Where to look for an economist who might want to help write a book?
November 10, 2013 9:58 AM   Subscribe

I'm writing an update of a very old and very funny short book. In the original, the author rails against God; in my modernisation it will rail against the free market — replacing one invisible hand with another. I need someone who is very well-versed with economic theory, who still has their finger on the pulse, who has a sense of humour, and who is willing to brainstorm with me for an hour or two a week. More info inside.

After some (perhaps superfluous) description, some questions below:

My economics background comes from unsubstantiated arguments between my brother & dad at the dinner table, reading The Economist, NPR's Planet Money, documentaries and a few lefty books. So although I know the basics, they're still just the basics, and any story lampooning neoliberals that I write by myself will come across as infantile.

However, I've just picked up Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and never been so inspired! She gives me faith as an author; if a book as badly written as that can become popular, surely I'm in with a chance.

I'm in need of someone who can give me the best examples in the last couple of hundred years where laissez faire has not fared well, where the free market has failed. But in quite particular ways.

I'll also need a hand ensuring that my depiction of an idyllic free-market would make Rand/Friedman horny; a place where people are completely rational, where perfect competition exists (although a perfectly rational populace might make competition unnecessary), where resources are limitless, where equilibrium has been achieved, where basic needs are met without government (or taxes), and where an individual's effort and income are perfectly aligned.

All I need is someone who knows what they're talking about to brainstorm with me, I'm not asking them to write the book, just to help me through some of the sourcing of information. Of course, the ideal is that the economist I work with will be excited by the project itself, who has a sense of humour and feels like being more involved, (but it's not essential).

I have a few chapters already written, which I could use to inspire a potential collaborator. So far our Hero has escaped the Twin Towers (just in time, and by accident), fought in the Middle East, witnessed hotels displacing fishermen after the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka, and been detained in Gitmo, and there's a long way to go. Oh, and I should also mention that this modernisation is not intended to be understood by everyone, indeed, I'd like it to be the kind of book that the lefty economist I work with would like to read.

The project will take 2 months (like I said, it's a short book).

SOOOooooo, how do I go about meeting economists? More specifically, a bearded old boy dressed ilke a geography teacher who loves a strong drink and even stronger tirades against New Labour (or Obama's broken promises). They have a subscription to the Wall Street Journal and Harpers Magazine, and bought this totally NSFW DVD as a joke for a colleague's birthday. They tell everyone that Blake is their favourite poet, but really it's Bukowski, tried hitchhiking after reading The Road, and is totally embarrassed to be part of the gentrification of their once-rough neighbourhood. That sort of person. (Beard optional for female economists).

1. Should I experiment, by tweeting famous economists to see whether they're interested?
2. Perhaps I should attend an New Economics Foundation (or equivalent) social?
3. I'd like someone who is well-read and well-versed. I'm assuming I shouldn't be targeting recent university graduates...
4. Suggestions for other ways of meeting lefty economists?

5. Bonus question: has anyone written about how a perfect free market would work in practice? As in, they've envisaged it and described it as if it were real (preferably not in a mocking/lampooning way).
posted by omnigut to Religion & Philosophy (19 answers total)
Consider contacting the economics department of your alma mater, or of a university in your area. The departmental secretary might be willing to forward your request to the faculty listserve (or you could target specific professors who seem like a good fit). You might also try poking around on academia.edu.
posted by désoeuvrée at 11:06 AM on November 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Do the above only if you're going to pay a serious hourly consulting rate. No academic department administrator is going to forward your request otherwise. If you do not plan to pay and are merely looking for a collaborator among working economists, you are veering into crank territory.
posted by Wordwoman at 11:34 AM on November 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Definitely looking for a collaborator among working economists, but would prefer them to be a rational lefty, not a crank. The payment would be seeing their name as co-author of a book that they enjoy.
posted by omnigut at 11:38 AM on November 10, 2013

The payment would be seeing their name as co-author of a book that they enjoy.

You are very unlikely to get quality work this way. You're deeply underestimating the amount of work something like this would take, and fair payment for this type of research and collaboration would be in the thousands of dollars, if not more. For those working in academia, the natural questions here would be what would make this work a worthwhile expenditure of their time, when there is no guarantee and even a very low chance of publication--unlike their own research, which likely keeps them very busy. Enthusiasm can be bought, but I'm not sure that it's possible at all to manufacture it for free. And "clients" such as yourself are a dime a dozen--google "freelance exposure" if you don't believe me.

Please don't tweet busy professional economists about this. Really, I'm cringing for you at the prospect. I imagine that if you get a response to your queries, they will not be particularly kind ones.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:50 AM on November 10, 2013 [9 favorites]

I work in an academic department that gets requests like this all the time. Most academics, especially well-known authors and editors, do not need the ego-stroke of "seeing their name as a co-author of a book they enjoy." They are the only authors of books they enjoy more, mostly because they wrote them alone and received profit (or exposure or tenure) for them.

