Rudyard Kipling As Macroeconomic Commentator

In a random article I read on investing the author cited (in defense of commonsense finance versus novel economic flimflam) the following passage by Rudyard Kipling:

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins

When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,

As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,

The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

I was vaguely familiar with Kipling as an author of children’s stories like The Jungle Book and for writing poems celebrating British imperialism, but this seemed like some sort of macroeconomic commentary. “All men are paid for existing” sounds very much like Universal Basic Income, and “no man must pay for his sins” is consistent with a culture of blame-shifting. I was not aware of Kipling-as-economist, so I looked up the reference here.

This verse is the closing stanza of Kipling’s “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”. He penned this in 1919, as an expression of concern over trends in post-WWI Anglo-European society. “Copybook Headings” were maxims which appeared at the top of schoolchildrens’ copybooks in nineteenth-century Britain and America; the pupils would learn penmanship, vocabulary, spelling, and hopefully socially-useful values by copying these sayings over and over down the page. These maxims were based on traditional morals or on Bible sayings, like “A stitch in time saves nine” or “If a man will not work, let him not eat”.

I found that other investing advisers, such as John Bogle, also cited this poem in support of value-oriented financial strategies and claimed that it “beautifully captur[ed] the thinking of Schumpeter and Keynes”. Kipling felt that the old time-tested values were being replaced by trendy, flashy fads, but society would come to grief by rejecting the old common-sense virtues.  Eventually the “Gods of the [innovative] Market” would tumble, their “smooth-tongued wizards” would be silenced, and the public would realize that it is still the case that “Two and Two make Four.”

Without further ado, here is the complete poem:

The Gods of the Copybook Headings

AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,

I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.

Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,

And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

~

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn

That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:

But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,

So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

~

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,

Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,

But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come

That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

~

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,

They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;

They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;

So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

~

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.

They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.

But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,

And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

~

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life

(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)

Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,

And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “The Wages of Sin is Death.”

~

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,

By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;

But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,

And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”

~

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew

And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true

That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four

And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

~

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man

There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.

That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,

And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

~

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins

When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,

As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,

The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Commentary:

This poem made little sense to me until I read some commentary by the Kipling Society. I’ll reproduce just a few excerpts here. Everything below is taken verbatim from that commentary except a couple of my side comments in square brackets:

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Against the fundamental, unchanging values of life – the “Copybook Headings” which a child was expected to imbibe while learning to write – Kipling sets the transient, fashionable “Gods of the Market-Place”, which can be taken to refer to both trendy attitudes and the public figures associated with them.

Kipling argues that throughout the ages mankind has always been jostled between wisdom and foolishness. The references to past periods of time appear to reinforce the air of an historical survey, but the geological terms are fake, and Kipling’s concern is not with the past, but with post-war Britain. In the final two stanzas of the poem, the knockabout satire is replaced by a sterner prophetic tone:

As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Notes on the text
[Verse 2]

living in trees Kipling starts his story with the first human ancestors.

Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind the capitals emphasize the trendy empty terms used by the Gods of the Market-Place [as evolving human society tries to transcend the elementary facts of nature such as water wets and fire burns, which even the gorillas honor].

[Verse 3]

word would come That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield When the Gods of the Copybook Headings are ignored, retribution follows, whether among savage tribes or in the heart of civilisation

[Verse 4]

Wishes were Horses ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride’ and a Pig had Wings ‘If a pig had wings it would fly’. Both these traditional sayings pour scorn on wishful thinking.

[Verse 5]

Cambrian a real geological period. Here, as Keating points out, it stands for the Welshman Lloyd George, who was Prime-Minister for much of the Great War. (Cambria is the Latin name for Wales). Lloyd George was the chief British negotiator for the Treaty of Versailes in 1919 which officially ended the War. This disarmed Germany but pledged all the Great Powers to disarm themselves progressively. Kipling strongly disapproved of Lloyd George, the Liberals, and the Treaty.

‘Stick to the Devil you know.’ The usual form of this saying is ‘better the Devil you know than the one you don’t.’ Here it means that being prepared for war is better than being disarmed and defenceless.

[Verse 6]

Feminian a made-up term which sounds suitably geological. It refers to the emancipation of women, a lively issue at the time [and perhaps to the new morality which increasingly separated sexual activity from committed marriage; the result being a decrease in child-bearing and an increase in infidelity].

‘The Wages of Sin is Death.’ See Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 6,23.

[Verse 7]

Carboniferous Another genuine geological period, in which coal measures were formed. Here it stands for the increasing power of trade unions, particularly the coal-miners.

robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul ‘Robbing Peter to pay Paul’ is a traditional phrase, usually meaning borrowing money to pay off debt. Here it means taxing the productive part of the population to support the idle. [This is a live issue in 2021…]

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