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The Dismal Science tells of a middle-aged vice president at the World Bank, Vincenzo D’Orsi, who publicly quits his job over a seemingly minor argument with a colleague. A scandal inevitably ensues, and he systematically burns every bridge to his former life. After abandoning his career, Vincenzo, a recent widower, is at a complete loss as to what to do with himself. The story follows his efforts to rebuild his identity without a vocation or the company of his wife.
An exploration of the fragile nature of identity, The Dismal Science reveals the terrifying speed with which a person’s sense of self can be annihilated. It is at once a study of a man attempting to apply his reason to the muddle of life and a book about how that same ostensible rationality, and the mathematics of finance in particular, operates—with similarly dubious results—in our world.
"The Dismal Science by Peter Mountford. This guy is managing to make economics and the World Bank something I don't just try and force myself to read about in The New York Times so that I can remain knowledgeable about the state of the world. GOD FORBID."
"Mountford has written a distinctively entertaining novel that illuminates the spiritual odyssey of a contemporary Dodsworth."
|Chapter One: Meetings
The annual meetings had become a kind of rowdy reunion, bearing, increasingly, the muffled bonhomie of a great funeral. At the dueling bars of the Omni and the Sheraton, the dignitaries—old friends and colleagues and rivals who’d been driven apart and together by the conflicting currents of their careers—gathered over strong drink and weak gossip. Everyone was present: the longwinded bore, the hardened bureaucrat, the warmly glib, and the heaving braggart, all driving up astronomical bar tabs over well-worn war stories. For most, the old ambition that had brought them together lifetimes ago was now largely vacuumed away. Vincenzo planted himself at the Sheraton’s superior bar, occasionally reading briefs in the comfortable chairs of the adjacent lobby, but otherwise holding to a tight orbit. There were fewer bilaterals this year, or at least he wasn’t required to go to as many. When he did venture off for a session or a panel, he’d lurk at the back so that he could duck out early. The young ones still passed around their business cards, as if there was some angle to be had, as if someone would remember in a week, as if it meant anything to be remembered.
Vincenzo and the other senior management mostly gossiped of their mutual acquaintances—the firings and divorces and promotions and cancer diagnoses—and struggled to reel in their diatribes and impolitic outbursts. They made jokes when they were able, allowed silences to overtake them often.
This being 2005, it wasn’t lost on them that there hadn’t been a single major economic catastrophe in five years. Except for Argentina, and that didn’t count, because their central bank was just too inept for words. So maybe everyone was starting to feel like they’d gotten it right, after all. The medicine was taking. It was terrible about Iraq and Afghanistan and a lot of other things in the world were terrible, too, but really, it could’ve been so much worse. And so the proceedings seemed lifted by a calm buoyancy that had been absent before, especially during the troubled ’90s when there began to be a lot of talk about hegemony, a word that hadn’t really seemed to exist before, but suddenly became so ubiquitous as to be immediately exhausting. Everything had been fraught in the international aid community then—crises came huge and frequent, each more terrifying than the last. Executives sharing elevators would exchange wide-eyed looks, shaking their heads, quietly pining for a return to the relative sanity of the Cold War.
With this new calm, Vincenzo knew it was all the more important to remain vigilant, all the easier to get caught sleeping at the wheel. There was always, anyway, a lurking danger to DC’s autumn months. The city’s summer torpor lifted unevenly, unpredictably—especially for Vincenzo, from Milan, where the weather wasn’t so interesting. In the fall, in DC, you’d leave your house in a winter coat, scarf, and gloves, scrape ice off the windshield, but by lunchtime you’d be rolling up sleeves, turning up the air conditioning. Everything was forever upside down. This was prime season for losing winter apparel—gloves left on a bar (after all, it felt like Caracas outside!). At last, usually in November, there’d be the day when the cold slapped you hard in the face as soon as you stepped outside; it burnt your exposed fingers, and it didn’t really let up all day. That’s when everyone got in line.
The meetings were in late September, the most erratic month, when the trees in Rock Creek Park were still shrouded like attic furniture under blankets of vines. Once that bite came in, you knew the howling bugs in the trees were not long for this world, nor were the vines. Within two months, the trees would be stripped bare and freezing rain would claw the heaps of soggy debris, decomposing into mud, down into storm drains, flush it all out into the Potomac.
Even with the chaos of September in the air, the meetings were fine. Everyone was fine. What else was there to say, after all? In Latin America, things were going well, more or less. The Bank’s programs, in particular—Vincenzo deserved zero credit for it, truly—were going swimmingly. No one really deserved credit for the good news. Politics had matured, capitalism was actually working. Stability had taken hold and the emerging markets were now actually emerging—they were budding, promising blooms, even fruit.
“It’s almost on auto-pilot,” he said to halfhearted chuckles from the crowd.
His panel was in one of the larger halls in the basement of the Omni. Although it was in a way the more stately hotel, the Omni had much less event space and always felt a bit bereft by comparison to the hullabaloo up the hill in the stately Sheraton; it was kind of slouching into the valley of Rock Creek Park. The chairs had been mostly empty when he convened the talk, but he’d been pleased to see people filing in steadily over the first half hour. And then, during the Q&A portion, he glanced at the clock and observed that there were eight minutes left, and what had been said? Nothing. Nothing much was ever said, but they had really said nothing at all this time. People were listing drowsily in their chairs, glancing at their phones, at least one of the reporters up front was doodling in her steno. She was attractive, or maybe not. She was young and healthy, and that was attractive. And his recognition of the predictability of his anguish at her boredom was almost as painful as his anguish at her boredom itself. Could it be so ghastly and predictable? Yes, it could.
