Teach a Parrot to Say ‘Supply and Demand’ and You Have an Economist

Thomas Carlyle? Irving Fisher? Joseph Schumpeter? Anonymous?

carlyle02Dear Quote Investigator: There is a humorous saying about parrots and economists that is often attributed to the philosopher and satirist Thomas Carlyle. Sometimes the joke is simply ascribed to Anonymous. Here are three versions:

1: Teach a parrot the terms ‘supply and demand’ and you’ve got an economist.
2: It’s easy to train economists. Just teach a parrot to say ‘Supply and Demand’.
3: You can make even a parrot into a learned political economist. All he must learn are the two words ‘supply’ and ‘demand’.

I have not seen any precise references supporting the linkage to Thomas Carlyle. Would you be willing to attempt to trace this comical barb?

Quote Investigator: In the 1800s the words ‘supply and demand’ were sometimes derided as “parrot words”. In addition, disapproving terms such as “parrot-like” and “parrot-cries” were used in critiques aimed at economic analyses invoking “supply and demand”. In 1897 an individual using the phrase “supply and demand” was said to be acting “like a trained parrot”.

In 1907 the prominent Yale economist Irving Fisher included a version of the parrot joke in a book about interest rates. Fisher did not claim credit for the jibe, and he left the attribution anonymous. In 1931 an author used the following statement to present a tentative ascription for the parrot jest: “It was probably Thomas Carlyle’s none too gentle pen”. That was the earliest connection to Carlyle located by QI. Since Carlyle died in 1881 this late attribution provided very weak evidence.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

In 1850 a book reviewer in the “Cooper’s Journal” referred to the phrase ‘supply and demand’ as parrot words. This figurative language may have facilitated the later conception of the joke: 1

Both he and Mr. Emery contend that the parrot words, (for they have become such,) ‘Supply and Demand,’ do not solve this question of the Regulation of Wages, without some modification—especially that arising from the intelligence and dispositions, both of employers and employed.

In 1886 “The Story of Manual Labor In All Lands and Ages” was published, and it included a chapter written by T. V. Powderly who was a Grand Master Workman in the Knights of Labor. Powderly used the dismissive term “parrot-like” when discussing the economic analysis offered by a generic business man: 2

Ask the business man what the cause of the depression is, and he, parrot-like, will say, “It is all regulated by the law of supply and demand.” A moment’s reflection would show him that the law of supply and demand, like all other laws, is open to different constructions.

In 1893 a writer in “The Magazine of Art” claimed that “fine art” did not fit into a simple category of available goods. A demand for fine art might not lead to its creation: 3

But let him not think that by demanding fine art he will get it, or has any right to expect it. The “law of supply and demand,” in its application to genius, is as vain and false as most other parrot-cries, and no amount of calling upon Art to stand and deliver will make her yield up her secret or capitulate her charms.

In 1897 a book reviewer harshly criticized the author of a work by calling him an amateur and comparing him to a parrot: 4

He treats the question of cost of production like an amateur, and repeats the stock assertions on supply and demand like a trained parrot.

In 1907 Irving Fisher, a well-known economist at Yale University, published “The Rate of Interest: Its Nature, Determination and Relation to Economic Phenomena”. He presented a version of the humorous remark comparing economists to parrots, but he did not identify the originator of the joke. This is the earliest instance located by QI: 5

It was once wittily remarked of the early writers on economic problems, “Catch a parrot and teach him to say ‘supply and demand,’ and you have an excellent economist.” Prices, wages, rent, interest, and profits were thought to be fully “explained” by this glib phrase.

In 1910 Irving Fisher helped to further popularize the parrot jest by including an amplified version in his textbook titled “Introduction to Economic Science”. Fisher asserted that the joke was crafted “a long time ago”, but he did not present a citation: 6

A long time ago, when economics consisted rather of glib phrases than of real analyses, a critic of the science said, “If you want to make a first-class economist, catch a parrot and teach him to say ‘supply and demand’ in response to every question you ask him. What determines wages? Supply and demand. What determines interest? Supply and demand. What determines the distribution of wealth? Supply and demand.” In every instance the answer is right, but it explains nothing.

In 1928 the book “The Road to Plenty” by William Trufant Foster and Waddill Catchings contained an instance of the remark. The creator was unidentified: 7

I must say, however, that you use the terms “supply” and “demand” so vaguely that I am never sure exactly what you mean. Some one said the other day, “Teach a parrot to say ‘supply and demand’ and you have made a business man.”

In 1931 “The Masquerade of Monopoly” by Frank Albert Fetter was published, and the author’s criticism of contemporary large companies such as the United States Steel Corporation was caustic. A chapter of the book was called “Teach a Parrot”, and it included the first attribution of the jest to Thomas Carlyle found by QI. Note that the author expressed considerable uncertainty: 8

It was probably Thomas Carlyle’s none too gentle pen that first wrote: Teach a parrot to say supply and demand, and you have made a political economist. Any suspicion that Carlyle may have meant to refer to the spokesmen of the United States Steel Corporation is of course dispelled when one recalls that these words were penned some three quarters of a century before they began to display their fondness for the mystic phrase.

Fetter returned to the theme of the joke at the end of the chapter called “Teach a Parrot”:

In the interests of truth, therefore, Carlyle’s epigram must be amended. Neither a parrot nor a trust magnate, by merely repeating the phrase “the law of supply and demand,” becomes truly a political economist. The one is still just a parrot; the other is a great captain of industry parroting phrases to befool the public and the guardians of the law in the interest of his corporation’s treasury.