If you are looking for someone who has time on their hands, the ability to participate in something that is off-the-wall and wants nothing more than to be a co-author, I suggest you look somewhere besides academia or tweeting established authors. You might be best served to look for grad students or recent grads who aren't on the tenure-track (although most of them will not be willing to invest in this as your vanity project either) or else perhaps haunting message boards and websites that cater to your particular brand of economic theory.

I'm with PhoBWan above: I also cringe at the prospect of you tweeting/approaching "bearded old boys" (and let's not get started on your erroneous gender assumptions about economists) or attending professional conferences in search of a collaborator. That person may well be out there, but I think academia is not where you need to be looking.
posted by mrfuga0 at 12:02 PM on November 10, 2013 [8 favorites]

I think the premise here -- want highly qualified and skilled individual to work on my project for free! -- is so flawed that there isn't a good answer to your question as written. It is very difficult to imagine a credentialed professional wanting to attach their name to a "1-2 hours a week" project with an amateur.

I agree that tweeting or otherwise reaching out with this is going to result in embarrassment.

You are asking for something that would normally involve quite generous compensation, with no 'hook' at all. I don't think there's an answer here. Alternate questions: how can I blog about this topic to best effect, how can I generate some extra income to pay a consultant, how can I meet an undergrad in the field who might help for a low rate?
posted by kmennie at 12:13 PM on November 10, 2013 [10 favorites]

I think the premise here -- want highly qualified and skilled individual to work on my project for free! -- is so flawed that there isn't a good answer to your question as written.

Repeated for emphasis.
posted by incessant at 12:24 PM on November 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: If you want an academic economist, I'd suggest you look for an emeritus specializing in economic history (maybe in a "heterodox" economics department). In my experience, these guys tend to be extremely knowledgeable, well-read and with a fantastic historical perspective. These guys are generally no longer in the publications race, but spend their time giving support to colleagues and graduate students working on real, important academic work. So that's what you're up against.

If I were a professor and you approached me with a description of your project like the above, I'd feel rather insulted because you seem to assume that most of my profession is either delusional or naive (why are you so sure I'm an exception, by the way...?). Moreover, your understanding of concepts like "free market", "equilibrium" and "rationality" seem to align quite well with those who never paid attention in my 101 class, and I probably wouldn't have the patience for that at this point of my career.

Therefore -- if writing this book is your calling, then I suggest you learn a little bit about economics first. You might be surprised.

(If resources were limitless, then economics would be useless, because economics is about allocating scarce resources. And even Friedman believed that some kind of government/taxation was necessary.)
posted by yonglin at 12:42 PM on November 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Grad students in a decent program should know enough to give you the info you need. I think getting them involved to the tune of 8-16 total hours is a pipe dream, though: people have enough dumb pet projects of their own already, you know? Still, a 1-2-hour consult might not be out of the question if you emailed the grad listserv offering to meet in over coffee (or to correspond over email) in exchange for like $100 or a nice giftcard to a local pub. The departmental admin would be the proper person to consult about getting a message out.

Alternatively, have you checked out online forums as sources of free advice from semi-qualified people? I know Reddit has an Ask Historians branch, for instance, where academics very regularly respond to questions; there might well be something like an Ask Economists corner of the web somewhere where you could get your most pressing questions answered.
posted by Bardolph at 12:42 PM on November 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

All I need is someone who knows what they're talking about to brainstorm with me, I'm not asking them to write the book, just to help me through some of the sourcing of information. Of course, the ideal is that the economist I work with will be excited by the project itself, who has a sense of humour and feels like being more involved, (but it's not essential).

I'm taking econ classes in grad school now, and as far as I know, the assumptions that you're dealing with rational actors and scarce resources are fundamental to modern, mainstream economics. I'm not sure what you and an economist could brainstorm about that wouldn't be better covered in an actual class about the subject.

A lot of the concepts you're talking about (such as perfect competition) would be covered specifically in Intro to Microeconomics, so if I were you, I'd start there. If you have questions about those concepts, you can ask about them during office hours. Once you get on firmer footing with those concepts, I think your ideas about your book's world will likely change, so I'd avoid bringing up the book idea with your professor at least through the course of the class.

In terms of the book itself, it sounds like you want to write a satire, so maybe think more Jonathan Swift and less Ayn Rand in terms of structure, tone, and the incorporation of economic theory into the narrative.
posted by rue72 at 1:07 PM on November 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Famous economists will not have time or energy for this - they are writing their own books and articles, and want to explore their own ideas rather than someone else's. The payment would be seeing their name as co-author of a book that they enjoy. Working economists have a job, and probably a family, hobby, etc. They're economists, they understand the value of time and labor, and are unlikely to work for putative prestige. You might be able to find a bright economics student who could assist you for a wage and for shared profit, if any.

