Modest proposals

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Yanis Varoufakis, Stuart Holland, and James K. Galbraith, "A Modest Proposal for Resolving the Eurozone Crisis", 2013:

Europe is fragmenting. While in the past year the European Central Bank has  managed to stabilise the bond markets, the economies of the European core and  its periphery are drifting apart. As this happens, human costs mount and disintegration becomes an increasing threat.

It is not just a matter for the Eurozone. The fallout from a Eurozone breakup  would destroy the European Union, except perhaps in name. And Europe’s  fragmentation poses a global danger.

Following a sequence of errors and avoidable delays Europe’s leadership remains in denial about the nature of the crisis, and continues to pose the false choice between draconian austerity and a federal Europe.

By contrast, we propose immediate solutions, feasible within current European law and treaties.

There are in this crisis four sub-crises: a banking crisis, a public debt crisis, a  crisis of under-investment, and now a social crisis – the result of five years of  policy failure. Our Modest Proposal therefore now has four elements. They deploy existing institutions and require none of the moves that many Europeans  oppose, such as national guarantees or fiscal transfers. Nor do they require  treaty changes, which many electorates anyway could reject. Thus we propose a  European New Deal which, like its American forebear would lead to progress  within months, yet through measures that fall entirely within the constitutional  framework to which European governments have already agreed.

I have no opinion on the substantive proposals in this paper. But the title — or rather, the combination of the title and the contents — took me aback.

To explain why, let me offer a comparable passage from the start of an earlier economic policy paper with a similar title — Jonathan Swift, "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick", 1729:

It is a melancholy Object to those, who walk through this great Town, or travel in the Country, when they see the Streets , the Roads and Cabbin-Doors crowded with Beggars of the Female Sex, followed by three, four, or six Children, all in Rags , and importuning every Passenger for an Alms. These Mothers , instead of being able to work for their honest livelyhood, are forced to employ all their time in Stroling to beg Sustenance for their helpless Infants , who, as they grow up, either turn Thieves for want of Work, or leave their dear Native Country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes. […]

I shall now therefore humbly propose my own Thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least Objection.

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my Acquaintance in London , that a young healthy Child well Nursed, is, at a Year Old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked , or Boiled ; and I doubt, that it will equally serve in a Fricasie , or a Ragoust .

I do therefore humbly offer it to publick confideration, that of the Hundred and twenty thousand Children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for Breed, whereof only one fourth Part to be Males; which is more than we allow to Sheep, black Cattle , or Swine , and my Reason is, that these Children are seldom the Fruits of Marriage, a Circumstance not much regarded by our Savages , therefore, one Male will be sufficient to serve four Females. That the remaining Hundred thousand may, at a Year Old, be offered in Sale to the Persons of Quality and Fortune , through the Kingdom, always advising the Mother to let them suck plentifully in the last Month, so as to render them Plump, and Fat for a good Table. A Child will make two Dishes at an Entertainment for Friends, and when the Family dines alone, the fore or hind Quarter will make a reasonable Dish, and seasoned with a little Pepper or Salt, will be very good Boiled on the fourth Day, especially in Winter .

As Wikipedia explains,

In English writing, the phrase "a modest proposal" is now conventionally an allusion to this style of straight-faced satire.

So I expected Varoufakis et al. to suggest that the unemployed youth of Greece, Portugal, and Ireland should be sold into slavery, or perhaps converted into sausages for sale to China. Instead, they tell us plainly and sincerely that

Any solution to the crisis must respect realistic constraints on political action.  This is why grand schemes should be shunned. It is why we need a modest  proposal.

Mikhail Bakhtin warned that

Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intentions; it is populated – overpopulated – with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one's own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process.

But the process is easier if you can erase cultural history. Maybe (some) economists no longer read Swift?

Or have I failed to grasp their meta-ironic transcendence of irony?





  1. Andrew John said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 7:08 am

    Maybe three particular individuals haven't read Swift. Or maybe linguists over-extrapolate? :-)

    [(myl) Well, it's true that the 95% binomial confidence interval for zero out of three is 0-0.56. But this paper has been widely circulated over a period of three or four years — the version I linked to is 4.0 — and was featured at a major conference last fall, so that lots of other economists and political scientists have given the authors feedback. So either the phrase "a modest proposal" has simply lost its Swiftian associations, at least in the relevant areas of public-policy discourse, or else I'm missing some meta-ironic implications.]

