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What To Do With What You Did Over Your Summer Vacation (2009)


So you’ve been to a summer program sponsored by Mises, IHS, FEE, Cato, Independent, or any of a number of other organizations dedicated to economic research and education. You’re excited, and you’re firmly grounded in your understanding of the classical liberal tradition. You wonder: what now? Here are a few suggestions that will help you make a difference and contribute to the discussion while developing your writing ability.

I see a couple of easy ways to contribute to the Great Conversation. First, look for ways to write letters to editors of magazines, newspapers, and other publications. The July issue of Scientific American, for example, has several articles that could be responded to in a 200-250 word letter to the editor. The same could be said of any issue of any magazine or newspaper. Some professional journals also publish letters to the editor. If they get published, blog them. If they don’t–and many won’t–blog them anyway. You can pick up some tips by looking at Don Boudreaux’s letters to the editor. Professor Boudreaux is a prolific letter-writer, and he blogs most of them at Cafe Hayek.

Here’s a quick example. I revised this on a plane from Dallas to Albuquerque, and just to prove my point I picked up a copy of the in-flight magazine and looked for anything that could be addressed from an economic perspective. I found an article about a shark dive in the Farallon Islands near San Francisco. I wrote the following in about five minutes, and I emailed it to the editor (editor@americanwaymag.com) at my next opportunity:

“Dear Editor,

Amy Sorlie’s 8/1/2009 article on shark diving in the Farallon Islands piqued my interest because I’m a lifelong shark enthusiast and an economist with an interest in conservation. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the key to conservation is not government-mandated protection, but the establishment of clear private property rights over sharks and shark habitats. Since sharks are commonly owned, no one profits directly from their survival and, therefore, no one has an incentive to conserve them. Indeed, in some places it is actually illegal to own and farm sharks. This is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing.

“Even though we kill and eat far, far more shrimp, salmon, and catfish than sharks, no one is really worried about shrimp, salmon, and catfish going extinct anytime soon. That is in large part because they can be privately owned and farmed. If we really want to conserve sharks, we should take a similar approach.

Kindest regards,

Art Carden
Assistant Professor of Economics and Business
Rhodes College
Memphis TN”

Why letters to editors? They aren’t “scholarly,” but they’re a great way to practice packing a tight, easily accessible argument into a small space. Letters to the editor also get read. I write letters for several reasons. First, they help me satisfy my attraction to the intellectual equivalent of bright, shiny objects. Second, they help me satisfy my urge to (try to) save the world. Third, they help me practice writing and thinking clearly. When you’re writing a 250 word letter on a specific issue for an audience of novices and laypeople, you don’t have a lot of room for subtlety and nuance, but you also don’t have room for sloppiness.

A second way to contribute is to write op-eds for your campus newspaper or for another local publication (an independent weekly, perhaps). Your local daily newspaper and other outlets might be hard to get your work into, but campus publications are usually well-read and looking for good content. Don’t be afraid to write for free, particularly if you’re just starting out.

What should you write about? I assume you have a lot of notes from the lectures you attended at Mises, FEE, IHS, etc. It might take some work, but you can certainly use these as a very rich source of material for articles and letters. If you are interested in academia, write with an eye toward a future as a researcher: look for ways to hone and sharpen your arguments, and look for opportunities to get involved in research projects. Your professors are usually looking for help, and if you have opportunities to do your own independent research, there are outlets for these projects, too.

A third way to contribute and practice is to review books. If you are a graduate student, you might want to volunteer to review for professional journals, organizations, or websites (not too many, and nothing that isn’t directly related to your research agenda). Other outlets like newspapers and magazines sometimes feature book reviews, as well. You probably won’t start out by reviewing books for the New York Review of Books or the Most Important Economics Journal, but it’s a fair bet that there is someone out there who is looking to publish well-done book reviews. You have to engage with the books’ arguments in a way that is suitable for publication, and you can be reasonably certain that the authors will read the published reviews.

If you don’t really fancy yourself much of a writer or speaker, a fourth way to contribute would be to start and edit a publication or website. If you’re not ready to produce your own content, there are tons of sites (mises.org, independent.org, and many, many others) that have a lot of content you can link to or reproduce for a price of $0.00. Look at Lewrockwell.com and Strike-the-root.com for examples.

A word of caution is in order, especially if you’re blogging. Remember that the Internet is forever, Google knows everything, and if you’re self-publishing you don’t have a gatekeeper that can keep your less civilized thoughts from seeing the proverbial light of day. Practice the virtues of temperance, prudence, patience, and kindness. Just as sending email while angry is a bad idea, blogging while angry is a bad idea. Long screeds about how Eminent Scholar is a whore of The Establishment is a pretty good signal that you should probably be ignored, and anonymous cheap shots in blog comments are childish and unprofessional. Don’t let a couple of rants or clever-but-inappropriate barbs disqualify you from the Great Conversation.

But relax. Above all, read critically, write critically, and have fun. Know where you’re starting, work to get better, and realize that improvement is a long and sometimes painful process. I’m still unsatisfied with the work I’m doing right now, but it’s leaps and bounds better than what I was doing in graduate school. A place at the table is worth the time and effort to secure. Good luck!

Cross-Posted at Division of Labour and The Beacon.

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