In my experience, ideas, even really terrific ideas, are plentiful - execution is difficult and rare.

You are able to write. Join a writer's group, who can assist you with editing. Do your research. There are econ lectures and courses on youtube and other sites. (more, more, more)
posted by theora55 at 1:19 PM on November 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

where resources are limitless

You don't need any economists when resources are limitless - economics is the study of allocating scarce resources. When everyone can have every option (no constraints) there aren't any hard questions to answer any more.

where basic needs are met without government (or taxes)

You're going to have to go back what? 5,000 years for this? Religions that took tithes/whatever were essentially taxes.

You may want to think about an economic historian or a plan ol' historian for this.
posted by Farce_First at 1:59 PM on November 10, 2013

I would venture to say that you're getting a lesson in economics already.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:16 PM on November 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This is gonna sounds a little harsh, please take it in a spirit of kindness.

Definitely looking for a collaborator among working economists, but would prefer them to be a rational lefty, not a crank.

I work in communications for an ogranisation with a somewhat storied history and a reputation of sorts for knowledge etc, and we get requests like yours a few times a year. Sorry to say my friend, but from our perspective you are the crank here.

You know almost nothing about economics, it seems, and also nothing about writing or publishing (no offence). If you had a contract for a book, a publishing history, an agent, some kind of expertise in either field, demonstrated an understanding of the field (either field), and used appropriate language that signalled your seriousness to outline your request, you might get a look-in but probably no bites. But you don't have any of those things, at least no here. You would be lucky to get a reply; our organisation sometimes to replies, and sometimes decides not replying is the safer thing to do.

The payment would be seeing their name as co-author of a book that they enjoy.

This is not payment, and actively undermines your credibility.

Honestly, bud, I would let go of this idea, and embrace the idea of doing more research, yourself. And before you start shopping your completed book around to professionals in a professional setting for verification/validation, please consider paying for a genuine (there are lots of frauds so be smart) manuscript assessment service. It will only be about a couple of hundred bucks and is money well spent.

The road to publishing is not the five-lane highway you are presupposing with your question.
posted by smoke at 3:48 PM on November 10, 2013 [10 favorites]

This question does not make sense as posed. Why would an economist spend his valuable time "collaborating" with you, an unknown, for no compensation other than the dubious distinction of having his name on the cover of a book?
posted by dfriedman at 4:13 PM on November 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm torn on how to reply; I agree with all of your responses, and think my explanations won't be a good use of your time. I'll try to be brief:

In general: the main question was how to meet/find economists. Thanks to all who helped there.

Using (wasting?) the time of pros: I've spent the last 3 years on a project with highly-skilled volunteers (several of whom are famous within their fields), despite my own lack of provenance/knowledge/experience/skill. Getting other people interested is easy if they like an idea. And thankfully, I believe I have a likeable book (otherwise, I wouldn't be doing this).

mrfuga0: I will be haunting message boards and blogs. Thanks!

Yonglin: exactly why I need help, and thanks for the great suggestions! In response to my ignorance (which I agree with you on):

As I understand it, standard economic models don't pay enough attention to just how scarce resources are (peak oil, melting glaciers, happiness), and even less so in those that support free-market economics. Many Randians, libertarians and Tea Partiers oppose all taxes (that's the demographic that part of the satire would be aimed at). And agents aren't rational/knowledgable enough for the market to achieve a fair equilibrium — indeed, irrational behaviour prevents economies reaching stable states, and yet some people argue, for example, that governments shouldn't set a minimum wage because the market will choose a fair one by itself. I might well be showing my ignorance here by mixing up ideas!

theora55: thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks!

rue72: it's less the concepts I'm interested than the real-world examples. But I agree I should take a class.
posted by omnigut at 6:35 AM on November 11, 2013

You can also try Help a Reporter Out (HARO) for sources who might be looking to trade their time for some publicity.
posted by powpow at 10:12 AM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Freelancers and PhD students are the way to go.
posted by lotusmish at 11:14 PM on November 12, 2013

I think you would be well served to read through an intro textbook before you talk to any real live economists. Your description of the shortcomings gets a lot of things confused (in ways that are frustratingly common for economists to deal with in discussions). Most textbooks would address many if not all of the questions you raised. I won't claim that the textbooks will provide a convincing answer to the questions, but it will at least fix some of the common pitfalls non-economists make when trying to criticize economics.

A couple of assorted points in response to your last post
- Economists, even free market ones =/= tea partiers. Tea partiers/Randians views are substantially different than most academic economists.
- Almost no economists think we should have no taxes
- Most economists believe that in at least some situations (e.g. carbon emissions) governments should intervene in markets

If you want a survey of what economists think on major issues, IGM is a great resources. It polls several dozen top economists on a wide variety of issues.
posted by vegetableagony at 3:21 PM on November 21, 2013

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