The democratization of economics owes much to the financial crisis that first hit in 2007. That ongoing catastrophe, which few economists predicted, tarnished the profession’s reputation, prompting some to look elsewhere for answers. They turned to — where else? — the Internet, where vast amounts of economic data that had once been hidden from public view were now online. Sites like FRED, maintained by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, enabled anyone with a connection to the Web to download data on everything from local home-price indexes to credit-card balances to weekly fluctuations in diesel prices.At the same time, a growing army of knowledgeable “econo-bloggers” began analyzing the data available online. Strikingly, many of the authors of these blogs — the brains behind the Big Picture, Calculated Risk, Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis and others — aren’t academic economists but people with real-world experience in financial markets. Their Web sites offer sophisticated interpretations of economic data and hold passionate debates with their readers over the merits of the data. As a result, economic data that were formerly greeted with grudging acceptance by the public — the latest unemployment figures, for example — are now the catalyst for endless popular exegeses.
While economic development professionals are still debating the value of social media, bloggers such as Aaron Renn (The Urbanophile) are providing a forum for an engaged citizenry to take charge of regional fortunes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Rust Belt. An example recently popped up in my email inbox:
In an effort to improve the Kittanning community by collecting local ideas and promoting the area to the outside world, local resident Michael Rizzo has brought his idea for economic stimulation to life with the creation of www.refreshkittanning.com.“The basic mission of the project is to create a place where members of the community can share ideas about how to inspire entrepreneurship and development in town and in this area,” said Rizzo. “On the website, each month we will have a new featured topic that deals with development, economic development, or a related topic. People can go there, share their ideas, and the ultimate goal is kind of a twofold goal. We hope that people in the community can go to the website and if they see a need for something they might consider investing in it, or if an outside entrepreneur notices a need for something in the community, they might be interested in either starting a business or investing in a business.”
The founder of this initiative left a comment on Mike Madison's Pittsblog:
I recently started a project to revitalize Kittanning Pa - (www.refreshkittanning.com). Ironically I've approached many politicians and they don't want to help, unless they can take the credit. The other problem with some of these groups is they take lots of public $money, and no one holds them accountable if they don't bring in business.
Instead of waiting for the local leadership to fix things, Michael Rizzo is taking matters into his own hands. I've run across similar stories elsewhere. Lay people don't understand the value economic development professionals bring to the table. That's partly a public relations problem. It's also a transparency issue.
A lot of bad ideas are replicated all over the country. I focus on brain drain. A cottage industry has formed around retaining talent. It's ill-conceived, but widely popular. Someone needs to hold these policies accountable. The press doesn't do it. So, bloggers fill the void. Don't waste time and resources on arresting brain drain.
Refresh Kittaning will succeed if Rizzo can successfully engage fellow residents. Doing so can be difficult. Might I recommend starting a blog?