The Opportunity Costs of J. Alfred Prufrock
Steve Horwitz and I have been teaching an online class about economics and literature, pairing core economic concepts with literary works that demonstrate those concepts. This past week, we talked with the students about opportunity cost (see Steve’s thoughts on Buchanan’s Cost and Choice here), using Thomas Grey’s “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes” and T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as our literary texts.
Using poetry, I told the students, helps us think about opportunity costs in ways that travel alongside, but are not the same, as the ways that economists think about them. For economists, the important thing is that a choice is made. In the most reductive version of this, the moment of choice, the moment where opportunity costs are weighed, disappears into something called “revealed preference.” A choice is made. Results follow. The economist moves on. For poets, particularly for Eliot, and particularly in “Prufrock,” the moment of choice, the weighing of opportunity cost, is everything.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is five pages of glorious poetry about the moment when we decide that a choice must be made, but we are caught on the tenterhooks of opportunity cost. The poem begins with the speaker inviting himself and us to walk out into the evening with him as he contemplates a life-altering decision. Although the nature of the decision is never directly stated, most readers agree that he is debating whether or not to ask someone to marry him. He decides not to, and the poem ends. The most reductive economic reading of the poem would be to say “Revealed preference. He never wanted to propose marriage anyway. He obviously got what he wanted, because otherwise he would have chosen something different. End of story.”
Horwitz describes James Buchanan as seeing, not “homo economicus” but “richly understood humans who experience that agony of choice and face uncertainty about the future.” This is certainly true when one contrasts Buchanan to the simple predictive choice economics models. But when one has the expansive playing field poetry offers for thought and exploration, there can be even more to the story than Buchanan gives us.
With “Prufrock,” we are invited to travel “you and I” alongside one particular human as he grapples with one particular decision. While Prufock is absolutely considering opportunity costs, his decision process is no sterile totting up of pros and cons followed by a simple choice of the least costly option.
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
Opportunity cost, for Prufrock, means a torturous understanding that choices define who we are. Every choice requires that we remake ourselves and “prepare a face” that goes with whatever choice we make. Choices “murder and create” different selves we might be and different lives we might lead. With all that hanging in the balance, no wonder Prufrock finds time “for a hundred indecisions/ And for a hundred visions and revisions.”
The unrelenting “should I/shall I” constructions of Eliot’s verse help us feel each of those individual moments that make up this thing we call a “choice.” And for Prufock, the actual choice passes almost unnoticed amidst all this debate. “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker…in short, I was afraid.”
But while most economists would say “That’s the end of the story. Choice made. Preference revealed, moving on,” and while even Buchanan would say “A choice has been made and that experience will carry forward into Prufrock’s future choices,” Eliot shows us that–despite the fact that a choice has been made–the moment of choice is not over for Prufrock. Prufrock, human that he is, cannot stop thinking about it. Indeed, he still seems to be living in that moment of choice.
The poem’s “should I/ shall I” constructions transform into the phrase “would it have been worth it” as Prufrock returns obsessively to the moment of choice, thinking over what he could have done, might have done, did not do. The choice is made, but Prufrock is still endlessly, obsessively making it. The pain of Eliot’s poem comes not only from his obsessive titivating, but from his final realization that he has trapped himself in a world of unending “decisions and revisions,” growing ever older, but never wiser, and cutting himself off from the wonder and beauty he might have found through other choices.
Economists aren’t wrong to shrink the moment of choice to near invisibility. Poets aren’t wrong to expand it until it is so large it might “disturb the universe.” They are using different sets of tools to explore the same questions. We are wrong to think that using only one set–whichever set it is–gives us the real story.