February 28, 2003

Would Ezra Pound Have Been a Better Poet If He Had Taken Ec 10 From Marty Feldstein?

Would Ezra Pound have been a better poet if he had taken Ec 10 from Marty Feldstein? Daniel Davies appears to answer this question with a "yes," as he turns his attention to critiquing Pound's Canto XLV for Pound's failure to include an appropriate general-equilibrium model in his stanzas.

D-squared Digest -- A fat young man without a good word for anyone: If you aren't able to charge rates of interest which compensate you for the risk you're taking, then as a lender, you're only going to do business with people familiar to you, which means that the typical working man is not going to find anyone who is prepared to lend to him. This means that the working class is denied one of the principle luxuries of the capitalist class; the ability to make decisions about the timing of purchases of goods independently of the fixed timing of the arrival of one's income. And it turns out that this is a very valuable advantage to enjoy. Usury has been very good in this regard. Pound is possibly in this passage and in the "bread made of good flour", thinking of the obvious association between predatory lending practices and poverty, but it seems to me that if he is, he has confused cause and effect here. Loan sharks seek out poor neighbourhoods; they don't create them, and the fact that extremely poor people are nevertheless prepared to pay extortionate prices for the ability to move consumption around in time just confirms what a great thing it is to have access to debt.

This is a topic I'll come back to lower down, and a genuine weakness of a lot of economic commentary, including Pound's; a fixation on "finance capital" without putting it in the context of a capitalist economy. If you believe that poor people are poor because the system exploits them, then you need to blame the system, not the particular exploiters. George Orwell saw a similar tendency in Dickens; the belief that the only thing wrong with Victorian capitalism was that some employers were cruel people, and if they only changed their hearts, happiness would be universal. Similarly, there is a tendency to believe that if you remove the loan-sharks from a slum, the slum-dwellers will be richer to the tune of their weekly interest bill, and this is poor general equilibrium analysis. If part of the cost of living in a slum is that you end up paying 10% of your wages to the money-lenders, then the wages of the slum-dwellers will reflect that; otherwise, the workers wouldn't be receiving a subsistence wage and there soon wouldn't be any workers. If you take away the loan sharks, then the most likely outcome is that the slum-dwellers get used to a life without credit, and over time, wages in the slum get bid down 10%. But as I say, this fixation on the "contra naturam" nature of money-lending as distinct from other forms of capitalist enterprise is part of a general deficiency in the economic school which Pound followed...

I agree. Perhaps the biggest true bill of indictment that can be laid at the feet of economists is that we have done such a bad job in getting our powerful vocabulary of concepts--opportunity cost, market equilibrium, general equilibrium--into the mainstream of literate discourse.

D^2 says a number of other interesting things, also worth reading, as well...

I was, however, disappointed in one thing. He seemed to be on the verge of covering the Philosophical Cage Match between Voltaire (one of those who thinks that market society make people friendlier and more sociable) and Pound (who thinks that market society makes people crabbed, passionless, and unfeeling). I'm on the side of Voltaire (most of the time). But just before the Match was about to begin D^2 appears to have tripped over the cord and cut the mike...

Posted by DeLong at February 28, 2003 08:21 AM | TrackBack


Both at the same time; it's a dialectic, innit?

Posted by: dsquared on February 28, 2003 09:29 AM

Yeah, as an economist Pound made a good poet - but then he was a helluva poet.

Posted by: derrida derider on February 28, 2003 09:28 PM

A respectful question.

Can we indeed separate the person from the poetry? Who was Ezra Pound, how should we read the poetry?

Posted by: jd on March 1, 2003 02:25 PM

Disclaimer -- this is not an attempt at anserind jd's question.

Pound was very well read, but do we know that he was well read in economics? Or that if ye picked up the books, he ever let the central message filter into his thinking? I take DD's premise, Pound as economist, as mostly for the fun of it. My impression is that Pound's views were driven largely by his preferences for the type of society he would like to live in, rather than a firm grasp of economic principles. Vast reading in the classics and church fathers taught him to oppose usury. Church fathers and who knows what else taught him to dislike Jews. His poetry suggests a fondness for an earlier time (and if that time never existed, he is still not alone).

Am I the only one who has the impression that Pound (outside the craft of poetry, where his reputation is deserved) was a man of strong opinions, not of ideas? If so, then I don't want to see a Voltaire/Pound tussle. Satisfying as it is to see your guy whip the other guy, nothing much is learned when the other guy should never have been in the ring. Pull the plug, by all means.

Posted by: K Harris on March 3, 2003 08:37 AM

Nah, Pound was really quite well-read in his economics; he happened to have fallen into the hands of a crank school in Social Credit, but he also corresponded with people like Silvio Gesell who weren't cranks. His opposition to usury wasn't purely reactionary; he certainly did believe himself to have a purely economic argument against it. It was a strange period, the 1920s ...

Posted by: dsquared on March 3, 2003 08:55 AM

How do you read his poetry? You buy, borrow or steal the books and begin reading.

Before anyone even thinks of reading Pound, he should read Wittgenstein. In fact if you read Wittgenstein, you needn't bother with Pound... except for the richness of his diction, the beauty of his imagery and the sustained, brute thrust of his imagination.

Pound, like Yeats, Joyce (and in a disguised, almost disdainful, way, Eliot, too) forced or burgled himself into Anglophone literature and smithereened the maudlin trivia of the Georgians. He,and the others, wrought greatness out of what was shrinking into a little language.

I don't give a fuck about Pound's fascism or his mad economic "ideas." What matters, forever, is his art. I thought the same when I was a Trotskyist and said so, often. Forty years on, nothing has happened to what I think about Anglophone literary genius to change my mind.

Posted by: Douglas Rome on May 29, 2003 08:18 AM
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