Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Two years ago, I wrote a column about “blogs” (Web logs) because they were the most interesting new Internet phenomenon I had come across.

Essentially, they are personal Web sites that offer people daily (even hourly) commentary on current events or whatever they feel like writing about. Last year at this time, I wrote another column on this topic. So I guess it has become something of a tradition. This is my latest blog discussion.

In my first commentary, I noted that journalists like Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus and Matt Drudge, as well as publications such as National Review, The American Prospect and Reason magazine had established blogs.

Last year, I noted the growing number of academics commenting regularly in this form, including Brad Delong (University of California-Berkeley), Eugene Volokh and Steve Bainbridge (both of University of California-Los Angeles), Glenn Reynolds (University of Tennessee), Steve Antler (Roosevelt University), and Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University.

I have found in the last year that bloggers increasingly specialize, with more staking out narrow areas of commentary. Since my main interests are economics and tax policy, I have singled out a few blogs in these areas I have found to be valuable resources.

In the tax area, the most prolific blogger is tax professor Paul Caron of the University of Cincinnati. I find him useful because he really keeps on top of the scholarly research among other tax professors. In most cases, this research is available on the Internet as working papers that may be available months or even years before they appear in inaccessible law reviews. This is extremely valuable in keeping ahead on tax research.

Other tax professor bloggers are James Maule of Villanova University and Daniel Shaviro of New York University. They tend to talk more about current tax policy issues from an academic viewpoint. I like it that both are highly opinionated. Neither pulls any punches on what they think is stupid about recent or proposed tax legislation. I don’t always agree with them, but they always make me think.

Another tax perspective comes from Kerry Kerstetter, a certified public accountant. His commentary is less academic and more practical. He offers advice on real-world tax problems, especially those facing small businessmen. And he seems to find every tax cartoon that appears anywhere.

On economics, I have become a regular reader of the blog jointly produced by George Mason University professors Don Boudreaux and Russell Roberts. They are particularly good on free trade, an area where even some free marketeers have been seduced by the siren song of protectionism. Mr. Boudreaux and Mr. Roberts also are good job at making technical issues accessible to a general audience.

On international trade, an indispensable blogger is political scientist Daniel Drezner of the University of Chicago. He has been especially outstanding on the so-called outsourcing issue and excels in staying on top of the research in this area. Unfortunately, even though every serious article or paper on this subject has shown it is a nonissue, it continues to excite xenophobes and others who lie awake nights worrying about the trade deficit.

Blogger professor Andrew Samwick of Dartmouth College may become must reading in the coming year because of his expertise on Social Security privatization. Although favorable to the idea in principle, he is skeptical of free-lunch solutions, which could make his commentary particularly timely.

I lean right, politically, but continue finding value in the commentary from friends on the left. The best is Kevin Drum of Washington Monthly magazine. The magazine itself has gone downhill, in my opinion, having become more doctrinaire and less iconoclastic since the retirement of its founder, Charlie Peters. But Kevin remains independent enough to keep me reading.

Another lefty Web site I read regularly is someone known only as “Angry Bear.” I don’t know who he is, but he offers sophisticated commentary by an economist with a left-wing perspective. He is very good at poking holes in weak conservative arguments for policies I support, helping me strengthen those arguments and get them enacted.

One disappointment this year has been the weakness of some institutional blogs, those sponsored by newspapers and think tanks. They are often unreadable and seldom linked to. It confirms my view that blogs are necessarily idiosyncratic and need to be pretty independent to succeed.

I believe the Internet has barely scratched the surface in using blogs to analyze and disseminate information. I look forward to their continued evolution.

Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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