The Economics of Ego Surplus by Paul McDonnold



Economics 201? ... read this novel!

The book in one sentence: An unlikely academic  falls into an investigation of a complicated web of economic terrorism.

It was quite ironic that I started reading The Economics of Ego Surplus: A Novel of Economic Terrorism by Paul McDonnold around the week of August 5 and onwards which saw some historic and alarming changes in the US economy. This backdrop for my reading made this story even more credible in my eyes. 

(On a side note: I was on the computer the evening when Standard and Poor, a credit rating agency, downgraded the US credit rating. I mentioned it to hubby the next day at breakfast and he was in total disbelief. I was in disbelief when what followed was the plummeting of US stocks, the worst we've seen in a very long time.) 


Here's the official back blurb:
Part action novel, part literary novel, part guidebook to economics, The Economics of Ego Surplus is the story of college instructor Kyle Linwood. Anticipating a relaxing summer with his girlfriend and his PhD dissertation, he gets recruited by the FBI to help with an obscure case of terrorist internet "chatter," which explodes into a shocking, mysterious assault on U.S. financial markets. As the economy melts down and a nation panics, Kyle follows a trail of clues from Dallas to New York City to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. In his quest to discover the truth, he will be forced to confront the assumptions underlying his education as well as his life. But will it be enough to save America from the most brilliant terrorist plot ever conceived?


My thoughts

Let me preface this little write-up with this: I am not an Economics major - and have only Economics 101 under my belt and a rather enthusiastic significant other who chatters about what he reads from the business sections of newspapers - as background. So I won't claim to understand everything economics-related here.

When the author, an economics teacher, contacted me about reviewing this book, the story of how this book came to be intrigued me. After all, many of us probably have had to suffer through many a class where the subject matter may have been interesting it were presented in a more palatable manner. McDonnold says:
“It’s never easy to get students interested in economics. Several years ago I gave my class a homework assignment in the form of a fictional story. A terrorist attack was being planned against the U.S. economy, and the assignment required figuring out the plot and using economic policy to foil it. The reaction I got from the students was so positive I decided to take the concept further. That’s when work on the novel began.” {Via.}
So, fiction setting the stage to teach economics. Highly unconventional but done quite extensively in the literary world. Think Jostein Gaarder who teaches philosophy in his riveting reads (Sophie's World, The Orange Girl); Frank Peretti with his brand of Christian fiction (This Present Darkness); or Dan Brown's wildly successful The Da Vinci Code. These books have successfully managed to make what is traditionally viewed as heavy, academic and often mystifying, into something immensely popular, cool, and ... well, fun.

However, McDonnold says that The Economics of Ego Surplus was meant to reach out beyond the safe confines of the economic academic (economics fiction for "econophiles") to the non-academic. Virtually anyone who likes a good read. Did McDonnold succeed at all? I say "yes." The storyline hooked me. Blink and you may miss something. There's a little something for everyone: a fast-paced investigation, a bit of romance, some heated academic debates, travel to an exotic place. Oh, and a mad man and an intricate look into the inner workings of the world economy.

I am fascinated by the core of the story which shifts terrorism from the mere physical to that of a more strategic, and a more insidious kind: economic terrorism and warfare. The book focuses on how a company is able to successfully manipulate the US stock market through spamming - sending stock prices a'plummeting, and with a whole country starting to panic, provoking irrational selling and a snowball effect on the US economy as a whole. Faith in the market economy and in government has been totally stripped. And being the supereconomy it is, this inevitably impacts on the world economy. (Wait, I've said "plummeting stocks" already - doesn't this sound familiar?) I won't go into detail at risk of spoiling things for future readers, but reading this has definitely gotten me a little bit more interested in clicking the business and investing sections online.

***

My major gripe: 

I wish McDonnold hadn't used a Muslim nation as the seat of the mastermind behind the story's economic terrorism. For a change, it would be nice to get a bad guy who isn't the stereotype "terrorist." In a world that is increasingly becoming paranoid, yet where diversity and tolerance should be promoted, I am concerned that this reinforces a worldview not held by many. Moreover, impressionable young students would apparently be the first consumers of this story, and this may convey a very skewed view of the world.

And a few "minor" gripes:  

I felt that the desire, intent and ambition was good, but the author didn't pull it off with as much aplomb as I would expect of a non-fiction book.

For example, the small sections on economic concepts were meant to be teaching moments; thankfully they few and far in between. I also have a problem with footnotes scattered in a non-fiction book and diagrams. They reek to me of textbooks.

In both cases, I felt they drew away from the action of the storyline. It's one thing to build up the tension ... only to be given the "Woops, oh, by the way..."  Talk about anticlimactic! Keep it out of the story, I want to know what's going to happen next, not get a mini-lecture.

It may have been better to have an appendix of economic terms and straightforward economic lessons. Some discussion points or questions - like many reader guides out there - would have been very helpful for the keener readers out there. Or even providing some of the additional resources on the publishers website, Starving Analyst, would be a good start.

The cover needs to convey it is fiction because as it is (and no offense meant to the artist), it just looks like a textbook. If I saw this next to a Jostein Gaarder or a Dan Brown on those already crowded shelves, I probably wouldn't even notice it, much less pick it up.

The book would also have benefitted from a different title because up to now, I'm still in the dark as to why it's called "Ego Surplus." It seems like too much work to understand the title: An economic term maybe? An economic pun? Or am I reading too much into this? If the title needs explaining, uh-oh, it is a scary thing to think what the inside pages hold ... you've just lost a few people right off! Which would be a pity, because this is an unusual book that is definitely worth reading.

Verdict: A hybrid of novel and economics textbook which would: one, definitely stop any Economics student from yawning during class, or two, get a a non-academic actually interested in economics. I look forward to more of these literary "experiments!"

***

First line: Chaotic and shivering, the waters of the Arabian Gulf danced in the twelve-foot-tall pane of glass that served as the conference room's western wall.

Last line: And maybe that would be the point of it all, in the end.

***

I'm interested to find out how this book was received by the economics community at the least, and the literary community. Here are a few reviews I've found. There are more reviews at the Starving Analyst
I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. 

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review, Aloi. There has been a lot of critique about the title. I wanted something that would indicate the story was about economics, and the rest ties in to the moral of the story, that lack of humility (or surplus of ego) was the source of all the trouble. On the Muslim issue, I wanted to represent a terrorist who would be Islamic, yet also Western enough (remember his mother is British)that a Western reader might be able to relate to and even sympathize with his views, if not his methods. I guess it is for each reader to decide if I succeeded.

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  2. Paul, thanks for stopping by! I totally understand where you are coming from on all fronts -- and thank you for being so open to critique. Yes, you have succeeded! I am just one among many readers. I came away from reading it with a much better appreciation of economics in general and the ability for it to be taught in unconventional ways. I wish all the best, and l look forward to more of your books!

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