Haiku Economics

Money, metaphor, and the invisible hand.

by Stephen T. Ziliak

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 relate to abstract mathematical theorists—colleagues I openly criticize—with “Gourmet a la Mode”:

It’s not quite 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 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.”

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 a shrapnel wound,” he says, “and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from 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 variables. 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 economists. And the economy itself, here in the now, in 2011? Mother of inflated hope. Mistress of despair.

Originally Published: January 3, 2011


On January 3, 2011 at 7:03pm Brian wrote:
This is an excellent paradigm for thinking
about economics. I love it!

On January 12, 2011 at 7:52am Beth Lewis Samuelson wrote:
I suggest this book: Watts, Michael. (Ed.). The Literary Book of Economics. A collection of excerpts from fiction and drama dealing with the economics of life.

"And there is no subject that does not belong to the Poet; manufacturers and stock brokerage, as much as sunsets and souls; only the things placed in their true order are poetry; but displaced, or put in kitchen-order, they are unpoetic." ~Emerson

On January 12, 2011 at 10:40am dp wrote:
Poor transfer wealth to the rich
Working as designed

On January 12, 2011 at 6:42pm C B Borde wrote:
No. The real culprit:
Government intervention
slips away scot free.

On January 12, 2011 at 8:40pm Bradford Tuckfield wrote:
Saying that a bad recession demolishes the idea of the invisible hand is going a little far. Recessions are inevitable parts of the economic cycle and people have been been wealthier in the last ten years or so than at any other time in history. And I don't think that economic theory entirely rests on the fictional notion of the invisible hand, I think that the invisible hand is a pedagogical device that helps to intuitively understand the growth of wealth as backed up by a significant body of econometric theory which does not overtly rest on the idea of the invisible hand.

On January 13, 2011 at 4:02pm greg wrote:

no they havent its a damn lie (or at least misconception) that people in the last 10 years have been wealthier than ever. in real terms wages have fallen (in the Uk at the very least and in most developed nations i believe) and the inequality gap has widened. you are confusing the cheap availability of consumer and tech goods with wealth the invisible hand has never worked because its not there. it is simply a delusion and an irrational belief (particularly as even in concept it relies on a rationality which does not exist in people en mass) neo-liberal capitalism will always favor the rich, those with less money have less economic and social power. its a form of capitalism peddles false notions of fairness deriving from markets etc while in reality the money simply flows up and doesnt come back down, its not redistributed out

On January 13, 2011 at 10:18pm Mer wrote:
Professor Ziliak, thank you for speaking of
metaphor in the context of economic
science. Your effort points to the necessary
shift that we must make, away from the
cultish belief in the inherent value of
money, and back to the study of
economics as a branch of physical science,
as founded by Gotfried Leibniz. We create
our economy after all; why, then, must we
submit to becoming a slave of it?

On January 14, 2011 at 4:02pm Philip Thrift wrote:
The GOP's job?
Keep the money flowing up
To the Richie Rich

On January 16, 2011 at 6:58am Stephen Cahaly wrote:
Haiku is about spirit, not brevity, certainly not about economy. A Japanese sense of spirit would see that the first "haiku" is not even a poem, and "listening to glass" is a bit laughable. "To glass" is redundant, a good example of excess Basho had once been at such pains to avoid.

On January 19, 2011 at 10:42pm David Solie wrote:
Currency talk-
The counting never ending,
Always wishing for more.

On January 25, 2011 at 11:26pm Steve Grube wrote:
Reaching for yield
Grasp and shake with the devil
What kind of deal

On January 25, 2011 at 11:44pm Steve Grube wrote:
Frozen pork bellies,
Do I go short the deferred?
I skate on thin ice.

On January 31, 2011 at 12:09am Ian Tang wrote:
Who cares any more?
Finance will end in horror....
Absolutely mad.

