The economist as hero

By chance, two new novels featuring economist heroes arrived recently. This is a rare occurrence, so to get two together was striking, and perhaps says something about the zeitgeist – that there is enough interest in the economy, for obvious reasons, to make fiction worth a go.

One of the newcomers is Something for Nothing by Michael W Klein, a professor at the prestigious Fletcher School at Tufts University. Its hero is a recently-minted Columbia PhD, whose only job offer is a temporary contract at a minor liberal arts college. His efforts to publish enough to secure a permanent job – ah, the allure of the tenure-track – bring him into contact with an evangelical Christian think tank. Misunderstandings and mishaps ensue but all ends well. Our economist hero finds a job, and love too. It’s an enjoyable book, well plotted and with moderately rounded characters. I liked the realistic detail, such as the delays waiting for elevators in hotels at the annual meetings of the American Economic Association, where job interviews are held in their hundreds. This book’s market might be a niche one, however – I’m not sure about the wider appeal of the career travails of the would-be academic economist. This doesn’t quite make it as a campus novel of wider interest because its focus is so firmly on the world of economics rather than the world of the university.

The second of these recent novels is The Economics of Ego Surplus: a novel of economic terrorism by Paul McDonnold. The hero here is a graduate student working on his dissertation. As the summer vacation approaches, he is recruited by the FBI to assist them in investigating a terrorist attempt to bring about the collapse of the US economy and western consumerism through a stockmarket crash and run on the dollar. (Does it need a terror mastermind to accomplish this, one asks, reading the Financial Times.) So we are in the thriller genre, and this novel is a page turner, while at the same time explaining (sometimes with footnotes – unusual, for a thriller) basic economic concepts. I enjoyed the author’s evocation of Dallas and its environs. However, the plot has some infelicities, and – like many in this genre – weak characterisation.This needn’t put off someone looking for a light read for a plane journey; this book is better than many on the airport bookshelves.

Besides, both authors are to be commended for aiming to bring economics to life in fiction. The vast expanse of life affected by the subject is almost untouched by novelists. The other economics novels I’ve read are: The Invisible Heart and The Price of Everything, both by Russ Roberts; The Burning by Thomas Legendre; and the Marshall Jevons detective mysteries featuring economist Henry Spearman, such as The Fatal Equilibrium and Murder at the Margin.

All are written by economists about economists. As far as I’m aware, though, no literary novelist has yet portrayed the economist as hero.

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12 thoughts on “The economist as hero

  1. You are mistaken about the economist as hero. Written under the pen name of Marshall Jevons, there are three mystery novels in which the hero is an economist. The protagonist, Professor Henry Spearman at Harvard, uses economic analysis to solve the crimes. The novels are Murder at the Margin, The Fatal Equilibrium, and A Deadly Indifference. They have been translated into several languages and each is still in print. A fourth is underway.

  2. I stand corrected in my earlier post. I see now that the reference is to a “literary novelist” (presumably a non-economist) who has portrayed an economist in fiction. That probably is unlikely to happen. We are an unusual tribe and to try to understand us “from outside” (much less describe us) will prove to be a challenge!

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  4. Thanks for the nice words about my novel.
    Another novel, with an economist as hero, is Nineteenth NW by Rex Ghosh, an economist at the IMF. This is a financial thriller and the broad outlines of its plot are similar to those of McDonnold’s book – terrorist efforts to bring about a financial collapse.
    A recent movie with an economist as hero, or at least as protagonist, is The Visitor.

    • I wasn’t aware of that one so will certainly check it out. I suppose the other movie with an economist hero is A Beautiful Mind, which doubtless led lots of leading economists to cast Russell Crowe as themselves in their eventual biopic…

  5. Well, there is one really old novel with the economist as hero. Paul E. Erdman’s Crash of ’79 was a great book. Technical details were great, gripping story and he predicted a war between Iran & Iraq, even if he was wrong about the Shah leading it.

  6. One of the protagonists (hero is too strong a word) of Hari Kunzru’s “Gods without men” is a lapsed physicist working on trading models — close enough?

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