An Interesting Quote

I recently started to re-read Paul Krugman´s “The Accidental Theorist” (I have always deeply admired his writing style, though I half-regret his semi-conversion from international economist into political pundit), and came across the following quote: “The old cliches are absolutely true: it is not only harder but more time-consuming to write a 1300-word, plain-English article for the general public than to write a 5000-word, equation-laden paper for a professional journal”.

Insightful stuff. My gut feeling tells me that he is correct. But if so, what are the implications for academic careerism? I mean, if what Krugman says is true, shouldn´t universities value original pieces in general interest publications at least as highly as theoretical contributions in jargon-filled journals? For a piece to be published in, say, the NY Times or the Financial Times it usually must contain a pretty high degree of originality and insightfulness (if only because you are competing with dozens of other potential contributors). In contrast, many of the things that find a home inside academic journals tend not to offer much that´s really new, let alone stuff that a non-academic would want to browse through.

If we all agree that the role of academic institutions should be to advance knowledge, does it make sense to show a bias precisely against those works that a) do offer something innovative, b) reach a lot of folks? Isn´t it a bit contradictory to show a brutal preference towards output that many times presents nothing new and that would only be read by a small group of like-minded peers?.

Executives inside both financial institutions and corporations read the NY Times and the Financial Times everyday (ok, make that the NY Post and the WSJ in some cases). I would bet heavily against the possibility that they also read the Journal of Finance and Econometrica. Economics and Finance departments should be (I guess) expected to try to cater to those people whose very actions the professors try to explain and model. Why, then, would writing for those people be penalized, not rewarded?.

Krugman can boast a powerful combination: a renowned theorist who also happens to know how to talk to the world. Those two attributes make him into a very desirable prospect for any top school in the world. Unfortunately, it seems likely that those institutions would instinctively find the former skill way more valuable than the latter. That´s a pity because, as the Princeton-based man reminds us, developing insights for the average reader is the hardest part.