What’s in a Name? About the newsletter business.

April 23, 2023

“A man commonly saunters a little when turning his hand from one sort of employment to another,” Adam Smith observed in the chapter on specialization in The Wealth of Nations.  I am no exception.  The slightly different flag at the top of the email subscription version of Economic Principals acknowledges a long-standing fact:  for twenty-one years, EP has been a newsletter, not a simulacrum of a newspaper column.

What’s the difference?  Context. A newspaper column is one item among many, a pier of opinion jutting into a sea of turbulent facts, offering harbor to some of its readers. A newsletter contains news and opinions its readers might not otherwise see, about topics of particular interest.

The central preoccupation here has to do with news about economics and economists, mainly books, because those are what I write, one after another, at what could charitably be called a stately pace. But since economics forever shades into politics, EP often writes about politics, too.

For the last year, I have written fairly frequently about the war in Ukraine, for reasons explained here.  Competitions between systems that used to be called capitalism and communism, are now better understood as enterprise economies, distinguished by their fundamentally different governing regimes, democratic vs. authoritarian.

EP wrote a lot about Donald Trump back in the day, when there were still new things to say; it expects to write occasionally about party realignments in the eighteen months before and after the US presidential election it 2024. It intends, too, to write more about China. Larry Summers was right last week when he warned that It’s Dangerous When Everyone Is a China Hawk.

The news business is always of interest. Once-heralded BuzzFeed is closing its news division.  Vice is seeking a buyer. Vox laid off 7 percent of its workforce in January. The New York Times speculates that a newsletter frenzy may already be past its peak. Yet newsletters themselves may prove to be hardy perennials.  Substack has started a Notes chat room to help its writers and readers figure out what the business is about.

Following David JohnsonAdam Tooze or John Ellis is as demanding as drinking from a fire hose. EP only writes one a week.  It may be Saturday evening in California, Sunday afternoon in Europe, tomorrow in Asia, but you always know when it is Sunday morning in Boston. An old joke from newspaper days, but a new identity here at EP.

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