Paul Krugman, one of the best known economists in the world today, announced he is leaving his position at Princeton University. Krugman writes and blogs frequently for the New York Times, won a Nobel Prize, and is an outspoken liberal force when it comes to left-wing policy. He is a highly skilled writer in communicating economics to a wide audience and appealing to the general population’s intuitive side. He’ll be leaving Princeton for CUNY. That Krugman will likely survive and continue to thrive without the backing of a top university is a part of a growing trend across different industries.

For ever and ever middlemen were needed in different industries to distribute, promote, support, and financially back those more directly connected with the substance of goods and services. Musicians needed record companies to distribute their music to record stores, get them on the radio, promote them, and get them booked on tours. Now, a plethora of bands have made it based on Myspace presence or self-distribution. With spotify, iTunes, and other music services, the consumer no longer needs the record company to get access to music. With internet virality and social media, promotion can be left more in the hands of the masses (for better or for worse).

Ezra Klein, blogging/wonk prodigy, recently left his well-supported Wonkblog at the Washington Post to launch his own “Project X” with Vox media. Klein reportedly asked Jeff Bezos for an eight figure investment into a new project that Bezos declined to provide. Klein has made enough of a brand from his own writing that a large media corporation like the Washington Post is no longer needed for him to thrive. Before, earning enough of a reputation individually was difficult to attract enough traffic. The Washington Post gave him server space and people that were going to read WaPo were going to be exposed to his writing. That purpose is no longer needed. Andrew Sullivan is also among the few able to do this, as he showed with his subscription-based site when he left the Daily Beast.
Academics in the past have needed the support of a formal institution like a university, the Federal Reserve, or think tank in order to get exposure. Institutions are also able to give salaries. An individual like Paul Krugman does little teaching as far as I am aware at Princeton, especially with undergraduates. The affiliation is mutually beneficial in that his presence boosts Princeton’s ranking and prestige and Princeton provides a salary for him and the name “Princeton University” on his business card. But if Krugman no longer needs Princeton to pay his salary or give him exposure, the university has become another obsolete middleman. I could see academic journals – you know, those things that cost tens of thousands of dollars that no one reads – becoming an obsolete middleman in the near future as well.
What this pattern shows is that technology is allowing for individuals to no longer be dependent on those old businessmen to support their endeavors. They used to serve a function when massive startup capital was needed to distribute or promote one’s work. I think this is a change for the good. It gets rid of a superfluous middleman. What is also does is emphasize the economics of superstars. As technology allows more people access to all these best, everyone else in the distribution struggles a little more. On one end, you have the long-tail fringe musicians that still can find listeners through Spotify. On the other hand, it means musicians like Beyonce or athletes like Lebron James (the 0.001%) take home an increasing share of the industry.
What if you’re a writer that doesn’t manage to work a 30-hour day like Ezra Klein? What if you’re an academic that needs an institution to support you with tenure while you blog and revolutionize monetary economics? Ezra and Krugman being able to make it on their own is a terrific advancement. But it could also mean that as more insitutuions whither away that used to support writers and musicians, only the superstars survive. I’m not sure if this is necessarily bad, or whether we really have any power to do anything about it. But getting rid of superfluous middlemen seems like it will reward those closer to making actual content.

In the sequel to Freakonomics, titled Superfreakonomics, the authors have a chapter on global warming. I haven’t read it yet so I can’t give a fully educated opinion. But one can pick up a few facts from the blogopshere.

Essentially, the authors of the book, Levitt and Dubner discussed some creative solutions to global warming as an alternative to massive carbon taxes or imposing a cap and trade system. One approach is this:

The hose-in-the-sky approach to global warming is the brainchild of Intellectual Ventures, a Bellevue, Wash.-based firm founded by former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold. The basic idea is to engineer effects similar to those of the 1991 mega-eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, which spewed so much sulfuric ash into the stratosphere that it cooled the earth by about one degree Fahrenheit for a couple of years.

So why did Levitt and Deubner get so much criticism in the blogosphere? They prefaced the chapter with a few pages that seemingly understated global warming’s potential cost and even referred to the often-overhyped instance of scientists warning of “global cooling” in the 1970s. In fact, not many scientists actually believed global cooling was coming and the reports of such are cited nowadays by global warming deniers as reason to doubt current climate science. Because of this, the authors understandably lose some credibility.

But people like Ezra Klein, Paul Krugman, and others, I think, mistakenly dismiss everything Levitt and Dubner say about solutions to global warming. Innovative solutions like geo-engineering might possibly be a more effective way to control the world’s temperature rise and/or live with the consequences, as Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus concluded.

From what I can tell, Levitt and Dubner don’t deny global warming or the need to do something about it. They only give solutions that involve neither total government takeover of industry nor intrusion into the intricacies of people’s lives. For this, they are considered intellectually bankrupt. While they may have misrepresented the climate science out there, I still think that people need to consider alternative solutions to global warming a little more seriously.

Read Dubner’s response to many of the criticisms here.

I am a firm believer that everyone should expose themselves to the ideas/works of opposing viewpoints, no matter how ridiculous one might think such views are. I feel a lot of people read blogs, books, and articles only by people with similar views. This acts as a re-enforcement of opinions rather than an enhancement of knowledge. As such, I like to think that I break out of this mold by reading people like Paul Krugman, Ezra Klein, or even Naomi Klein.

One of the issues that seems most obvious to me is globalization and its net benefits for people around the world. The chief critic of globalization is Joseph Stiglitz, a nobel laureate in “information economics.” I picked up his magnum opus, Globalization and Its Discontents, today and just finished reading the first fifty pages. Interestingly, I find myself agreeing with him much more than I thought I would. First off, he is not nearly as anti-“globalization” as he is in opposition to distinctly non-market institutions like the IMF and the World Bank (where he was chief economist for a few years). The IMF and World Bank, in my admittedly limited knowledge, are organizations that are indeed detrimental to growth in developing countries and more often make things worse than make them better.

From the start, he acknowledges the undeniable benefits to people around the world and even seems to offer some support for sweatshops:

People in the West may regard low-paying Nike jobs at Nike as exploitation, but for many people in the developing world, working in factory is a far better option than staying down on the farm and growing rice.

So far, it seems clear to me that Siglitz isn’t opposed to globalization as much as he is against how it is being carried out. In the back of my mind I also remember that his expertise is in asymmetric information and not international trade (though his time at the World Bank does give him expertise on how it carries out its business).

I have only read a fifth of Stiglitz’s book, so he might go onto issues where his opinions part from mine later. Meanwhile, I look forward to seeing what he has to say against all the good things of globalization I hear so much about.