For nearly twenty years (1981–2001) I worked as the economics columnist for the Boston Globe, writing twice a week for most of that time. The paper's management changed in 2001. I quit and took Economic Principals, the Sunday column, to the Web, where I have written EP weekly ever since, supported by subscriptions. I thought I might be useful if I described how my views of the field were formed and how they evolved.
In the beginning there was Social Studies, an undergraduate concentration at Harvard College whose sophomore tutorial the year I took it consisted entirely of reading and discussing selections of Tocqueville, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Freud. The reward for finishing on time that year was to read Thomas Kuhn. I had spent several years away from college after my freshman year, a couple of them in Vietnam, where I read Myrdal's Asian Drama. It was in Vietnam, too, that I internalized Stanley Karnow's dictum that a reporter's tools consist mainly of skepticism and background knowledge. That Social Studies tutorial really focused my attention, but I had no thought of graduate school. I was eager to get back to news.
The Wall Street Journal hired me out of college into its Pittsburgh bureau. My experience there was deeply formative as well, but I left the Journal after six months to pursue a girl and moved to rural Delaware. As a business reporter for the Wilmington News-Journal, I gradually began reading historians: Clifton Yearley (The Money Machines: The Breakdown and Reformation of Governmental and Party Finance in the North, 1860–1920), Alfred Chandler (Pierre S. du Pont and the Making of the Modern Corporation), and Thomas Haskell (The Emergence of Professional Social Science) made big impressions on me. It was in Newark, Delaware, that I first met Len Silk. He had worked for Yank in Europe as I had worked for Stars and Stripes in Vietnam. Despite his Duke PhD in economics, I felt that we were fellow citizens of News.
I moved to Forbes in 1974, where an assignment to write something about inflation plunged me into writing about economics. I realized that I knew nothing about it: Adam Smith had been altogether missing from that tutorial. So I read The Wealth of Nations and Ricardo's Principles that spring and formed a durable friendship with E. Lawrence Minard, a young colleague, who had served as graduate teaching assistant to Robert Heilbroner at the New School across the street. We set out to undermine confidence in the quantity theory of money, a project I now think of what we undertook as economic criticism. It was then that I first read Craufurd Goodwin's Exhortation and Controls. (Many years later, I was told that the Social Studies curriculum ordinarily included both Montesquieu and Smith, but the tumultuous year of 1970–71 was the one time both authors were omitted.)
I enjoyed magazine writing, but I had begun to specialize, with ambitions to cover the field. When I couldn't get a piece about James Buchanan into the magazine, I knew it was time to move on. Others at Forbes with similar bents made the same discovery: Esther Dyson bought a semiconductor newsletter; John Berry went to the Washington Post to cover the Fed; Paul Blustein to the Wall Street Journal to cover trade; Allan Sloane to Newsday to write a syndicated column about deals. Minard stayed the course and wound up editor of Forbes international edition, having put Schumpeter and Hayek on its cover on separate occasions. I spent a year in the New York Public Library reading economics, and the Globe hired me in 1978.
At the Globe, I saw what others were doing in newspapers and looked for spaces in between: Silk at the New York Times; Lindley Clark and Alfred Malabre at the Wall Street Journal; Robert Samuelson at the Washington Post; Samuel Brittan and Peter Jay at the Financial Times; Paul Solman at Boston after Dark (and, later, the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour). Jude Wanniski at the Wall Street Journal was conspicuous in those days, as was James Grant at Barron’s. I kept working weekends on the project I had begun at Forbes. The Idea of Economic Complexity (Viking) appeared in 1984. Recently I reviewed what I thought I had learned since in an eight-part series in EP, Complexity Revisited.
I began writing a column almost as soon as I arrived. Theory and Practice failed; three years later, I got a second chance. The premise this time was to cover developments. Boston, with MIT, Harvard, and the National Bureau of Economic Research, might be the capital of world economics, but plenty was going on elsewhere as well. I began writing a second column for Tuesday, about local politics and economics.
My first column for the paper (and my last, it turned out, nineteen years later) was about Franklin Fisher: in the first instance, his service to IBM as an antitrust defense witness (“The Nobleman Who Stooped to Trade”). I had a soft spot for outsiders (after all, I was one myself): Fisher was followed by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Edward Tufte, and Esther Dyson, if I remember correctly. Economic Principals: Masters and Mavericks of Modern Economics (Free Press, 1991), a collection of columns, included pieces about the critics Sidney Schoeffler, Jay Forrester, Thomas Hughes, Albert Hirschman, David Noble, Albert Wojnilower, and Benjamin DeMott. When I replaced a photo of Schumpeter on the cover with another of Paul Samuelson, I crossed the line: I was committed to a developing science. By the time I went to the Web, I was more interested in the freedom afforded magazine writers to cover the field. My first piece online was about John McDonald, who had written about Oskar Morgenstern and John von Neumann for Fortune, where Silk had written about Swedish housing policy. Silk had grown closer to the field—his second book, The Research Revolution (McGraw-Hill, 1960), was about Wassily Leontief—and so did I. Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery (Norton, 2006) was about Paul Romer. Between projects, I self-published Because They Could: The Harvard-Russia Project and NATO Expansion after Twenty-Five Years (2018), more economic criticism.
Starting out at the Globe, I had read historians of thought. Henry Spiegel, Harry Landreth and David Colander, George Shackle, and, especially, William Breit. The appearance of The New Palgrave in 1987 was a big event. So was Capital Ideas, by Peter Bernstein (Free Press, 1992). Jürg Niehans, A History of Economic Analysis 1750–1980 (Johns Hopkins, 1991) made a big impression. At some point I began reading HOPE, becoming most interested in those whom I thought of as writing about the profession: E. Roy Weintraub, Bob Dimand, Phil Mirowski, Rob Leonard, David Levy and Sandy Peart, Beatrice Cherrier, Mie Augier, Tiago Mata, Marc Flandreau. Craufurd Goodwin's essay on the future of the history of economics has stayed with me. So has Thomas Haskell. The best book since Kuhn is Science as a Process, by David Hull, or so I think.
In recent years, the news business has undergone a considerable transformation. It is not yet clear what will happen next. Journalism has become less like the trade I wandered into, more of a profession. Economists these days often write management trade books: Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff, Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian, Andrew Lo, David Kreps, John List. Mass audiences are those of Martin Wolf, Paul Krugman, Tim Harford, Tyler Cowen, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, and Noah Smith. I am not sure this is a good thing. I prefer journalists with a point of view: Greg Ip, Paul Blustein, Binya Applebaum, Peter Coy, Stephanie Flanders, and Izabella Kaminska among them. The world of journalists, economists (and other social scientists), and historians is getting more interesting all the time.