The Best Economics Columnist You’ve Never Heard Of

Slate, the online magazine, has been celebrating the tenth anniversary of its founding. I’ve been reading it since Day One. Only a couple of years ago did I throw out the umbrella they sent me as a paid subscriber, during the brief interval in which they charged $19.95 for access. (Not long after that, I adopted their discarded business model.) I still visit the site every day, immediately after the several newspapers that I scan. I don’t do that with Newsweek or Time, or any other magazine for that matter, though I still take a couple in the postal mail.

For the last several years, however, I have been disappointed by Slate’s lack of deep curiosity about economic affairs.

It wasn’t always thus. It was Slate that hired Paul Krugman away from Fortune magazine (where for a time he had alternated with N. Gregory Mankiw) and set him on the path to eventual stardom at The New York Times. But after Krugman left in 1999, Slate didn’t replace him with a writer of similar ambition.

You could call this process Oracular Degeneration. The reason it set in just then is, I think, obvious. The epic contest between Microsoft, which owned Slate, and the US Justice Department had reached a boil by 1999. And there was simply no way that the magazine could take a strong position, con or pro, on what was, for a time, the most interesting economic issue of the day.  

Indeed, Slate owed its very existence to the counter-attack on Microsoft’s rival Netscape that was at the heart of the government’s suit. In the course of this otherwise celebratory time, it is worth pointing out that nothing very incisive on the case appeared in the magazine during the ten years it was owned by Bill Gates. (Microsoft last year sold Slate to The Washington Post Co.)

It was not exactly that Slate took a dive. There were plenty of stylistic flourishes. An experiment to send a rotating panel of sharp observers to cover the trial didn’t work out. So legal commentator Dahlia Lithwick, herself a former law clerk to a judge, was assigned to cover the story instead.  Lithwick supplied a snappy, colorful running commentary that nevertheless shed relatively little light on the issues. (“The Justice Department is decidedly canine: they’re friendly, snuffly, loyal and wildly protective of their humans [the American consumer.] Both Microsoft and the Microsoft lawyers, on the other hand, are most emphatically feline: sleek and aloof, unabashedly self-interested, clever, secretive…. It’s no wonder Judge Posner couldn’t get these parties to the same table to talk settlement. They are different species.”)  

This was flimsy stuff compared to full-strength Slate, and so was the rest its Microsoft coverage. Nothing rose to the level of what the magazine’s editors like to call “Slate-iness” (unless it was editor Michael Kinsley’s tongue-in-cheek defense of his boss against actor Tim Robbins’ witty portrayal of Gates in the film “AntiTrust”). To be a Slatey writer, explains present-day editor Jacob Weisberg, “you must cut through the media welter, not by speaking more loudly or crudely than others, but by engagingly clarifying and sorting something out for your fellow club members.”  The failure to get Slatey with Microsoft, however, meant that the world’s most determined system-builder remained hidden in plain sight, just another smart guy taking readers into his confidence at the Breakfast Table. (That’s the name of a Slate feature wherein writers are at their most personal and direct; Gates wrote an on-line diary once, for a week.)

Above all, what Kinsley and his fellow top editors devised (they included Jodie Allen, Judith Schulevitz, and Jack Shafer) was a sensibility — concise, witty, personal, concerned above all else with the intersection between the sphere of the personal and the news. That sensibility is on display in a compendium, published for the occasion both online and as a little book, 50 exemplary pieces culled from some 32,000 articles by 2,000 writers that, taken together, constitute a portrait of the concerns of a generation — a portion of a generation, anyway; post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, living off the fat of the land

Thus the 80-year-old Herb Stein expounds movingly for the benefit of the kids on the centrality of the institution of marriage. A husband and wife, Timothy Noah and the late Marjorie Williams, banter over breakfast like a latter-day Nick and Nora Charles. Michael Lewis narrates his emergency room recovery from an accident while skating with his children.  Emily Bazelon and Lithwick compare notes on the experience of miscarriage. Daniel Engber explains how long you can wait before sewing a severed body part back on. Christopher Hitchens unloads on filmmaker Michael Moore. Weisberg unloads on George W. Bush.   A dispatch from a trial is included in the anthology, but it is by Henry Blodget, about Martha Stewart.

To be sure, Slate has had other writers pursing long-range reconnaissance besides the aforementioned Krugman — call them beat reporters. Military affairs correspondent Fred Kaplan comes to mind. So do political writer William Saletan and Shafer on the press.  But Slate is not so much about the civic dimension as about the personal. Last week the irrepressible Lithwick was writing on those wedding gifts whose purpose cannot be fathomed even by the bright young newly-weds who read Slate.

Kinsley stepped down as editor in 2002, and that same year married into the Microsoft family — Patty Stonesifer, one of the executives he met the day in 1996 that he first broached the possibility of a magazine (today she is head of the Gates Foundation). In an anniversary memoir, he relates many interesting lessons he learned along the way about publishing on the Web. Last year he failed in a dramatic attempt to re-make the editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times. Last week he announced that he would become American editor-at-large of the, as the electronic avatar England’s Guardian newspaper begins a push into American cyberspace.

Meanwhile, Slate’s sale to the Post has freed it to begin to grow in new directions. Perhaps now they will start to think about replacing Krugman. Granted, good economics columnists don’t grow on trees. Slate had strong business writers all along. But Lewis returned to writing books. James Surowiecki moved on to The New Yorker. Daniel Gross, who replaced him, has been consistently interesting, but a look at his blog shows that he is more of a business columnist at heart and, perhaps, more of a blogger at that.(Faint praise? Not since Slate’s Mickey Kaus demonstrated that blogging, too, could be a calling.) Adam Penenberg did a deft job explaining the open source movement once Slate was safely under the wing of the Post, but he is a magazine writer with many other projects in train. And Stephen Landsburg, who writes a monthly column, remains more of a teacher of economics than a journalist.

To see what sustained coverage of the technology industry might have looked like, had Slate truly been independent, take a look at Shane Greenstein, columnist for IEEE Micro, a magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the blue-chip organization which describes itself as the world’s leading professional association for the advancement of technology. Greenstein is the best economics columnist you never heard of. He teaches in the Management and Strategy Department of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where he is the Elinor and Wendell Hobbs Professor. He publishes widely in the journals on the economics of electronics industrial technical change. But in the pages of IEEE Micro, he is careful to write in the voice of a regular person; that is, someone with whom you might like to compare notes over lunch.

Among his recent outings (which can be found at here,) “Format Wars All Over Again” prepares readers for the fight over high-definition TV standards by dusting off the story of the battle between VHS and  Betamax; “Canaries, Whips and Sails” relates the standard clichŽs of technology forecasting — dead canaries, buggy whips, and sailing ships — to the birth of the the IPod; and “The Anatomy of Foresight Traps” enlarges on the problems facing government regulators who seek to manage new technologies.

So happy tenth anniversary to Slate. Good luck to them in their new incarnation, under the wing of The Washington Post. Here’s hoping that by their twentieth anniversary they will have a grown a couple of strong young economics writers of their own, voices of a younger generation as clear and powerful as have been, say, those of  Newsweek’s Robert Samuelson and Allan Sloan for the last twenty years.