Bryan Caplan  

Why Is An Economist Writing This Book?

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In the Preface of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, should I explicitly address the question, "Why would an economist write this book?"?

Pro: I could talk about how I come out of GMU's wide-ranging, inter-disciplinary, blog-friendly approach to econ.  It's an engaging story.

Con: Get to the point.  Focus on the message, not the messenger.

P.S. Non-economists might ask, "Why would an economist write this book?"  Economists, in contrast, might ask, "Why would an economist write this book?"  My response to my fellow economists: Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids is behavioral economics of the family.  I treat standard Beckerian analysis as normative, and advise parents to revise their behavior to fit the theory.


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COMMENTS (29 to date)
George X writes:

Bryan,
You wrote: Non-economists might ask, "Why would an economist write this book?" Economists, in contrast, might ask, "Why would an economist write this book?"

If you do address the question in the preface, make sure to include that quip.

Nick Rozen writes:

I think you should include a couple of paragraphs to answer those questions. Non-economists who read books by economists generally enjoy being able to place things in context. It is manifestly unusual and exciting for someone to take up this topic, particularly a scholar such as yourself. Explain it, and do include some references to GMU.

Mike Gibson writes:

I vote yes, extol the virtues of the messenger. Not sure what your publisher has in mind, but perhaps your book is best positioned in the market as "Freakonomics for the Family"

Steve Z writes:

Why not put it in an appendix? That way you can get straight to the point while still including the explanation for those who want to read it.

MikeDC writes:

As an economist, I view the idea that I need to read a book to understand my own interest as puzzling. And perhaps suspicious.

Douglass Holmes writes:

Having children is, for most of us, the most significant thing we will do in our short lives. In my case, the most significant choices I made for 30 years all related to my children. As long as economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources, then the subject of children will be an important aspect of economics. To me, a non-economist, this seems like a very appropriate subject for an economist to tackle.

Hey, why don't you let a non-economist write your preface?

John Markley writes:

Yes, I think you should address it. The idea of an economist writing about family life clashes with the stereotype most people have of economists and what "economics" means, so it would be a nice way to explain how the principles of economics are relevant to things beyond the world of business.

I also agree with what George X said.

Artturi Björk writes:

I can't imagine it being that interesting to non-economists. When I read a book I don't much care for how the author labels himself.

Maybe we see some kind of a "paradox" that an economist would write about this subject, but this observation is limited to people familiar with economics. Maybe you could include it as a postscript or something...

Quiet Griot writes:

"Economists, in contrast, might ask, "Why would an economist write this book?""

The next question economists will have is, "why wouldn't *all* economists write this book?"

ryan_vann writes:

You should definitely address the question in the preface, and include the "contrasting" witty economist question. It's an excellent one liner.

Bob Murphy writes:

Why would an economist us ask this?

Loof writes:

According to Bryan:
Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids is behavioral economics of the family. I treat standard Beckerian analysis as normative, and advise parents to revise their behavior to fit the theory.

Perhaps selfishness is now more the norm for American families (absolutely abnormal in Asia). Advising parents to revise their behavior to fit the theory and practice it makes a lot of sense: if you want your children to be selfish.

David R. Henderson writes:

Problem with your question is that it presumes that people who pick it up know you're an economist. 90+ percent of them won't. So lead off the first graf this way:

Why am I writing this book? Because I'm an economist who loves kids. Etc.

Eli writes:

If you make it clear that this is what the preface is about, then people who are not interested can skip it.

Loof writes:

Yes, saying "I'm an economist who loves kids. Etc." could improve the image. What about substance?

Economists are experts in allocating scarce resources. If they truly love kids they could efficiently satisfy every child’s need before gearing a system for everyone’s greed and waste so many scarce resources.

Problem: perhaps economists’ love greed more – and kids less.

Zac Gochenour writes:

If you are going to explicitly address it, I'd keep it short. The GMU thing is an engaging story to some but it has little to do with the book. I dislike long-winded introductions that detail the author's personal motivations.

That you are an economist will be obvious by your arguments. After they read the book they will understand why an economist wrote it. If they don't catch on to any of that, they probably don't care.

