Return to Nicholas Johnson Main Web Page

Looking for Insights on Blogs

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, Opinion
June 3, 2004
p. 9A

Wisdom's found in odd places -- even insights about public finance.

If you spend time exploring the Internet, you're aware there's a lot of written commentary out there. Not only are newspapers online ( but so are unaffiliated reporters (, distributors of stories (, listservs (Johnson County News), group discussions (Yahoo! Groups) and computer conferences (International Leadership Forum).

And "blogs." Blogs? Yes, blogs, short for "Web logs." These are individuals' Web pages, regularly updated, with opinions about current events, mainstream press coverage and life.

Quality and reliability vary. A law professor colleague blogs some of the most insightful analyses of legal issues -- and movies and sports -- available anywhere. Other blogs are less useful.

Blogs travel at the speed of light in cyberspace, which is everywhere and nowhere. A local blogger's comments can be read in Cairo or Calcutta at the same time they're reaching Coralville.

Many bloggers operate with pen names or handles. Cedar Pundit just announced he's taking a spring break from blogging. But Tusk & Talon, Random Mentality and Cornfield Commentary are still blogging on. And someone (not me) has even created an Iowa Environmental/Education Project blog called "Iowa Pork Forest." A recent Iowa Pork Forest entry quotes Iowa boy turned Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Ron Schara asking, "What's next? How about a range of the Rockies in south Florida? Maybe fields of blooming cactus in Maine?"

Lively at least

I have no idea who these folks are, and besides my colleague, I don't think I've ever met one. Maybe they're bright teenagers. Maybe they're other law professors.

Conservative, libertarian, left, right and center -- the writing is sometimes cutting, but usually lively and entertaining. Occasionally it's even intellectually provocative.

Some bloggers seem to share the goal of Republican strategist Grover Norquist. He says he doesn't want to do away with government entirely, he just wants "to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." These bloggers don't think that substituting "borrow and spend" for "tax and spend" represents progress.

So the Iowa Pork Forest blog is not the only place for fiscally conservative comments.

One caught my attention the other day. It was what a "Don" posted to Tusk & Talon as "a modest proposal" (a reference to Jonathan Swift's solution to child poverty: eat them).

Don proposes we "put Congress on an incentive contract."

He explains, "If they, as a group, would reduce spending, give them 10 percent of the savings. Then out of every billion dollars they cut, each congressperson would receive $186,916. Would they have voted $50 million for the Pork Forest if it were going to cost them $9,345.79 each?"

Don concedes the proposal needs work. I agree. But it's already a useful insight. Hasn't he spotted the problem?

20/20 vision?

The free market requires that proposals funded by partners, shareholders, banks or venture capitalists be accompanied by viable business plans. There's a reason the "steely-eyed banker" looks at you that way. Your business plan is going to be torn apart by people with something at stake.

No institution provides that rigor for "free" public money. Sen. Charles Grassley and other officials received campaign contributions from rain forest proponents. But so far as I know, no personal contributions have been given to the project by any member of Congress, Iowa Legislature or Coralville City Council.

Of course Iowans need "vision." But is this one 20/20? There's no one to tell us; there's no institution to tear apart the forest's business plan, even if there were one. It's easy for elected officials to be boosters when they have nothing at stake in their monuments to unexamined optimism.

So thanks for the insight, Tusk & Talon. Now I'm going back to surfing the blogs -- but not before I've finished reading the paper.

Reach Nicholas Johnson, a University of Iowa College of Law professor, at