  2. William Ockham said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 8:01 am

    I think that the implication of the title is that the proposals have the same likelihood of being adopted as Swift's did while making the point that the situation is now reversed. Current policy is the equivalent of eating babies, in the view of the authors. At least that is how I read it.

    [(myl) That would be the "meta-ironic subtext" interpretation. If this reading is correct, then (some) economists are remarkably subtle.]

  3. D-AW said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 8:37 am

    Did I miss the irony in your post of 25 Dec: "Putting grammar back in grammar schools: A modest proposal" ? I understood this to imply that the proposal was quixotic or unlikely to be adopted, rather than an indication of straight faced satire, but perhaps I was wrong?

  4. D-AW said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 8:42 am

    I mean beynd the irony that is no grammar in grammar schools (if there are grammar schhols), which though ironic doesn't lead to satire.

  5. Deirdre said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 9:03 am

    As a British expat in Europe, who has spent a lot of time in these circles (and done a lot of English language proof-reading for them) – I think you can lose your ear for it and even if not, I wonder, what is the expectation? You cannot expect the same cultural references, or sense of satire, across Europe and the Institutions of the EU. It is hard enough to get actual correct English to be the only acceptable kind. (It’s also true that high-level officials do not listen to their secretariat, even when those secretaries are first language English. Personal experience)
    I can well imagine someone trying to explain “See, there was this essay, by this Irish guy, which has connotations you might wish to avoid.” And the reaction would be, ‘Only the Brits and Irish know it. Are we going to spend our time policing inadvertent cultural references?’ And that has to be a point – where would it end? Where would you find the people to do it? ‘Oops, that title accidentally insulted the Slovaks because of this essay someone wrote, once’.

  6. Craig said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 9:04 am


    I think he's finally cluing us in that his post was supposed to be satire, although if you have to explain the satire…

  7. GeorgeW said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 10:23 am

    Perhaps, the intention is to suggest that the proposal is being offered with a measure of humility so that the "modest" is the manner in which it is being offered rather than descriptive of the proposal itself.

  8. Aaron said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 10:56 am

    My guess would be that folks have seen the phrase used in satirical contexts, but either not realized that they were satirical, or (more generously) not realized that the phrase is itself an indication of satire, so they understand it as a simple cliche rather than an allusion to a specific thing.

    It seems to happen on a regular basis that writers of headlines and titles randomly use a phrase that they've heard, and that seems superficially related to the topic, but that doesn't actually make sense if you're familiar with where it comes from. For example, I've seen a number of theater-related articles entitled "The play's the thing", with apparently no awareness of what it means in the context of Hamlet or even the fact that it's not the whole sentence. They seem to think it means something like "Hey, look! A play!" This Swiftian case reminds me a bit of that.

  9. Robert Coren said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 11:07 am

    @Aaron's interpretation seems plausible, but if the capitalization ("Modest Proposal") isn't intended ironically, what is it?

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 12:25 pm

    Magazine/newspaper journalists typically do not themselves write the headlines that appear over their copy (someone else in the editorial process does that w/o getting byline credit), and thus shouldn't be held accountable for them if they misfire, but I wouldn't think the same convention would be the case for authors of academic papers?

  11. julie lee said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 12:30 pm

    Yanis Varoufakis et al.'s "A Modest Proposal" sounds serious, and does not seems to use the phrase "A Modest Proposal" ironically. It may well be , as myl suggests, that they don't know the connotations of the phrase and only used it in its denotative sense. The younger generations may not have read Swift's "A Modest Proposal", especially if they are not English majors. Co-author James K. Galbraith, though born in 1952, and co-author Stuart Holland, born in 1940, are economists, not English or language majors. And their editor may have been much younger and not an English major.

  12. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 12:35 pm

    I suspect that Wikipedia and our gracious host may over-estimate Swift's enduring influence. Or perhaps, as Aaron suggested, his influence endures in enticing people to call their proposals modest, even if they don't recall what the original Modest Proposal was.

    A Google search for

    "Modest Proposal" -Swift

    yields plenty of modest proposals that seem to be wholly earnest. In my results, the first one after Varoufakis, Holland, and Galbraith's is by the president and the executive director of the American Historical Association (here). While my assessment is highly fallible, I seem to get one result per page that is Swiftian, with the others having no apparent ironic intent.