On February 7, 2011 at 12:35am Troy Camplin wrote:
Great stuff here. Some of us have already been investigating the connections between literature and economics:

On October 21, 2011 at 5:20pm Ashley LaCour wrote:
I found this article very interesting the way the author talks about economics and poetry as if they go hand in hand. Most people would think how does economics have anything to do with poetry? I like that the author uses poetry to teach economics and that alone can make economics itself more interesting and perhaps easier to learn about. I agree that poetry is a way of teaching feelings. I also agree with that people's figure of speech come from where they live. For instance my grandmother grew up on a farm and a lot of her metaphors relate to farm life. I never realized this until I read the article.

On October 21, 2011 at 6:04pm Germaine Hunter wrote:
Who would've thunk it, the idea that Economics and poetry could ever be
correlated!!! Aaahhh i really enjoyed this. I love poetry and every
economics class i've ever taken i actually enjoyed it, so to see the two
put together so well done, kudos to you. I think looking at economics
through poetry might make it easier to learn and more enjoyable for

On October 23, 2011 at 8:00pm Tom Triumph wrote:
A wonderful article. Thank you for insisting on poetry being about all facets of life.

As to the free-market debate, from Adam Smith on, there has been an assumption of transparency and honesty so that consumers can make intelligent decisions. Much of the analysis of the fall has revealed covert transactions, deals loaded with conflicting interests, and a dash of immoral dealings. An economy ruled by thieves protected by the "buyer beware" mantra cannot thrive.

Simple regulation regarding transparency and equal playing fields is one solution, coupled with clearing much of the cumbersome regulatory tape away. I don't want to be a consumer or producer in today's economy, which is not where we want to be.

On December 7, 2011 at 3:52am Madeleine Begun Kane wrote:
What a wonderfully insightful article!

“People want change,”
claim presidential candidates.
I’d prefer twenties.

Begun Kane

On December 27, 2011 at 9:12pm Paul Ziliak wrote:
charting supply and
demand is only one way
to understand trade

On March 13, 2012 at 9:02pm Lisa L. wrote:
In this article, Stephen T. Ziliak explains how poetry is connected to economics. He “thought about the inability of standard economic models to explain bubbles, crashes, and global inequality—and how market fundamentalists refuse to discuss them” ( As an economist professor he needed to figure out how to teach economics in a way where there is reason and emotion applied to it. This is where poetry came into play. With poetry applied to economics, it gave voice where we the people make up the economy and our voices and opinions matter to how we want to shape our world. Not where we are controlled by corporations. With this profound insight of professor Ziliak, it has also helped me open my mind more. Yes were aware of how poetry can connect to everything, but that is the general term. When we go more in depth we can see how poetry combined with the subjects taught in school can go a long way, especially in deeply educating the young minds who are going to make up how the future will be. I believe that in many subjects, students feel a gap between what they are learning at times and why it should even matter to them. And for what this professor saw (the gap) he wanted to seal that gap and make a connection. It is this connection and poetry that binds reality and our feelings together making it important to how we live our lives.

On March 14, 2012 at 6:14pm Dennis Hong wrote:
The article Haiku Economics, by Stephen T. Ziliak who is
an economist states/describes the
relationship/connection between poetry and economics in
terms of emotion and discovery of metaphor. According to
the author, “A model is a metaphor.” (page 1) I think
the meaning of “Model” here is all the variables that
are directly related or linked to economics. It is
interesting fact that the variables/model could be or
being one type of a metaphor in context of economic.
According to the article, it says “Not many economist
understand that.” (page 1) Indeed, I never thought that
the poetry in some way could have a connection to
economic. Professor Ziliak argues that “Poetry can fill
the gap between reason and emotion, adding feelings to
economics.” (page 1) It was little too vague to
understand its meaning at the first time. How is it
possible for the poetry to fill the gap between reason
and emotion to economics? I think the “Reason” in this
case is the potential variables that control/cause the
real-time economy that has huge impact on people in the
meaning of “living.” Obviously, people will have a
reason either to accept in terms of answering or doubt
in terms of asking. Consequently, “Feelings” in this
case is our attitude toward the economic, moreover
toward a better life because everyone seek for a better
life. Professor Ziliak says “Each poem is the length of
about one human breath.” (page 1) I agree with his
statement because if economic is to be
describes/represented as some sort of untouchable thing,
poetry, on the other hand could be described/represented
as something that is touchable. What I mean by this is
simple. It is depressing but very bona fide reality that
there are always a limited organizations, institutions,
corporations or people that have actual influences on
economy in terms of shaping it or to improve it. Because
the voices or opinions of nearly whole general public
are often uninfluential or ignored, (not mattered) I
think the economic is something that is not easily
shapeable or touchable by ordinary people. However, the
poetry, on the other hand easily conveys the actual,
real-time vibe to the public of individual’s voices or
opinions which everyone can play a part. Although the
above mentioned statements may not seem persuasive
enough, the professor Ziliak have noticed the realistic
gap. Therefore, he made the haiku-economic connection to
teach for a better understanding while avoiding the
fixed thoughts that nearly everyone has. “Metaphors are
alive,” (page 2) says Professor Ziliak. Indeed,
metaphors are everywhere and formed into many shapes to
be touched. Each person has a different metaphor and I
think it is very important how we essentially connect it
to real life for living. To sum up, it is very important
to realize about the idea that economic and poetry are
correlated and matters. By reading this article, I’ve
had an opportunity to open my fixed idea wider.