In 1933 William Trufant Foster constructed an elaborate variant of the joke, and it was printed in “The Rotarian”: 9

Teach a parrot to say “avoid inflation, do nothing artificial, preserve sound money, practice economy, balance the budget, and abide by natural law,” and you have created another Wizard of Finance. The parrot’s testimony would be solemnly heard, even though nobody had any more idea than the parrot what he meant by these terms.

In 1934 The Boston Herald newspaper mentioned a speech by Fiorello LaGuardia who was the Mayor of New York. LaGuardia used the phrase “parrot-like” in rhetoric that was reminiscent of the examples from the 1800s given previously: 10

He attacked “the old-time economist who repeats with parrot-like precision and irritation that there is only one law of the universe, that of ‘supply and demand’.”

In 1940 the magazine “Boxoffice: The Pulse of the Motion Picture Industry” reported on testimony given during anti-trust litigation. The joke was mentioned and attributed to Carlyle: 11

Sometimes when I hear the statements made about the effect on first-run revenue, I think of Carlyle’s aphorism, ‘teach a parrot to say “supply and demand” and you have a political economist.’

In 1950 the textbook “Elements of Economic Analysis” by Archibald M. McIsaac printed the jibe and attributed the words to a “noted economist”: 12

A noted economist once said, “Teach a parrot to say ‘supply and demand’ and you have made a political economist.”

The 1989 textbook “Introduction to Economics” by Stephen L. Slavin contained the following quotation and attribution: 13

“It’s easy to train economists. Just teach a parrot to say ‘supply and demand.'”
—Thomas Carlyle

In 1992 the New York Times printed a book review of a biography of the famed economic thinker Joseph Schumpeter. The review connected the parrot remark to Schumpeter. But he was not credited with coinage: 14

There was Schumpeter the Viennese neurotic, who prayed to the ghosts of his dead wife and mother, who may have killed himself with overwork and who scribbled down savage, funny aphorisms. (“The essential fact about life is death.” “Only the sick oyster produces pearls.” “We are only dogs chasing cars.” “Catch a parrot, teach him to say ‘Supply and Demand’ and you have an economist.”)

In conclusion, QI hypothesizes that this quip evolved from many remarks in the 1800s that attacked the phrase “supply and demand” as mere “parrot words” and “parrot-like”. At some point the figurative language was used as transformative guidance and a literal comical scenario was constructed.

The first instance of the jest located by QI was in a 1907 book by Irving Fisher, but he indicated that the remark was already in circulation. The attribution to Thomas Carlyle was presented with uncertainty in 1931, and currently QI has found no substantive support for this ascription.

(Great thanks to Richard Turner, a comedy writer and BBC radio producer. His query included the three versions of the quotation given above. QI constructed the question based on his query. Stylistic and grammatical errors are QI’s. Special thanks to my local librarians in Florida for obtaining the 1931 book.)

Notes:

  1. 1850 February 9, Cooper’s Journal: or, Unfettered Thinker and Plain Speaker for Truth, Freedom, and Progress, (Review of three books: 1: Six Prize Essays on the Causes which regulate the Wages of Labour; 2: An Essay on the same subject by Joseph Black; 3: An Essay on the Causes which regulate the Wages of Labour by Thomas Emery), Start Page 91, Quote Page 94, Printed and published by James Watson, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1886, The Story of Manual Labor In All Lands and Ages: Its Past Condition, Present Progress, and Hope for the Future by John Cameron Simonds and John T. McEnnis, Part V: Labor in America: Chapter XI: The Army of the Discontented by T. V. Powderly, Start Page 499, Quote Page 500, R. S. Peale & Co., Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1893, The Magazine of Art, The Royal Academy Exhibition by The Editor, Start Page 253, Quote Page 254 and 255, Cassell and Company Limited, London, Paris & Melbourne. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1897 October, Gunton’s Magazine of Practical Economics and Political Science, Volume 13, (Review of the book: An Essay on Value w1th a Short Account of American Currency; book author John Borden Rand) Start Page 322, Quote Page 322, Political Science Publishing Co., New York. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1907, The Rate of Interest: Its Nature, Determination and Relation to Economic Phenomena by Irving Fisher, Quote Page 6, Macmillan Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1910, Introduction to Economic Science by Irving Fisher, Quote Page 133, Macmillan Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  7. 1928, The Road to Plenty by William Trufant Foster and Waddill Catchings, Quote Page 131, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Questia: Gale, Cengage Learning)
  8. 1931, The Masquerade of Monopoly by Frank Albert Fetter, Quote Page 177 and 191, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified on paper; great thanks to my local librarians)
  9. 1933 April, The Rotarian, “Is Inflation the Way Out?—Yes” by William Trufant Foster Start Page 16, Quote Page 56, Column 2, Published by Rotary International.(Google Books full view)
  10. 1934 September 5, Boston Herald, Editorial Section: A Political Chasse in 1936, Quote Page 14, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1940 May 18, Boxoffice: The Pulse of the Motion Picture Industry, M & R Counsel Would Outline ‘Pattern of Conspiracy’ by Brad Angier, Quote Page 83, Column 2, Published by Associated Publications, New York, Current owner Boxoffice Media LP. (Internet Archive archive.org)
  12. 1950, Elements Of Economic Analysis by Archibald M. McIsaac, Quote Page 3, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New York. (Internet Archive archive.org) link
  13. 1989, Introduction to Economics by Stephen L. Slavin, (Freestanding quotation attributed to Thomas Carlyle), Quote Page 30, Published by Irwin, Homewood, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  14. 1992 March 8, New York Times, In Short/Business by Allen Boyer, (Book review of “Schumpeter: A Biography by Richard Swedberg”), New York. (New York Times online; accessed July 19 2013)