Money, metaphor, and the invisible hand

I’m an economist. Yet poetry is my first stop on the way to invention—discovery of metaphors. No matter the audience, a model is a metaphor. Not every economist understands that. Poetry can fill the gap between reason and emotion, adding feelings to economics. For example, Horace helps me relation to abstract mathematical theorists—colleagues I openly criticize—with “Gourmet a la Mode”:

It’s not enough… to sweep up the fish
From the most expensive fish stalls if you don’t know which
Go better with sauce and which, when served up broiled,
Will make your jaded guest sit up and take notice.

I was teaching economics at the Georgia Institute of Technology when I made the haiku-economics connection. I needed to connect with 225 economics, science, and engineering majors—college kids who were being trained to believe that poetry and feelings are not important to, say, the World Bank. At the same time I was reading The Essential Etheridge Knight and falling in love with haiku. I thought about the inability of standard economic models to explain bubbles, crashes, and global inequality—and how market fundamentalists refuse to discuss them. I saw the bridge I needed in this poem:

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

Adam Smith, indeed. Perhaps it’s the economists who can learn the most from poets about precision and efficiency, about objectivity and maximization—the virtues, in other words, of value-free science.

Ironically, the benefit of the addition is in the cost. The typical haiku budget constraint is limited by three lines of seventeen syllables. Basho himself understood well the joyful paradox of haiku economics: less is more, and more is better! Each poem is the length of about one human breath. This constraint, though severe, is more than offset by a boundless freedom to feel:

Window reflection—
The baby sparrow sitting,
Listening to glass.

In his heartbreaking, Autobiography, John Stuart Mill wrote about his inability to “feel” the economy. “I was in a dull state of nerves,” Mill said. The great philosopher had been force-fed Jeremy Bentham’s cost-benefit morality—so much so that the boy-genius was dubbed “master” of political economy by age thirteen. At twenty he suffered a nervous breakdown, described at length in the same book. Passions and reason were systematically taught and cultivated by economists during the second half of the eighteenth century. But eventually Bentham’s Rational 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 nature, as a means of educating the feelings.”

Nearly two centuries later, how’s the old cultivation-of-feelings-and-imagination-in-economics project coming along? A snail’s pace. “If you were to trace the separation of art from life historically,” says the poet Etheridge Knight in an interview, “you would trace it back to the Greeks when Plato and others made the ‘head thing’ the ideal… There was a separation between reason and emotion.” Like Mill, Knight speaks from experience. Until he found poetry, “separation” was Knight’s reality, too. “I died in Korea from shrapnel wound,” he says, “and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 fro a prison sentence, and poetry brought me back to life.”

Plato’s separation of art and life isn’t science, you understand. Science favors Mill’s, Knight’s, and my belief that reason and emotion, speaking and feeling, are physically correlated variable. Speaking and feeling, like teaching and listening, are physical acts, governed by physical laws. “If it’s true that as I’m talking to you bones are moving in your inner ears,” Knight says, I’m physically touching you with my voice. Images, sounds, and feelings are thus the original producers of I-to-We and cannot be separated. We cannot be separated. Yet in positive economics, it’s all “value-free science.”

“Generally speaking, a people’s metaphors and figures of speech will come out of their basic economy,” Knight continues:

If somebody lives near the ocean and they fish, their language will be full of those metaphors. If people are farmers, they will use that kind of figure of speech. Metaphors are alive. When they come into being, they are informed by the politics and the sociology and the economy of now. That’s how language is.

That’s how economic language is, too, but with a surprising difference. And this is where poets can help to fix the economy. It turns out that economic theory is overly dependent on fictional devices, whereas poetry, as Knight shows, trucks in the real.

Consider again the dominant metaphor of market economics: Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” Proponents of the invisible hand theory claim 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 economics. And the economy itself, here in the now, in 2011? Mother of inflated hope. Mistress of despair.

— © Poetry Magazine, January 3rd, 2011, by Stephan T. Ziliak, professor of economics at the Roosevelt University