Lora Shinn: When did you get the idea for The Dismal Science?
Peter Mountford: When I was 17 or so, my father worked at the IMF, and he was part of this breakfast club of senior economists — they’d all sit around over bad coffee and Marriott cafeteria breakfast gossiping about global finance. Sometimes I’d tag along. Much to their amusement, I had blue hair and played in a punk band. One morning, a soft-spoken Japanese guy was troubled because Russia wasn’t collecting taxes on their rich, and they had a lot of debt; he was managing the largest loan that the IMF had ever given: $50 billion to Russia. So he said he was going to cut off their loan. Next morning, The Washington Post’s front page said “IMF Suspends Loan to Russia.” This guy, this friend of the family — who played in a Mariachi band for fun, and loved Scotch — he had just twisted the arm of a superpower. This mild-mannered economist with an innocuous office in a nondescript building. No one knew who he was. And that’s how the world works. That was the seed for this novel, truth be told — the story gets rolling in a breakfast conversation in that same cafeteria.
LS: You seem to have a good feel for the internal workings of the World Bank and Lehman. How did you gain the insights necessary?
PM: I knew the World Bank because of my dad’s work at the IMF, but I didn’t know much about Lehman and by the time I was writing that part of the book, Lehman didn’t exist anymore. I interviewed some former Lehman employees. They got to see the sausage of fiction being made in the grimmest way. All these questions about what the elevator was like, what was the furniture like, blah, blah. Surely robbed them of any potential interest in fiction writing — all those thousands of tiny details just for a dash of verisimilitude.
LS: Although the lead character is an atheist, religion pops up repeatedly throughout the book. What's your experience with religion? Do you think economics can be another form of religion, for some?
PM: My family was not religious, but my dad was an economist, and my sister is an economist, and I was briefly something like an economist, or I got paid by a think tank to pretend to be one. Economics is absolutely a form of religion — we live in a kind of theocracy devoted to that religion. We’re subjects under the tyranny of that particular logic, a reign of that brand of reason. So much of what happens in economics is presented as hard science, but there’s faith underpinning the structures of the models they use — the correlation between utility and wealth, for example. That’s capitalism right there: More is better. If you take away that single idea, the whole Jenga tower collapses.
LS: Game play is also central in the book, both literally and figuratively. Characters try to anticipate one another's moves, whether playing chess or making decisions on the international stage. Yet, as you say in the book, "People's behavior isn't ever as predictable as other natural phenomena, like gravity," which also frustrated the book's institutions when dealing with populations and loan repayment incentives. What's the alternative, though?
PM: This has long been a fascination of mine. I love that the “What’s the alternative” question you pose at the end there is, in essence, completely unanswerable. I run around hunting for questions that rise to that level of difficulty. As Kundera put it, “The spirit of the novel is the spirit of complexity. It says to the reader, things are not as simple as they seem.” And yet we’re all desperate to make sense of the world, to find a path through it that is “best,” whatever that means to you — and what it means will change from day to day, hour to hour. We cling to religion, to science, to economics. We’re desperate for order, and life just keeps tumbling along until it’s not tumbling along anymore, and then hopefully someone throws a superb funeral party and a lot of people cry for a long time, or they tell great stories about you, or they’re so devastated by your death that they can’t even really talk about you ever again. Of course, then no one ever hears about you again.
Yes, we’re all trying to game the system. Dialogue, in real life, too, is often a kind of haphazard fencing match, but there’s never really a winner, and what does it mean to win a conversation? You succeeded in making your ex-lover, the one who left you, feel terrible about herself. Now what? Now it’s time to clean the kitty litter and pay the bills and do the laundry. Good for you. But she’s still gone.