Omar Al-Ubaydli writes:

The old definition of economics (how we allocate scarce resources) is defunct. In my opinion, a more precise definition is "the study of human behaviour, usually under the assumption that it is the result of conscious optimisation." Moreover, the intellectual enquiry is often at least partially motivated by a desire to make definitive policy recommendations.

With this in mind, I think it's clear that your book lies within the domain of economic analysis. In other words, you want to understand what affects how many children people decide to have, and what might help them make better decisions. Easy peasy.

JamesFromPittsburgh writes:

I concur with Zac Gochenour's "keep it short" sentiment (if you do it at all). There's been an explosion of "the economics of X" type books since Freakonomics. I think your book's audience would have a high overlap with readers that have already been exposed to this sort of analysis. Those readers that have not had this exposure will catch on.

Although, it might be interesting as an afterword. Sort of, "By now you've probably figured out I'm an economist..."

MikeDC writes:

Are you writing a book on behavioral economics of the family (how to raise kids) or on the economics of having a large number of kids in the first place?

The title suggests the latter, but your post suggests the former.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

Making a big deal about being an economist seems like an appeal to authority (the weakest form of valid argument). Your arguments should stand or fall on their merits. Whether you are an economist or simply a parent shouldn't make a difference.

Chris Koresko writes:

A little off-topic (sorry if that offends), but:

I'd really like a book about how to apply economic reasoning to family life in general. It could have topics like how to decide when it's worth it to change jobs (or to take one at all, as opposed to staying home with the kids); is it worth the extra driving time for a better-paying job; how much can one afford to spend on a house, a car, or some other major purchase; is public, parochial, or private school the best choice; what kinds of insurance make sense.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

Writing is a form of artistic expression. As with other kinds of media, artists can get too close to their work, and it is sometimes a good idea to allow another person to offer an objective opinion (which is what you're doing now).

If you don't want someone else to write your preface, then consider asking a few good friends who can maintain their objectivity to read the book and then ask them what they think you were trying to accomplish. You might be surprised at what they tell you, because they may see things in the book that you didn't even know were there.

londenio writes:

Dear Brian,

Please devote a chapter on adoption (either legal adoption or marrying someone with children).

There must be a better title than the one you are currently using.

DW writes:

Why would anyone read a preface?

Eric writes:

Look at what happens when you ask for opinions...most are bad, lol. Hopefully 1 or 2 help!

Write the book you want to write with the message you think is important. Sales are over-rated! Don't pander. :) If it is anything like MOTRV you have nothing to worry about.

Daublin writes:

Sure! Chatter away on your motivation! I love when authors have a preface and talk about what they were thinking as they went into the project.

That said, I usually skip a preface on the first read.

Sam Wilson writes:

Part of whether to bother to include an explanation (and if you decide to do so, I concur with what Zac said: keep is short) is how the book will be marketed. Will it be sold in the parenting aisle or the economics shelf? If the former, it's unlikely that the average shopper will have heard of you anyway. If the latter, you might have more convincing to do.

Also, dust cover flap notes are an appropriate place to explain your motivations.

Also also, if you're thinking of having one of your colleagues write a preface, ask them to go into more detail about GMU and the interdisciplinary approach. Tyler seems a natural fit for something like this.

Drew P. Sachs writes:

No, definitely not. If you write something like, "...in this book, economist Bryan Caplan shows that..." & you don't explain why an economist is writing a book on parenting, you'll pique the reader's curiosity. You'll make them wonder what the hell an economist is doing writing a book on parenting, make them think that there must be some really weird intersection between child psychology & economics discussed in the book, & thus, they'll want to read it.

Also, you should include a chapter on the markets for children's products & how both child & parent work as one rational (or perhaps irrational) actor, if you can.

Tim Kane writes:

I agree with David -- typical reader WON'T know you are an economist. Also, the personal story about how this book is an outgrowth of discussion you had with your wife is vital. There HAS to be an anecdote about the day you found it she was pregnant with twins, and how many parents feel overwhelmed with multiples, etc.

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