Twenty years of Marginal Revolution

The blog Marginal Revolution turns 20 today. Not many blogs that were active 20 years ago are still active today, if they are even available online (one other exception is Crooked Timber, a blog that turned 20 last month). A while ago, I decided to go through all posts on Marginal Revolution. I started with the first blog post published in 2003 (twenty years ago today) and then read/skimmed/skipped through the various posts over the years. While I did not read all posts (let alone a majority of them), I did go through each page in the archive – and I had a great time doing so.

There are multiple reasons to read a blog from start to finish, especially a blog like Marginal Revolution. First, while it takes a bit of time, the (marginal) return is great. A lot of posts are easy to skip and you quickly notice a survivorship bias in the URLs that are shared. In other words, it is easier today to evaluate whether a post written ten years ago is still relevant or not today (compared to your reading of the post, say, ten years ago). You might even find some posts that are more relevant today than when they were published.

Second, there is a lot of variation in themes (markets in everything, Straussian readings of ‘current’ events, etc.). (For some of the terms used on the blog to this day, check out this MR vocabulary guide from 2009.) The figure below illustrates the core categories being covered. While ‘Economics’, unsurprisingly, is the most popular category, you see themes such as ‘History’, ‘Science’, ‘Food and Drink’, ‘The Arts’, ‘Travel’, etc.

Third, it is a fun trip down memory lane. 20 years of material is a lot of material and a bit of history (covering everything from the war in Iraq and the financial crisis to Brexit and Trump and the COVID-19 pandemic). I found it interesting to see when specific topics where covered for the first time. Bitcoin, for example, is – from what I can see – first mentioned in a blog post on June 28, 2010. If you had invested USD 1 in bitcoins back then, you would have more than USD 500,000 today (I used this Bitcoin Return Calculator, but the oldest start date it would accept was July 17, 2010).

Fourth, you will find a lot of inspiration for additional material and other things to check out. In January, I wrote a post on Tyler Cowen’s favourite things (Tyler Cowen plugged the post in one of his daily assorted links). Tyler Cowen often writes about what he has been reading lately (see, e.g., here for his most recent post), and you will often find a good recommendation or two for a new book to check out.

Fifth, you get the opportunity to write a blog post about having looked at twenty years of MR (you might even, at this point, call yourself a loyal reader). There has already been written quite a bit on and about the blog. For example, for quantitative analyses of the blog, check out this post (from 2023), this post (from 2022) and this post (from 2016). I like these “meta readings” of blogs, and I would like to see people write similar blog posts covering their favourite blogs.

The great thing about Marginal Revolution is the combination of the rigoriousness of economics with the idea that most things of importance are downstream of culture (in a similiar fashion that the best sociologists are familiar with data science). With the series of ‘markets in everything’ as an exception, this is somewhat anti-Beckerian economics, i.e., the idea that everything can be understood on the basis of a few economic principles or axioms. It can sound trivial, but sometimes it is refreshing to get a bit more nuances on things rather than analysing things from first principles (some might even say that context is that which is scarce).

I decided to bookmark links to several posts that can easily be read today, just to save a few examples of posts for this post. Here they are:

  1. Subjective time, or the tourist illusion
  2. Time management tips (2014 follow-up)
  3. How does sleep compare with death?
  4. How to walk through a museum
  5. The Work Vacation
  6. How to read fast
  7. How to get started with opera
  8. How to cook with Indian spices
  9. When to say “I love you”
  10. Rules for eating in Chilean restaurants
  11. How to think about Iranian food / How to find good Iranian food
  12. Distilling famous thinkers
  13. Meta-ethics, realism, and intuitionism / The fallacy of mood affiliation
  14. Which are the best walking cities?
  15. Why I don’t like desserts
  16. Why I like trigger warnings
  17. Tyler Cowen’s three laws
  18. What is the best introduction to Abbas Kiarostami films?
  19. The twenty greatest English-language novels
  20. How to visit Singapore
  21. How to organize your first day in a new city when you are traveling
  22. Tyler Cowen’s 12 rules for life
  23. What is the best book about each country?
  24. My advice for a Paris visit
  25. Mexico City travel tips
  26. Advice for possible and wanna-bee book writers
  27. Baku bits, what to see in Baku
  28. How to travel to India
  29. How I practice at what I do
  30. How I choose fiction
  31. In praise of art books
  32. How public intellectuals can extend their shelf lives
  33. How to read canonical Western literature
  34. What are good long-term investments in your health?
  35. How to watch movies
  36. How to start art collecting
  37. How to find good TV shows
  38. The best fiction in recent times
  39. Travel philosophies for the well-traveled
  40. How to visit Italy

