Traditional news media are in decline, the Internet is on the rise, and wandering in the blog fog means going down wrong paths and falling over cliffs, right? Not entirely. There's hope, no small sign of which is "Cafe Hayek," an economics-oriented, libertarian website that shines bright, clarifying light on key issues.
That's thanks partly to Donald J. Boudreaux, who teaches economics and law at George Mason University in Virginia on top of being the best darned letter writer you've ever encountered. He used to get angry at mumbo-jumbo from miscomprehending TV newscasters, felt the shoe-throwing urge and subverted it into composing some 5,000 missives. They were held to 200 words each and sent to news outlets as well as another wellspring of aggravation: politicians.
He explains this in a book, Hypocrites & Halfwits: A Daily Dose of Sanity From Cafe Hayek, made up of some of those letters that have also appeared in the blog on behalf of limited government, human dignity and good, practical everyday sense. Frequently, the letters fight back against Zeus wannabes furiously flinging their verbal lightning from prominent peaks, people like Paul Krugman, Princeton economist and New York Times columnist.
Krugman, Boudreaux writes in one letter to the editor of The Times, saw a 2005 Bush-era deficit at 2.5 percent of GDP as a "major problem," but a 2009 Obama-era deficit at 11 percent of GDP as nothing that "scary." In another letter, Boudreaux reports a column in which Krugman pronounces it "bizarre" that someone would contend unemployment benefits could reduce incentives to find work, even though Krugman once co-authored a textbook with his wife suggesting that as a very real possibility in Europe.
Ideology and politics pretty clearly call the shots with Krugman as a columnist, it seems to me, and Boudreaux's partner at Cafe Hayek, fellow economist Russell Roberts, has described economics as ideologically compliant on the libertarian side, too. Boudreaux said in a phone interview that he himself considers economics a science "in the classical sense of the term," namely a "search for understanding," while saying it clearly is not capable of "controlled experimentation."
He sees considerable agreement among economists while also maintaining that economic models can embody mistaken assumptions and thereby lead to mistaken policies. He thinks the Obama stimulus was based on bad assumptions clung to by some economists circularly referring back to them as their proof it worked. He thinks that it "probably did harm," and that stimulus programs are like having a drink to cure a hangover, at best a temporary way of feeling better.
I'd sum up Boudreaux's chief aim as the preservation of liberty, which happens to foster material well-being. A major economic concern of his is the public debt plus unfunded liabilities. He notes the two together are now pegged by one study at something like $84 trillion. This is obviously huge and worrisome, though he warns against crying wolf, saying the issue is too complex for anyone to know how close we may be to disaster. In the middle of the Depression, there was far more reason to be worried, he said -- and yet we survived.
The book is good stuff, the blog site is good stuff, and you can get Cafe Hayek emails sent to you daily, if you like, which I do. But old dogs like me largely have our minds made up, Boudreaux believes. His focus is more on young people still capable of learning new tricks and, I would add, in need of counterweights to so much leftism in academia and so much triviality and bias in too many news outlets
Boudreaux's letters talk about issues, issues that matter, and they do so with brevity, wisdom and lucidity, even as Cafe Hayek offers up longer pieces, too. Put it all together and the blog is a major contribution to our national discourse, one of the Internet virtues overwhelming the vices and an educational supplement of the first order.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.)