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Blogging economists draw cyber-crowds

CHICAGO (Reuters) - To debate leading economists on hot topics like globalization and free trade, you can hang out at Harvard -- or log on to a growing group of brainy blogs.

Blogging, the soap box for the masses, is getting a bit more high-brow as elite professors look to share their views on the issues of the day and interact with an audience that may not spend much time on exclusive college campuses.

"It allows you to reach outside the Ivory Tower," said Daniel Drezner, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. He blogs on global political economics at http://www.danieldrezner.com/blog/.

A blog debate on free trade between Harvard economists Dani Rodrik and Greg Mankiw attracted thousands of readers to Rodrik's newly launched site, giving non-economists a unique forum to engage some of the biggest names in the business.

Less lofty subjects like Hollywood gossip still trump economics on the blogosphere. A Google blog search for "celebrity" found more than 2.2 million results. The same search for "economics" turned up 674,103 references.

Economic blogs aimed at investors have been hot for some time, with sites such as The Big Picture (http://bigpicture.typepad.com/comments/) following the market impact of everything from the Federal Reserve to housing. But top-tier professors debating economic theory and political policy online was a bit of a rarity until recently.

Brad DeLong, who teaches economics at the University of California at Berkeley, was one of the first, and still writes regularly at http://delong.typepad.com/. Mark Thoma, an economics professor at the University of Oregon, writes Economist's View at http://economistsview.typepad.com/.

WHY BLOG?

A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that bloggers typically write about their own lives and experiences, and most have never had their work published elsewhere. Some 8 percent of Internet users, or about 12 million Americans, keep a blog.

But high-level economists have reams of research published in peer-reviewed journals, and the big names are routinely quoted in the financial media and cited in policy speeches.

So why blog?

Harvard's Rodrik said he enjoys the discussions, which bring in both his fellow economists and neophytes who are not thoroughly schooled in economic theory.

The professor of international political economy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, started his blog in April at http://rodrik.typepad.com/. He isn't exactly hurting for publicity.

His name has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Financial Times in recent weeks, and his work was cited in Federal Reserve Governor Frederic Mishkin's April 26 speech at the International Monetary Fund.

Interacting with a diverse group of blog readers helps him hone his communication skills, teaching him to write clearly for a mass audience without dumbing-down his ideas.

"We have to express ourselves in ways that are going to make us understood by this broader group without taking shortcuts," he said. "If we take shortcuts, then we know that our economics colleagues are going to criticize us.

"It's helping us ... to communicate with the public, get across ideas that might be fairly obtuse. Your typical economist doesn't get a whole of practice with that."

Blogging can have its drawbacks, particularly for professors fighting for tenure. An active blog-life can lead to questions about whether professors are spending enough time on research. When Tufts' Drezner was denied tenure at the University of Chicago in 2005, some fellow bloggers questioned whether his online commentary was to blame.

Drezner said on his own blog that "it's possible that blogging played a role in my (denial of tenure), but I seriously doubt it was the overriding factor."

Rodrik acknowledged that his blog was more time-consuming than he had anticipated, and he finds himself writing at odd moments, like the middle of the night when he gets up to care for his baby son.

Drezner, who started his blog in 2002, said it helps him showcase his writing skills and gives him a chance to engage the likes of Rodrik and others in discussions that might not have happened outside of cyberspace.

Indeed, it is that sort of public debate between leading economists that seems to be attracting the Web crowds.

Rodrik's first few blog musings drew perhaps 50 page views, but his audience mushroomed to 6,000 almost overnight, helped by a plug from fellow Harvard professor/blogger, Greg Mankiw.

In one series of blog entries, Rodrik and Mankiw sparred over free trade, debating the merits of various economic theories. (Mankiw's blog is http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/.)

Drezner also uses his blog as a sketchpad to think about ideas that may later form the basis for research or papers. It also raises his "cool" factor among his students, he says.

He had planned to keep up his blog for perhaps a year but nearly five years later -- he calls himself a "dinosaur" of the economics blogosphere -- he's still going strong.

"It's a way for me to keep a voice in the conversation," he said, adding that blogging has helped raise his profile. "The New York Times Op-ed page now returns my phone calls."

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