Poetry in archives

Poetry pops up the strangest places… Stephen Ziliak was recently in the news for inspiring Haiku Economics, and I had gotten used to enjoying Voltaire’s prose on economics, but I was not expecting to find poetry in the US Office of Price Administration’s archives from the Second World War. But there it was, the poem “On Economists” from Fred Warner Neal at Harvard to Richard V. Gilbert, apparently unpublished, but in many places so very very spot on – even today. Neal wrote Gilbert that he was “delighted that an “economists’ economist” like yourself liked it. I don’t know how well some of the boys up here appreciated it”, and I think you’ll enjoy it too.

To avoid filling up the whole blog I have cut the poem at the third stansa, but click and it will fold out in all its glory, including some nice insights into 1943 economic thinking from the heartland of U.S. Keynesianism.

On Economists, By Fred Warner Neal:

Seeking cycles small and large,
Economists are want to barge
Upon a theory, here and there,
Devoid, perhaps (at least quite bare)
Of any rhyme of cogent reason
For being, now or in any season.

With scissors they seek to analyze
Things that never never crystalyze
Into reality, and plot curves smooth
That never will be, and try to soothe
Their brows, on fire for failing
To stop the leaks by only bailing.

Does the Margin fix the cost?
Debate on this means much time lost.
Some hide logic ’neath a hedge
Claim cost fixed at, not by, the edge;
While others, splitting hairs with sabre
Base their theories all on labor.
Or maybe on the land where sat
Once the mighty Physiocrat.

Is competition rough and fistic?
Some say it is monopolisic.
Is there a thing called monopoly?
Or is all this speaking sloppily?
Is the real thing oligopoly?
Are these things bad, or are they good?
They seldom say, although they should.
They study problems in their lairs.
But answers are slight cares of theirs.

Mayhap they see in thrifty souls
A course of economic shoals
Which stand to batter or to wreck
The capitalistic system’s deck.
And so they straddle on the horn,
Twixt logic and assumption torn,
Twisting, trying to get loose,
And failing, cause they’re too obtuse.

The interest rate! Now that’s the thing!
(Unless they fear the Marxist sting,
In which case it matters not
Where capital is, or what.)
If interest’s what you save for,
With lower rates will you save more,
Or less? Because of a presumption
That it might increase consumption?
In a scope of such immensity,
What becomes of the propensity?
Questions like these, of course, are banes
Of Men who walk with (J.M.) Keynes.

Inflation is their current worry,
Though most remain a trifle blurry
About whether it’s really here
Or just a thing we all should fear.
Forced savings, anyway, will stop
Rising prices and the crop
Of bourses black, unless from banks
We beg the funds to build our tanks

A spending program, that’s the need!
Sow investment like a seed!
The multiplier does the rest,
If the theory’s at its best.
Of deficits? They matter not!
A balanced budget’s not so hot,
Cause our economy’s mature.
No frontiers remain to lure
Marginal dollars to invest.
Our capitalists are all at rest.

Of post war plans there is no end.
To Europe, China we must lend
Our surplus wealth and capital saved
Until the markets here are shaved
So thin that business, for dollars,
Will send up a roar of hollers
That will make our system buoyed
And put an end to unemployed?

Suppose their work is unproductive?
The theory is, at least, seductive
Enough to bring before its feet
Most of the economic elite,
To tell in words so bright and cheery
The meaning real of “General Theory.”

There’s only one thing left to say.
When Keynesian “ec” has had its day–
Like Marshall, Robertson and Mill—
What theories next loom o’er the hill
From those who seek their relaxations
Improving on “The Wealth of Nations?”

From the FDR memorial Library Archives, Poughkepsie, NY, USA: Richard V. Gilberts Papers, Box 11: Folder: N General. Dated 16 January 1943.

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