I also stumbled upon a lot of interesting facts/hypotheses/jokes/observations/ideas. Here is a sample of 25 such examples (do read the title of the blog post in parenthesis first to better understand the respective examples):

  1. “A major setback came when a federal judge rule that physicians could prescribe whiskey for medicinal purposes. By the end of Prohibition, there were 10 million such prescriptions each year.” (Facts about Prohibition)
  2. “Many of the Siberian cities would never have been developed, had it not been for communist planning.” (Siberian facts)
  3. “From 1450 to 1500, between 10,00 to 15,000 titles were published, with an average print run of 500 copies.” (Facts about books)
  4. “We envy those close to us, who get paid just a bit more, not Bill Gates.” (Hypotheses about envy)
  5. “Galileo was an early fan of caviar.” (Caviar facts)
  6. “In 1913, 52.3 percent of all traded securities in London were non-British in origin.” (Stock market facts)
  7. “Men account for 84 percent of lightning deaths.” (Facts about lightning)
  8. “The population of Las Vegas, Nevada was 30.” (Life in the United States in 1904)
  9. “Three econometricians go hunting, and spot a large deer. The first econometrician fires, but his shot goes three feet wide to the left. The second econometrician fires, but also misses, by three feet to the right. The third econometrician starts jumping up and down, shouting “We got it! We got it!”” (Econometrics joke)
  10. “Judas betrayed Jesus in exchange for what is approximately $12,254 in today’s currency” (2005) (How much did Judas earn?)
  11. “The returns to quality are higher than you think, and they are rising rapidly. Lower-tier journals and presses are becoming worth less and less. Often it is the author certifying the lower-tier journal, rather than vice versa.” (Simple advice for academic publishing)
  12. “Have so many kids there will be no time or energy for regret. One should suffice.” (Trudie on kids and career)
  13. “If you are in a good restaurant, try something that doesn’t sound appealing. If it seems bad to most customers, it is on the menu for some other good reason, such as how it tastes.” (Models of me)
  14. “Similarly, a blog should make sense whether read from start to finish, every day, or finish to start. That imposes both constraints and opportunities…” (Where did blogs come from?)
  15. “I say use the experience to rationalize a change you wanted to make anyway. Most people have less than perfect courage or willpower, but a near-death experience can provide a pro-change focal point in a multiple-selves game.” (Should near death experiences change your life?)
  16. “The possibility of pandemics receives insufficient attention” (2008) (What I think I am nearly certain about)
  17. “How do you tell if a blogger is extroverted? When he talks with you, he looks at your shoes.” (Blogger joke of the day)
  18. “Psychoanalysis is about what two people can say to each other if they agree not to have sex.” (The best sentence I read yesterday)
  19. “The bottom line is that you should never spend more than $1500 on art unless you know at least roughly what it is worth at auction.” (2008) (Do not buy art on cruise ships)
  20. “I try to listen to beautiful music at least once a day, I don’t check my portfolio even in the best of times, I hug a loved one at least one more time than was expected (with adaptive expectations this is hard to sustain over time but I have my tricks), and also I avoid television advertisements as much as possible.” (What do you do to stay sane?)
  21. “You don’t know what a person really thinks until you hear his or her advice. Along these lines, if you really want to know what a person thinks, ask for advice and he or she will open up.” (The economics of advice)
  22. “Of all the people in human history who ever reached the age of 65, half are alive now.” (2010) (Sentence to ponder)
  23. “If you want to find new things in books you already know and love, opt for new editions, new translations, and new typesettings where you will encounter it as a very different visual and conceptual field.” (A question about deep reading)
  24. “Hardly anyone watches enough foreign movies, that means you too. Or you might not watch enough outside your favored cinematic area, such as French, Bollywood, etc. There is a switching cost due to different cinematic “languages,” but most of your additional rewards at the margin probably lie in this direction. Furthermore, the very best foreign movies are so excellent it is easy to find out which they are.” (How to choose and assess the movies you are watching)
  25. “The Brits are correct to insist on “I couldn’t care less,” rather than the American “I could care less.”” (Claims about British and American English)

When the blog turned ten, Tyler Cowen wrote: “The reality is that I was too busy reading stuff, and traveling, and writing, and grading comprehensive exams and preparing for class, to even notice. Maybe that’s the proper retrospective right there.” I hope the same is the case now the blog is turning twenty. Here is for another twenty years of MR.