271 – 10 years of blogging

I just noticed (a few months late) that it’s been 10 years since I started writing Pannell Discussions. Time for some reflections on the benefits and costs of doing so.

In 2004 I decided I wanted to increase my outreach to non-economists and to people outside academia. I wanted to put out material that would be interesting and engaging, and would increase people’s understanding of economic issues in agriculture and natural resource management.

I decided to write brief articles on a range of topics, and put them on my web site. Initially I didn’t think of this as being a blog, but eventually I accepted that this is what it is.

I adopted a few rules for myself. Firstly, I had to enjoy it. If it became a burden I would stop, or if other work was too demanding I would give it a rest. (Work has been demanding this year, hence the relatively low frequency of posts.) Secondly, each post had to be a manageable amount of work. I originally set myself a target of one hour per week. Eventually, it worked out that I was spending about two hours per post (including managing the web site), and doing one post about every second week, so the one-hour rule worked out. Thirdly, I decided only to write about things I know about or am interested in, to avoid having to do a lot of extra work to prepare each post.

I started with signing up some friends and colleagues as subscribers and let the subscription base grow fairly organically. It is now up to almost 700 subscribers, plus a lot of non-scribers look at the posts. The more popular posts get around 1000 readers.

blogOverall, the benefits of doing the blog have been much greater than I expected or imagined. As well as it being enjoyable to spend some time regularly writing something for a general audience, the benefits have included the following.

I’ve partly used the blog to raise awareness about my research and its implications. Some of the posts are based on one of my published research papers, and many posts include one or more of my papers as further reading. This has meant that more potential users of the research find out about it, and sometimes it’s led to actual usage of the research.

Some of my readers are other researchers, some of whom end up citing one of my papers in their research publications, as a result of having seen it on the blog.

In some cases, I’ve used the process of writing the blog as a mechanism to work out my thoughts on an issue, or to force myself to focus on the practical implications of a piece of research I’ve done. Occasionally, feedback from commenters helps with this, but mostly it’s just the fact that I know there is an audience of general readers who are going to look at it that makes me think about it more clearly from a practical perspective. A number of published papers have benefited from this prior public scrutiny of aspects of them.

There has even been one case where a blog post (PD175) generated ideas that led to research and a journal publication that wouldn’t otherwise exist (Rogers et al., 2014), which was then described in another blog post (PD256).

Beyond the more research-oriented posts, the blog posts take a number of different approaches, from time to time, including:

  • Getting stuff out of my system (split infinitives PD177, grammar PD215)
  • Sharing interesting stuff (fossil fuel subsidies PD265; economics and violence PD269 and PD270)
  • Self-indulgent sharing of my passions (The Beatles PD10, PD225 and PD264; long jump PD19 and PD109)
  • Travelogues (China PD198, PD199; Estonia and Latvia PD84) and
  • Explaining stuff that many people get confused about (discounting PD33, PD34, PD224, PD242, double counting benefits PD15)

Doing the blog has definitely meant that more people know about me and my work. I sometimes meet people who read my blog but otherwise wouldn’t know I existed and may never have heard of environmental or agricultural economics. Or my wife meets someone who asks whether she’s related to Pannell Discussions. Some people seem to think I’ve got more expertise than I really have, because they’ve seen a blog post I wrote about something.

Other random nice stuff that’s happened includes:

  • A friend sending one of my posts (PD139) to Nobel Prize winner Eleanor Ostrom and getting feedback that she really liked it.
  • Getting invited to join the Scientific Committee of a large European project on the strength of them seeing my blog.
  • A national prize for Quality of Research Communication from the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society (PD206)
  • Getting a cheque for $500 from the copyright agency resulting from people making copies of Pannell Discussions for use in their teaching.

The main cost has been time but, as I said earlier, that hasn’t been excessive.

I haven’t found it difficult to identify enough topics to keep it going. If I don’t have a topic, that’s fine, I don’t write a post. But usually there are one or two topics in the queue.

Overall, it’s been a great thing to do, and I’ll keep on doing it when time allows.

Further reading

Rogers, A.A., Kragt, M.E., Gibson, F.L., Burton, M.P., Petersen, E.H. and Pannell, D.J. (2014). Non-market valuation: usage and impacts in environmental policy and management in Australia, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics (forthcoming). Journal web page ◊ IDEAS page for this paper

270 – Violence and economics 2

Last time I talked about the way that economic trade has contributed to reductions in certain types of violence. Another economics-related influence was the establishment of powerful centralised governments, which claimed a monopoly in the rights to apply violence within the community. The links to economics are various.

Steven Pinker (2011) refers to this influence on violence as “The Leviathan”, meaning a state that claims a monopoly on violent force and uses that monopoly to protect its citizens from each other.

This reminded me of the economic concept of a natural monopoly – a situation where a monopoly can deliver an outcome more efficiently and cheaply than can multiple players in a competitive market. Normally this is thought to apply to services like trains, roads or domestic water, but the discerning use of violent force to reduce general violence does seem like a good candidate for a natural monopoly. Imagine what would happen if there was more than one provider of this “service”!

violence1The Leviathan idea also relates to the economic theory of public goods, which have either or both of two characteristics: the provider cannot exclude people from benefiting from the goods in question (and so cannot charge a voluntary fee in exchange for their consumption) and/or consumption of the good by one person does not diminish its availability to other people (see PD22). Violence-reduction services would have both of these characteristics, and so economists would consider them to be prime candidates for being provided by a centralised government, rather than by multiple firms in a free market.

Next, there would be positive externalities (PD35) resulting from individual decisions not to apply violence to others in their community. A positive externality is where somebody gets a spill-over benefit from someone else’s activities. Pinker showed that the violence-reduction benefits of a benevolent central government diffuse throughout the society. One way is through growth of culture and technology, as people have more time and resources to devote to these things rather than to self-defence. Fostering of positive externalities is another classic economists’ rationale for government getting involved in an issue, rather than leaving it to solely to the market.

We heard about the violence-reducing benefits of trade (PD269), but this too depends on a strong centralised government to provide the conditions and institutions for trade to occur. A benevolent Leviathan helps us all by defining and enforcing property rights, providing the rule of law, creating a system of contracts, and punishing violators of these systems. Without these things, trading would be much more expensive and therefore less common. In other words, the strong centralised government, by providing these systems and institutions, reduces our “transaction costs” (see PD192), making trade practically possible. Transaction costs have been a growing area of study in economics, recognised with recent Nobel prizes.

One of the mechanisms for reducing transaction costs is increasing trust. It’s easy to see how the systems and institutions put in place by a benevolent Leviathan would lead to increased trust between people. Social scientists, including economists, have studied trust as a key element of “social capital” (see PD170), looking at how it contributes to making economies and societies work effectively, for the benefit of all.

So there are at least three or four ways that economic theories can add richness to Pinker’s Leviathan idea.

Overall, it is striking how many connections there are between economics and the long-term reduction in violence outlined by Pinker. He doesn’t talk about these connections (apart from the “gentle commerce” one), but it seems there could be scope to explore them further.

Further reading

Pinker, S. (2011) The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes, Allen Lane, Penguin, London.