Economics, Terrorism and James Bond at the YMCA Swimming Pool

I wrote a novel about a catastrophic terrorist attack on the U.S. economy as a way to entertain readers while teaching basic economics. It grew from a homework assignment I gave out several years ago while teaching at a community college.

The assignment involved a planned attack on the U.S. economy that the students were asked to analyze and defuse. Getting students interested in economics is not easy, as any teacher who has tried can tell you. Spicing up the dismal science with storytelling worked even better than I’d hoped in getting students to engage.

But where the novel is concerned, some readers have raised the question of how plausible a terrorist attack on the U.S. economy is. Are we really that vulnerable?

I am not sure how vulnerable we are as a nation to economic terrorism, but I do know how vulnerable we are as individuals to the swings of the economy, which points to one reason I wrote the novel.

I know what it’s like to deal with unemployment and money issues brought on by the economy’s volatile swings. I know the feeling – the creeping sense of inadequacy and fear, of shame at the prospect of being someone who needs help rather than someone who can give it.

It can seem so capricious and meaningless, so out of your control, that it might as well be terrorism, even if it’s only the normal rolling over of the business cycle. Helping someone affected by such an event understand the economy a little better might not give them a job, or pay their mortgage, but a little understanding can be its own help sometimes.

You can never fully understand an economic calamity, any more than you can understand the World Trade Center being destroyed by jetliners. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man-on-the-street, a TV pundit or a University of Chicago finance professor. You’ll have theories you subscribe to, a story you can tell, but at some point, under close scrutiny, your narrative starts to fray at the edges, your chain of logic breaks down into a pile of questions you can’t answer. That’s the nature of the business cycle – the central mystery of economics.

Which brings up another reason I wrote the novel, and why I tried to combine teaching with entertainment in the first place – fun.

When presented with news about unemployment, credit downgrades and market crashes, nothing is better than escaping into a good novel, a story that can take you out of your own life for awhile, to somewhere exciting and different – a place where you can let go of yourself.

I still remember the first James Bond novel I read. It was the summer after seventh grade, and I opened up Dr. No beside a YMCA swimming pool. As I read about the crickets and tree frogs beginning to “zing and tinkle,” a spell of words was cast, the pool went away and I was in Jamaica at sunset, about to watch three men, in the guise of blind beggars, murder a British Secret Service agent.

I’m surprised by how much some of the scenes in my novel reflect the influence of Bond’s creator Ian Fleming, such as when Kyle Linwood, the protagonist, comes face to face with Nash Mahir, the British-Emirati behind the attack on America’s economy. Mahir is an unusual kind of terrorist, one more comfortable speaking in boardrooms than hiding in caves, who would rather create global chaos than make another billion. He is just the kind of quirky madman you would expect to meet in a Bond book.

The influence was not conscious. I’m actually not quite as big a fan of Fleming’s novels now as when I was a kid. They’re still fun, no doubt, but Bond seems too perfect to me – winning every fight, getting every girl, never changing from story to story.

Kyle Linwood is no James Bond. He has trouble making decisions about his future. He doesn’t process clues fast enough to save someone who needs help. He even has trouble telling his girlfriend how he feels about her.

Linwood I can relate to, and I hope readers can as well.

-Paul McDonnold