On October 19, 2012 at 6:02pm Eleni wrote:
In this article, Ziliak discusses the unthinkable correlation between
poetry, specifically haikus, and the economy. He described his
realization of the connection whilst teaching a college level economy
course. It is certainly true that the economy and poetry are seemingly
not connected. However, Ziliak craftily explains how haikus, with this
simplicity and small words, created a connection to the language of
economics and bridges a gap between students who are taught to think
creatively and the economics students who are taught that creativity is
unimportant in a money-oriented field.

On March 19, 2013 at 2:50pm McKenzie H wrote:
The article that Stephen Ziliak wrote, Haiku Econmics is able to use
literature to inspire his economics students as a way to connect to real
life insights. The article is a great example also of how both economics
and poetry connect, while being able to keep them both seperated to
their own fields. Further into the article, the reader is able to hear a
relation to Plato and the love he had for Science, Art, and Life. The article
says, "... There was a seperation between reason and emotion," and I
think that within that phrase it is important to know reality for what it is
worth and dig to find something meaningful to ourselves, similar to how
poetry was for Knight.

On March 19, 2013 at 9:28pm vbetkhen wrote:
There is a lot of information that Ziliak throws to the reader in a short
article. I believe that Stephen is trying to engage different kind of
people into discussion about economics. He is trying to persuade
everyone to follow and express opinions about current state of
economy. It is clear that Ziliak is upset with how economy is driven
mostly by scientists. I got an impression that he is trying to emphasize
that economy is driven by people and not the law of supply and
demand. I suspect that Ziliak is trying to connect people and clear the
boundaries and prejudice. In my opinion, Stephen is missing a little bit
of explicit context and some text is written in abstract form. Exposing
clear context will help to connect with more people on the subject of
economy. He truly believes that our economy is in the state of distress
and I tend to agree with his view.

On March 20, 2013 at 11:08pm Peggie F wrote:
I enjoy haikus. I feel like the few words that are used
can go in great depth. Writing a haiku can be quite
complex and take a lot of intrinsic thinking to perfect
what you are trying to say in just a few words. Handling
values and money can also cause for intrinsic thinking,
however, I never thought to see the two going hand in
hand. The use of metaphors in this article has really
opened my eyes to look at the different terms in which
poetry can be applied to. I always thought of poetry as
strictly emotion. A haiku is a perfect example of how
you must work with what you have, keep structure and
maintain efficiency, much like with handling economics.

On March 21, 2013 at 12:37pm Jason Olson wrote:
I found this article the most interesting of the choices
mostly because I started the semester posting my
feelings on poetry being able to exist in the in between
of reason and emotion as the article states. I did not
say it quite that way but I was driving at a similar
point. I find it particularly interesting that this was
written by an economist. Often these people tend to be
like the students he talks about when he says they are
trained to believe that poetry and feeling are not
important to the world bank. It seems to me that most of
the time students choose between studying the more
emotional humanities or the more analytic sciences. I
thought it was very interesting and refreshing that
Ziliak has made an attempt to blend the two.

