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Now online: slide-rule celebrities

Economists who author blogs are drawing fans who see nothing dismal about the discipline.

November 23, 2006|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

Fame found Tyler Cowen on the back seat of an airport bus.

Travel-weary after a long flight back from a family vacation, the economics professor was returning to his car at Baltimore/Washington International Airport. Suddenly, a man leaned across the bus aisle to shake Cowen's hand, pronouncing himself a "huge fan" -- not of Cowen's economics work, but of the Internet blog the George Mason University faculty member created three years ago.

"My first question was, 'How do you know what I look like?' " Cowen said. "I thought that was a little strange."

Before the Internet came along, Cowen was many things. New Jersey's 1977 chess champion, for instance. The author of an ethnic dining guide to the Washington area as well as academic papers with snappy titles like "More Monitoring Can Induce Less Effort."

But since he and colleague Alex Tabarrok started the blog Marginal Revolution, which has had more than 6 million visitors, Cowen has become something he didn't even know existed: an economics celebrity.

Thanks to life as an econo-blogger, "I'm invited to give a speech or something at least once a week," Cowen said.

He isn't the only economist who has found an audience on the Web. Nobel laureate Gary S. Becker and former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers are among those who have set up blogs, which are typically part lecture, part journal and part college seminar, with reader participation expected.

Where else besides Cowen's blog can readers, who as students might have yawned over economics textbooks, find commentary about regulating hedge funds combined with a section featuring odd inventions such as a fan that attaches to chopsticks and cools noodles as they're being eaten? The postings are injecting life into the field often called the dismal science.

Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard lecturer and former chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisors, started a blog in the spring to supplement his lectures for the popular course "Social Analysis 10: Principles of Economics." He had been getting queries from students who weren't enrolled in the class and thought the blog was the best way to make information accessible to all. He quickly had 5,000 readers a day.

One correspondent wrote that "economists can be rock stars" -- like Bono, the U2 singer turned economic activist, but in reverse. Another named a pet angelfish after Mankiw. The response surprised Mankiw, author of meaty textbooks, including Principles of Economics and Macroeconomics.

"I don't think most people look up to nerdy academic economists as heroes," he said.

But economists who blog might be different.

Lee Beck, a 21-year-old math major who attends the University of Texas at Houston, reads a handful of economics blogs daily. Cowen's Marginal Revolution is a favorite. Cowen is "a pretty big celebrity to me," Beck said. "Of all the people alive today I could meet and have dinner with, he's one of the first couple names on the list."

Other readers have taken their interest in Cowen a step further. One saw his daughter Yana at her supermarket job and introduced himself as a Cowen fan who knew her name from the blog.

Such devotion doesn't strike fans as odd.

"I would ask one of those guys for an autograph," said Eric Husman, a 41-year-old engineer in New Mexico. Husman said there were some economists he would recognize on the street, depending on their "notoriety" -- a word not commonly associated with the profession.

Becker, who writes a blog with federal appeals court judge Richard A. Posner, said more people had approached him on the street since the blog started two years ago. They sometimes take photos and ask for autographs. Econo-fans are responding, Becker figures, because the blogs put important pocketbook issues into understandable language. Whereas former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan had "Greenspeak" -- the carefully convoluted jargon whose comprehensibility rivaled that of Klingon -- the blogs connect economics to daily life.

"Most people are afraid of economics. It seems so technical," Becker said. "But what is surprising is that if you put economics in a simple enough phrase, people are very much interested in it."

Most of the economists say their readers aren't students. Cowen describes his fans as "high IQ, possibly nerdy, looking for kicks or for something different."

The something different comes into play when the professors and bloggers loosen up. A recent Mankiw posting, for instance, discussed the winner of the Nobel Prize in economics and then cited a joke about members of the elite circle throwing feces at one another.

It doesn't hurt that the bloggers often choose controversial topics. Becker recently wondered online whether polygamy should be legalized and debated the idea of a "fat tax," which would levy higher fees on foods that lead to obesity.

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