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On economics, we-think, and the Twitterverse

It took me a long time to write my first blog. It was here, and it was in response to the global economic collapse as it was occurring in real time, in late September 2008.

For economists, the blogosphere is a rapid response world, and speed can kill. I worried about getting caught undone in public -- either missing something obvious or just plain wrong. I've fought too hard and too long to gain credibility with my peers to want to undermine myself with one dunderhead calculation or formulation.

I'm an economist, but I don't work for a bank, the government, or a big corporation. That makes it tough to have street creds among my brethren (and they are mostly boys).

My career path is, admittedly, not usual. My first permanent job as an economist was with the Social Planning Council of Metropolitan Toronto in the mid 1980s.

(Short digression: Social Planning Councils were established across Canada in the 1950s -- some as early as the 1930s. They are funded by city governments and United Ways to help assess the optimal allocation of scarce public and charitable resources, for today and for the future. Of course optimal allocation depends on what you are trying to optimize. One formulation is "the maximum good for the maximum number." A more eloquent formulation is in Rick Salutin's column, "Enough with the right and the left.")

My job description was to provide labour market and fiscal policy analysis for the hundreds of agencies that deal with the collateral damage of recessions, or who struggle to develop human potential in our communities, in good times and bad.

That sure put me in a different world than my colleagues on The Street. We used the same tool kit, but this ground's eye view of the economy set me apart. All economists follow what's happening in markets, but my job was to focus on the market's impact on people and public finance. It still is.

As any student of micro and macroeconomics knows, the sum-total of individual choice creates macro outcomes, which in turn affect individual choice. But, at the end of the day, people power the economy, not the other way around.

That's out of step with the current abstract deep-frame of economics (growth), but not the longer history of economic thought, which has always focused on people and relationship.

Economics is supposed to be a social science, emphasis on the word science. That suggests neutrality, and forces that operate beyond ideology.

But even the advancement of pure science comes at the expense of false starts in theory and failed experiments. As Karl Popper taught us, science helps keep us on the best track forward, not so much because it proves things, but because it clarifies what is false.

Which takes me to the role of this blog and others, and the evolution of we-think.

Years ago my teenage son introduced me to my first TED talk: Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine, imagining the next 5000 days of the Internet and how it will shape our lives. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It remains a pivot point in my thinking about, well, thinking. From I-think to we-think.

Later I saw Elizabeth Gilbert's verbal essay on the nature of creativity and genius.

It reinforced the notion that thought breakthroughs are not primarily about how brilliant some individual is. Rather, intellectual advances (whether scientific, philosophic, or artistic) are more related to how someone effectively, evocatively captures the we-think of a moment in time.

At some profound level, it doesn't matter what I think or what you think. It matters only that there is an eternally vibrant collective process of thinking. That's what fuels the next sparks of genius, which take our thinking (and hence our way of living on the planet) in new directions.

Cloud-sourcing is the "business" application of that idea.

Blogs (at least some blogs) are more like the "pure science," or at least the thinking-out-loud, application of it.

Blogs can help advance we-think. They perform that function when they provide an open forum for genuine, respectful interaction about what's missing, what rings true. You never know when or if it will happen. Sometimes things just line up. Often they don't. But it's the thinking out loud, together, that matters, warts and all.

I have reconciled myself with the fact that I will make mistakes along the way; but I will learn from you, and perhaps vice versa. And that's the essential nature of the human journey.

Over the last year I have learned a lot from you all, posters and commentators alike. I am very grateful for the time and intelligence you have brought to the table.

But it's a time-consuming thing, increasingly so; and it's hard to be thoughtful in a timely fashion for this medium. (I'm looking at you, Doug Saunders. Still working on Part II, between the groceries, and the laundry, and the face-time with loved ones....)

So when people ask, time and again, why I don't Twitter or Facebook, all I can think of is "where do you find the time, people?" Really.

As the meme puts it "Facebook asks what I'm thinking. Twitter asks what I'm doing. Foursquare asks where I am. The Internet has turned into a crazy girlfriend."

I'm all for the occasional Vulcan mind-meld. But the Twitterverse's "feed the beast" intensity is a bit too much commitment for my tastes.

Still, I salute all you fine people who push the Final Frontier of our collective understanding, one tweet at a time. I'm right there with you, plodding away, one blog at a time.

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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