  13. D.O. said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 2:20 pm

    Oops, Giacomo Ponzetto already posted the idea I went to explore. Anyways, here's couple of non-[straight face satire] uses courtesy of Google search: college students’ blog, from business magazine/blog, something about football, entertainment (there is a proposal there – not of a swiftean type – but it’s also a word play because the blogpost discusses modesty in entertainment), art criticism.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 4:18 pm

    This is just like what happened to "decimate", right? They don't know the origin, so they assume a possible meaning. Or why some of my students say "'I see,' said the blind man," when I explain something, but never add "as he picked up the hammer and saw." (The few times I've asked students whether they knew that, they said no.)

    I was thinking of adding all the other reasons I worry about our culture, but my main reason for worry is now that I can't remember them.

  15. D.O. said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 4:24 pm

    Google n-gram search (remember, every problem looks like a nail, right?) shows that "a modest proposal" really took off around 1960 and stabilized around 1980 on trice the level (neither of constituent words changed much). What happened in 1660s? They started to teach Swift in schools or people just decided to be more sarcastic? Interestingly, ngram frequency of "Jonathan Swift" (or Gulliver, for that matter) does not show anything interesting. It means that my first explanation must be wrong…

  16. naddy said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 4:53 pm


    It seems to happen on a regular basis that writers of headlines and titles randomly use a phrase that they've heard, and that seems superficially related to the topic, but that doesn't actually make sense if you're familiar with where it comes from.

    My favorite example is suffer the children, which is routinely invoked with the intended meaning "the children are suffering".

  17. MikeJ said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 5:21 pm


    "Are we going to spend our time policing inadvertent cultural references?’ And that has to be a point – where would it end? Where would you find the people to do it?

    You have to find the people to do it, or you'll wind up like Bush referring to to his crusade of invading the middle east.

    When policy makers are speaking, they need to pay attention to what the audience is going to hear.

  18. Chris C. said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 7:28 pm


    I think he's finally cluing us in that his post was supposed to be satire, although if you have to explain the satire…

    Which would make this article an example of meta-meta-satire. Economists think they're subtle? Take that! Linguists are 10x more subtle with half their brains tied behind their backs!

  19. Brett said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 10:30 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: I've heard a few follow-on lines to "'I see,' said the blind man," but never the one you cite. Googling turns it up, but lower down than the other ones I was familiar with.

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 11:03 pm

    Brett: Google's at it again—the first hit I get and many of the others have the punning ending. However, I see at the English language and usage Stack Exchange that the pun-free versions are earlier, so I fell into a form of the Recency Illusion.

    The earliest example with "hammer and saw" I can find at Google Books is from Western Folklore in 1947.

  21. Yuval said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 4:31 am

    If one fourth of the survivors are male, there's one male for every three females, not for every four. Was Swift so incompetent at 'rithmetic?

  22. Lugubert said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 5:21 am

    This old saw works in Swedish as well, especially with an ending that scans better for us (our hammers have three syllables): Jag ser sa den blinde, tog yxa och såg (… took axe and saw).

  23. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

    They revere Swift so much that they are maintaining the background which his title needs in order to work: a world in which most modest proposals are proposals of a modest nature.

  24. Yanis Varoufakis said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 11:31 am

    Might I weigh in here? As the 'author' of our proposal's full title, I would like to state it for the record that all three of us (Holland, Galbraith and the undersigned) fully intended to allude to Swift's original. While we do 'trade' on the essential modesty of our proposal for arresting the Eurozone Crisis (i.e. we are proposing realistic policies that do not require grand institutional or Treaty changes), Swift's sarcasm is alluded to intentionally, primarily because the present reality (e.g. the Greek, Irish etc. bailouts) contains an element of his outrageous proposal – that is, countless Europeans (especially in the part of Europe I call Bailoutistan) are, as we 'speak', sitting idly by while their children are sacrificed on the alter of universal, competitive austerity. Ask the Irish mothers and fathers who are relying on Skype to see their emigrant children, or the Greek parents who can ill afford to feed, clothe and keep warm their children during the winter nights. Enough said…

  25. James Galbraith said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 3:22 pm

    "Or have I failed to grasp their meta-ironic transcendence of irony?"

    In a word: yes.


  26. Haralambos said,

    January 23, 2014 @ 2:45 pm

    "Or have I failed to grasp their meta-ironic transcendence of irony?"
    I taught the Swift essay for several years here in Greece to second-year undergraduates. They refused to discuss it, since they thought it was advanced seriously. They had no idea of the background of Ireland of the day despite my companion sheet and introduction. I suggest your response and most of those I have read share the same type of ignorance about the backgrounds and academic work of Varoufkis et al. and the situation on the ground with close to 30% unemployment among the young and mass emigration.

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