On October 28, 2013 at 6:44pm Mellody Reyes wrote:
The article Haiku Economics was a great way to show depth and
emotion between the two worlds of poetry and economics. Stephen
Ziliak did an amazing job finding the correlation between the two.
When Ziliak stated, “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”, it showed the connection of poetry to
economics that was made. This also shows how universal poetry can
be! No matter who you are or what you do, there will always be a
poem that you can connect to.

On October 28, 2013 at 8:24pm Tracy Cousins wrote:
It is a different way to look at the economy. It can help someone understand the economy by using simple, yet well organized words. Poetry can be used to express deeper thoughts and can get your point across easier. The metaphors used in your haikus do turn your thoughts into real life situations. Teachers always try to find an interesting way to help get their class connected to their class work. Your haikus make people think more outside the box and are very interesting as well.

On October 29, 2013 at 8:31pm James Furman wrote:
This is a whole different experience to view poetry and
how powerful it is. Fitting poetry into economics is a
great way to get people to learn the economy better. I
believe it keeps the audience or student alert and
curious. Some may not understand the poem or Haiku at
first, so they try to dig in and get its reasoning. When
you dig into questions, you are more likely to remember
the answer. How we live shows how we will speak.
Speaking economics through poetry gives a better
understanding. Gives you feeling and emotions to connect
with reasoning. Stephen Ziliak did a great job finding
the connection between reasoning and feelings. Sometimes
you need to feel something to understand it.

On October 30, 2013 at 4:44pm Migs wrote:
This is a wonderful article to express economics in a
way that people can relate to. More than relating, it
makes people more interested in what is being said.
Also, I like how he makes economics have an emotional
aspect to it. Metaphors can make any subject more
interesting. In the article, he mentioned that people’s
figure of speech come from where they live. I agree with
this statement. It is much easier to teach people if it
is related to where they live. I agree with him that
poetry is not just writing, but really of all aspects of

On October 30, 2013 at 5:27pm Alex wrote:
Reading this article I was struck by Basho's haiku.
Window reflection-
The baby sparrow sitting,
Listening to glass
It is an excellent metaphor or model for our belief that we, "the baby
sparrow," understand economics and the world in general when in
reality we are only seeing a small distorted view of it the "window
reflection." And that we are being silly listening to, “the glass,"
economists -market fundamentalists- who believe they understand
the world and the economic market and yet still believe in an "invisible
hand" and won't discuss the things they don't understand: bubbles,
crashes, global inequality, and so much more of the world. I pity the
baby sparrow and wonder when it will start to fly and see the world as
it truly is.

On October 30, 2013 at 7:49pm Joseph Medina wrote:
This seemingly contrary pulls of emotion and reason is a relationship
that often preoccupies my thoughts. On the one hand the power of
reason makes things clear, and frees one from the misery and
misdirection of falsehood. On the other hand, what value does truth
have in relation to life if it does not further it and make it richer! What do
I care whether the earth orbits the sun or the other way around if both
kill the gods that I used to worship in them, that made life full. Poetry
bridges the gap between the world we see and the world we feel, by
using language not surgically, like economics, which ends up leaving out
of it all the beauty and subtlety of life, but artfully, to capture the way
life feels. It is about communicating with language the things which
reason can’t capture.

On October 30, 2013 at 9:39pm Brandon Durr wrote:
When I was taking A.P. Economics in high school, my teacher would make economic concepts easier to understand through poetry. She would first deliver the principals to us in the “economic” format, then she would give us a corny rhyme – she probably wasn’t that well versed in poetic genres to write a haiku – that would help us internalize and create parallels between the concepts and real life topics. Economic principles are very direct and calculated; while poems are more expressive and when she gave us economic principles via poetry, I could understand the concepts better because it made more sense. I could remember both the rhyme scheme and the emotions and meaning of the poem more so than the cold calculated theories of econ.

On November 15, 2013 at 3:30pm N Anderson wrote:
This was a very interesting article and it in intrigued me with a deeper
insight in regards to life in general. I truly believe that metaphors can
speak to someone because it makes whatever your discussing relevant
to anyone. I related most to the fish analogy and most importantly “the
invisible hand.” Somehow and someway everything is linked together. I
didn’t understand how poetry could be related to economics, and even
metaphors; I guess once you truly think about things and put everything
in its respective perspective things will always have a meaning with a
even more detailed meaning. The writer displayed massive creativity
and helped grasp what he was trying to convey. I am beginning to look
at life a little differently.

On March 18, 2014 at 11:46am Edward Lavaire wrote:
I found this article the most remarkable to read due to that is written
by an economist. It was a different way to look at poetry that I’ve
never though before. Stephen Ziliak mentions, “Poetry can fill the gap
between reason and emotion, adding feelings to economist,” that’s a
deeper insight of what poetry is and how it relates to economy and
life in general. We live in a society where many of us don’t know
about the economy and seeing poetry in a different perspective can
help us understand it more. Ziliak stated that Knight says, “Generally
speaking, a people’s metaphors and figures of speech will come out
of their basic economy,” this is true if you think about it and dig
deeper into metaphors used by anyone it connects to how they lived. I
feel that Ziliak opinion that poetry and economics go hand in hand
counts not only because he states he loves poetry but also because
he himself is an economist. This article made me realize that just like
Ziliak dig to find something meaningful to poetry we should too,
poetry not only can add feelings to economist but anyone in general.

On March 19, 2014 at 8:48pm L. Traylor wrote:
I thought it was amazing how I started reading this with
my eyes wide shut. I had no personal understanding of
which way he was going with his proposition of economy.
He wanted people to understand that poetry is apart of
everything. The more I read the more my wide shut eyes
began to open. Stephen Ziliak said that, “Poetry can
fill the gap between reason and emotion, adding feelings
to economist.” I took that as saying poetry can be used
as a filler. I had a spoken word poet recite something
that gave me a different angle to look at a situation. I
can now say that a poem filled me in on understanding.
That means that an economist statement on poetry held
true. I had to laugh when he used the environment as a
metaphor as to how to relate poetry to the economy. I
saw a movie where a guy was a sports commentator and
related everything to sports. The funny part was people
who did not watch sports did not have the slightest clue
what he meant. My wide shut eyes are now fully open.

On March 19, 2014 at 8:53pm L. Traylor wrote:
I thought it was amazing how I started reading this with
my eyes wide shut. I had no personal understanding of
which way he was going with his proposition of economy.
He wanted people to understand that poetry is apart of
everything. The more I read the more my wide shut eyes
began to open. Stephen Ziliak said that, “Poetry can
fill the gap between reason and emotion, adding feelings
to economist.” I took that as saying poetry can be used
as a filler. I had a spoken word poet recite something
that gave me a different angle to look at a situation. I
can now say that a poem filled me in on understanding.
That means that an economist statement on poetry held
true. I had to laugh when he used the environment as a
metaphor as to how to relate poetry to the economy. I
saw a movie where a guy was a sports commentator and
related everything to sports. The funny part was people
who did not watch sports did not have the slightest clue
what he meant. My wide shut eyes are now fully open.

On March 20, 2014 at 12:07am Tone S. wrote:
I feel the author is right, in today’s economy/form of
economic that is taught people are not taught to feel
the economy. I think we have to ask ourselves at least
once is the invisible hand actually real, or invisible?
Because everything is of self- interest, people as well
as objects are up for sell. The Rich get richer and the
poor remain poor. Simply because everything is self-
driven we are taught to remove any sense of feeling and
emotion for the state of the other. This does not
holistically benefit an economy; it temporarily feeds
that which it is taught to want. We are taught the
notion, I think therefore I am, but we neglect the
notion that I feel therefore I am free. As the author
states, separating reason and emotion, like separating
economics and poetry diminishes the people. It is the
people who make the economy.

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This prose originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

January 2011


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Stephen T. Ziliak is a trustee and professor of economics at the Roosevelt University. His most recent book is The Cult of Statistical Significance (University of Michigan Press, 2008).

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