. The interesting question is: If a greater degree of agreement and reasonableness is indeed prevailing in the econoblogosphere, what might be the reason? 

One reason could be the resolution of the vigorous economic policy battles that sprung up in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 crisis. The failure of quantitative easing to cause inflation in 2011 and 2012 was a stern wake-up call to the anti-interventionists who had warned of an imminent rise in prices. In addition, it looks like Obamacare, or something very much like it, is now politically inevitable. Meanwhile, liberals have been forced to recognize that unemployment insurance extensions do discourage jobseekers to some degree, and that Social Security Disability benefits might be used as an ad-hoc welfare system that then discourages work. Meanwhile, the most poisonous debate of all -- the battle over fiscal stimulus -- has shrunk in relevance. 

But there could be a deeper force at work than the ebb and flow of politics. Twitter and blogs are new technologies that allow people to communicate data and news at much, much higher volumes than ever. There are very deep reasons to think that if people talk enough, they will start agreeing. 

The reasons are, in part, mathematical. When we communicate our beliefs, we convey information about how we arrived at those beliefs. Under certain assumptions, simply telling each other our interpretation of events will eventually produce total agreement. This was the upshot of a famous proof by Stony Brook game theorist Robert Aumann, but it was economists John Geanakoplos and Heracles Polemarchakis who explained just how back-and-forth communication could produce the agreement. Other economists later extended and generalized the argument. If you’re into math, these are some deep papers that you really should check out. 

Of course, this result depends on certain assumptions. For example, people have to be honest. If there are some people who are deliberately lying, they can keep injecting bad information into the mix, which can lead to continued disagreement. Also, people have to be rational. Psychological biases, of the kind Russ Roberts talked about, can limit agreement. 

These imperfections will prevent perfect consensus, but they won’t remove the tendency of argument and discussion to lead to greater mutual understanding and agreement. The new technologies of the Internet should be viewed as an engine for increasing human understanding. Today I see it in the econ blogosphere, but who knows -- tomorrow we may start seeing more agreement on social issues as well. That would be a good thing. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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