Afterward, he and his co-panelists had a half hour break, before they were to reconvene in a boardroom upstairs for an hour-long closed-door session with delegates from the major Latin American economies, namely Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Brazil, who all wanted to explore their evolving relationship with the wealthy countries that had for so many decades been either—depending on whom you asked—bailing them out of bad situations they got themselves into, or shoving them into bad situations and then charging them for a lifeline. Both interpretations were hopelessly naive. In any case, these countries were seeming less feeble by the day. Something had shifted underneath everyone’s feet in the last few years and now things were fundamentally different. It was time to have a frank conversation.
Vincenzo was heading for a coffee and a pee after the first meeting when Cynthia, who he hadn’t seen in fifteen years, approached with that mischievous squinting smile on her face. She’d left the World Bank for some forgettable leadership role at IADB more than a decade ago. Now here she was, edging toward him with that self-conscious smirk, saying , “Oh my God, he’s alive!”
Setting his briefcase down on the chair once she was within striking distance, he grabbed her by both shoulders and kissed her on her cheeks and then held her back, like a child he was appraising. “How the hell are you?” he said. And they hugged.
“I hate being back here,” she said into his shoulder. “I can’t walk ten feet without running into horrible old ghouls like you.”
He grinned and they separated. “But you live here, right?”
“God no, I slid over to the UNDP and they put me in Brazil, hence—” and she waved vaguely at the room they were in. The new job was, strictly speaking, a step down from the old one, which was probably why she hadn’t broadcast the move. She’d gone meaty and middle-aged. A sexless pall had fallen over her, as it did most of them, as it had, no doubt, over him. Back when they were sleeping together, when she was on mission in Peru, she had an impressive body for a mother of three in her forties, and her aura was distinctly raunchy. She radiated low-frequency sexual enticement, always. Something in the body language, the way she sat down so slowly, how the curve of her thigh drew the gaze, and also how long she held your hand during a handshake, the over-determined eye contact. Even her coy grin seemed dangerous. You just knew she was a pervert. Now she was—what?—probably in her late fifties. More battle horse than colt. That radiant carnality had dimmed. Or maybe it was still there, and only he’d changed, maybe his equipment had been damaged. Yes, maybe he just couldn’t hear that frequency. Even worse, maybe she just didn’t turn it on for him now.
“Look, we should have a drink,” he said. “I have another meeting.” The last of the others were filing out of the room now.
“I’m going to be at that meeting.”
“Oh—the one upstairs?”
“Yes. We’ll go to the bar up at the Sheraton afterward?” she said.
She smiled a little, and then said, “If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, don’t think that.”
He snorted. And then he slowly drew a deep breath, shook his head, looked away.
Since he didn’t deny it, she said, “Do you still want to have that drink?”
He paused for effect, looked her in the eye and said, unconvincing as possible, “Of course I do.”
She chuckled humorlessly, surely weary of men like him.
It was only once they were in the elevator going up that it dawned on him that this wasn’t as much a coincidence meeting as it had seemed at first. She really had no reason to be at that session, nor the next one. No, she was angling for something. Maybe a job. He’d find out soon enough.
They were not alone in the elevator, there were several others, but still he could smell Cynthia’s perfume, still too sweet, too much. So much honeysuckle; it brought back a sour stain of guilt, all the worse now that there was no reason for guilt.
Perhaps sensing where his mind was heading, she said, “How’s your kid?”
He squinted at her. Maybe she hadn’t heard. Probably she had, but he wouldn’t bring it up. “She finished college and is in New York.”
“A waitress. Tattoos.” She smiled in the repressed way that people do while conversing in crowded elevators. “Your husband?” he said.
“Fine,” she said. “Great.”
The problem was that Peru shouldn’t have been invited to the closed-door meeting. Peru’s development was still too gestational. As if to underscore this, their delegate was dour in a shapeless sports jacket and khakis, while everyone else in the room wore suits. But this was the era of inclusion, apparently. Eastern European countries were tumbling into the EU and the field was everywhere more open, more noisy and confusing.
Not long after they had settled in, the Peruvian delegate set forth with a question, a statement really, about the Bank’s commitment to global emissions reductions. The question was odd and awkward for a variety of reasons, not least that a Peruvian delegate would take up this non-Peruvian issue so publicly.
Here it was, naked and crazed, the hobgoblin of their era: fairness. A muddle-headed man, the delegate also produced a subordinate question about the long term viability of the petroleum-based successes, which could seem like a weird dig at Brazil. Or maybe he was parroting Ecuador’s recent noise about the Yasune ITT initiative. Of course, he just wanted to show that he was formidable, but he came off as far too confrontational and obsessed with the hegemon. Anyway, he was on the wrong subject.
Pablo Rendón, deputy director of the environment directorate at the Inter-American Development Bank, and an old friend of Vincenzo’s, had talked about the environmental policy downstairs. Pablo had said what was to be said, really. They were forging ahead despite the maddening intransigence—Pablo had put it more politely—of the USA. Bush had just made it clear that they wouldn’t sign on to Kyoto, and that was the end of that.