The end of elitism

The decline of Harvard, brought down by the blogosphere.

Published August 8, 2006 10:29PM (EDT)

There's nothing the blogosphere likes better than meta-commentary on the blogosphere itself. Thus, the econo-blogosphere has recently been devoting an inordinate amount of attention to an Economist article wondering why economists, who theoretically are the best-positioned people in the world to understand that time equals money, are spending so much time blogging. As usual, there's the requisite profile of former Clinton treasury official (and frequent Salon contributor,) Brad DeLong, but the world of econo-blogging hardly stops there. As someone who has spent a fair amount of time perusing the econo-blogosphere of late, I can tell you, there's a stimulating 24x7x52 graduate school seminar in real-time analysis out there. An abundance of riches, if you will, even if only a handful are actually getting paid to blog.

But let's put aside the question of what's motivating all these high-powered minds to blog instead of pumping out papers aimed at notching a Nobel Prize. The really provocative element of the Economist article was a reference to a recent paper published by three economists who answer the question "Are Elite Universities Losing Their Competitive Edge?" with a definitive yes.

The culprit? That danged Internet, the same Siren luring all those economists to jot down their thoughts of the day, or hour, or minute, for all the world to see.

According to E. Han Kim, Adair Morse and Luigi Zingales, before the advent of the Internet, faculty productivity was highly correlated with physical proximity to high-quality academics. So, back in the day, faculty at elite schools produced more than faculty at non-elite schools. (The professors, who limit their research to economists, measured productivity by the number of articles written, raw counts of pages published, citations to published articles, and the quality of the journal in which the articles were published.)

But the Internet has enabled collaboration without physical proximity. So an up-and-coming new-growth-theory theorist at the University of Florida can coauthor a paper with a Stanford or Harvard or Chicago professor without having to move across the country. This is a great thing -- the democratization of education. As the authors note, "If improvements in communication technology have made low-cost access at a distance possible for production purposes, then firms have lost a powerful instrument to regulate and control the accumulation and utilization of knowledge."

Hooray! The exact same thing is occurring on a global scale, as noted here in a recent post on nanotechnology. The elite nations are losing their technological edge over the developing world, because scientists everywhere have cheap and easy access to the new research, via the Internet.

What all this ultimately means is still a puzzle. The potential for self-education is greater than ever before, but will a more Internet-home-schooled world really be a better world?

Maybe, at the very least, the sheer wealth of information available online will create a market niche for people who do nothing else but absorb and filter that information for those who don't have the time to do so. That would be good. For some of us.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Economics Education Globalization How The World Works U.s. Economy