Poems That Help Us See the Economy


Adam Smith

Adam Smith

Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish has alerted me to a fascinating article in the January issue of Poetry entitled “Haiku Economics: Money, Metaphor, and the Invisible Hand.” In it, Professor of Economics Stephen Ziliak talks about how poetry can help illuminate the dismal science (as economics has been described). The problem with economic models, Ziliak says, is that they often fail to acknowledge the emotions that are bound up in actual economic behavior. To rectify this, Ziliak sometimes resorts to writing haikus inspired by the poet Etheridge Knight.

Ziliak notes that, while economists may think that they are describing reality when they apply economic theories that appear hard and dry, they are actually using metaphors. Percy Shelley understands this. In Defense of Poetry Shelley notes that all language has its basis in metaphor and that those great thinkers that have used metaphor to expand our minds can be considered poets. Thucydides and Plato, for instance, are poets in Shelley’s eyes. I’m not sure whether Shelley would include Adam Smith in this august company, but what is Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” if not a brilliant metaphor?

The invisible hand theory of economics, as Ziliak explains it, believes that

free trade between rational, self-interested people and nations leads—as if by an invisible hand—to higher wealth. Some take this to mean that collective attempts to steer economic outcomes (such as by giving welfare payments to the poor, or by giving financial aid to foreign nations) will naturally backfire. People are already buying low and selling high, doing their best, the invisible talking hand says privately to economists.

Unfortunately, as Shelley well understands, metaphors become stale over time so that they no longer open up our minds. The problem with the “invisible hand” model, Ziliak says, is that it is a reductive metaphor that fails to explain bubbles, crashes, and global inequality. Maybe in the long run everything sorts itself out, but as economist John Maynard Keynes famously said, “In the long run we are all dead.” In the short run, there is far more emotion involved than certain dry-eyed economists admit.

The separation of economic science from the emotions, Ziliak says, has been going on at least since the rise of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism (satirized by Charles Dickens in Hard Times) in the early 19th century. Bentham tried to root out anything that could be seen as soft, creating a crisis within social and political theorist John Stuart Mill. Ziliak reports that

eventually Bentham’s Rationale of Reward replaced Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, and science thereby justified wholesale neglect of feeling. “From this neglect both in theory and in practice of the cultivation of feeling,” Mill later concluded, “naturally resulted, among other things, an undervaluing of poetry, and of Imagination generally, as an element of human nature.” His personal psychological battle against “hedonistic utilitarianism” and his subsequent breakdown could have been averted, he said, had he valued poetry: “I was wholly blind to its place in human culture, as a means of educating the feelings.”

Haikus can bridge the gap when he is teaching economic models to his students, Ziliak says.  For instance, here is one that he wrote that captures both the concept and the emotions involved:

Invisible hand;
Mother of inflated hope,
Mistress of despair!

This is poetry doing what poetry does best: helping us see and making things fresh again.

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3 Trackbacks

  1. By Economics poems | Imperialtaco on October 25, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    […] Poems That Help Us See the EconomyJan 20, 2011 … Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish has alerted me to a fascinating article in the January issue of Poetry entitled “Haiku Economics: Money, Metaphor, … […]

  2. By Steinbeck Makes Microeconomics Real on December 7, 2011 at 6:25 am

    […] just learned about a microeconomics course that uses Steinbeck’s novel as one of its textbooks.  I wrote last January about how Stephen Ziliak of Roosevelt University-Chicago believes that literature can infuse life […]

  3. By Poetry for Manufactured Crises on October 11, 2013 at 1:15 am

    […] couple of years ago I shared some haikus by Steven Ziliak, Professor of Economics at Roosevelt University in Chicago, who uses […]


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