Why I pull columns apart - Press Gazette

Why I pull columns apart

It's obviously something of an ego polish for a mere blogger like myself to be referred to — by one of the premier columnists in the country — as a decoration and ornament.

At least that's what I think Polly Toynbee meant when she said, in a piece at Comment is Free, "Tim Worstall, you pendant".

Other possible meanings can be attributed, for I have been fairly promiscuous in emailing her, commenting upon her pieces under the new setup at The Guardian, pointing to errors of fact or logic and in general deriding her — how to put this? — less than firm grasp of the principles of economics.

Why I do this is best explained by part of the review that Rafael Behr gave my anthology of blogging in The Observer: "He is also a prolific blogger with a libertarian bent who is on a self-appointed mission to eviscerate every newspaper article that he judges guilty of economic illiteracy.”

I actually started blogging in April 2004. Two weeks later, I realised that the mere existence of my own blog did not guarantee hundreds of thousands of readers (and the associated advertising revenue), so I decided to change tack. Could I use it as a route into freelance journalism?

If I wrote a lot, some of it vaguely witty and sometimes even relevant, could I find someone who would like to pay me for doing so? My thinking was that the traditional route into the system had been via an apprenticeship system, two years out in the wilds covering local trivia and then a scramble for a job on the nationals.

The idea of being paid to read a lot then tap a keyboard appealed, certainly more fun than my current job of wrestling exotic metals out of the hands of Russian Mafiya, or previous ones that seemed to involve serving journalists and then pouring them into the gutter at the appropriate moment.

Has it worked? Could blogging be the new internship? I'm not sure I can say that it will work this way for everyone, but I do the occasional piece for The Times, odd book reviews (please insert "very odd" joke of your choice here) for The Telegraph, am paid to continue a couple of commercial blogs, supply pieces for London thinktanks (the Adam Smith Institute and the Social Affairs Unit) and have been doing a weekly online column at TCS Daily for nearly two years now.

I wouldn't say it's brought me either fame or fortune (and anyone involved in publishing will know that the anthology noted above will not have increased either), but I certainly make a decent living out of, well, reading a lot and tapping a keyboard. The blog has been the advertising that has brought all of these jobs and commissions.

Perhaps I should also answer another question Polly had.

"As for those who hate particular writers, why on Earth do you bother to read us? Isn't life too short and blood pressure too high?"

If I, or anyone else, read columnists simply to have our prejudices confirmed, then this might be a reasonable contention.

I'm not sure about you, but I have in the past read columnists in order to have my prejudices challenged, to see if some adjustment to my world view might be in order.

That has proven to be so, which is why I've moved from my original teenage socialism (and thralldom to JK Galbraith) to the libertarianism Behr rightly ascribes to me.

Yet now that this is work (even if of the most enjoyable kind) there is another reason, of course. If you are, as the New York Times recently described me, a freelance economics correspondent, then time is going to be spent mining for the most egregious misunderstandings of the subject.

As when Polly gets mixed up about GDP, or thinks that minimum wages do anything other than lower the incomes of the working poor. George Monbiot is well known for never having met an economic idea he couldn't contrive to misunderstand, and Madeleine Bunting (the Mad Mahdi) once wrote a whole book on her misunderstanding of labour productivity: the reason why we have so many wrongly thinking that French-style restrictions on working hours will make us all more productive.

An especial pleasure was logging the errors in the varied commentaries on Richard Layard's Happiness. As he was one of those who taught me economics, I'm sure he would be proud at the way it was possible to spot those who had misunderstood his points, or drawn the wrong inferences from them.

For example, he does argue that there is a level of taxation which will maximise happiness, but unfortunately for some such as Natasha Walters and Andrew Marr (and many others have made the same error) we are already at about that level for the rich, and are well above it for the poor.

His findings actually militate in favour of lower than current levels of taxation and spending. I doubt it would have been so widely praised in certain places if that had been realised. But that's the answer to Polly's two questions: I read The Guardian because, as someone specialising in jeering at economic illiteracy, I know I'm never going to run out of material.