Writing a book about economics is hard

The wait is finally over! June 30th was the official publication date of my first book, Parks and Recreation and Economics. It’s not the best title, but the series that it was published in has a very specific way of titling their books. I do think it’s the best book in the series though! Each book looks at some area of pop culture and how it can be used to teach economics. There are books about Broadway shows, Seinfeld, and even superheroes. If you haven’t purchased your copy yet, you can get the book on Amazon, Bookshop, or directly from the publisher (they’re offering 20% right now!)

I was first contacted by the series editor back in the summer of 2018. Kalina and I had just finished a publication for The Journal of Economics Education on teaching with scenes from the show, and the editor asked if we wanted to write a book as well. We bounced some emails back and forth, but then it sort of stalled for a year as life happened. In late 2019, I emailed the editor again to see if they were still interested. It had been over a year, and I wasn’t sure if this was a limited run. Thankfully, they were still very interested in publishing this series. Unfortunately, Kalina wasn’t interested in working on the project anymore so I had to decide if I could take on the task alone. After working through the review process, and making some changes to the proposed outline, the contract to write the book was issued at the end of April 2020.

Check that date one more time. I signed a contract to write my first ever book in the first few weeks of the worst pandemic the modern world has ever seen. In hindsight, I don’t know what I was thinking. That is an unreal level of confidence that I don’t normally have in myself. Thankfully I was able to take a few long weekends in the summer and the Fall to help knock out major portions of the book. I’ve written plenty of journal articles about teaching economics, but I’ve never actually written anything like this. I was naively overconfident about the project and promised that I could finish it within a year. This was one of the hardest projects of my life.

The actual writing portion wasn’t all that difficult once I forced myself to sit down and do it. The first few nights I tried to write anything resulted in constantly rewriting different paragraphs and trying to set the write tone. I reached out to some other authors I knew and the common advice I heard was to “just write” and worry about editing/tone later. There was some general procrastination, but I do that with every project. I tend to write/work in big chunks rather than spreading work out over a longer time period.

My real struggle was the constant battle of what topics should go in the book and in which order should I arrange them. I wanted the book to be useful to other educators, which meant presenting the chapters in a more “traditional” order. I was writing the book similarly to how I teach my principles course, but I teach the topics in the order that I think is best, and that isn’t the order found in most textbooks. If you want to know the details on that, reach out to me. Otherwise, I’ll save most of you from my pedantic ramblings. I went with a more traditional order:

The other battle I faced was figuring out the school of economic thought I wanted to portray in the book. I tend to lean more toward the neoliberal side of things, but I constantly debate myself over particular policies. One of the things I hate most about economists is that a large portion of them have an unbridled belief that their view is absolute and everyone else is an idiot. There are a lot of problems with the economics profession as a whole and we have a serious problem with in-fighting. I hate the drama and (sadly) I feel it’s getting more divisive. I’ve gotten better at finding “my people” in the field, but I worry a lot about incoming students who may be turned off by the bickering. With all that said, I struggled with how to frame certain topics knowing that it could lead to people fighting about “the right way” to teach economics.

The #1 topic I struggle to teach is the role of government intervention. I talk about this on the very first day with my students, so I address the issue at the start of the book as well. Economists constantly bounce back and forth with examples of how government intervention can mess things up, but then turn around in the very next chapter to talk about the need for government intervention. It’s confusing to a lot of students because I think they are searching for absolute truths rather than realizing almost every answer is “it depends.” It’s a narrative you see played out in political fights, which makes things all that much worse when it comes to teaching first-year students. Harry Truman actually has a pretty famous quip about the struggle economists have providing an answer:

Give me a one-handed economist! All my economists say, 'on one hand ... on the other.'

Over the past couple of years, I have tried to really change my teaching style away from teaching the material as though it’s the gospel and instead focusing on “the economic way of thinking,” which emphasizes more critical analysis. I started to think more about it after reading Robert Reich’s, Saving Capitalism. He had a fairly poignant section of the book that talked about the government’s role in maintaining a “competitive environment free from government intervention.” It was an interesting note that the concept of a competitive market wouldn’t exist without government support. I wanted to get across those sorts of nuances in the book, and I think I did a good job of that.

I originally thought I could write the entire book over the summer and spend the Fall editing it. I was VERY wrong. I was writing the last chapters all the way into November and then spending each evening chapters I wrote in the summer. I got ambitious (dumb?) toward the end of the project and vowed to include a reference to every single episode in the book. After the first complete draft, I had missed about 8 episodes. I rewatched those episodes to see where I could squeeze them in. I was also told that the random footnotes I added in the book were pretty funny, and this was later confirmed during the copyediting stage. In the last few days before the deadline, I went back and added more jokes to the book. I think they turned out well, and I think they represent my personality:

The final draft was due December 2020, and the past 6 months have been a back-and-forth of copyediting, proofreading, cover design, and marketing. It was so incredible to see the production process for a book. Routledge obviously publishes a lot of work, but it was so neat to be able to watch the timeline unfold. There were a lot of surprises along the way, like the day I found out my book was posted to Amazon, the random interview requests from the local student paper, or the day my personal copies arrived a week before the publication date. Those small things made it feel so real that a book would come out with my name on it. The past week has been a whirlwind of emotions, but it’s also made me think about what my next book will be. I have an idea percolating, but I’m open to suggestions.

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  • It would take 1 day, 21 hours, and 50 minutes to watch every single episode of Parks and Rec without stopping [Tiii.me]

  • The series scored an average of 93% on the tomatometer [Rotten Tomatoes]

  • There were 126 episodes of Parks and Rec, including a special episode that came out in 2020 [Peacock TV]

  • The special episode raised $2.8 million for Covid relief [Forbes]

  • Amy Pohler was paid $250,000 per episode during the show’s final season [Business Insider]

We’ve made it to the halfway point in the year! Week 26 is over and I’ve read a total of 35 books. I’m not worried about meeting my goal of 52 books, but I am behind where I was last year. I may be able to catch up over the next month or so. This week I was able to check in my own book on Goodreads. I have read it multiple times over the past 6 months, but I wanted to wait until it was officially available before I gave it 5 stars.

If you’re on Goodreads, please mark the book as “Want to Read” so that it helps with their recommendation algorithm. If you feel so inclined, I would love a review, even if it’s not 5 stars. Here’s me with the first copy: