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The Poets’ Guide to Economics review: elegance, eccentricity and insights

Paschal Donohoe on a beautiful analysis of literary efforts to influence economic thinking

The Poets’ Guide to Economics
Author: John Ramsden
ISBN-13: 978-1843682219
Publisher: Pallas Athene
Guideline Price: £12.99

Jonathan Swift proposed that Irish babies be eaten in a satirical attempt to convince an indifferent England of the case for the economic development of Ireland.

The poetic endeavours of Samuel Taylor Coleridge overshadowed his wonderfully titled book, Vulgar Errors Respecting Taxes and Taxation. Published during the Napoleonic wars, he advocated for public debt to be used as a source of credit to support commercial activity.

Ezra Pound, the modernist poet, is also the author of the ABC of Economics. He tried to explain why capitalist economies do not generate enough demand to absorb what they produce. Pound asked “There are enough goods, there is superabundant capacity to produce goods in superabundance. Why should anyone starve?”.

These are just a sample of the economic theories in the delightful The Poets’ Guide to Economics. John Ramsden, in the introduction to this collection of essays, argues that the industrial revolution caused such seismic change that poets “began to engage more seriously with the world of money and to offer their own thoughts on political economy”.

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The author also recognises the onset of the Great Depression and the resulting reimagining of the economic role of the state as another moment of creative engagement. Poets “knew that economics was philosophically flawed. It rested on a narrow, transactional view of human behaviour, at odds with real life”.

This is a beautiful analysis of literary efforts to influence economic thinking. A common theme is the role of money and the functioning of banking systems. Shelley was critical of paper money and advocated for the abolition of national debt. Walter Scott advocated for banks better able to serve the Scottish economy.

The essays would benefit from a little bit more analysis and little less quotation. The economic context is mostly focused on events and theories of the last century. There is little recognition of the change in economies and economic theory that began later, let alone in the time of Covid.

Such observations are minor in a work that is a labour of love and learning. Each essay is a mixture of elegance, the odd dash of eccentricity and insights that are frequently prescient. There is much in this book that would enrich any Budget Day speech!

Paschal Donohoe is the Minister for Finance and president of the Eurogroup

Paschal Donohoe

Paschal Donohoe

Paschal Donohoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a Fine Gael TD and Minister for Finance