An insurgent from the long tail

Scott Sumner is a middle-aged economics professor at Bentley who, by his own admission, has labored in obscurity his entire career.  The ideas and methods he promotes are out of fashion.  He has published sparingly, and recently professional journals have been returning his articles unpublished and unrefereed.

Scott Sumner is an economics writer who has attracted over a million readers, 10,000 of whom have engaged him in writing.  His ideas and methods have sparked a wide-ranging debate about economic policy in the current crisis, which drew in, pro and con, many luminaries of his profession – including his holiness Paul Krugman, supreme pontiff of economics at the NYT.

Two concepts will help explain the contradiction, which was first remarked on by Adam at Cloud Culture.

The first is the power law distribution, with its spike of success and long tail of increasing marginality:  the shape of every complex human activity.

A handful of famous economists stand at the head of the chart.  They have won all the prizes, control all the resources, and make The Official Method a requisite for status and prestige.  Sumner, like most of his peers, is a dweller of the long tail.  His public doubts about The Official Method mean he will be shuffled ever farther downstream from the elite at the head, get fewer chances to publish, and receive scant recognition.

The second concept is the shared stories people carry inside their heads to help orchestrate group behavior.

Part of the story in the economics profession is that the top people are the keepers of The Official Method and dispensers of jobs, tenure, podium time at conferences, space in the journals.  Another bit is that one must publish to exist.  Sumner, however, is a blogger – he has managed not only to exist but to thrive from the long tail, in utter disregard of his profession’s gatekeepers and master narrative.

As often transpires with such cases, Sumner’s insurgency has turned the shared story on its head.  Famous economists are now praising him and responding to him – even Krugman has deigned to criticize.  His unorthodox ideas make him stand out from the crowd and garner attention.  His marginality allows him to grasp that what matters isn’t The Official Method, but “persuasion.”

So that’s the goal of my blog, to constantly use theoretical arguments, empirical data, clever metaphors, and historical analogies that make people see the current situation in a new way.  Whatever works, as long as it is not dishonest.

Sumner embodies the breath-taking new possibilities of the digital age:  a successful assault on authority conducted from a remote outpost of the long tail.  Additional examples of such insurgencies can easily be found.

The carefully constructed story of global warming politics has been toppled by online actors like Anthony Watts of What’s Up With That – the US news media, because of its own belief structures, refused to touch the story.  Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, a nobody, every day demolishes some aspect of the story propagated for 50 years by the puppet media of the ruthless Castro regime.

In France, where the story inside the head of the political class is not unlike that of the old aristocracy, a grandee of the ruling party has actually claimed that “the internet is a danger to democracy.”

As for Sumner, he is an obscure professor of economics, but a famous economics blogger.  In his chosen career, he stands far out in the long tail.  In his online niche, he rides the head of the power curve.

The question is:  what has changed?  Reflecting on the curious rise of Scott Sumner, Adam foresees a moment when information will break loose of the professional story, becoming intelligible and available to the interested amateur.

Scholars have always formed communities of interest one way or another.  In Sumner’s post I felt I saw a glimpse of the future, of the character of the new communities that scholars will form as more of them embrace the cloud as a place to conduct their discussions in an open and public manner.

Maybe so.  I confess to far less certainty on the matter.  I return to the question:  what has changed?  The Castro brothers are still in charge, and Yoani Sanchez was pummeled by political thugs just a few weeks ago.  A French minister called out the cops on an online commenter who had offended her.  The mafia running China has hacked Google and maintains an “internet police.”

Sumner has gained an audience, but what changed because of that?  The authority figures of economics may feel a little less authoritative, a tad less comfortable, but Sumner himself wonders how “as you become better known, you don’t seem to have any more influence than before.”

He has indeed broken loose of the professional story – but it’s his profession, and he thinks (though without visible regret) that he’s paying a price for his online success.

In the real world I am not nearly as successful as it may appear from my blog.  I got turned down by the AEA convention.  In 2008 and 2009 I sent papers on the economic crisis out to journals like the JMCB and the JPE, journals that I have published at in the past.  But now for the first time in my life the articles come back without even being sent out to a referee. [. . .]

Regrets?  I’m pretty fatalistic about things.  I suppose it wasn’t a smart career move to spend so much time on the blog.  If I had ignored my commenters I could have had my manuscript revised by now.  But I think everything happens for a reason.

The relationship between new media, long-tail insurgencies, and the shared stories which make sense of information is, to me, still to be explained.  Maybe nothing changes in what Sumner calls “the real world.”  Maybe something does change:  maybe, a lot.  I can make a case for all three outcomes.

“Five years from now,” Adam, the optimist, writes, “I wonder if he’ll still think it was bad for his career.  When someone becomes prominent enough in new media, it tends to work out well for them eventually, even if only indirectly.”

Adam is thinking of people like Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, who in “real life” is a law professor whose book became a best-seller because of his fame as the Blogfather.  Fair enough.  The answer, I agree, will become clear five years from now:  whether Sumner has taken his insurgency to the market for a well-deserved reward, or stopped blogging long since.

Scott Sumner

8 Responses to An insurgent from the long tail

  1. Adam says:

    The only certainty I’m willing to claim is that there will be scholars that are active on the web, and they will form communities the way that the economics bloggers seem to be doing already. I honestly have no clue how all of this will reflect back on the real world. I have to believe that something will be impacted by it–but it could be something as simple as that universities begin expecting their professors to have some level of engagement online, and that’s it.

    I feel like, with the number of professors at GMU we’ve got online, there may already be a tacit expectation of that kind–at the very least, blogging is smiled rather than frowned upon. It says something when my Law and Economics professor, who is fairly on in years, starts a blog himself. Blogging in the department has reached such a critical mass that even the much older generation of professors are taking an interest in it.

    Of course even if all scholars move online, we both know there’s something fundamental that won’t change: their readership, and the number of links they manage to get, will without a doubt follow a power law distribution, both for the whole body of scholars and within each specific field.

    • Good points. An interesting question will be: what happens to a profession when the professional elites at the head of the chart fall to the bottom of public attention, and insurgents from the professional long tail – as with Sumner now – rise to the top of the attention chart?

      • Adam says:

        Yeah, I think that may be the million dollar question. There’s always a head of the tail. In economics, a few journal articles enjoy the vast majority of all citations, to name one example.

        I think the movement to online media typically changes the kinds of skills and written works that are rewarded. To take a more trivial example, only a minority of webcomic artists can make a living off of making webcomics, just like only a minority of comic artists historically could make a living off of their trade.

        But the kinds of comics that make it on the web are very different from the kinds that make it in, say, newspapers. If for no other reason than newspaper comics have to justify themselves to the newspaper they’re going to be on and whose brand will be effected.

        Without a doubt, the kind of economist who garners attention on the web is very different from the kind who gets published a lot in journal articles. An economics blogger who did the kind of ridiculously intensive mathematical modeling they expect from you in a journal, he would never end up with the size audience that Sumner enjoys.

  2. […] Originally posted here: An insurgent from the long tail « vulgar morality […]

  3. […] and my inflated ego may not be able to go long without excessively flattering commentaries like this and […]

  4. teageegeepea says:

    I think you might exaggerate how unorthodox Sumner is. Kling calls his story mainstream macroeconomics, and Scott doesn’t disagree. Scott is just pushing the same ideas in mainstream textbooks, even though during the crash economists acted differently. Sumner frequently makes his points by quoting (in agreement) Paul Krugman.

  5. Doc Merlin says:

    Yes, Sumner is fairly mainstream. Its more that the entire rest of the established econ world has gone nuts in the last 5 years.

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