Novel based on life in an economics department
Source Louis Proyect
Date 11/10/24/11:14
'Something for Nothing'
By Kacie Glenn

David Fox's life is not working out as planned. During his college
years, the path ahead seemed clear: graduate with honors, obtain
Ph.D. at a prestigious institution, accept tenure-track position
in large metropolitan area.

But with his doctorate in hand, David finds himself stuck in
Knittersville, N.Y., with a one-year appointment at
undistinguished Kester College. He's deflated by the dismal job
market, intimidated by his colleagues in the economics department,
overwhelmed by his teaching duties, desperate to morph his
dissertation into something publishable, and tempted by a
voluptuous thesis advisee—all as he suffers the indignity of
living in a town that is "not Manhattan" in every possible way.

A duller-sounding place than Knittersville never was—because it's
fictional. So is Kester College, and so is David Fox, which
considerably raises his chances of landing flyover interviews and
getting embroiled in academic intrigue. David is the protagonist
of Something for Nothing (MIT Press), a novel by Michael W. Klein,
who is a professor of international economic affairs at Tufts

David's prospects improve when he receives an e-mail from the
Center to Research Opportunities for a Spiritual Society (Cross),
a right-wing organization seeking to promote scholarship that
supports an evangelical-Christian agenda. Its director, Bill
Crocker, is interested in publishing and publicizing a
long-forgotten graduate paper of David's called "Something for
Nothing." The paper shows the success of a high-school abstinence
program in lowering teen-pregnancy rates and raising academic

David—who is liberal, Jewish, and no fan of abstinence—worries
about the social ramifications, but not so much that he insists on
a toned-down interpretation of the paper's results. After all, the
benefits are sweet: With the news coverage come respect and clout,
along with better chances at a tenure-track job. So, against his
better judgment, he keeps his head down and mouth shut, at least
until things start to unravel.

Economics and academe permeate the novel. Klein's prose reflects a
scholarly attention to detail; for example, he includes e-mail
correspondence from job committees and a transcript of David's
ill-fated interview on a conservative radio show. Like any good
economist, David weighs the costs and benefits of every choice,
whether it involves his paper for Cross, his dealings with the
attractive advisee, or his shirt/tie combination on the first day
of class.

So how much of Klein's book is autobiographical? "I never had any
of my work promoted by a think tank (right-wing or other), I was
never interviewed on a right-wing talk show, and I never came
close to having an affair with a student," responds the author in
an e-mail. "That said, I found it easy and fun to draw on my
quarter-century in academia to inform the novel—things like the
anxiety facing professors before the first class of the semester,
the seating patterns of students, the way professors have to
self-organize their days, and the challenges of the job market."

The author is on leave from Tufts, serving as chief economist in
the Office of International Affairs at the Treasury Department.
Although none of his characters work in government, all are to
some extent driven by politics. Their heated conflicts reflect the
country's changing climate, Klein notes.

He writes smoothly and precisely, with an undercurrent of quiet
humor. That humor is never more successful than when it takes aim
at the rituals of academe. David's explanation of scholarly
publication brings little enlightenment to his family at
Thanksgiving: "There was a collective sense of bewilderment at
this; why spend all your time writing articles that were only
reluctantly accepted for magazines that people didn't want to
read? And for a job that really didn't pay that well and kept you
in some little nebishe town?" (Later, when David modestly refers
to a mainstream article mentioning his work, his mother exclaims,
"Not a big deal? David, people in hotels all over the country read
USA Today.")

Novel-writing came naturally to Klein: "I started out college as
an English major, but after my first economics class (and a
star-crossed class on Shakespeare), I decided to put comparative
advantage to use. Then, one morning in April 2007, I woke up with
the first line of the novel in my head. I woke the next morning
with the title. That weekend, I spent Sunday afternoon working out
the plot, writing my ideas in a black-speckled notebook." Even the
timing of Klein's inspiration fell in serendipitously with his
responsibilities at Tufts: "Once the semester ended, I decided to
devote myself full time to the novel. The first draft only took
seven weeks. ... The whole process felt surprisingly similar to
writing a research paper, something I had not at all anticipated."

Perhaps Klein's overlapping roles of scholar and writer
contributed to the novel's themes as well as its plot. The lesson
of Something for Nothing is one of reason and restraint. The
book's villains are its ideological extremists: Bill Crocker, an
ex-tobacco-industry smooth talker who believes that moral
principles should trump economic ones, and Randolph Carlson, a
professor of sociology who teaches a course called "Threats to
Liberty" and likes to accuse everyone and anyone of supporting
capitalist greed. It's the diligent, truth-seeking economists we
root for, even when they blunder.

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