Of Shakespeare and Financial Decisions

Duke alum John Forlines III uses Shakespeare plays to teach life-lessons to economics undergraduates

Part of the A New Type of Classroom Series
Shakespeare's plays are rife with policy errors, a useful tool in an economics course.
Shakespeare's plays are rife with policy errors, a useful tool in an economics course.

What do Shakespeare's writings have to do with economics in 2012?

This is the short and the long of it:

"There is a tide in the affairs of men.Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;"

"The better part of valor is discretion."

"Tis a lucky day, boy, and we'll do good deeds on it."

Such insights from the Bard are why John Forlines III is using Shakespeare's works to teach undergraduate economics students about life lessons that can help illuminate financial decision-making and serve them beyond the classroom.

Forlines' weekly fall course, "Shakespeare & Financial Markets: Why 'This Time' is Never Different," uses several of Shakespeare's plays to teach students about policy errors, regime changes, demographic conflicts and how "human biases in decision-making transcend cultural and historic boundaries," according to the course description.

"The truth is, you're not going to get paid to be smart, you're going to be hired and promoted for being intelligent and adaptive and that's what Shakespeare teaches," says Forlines T'77, Law '82,  an investment manager from a prominent Duke family who earned degrees in English, economics and law here. "Smart, conniving people get into trouble and that is a recurring theme in finance and broader civilization."

The course will include life lessons from "The Tempest," "The Winter's Tale," "Henry V," "Julius Caesar" and "Hamlet."

Forlines will use "Henry V" to teach optimism as a positive when it's an engine of capitalism, and a negative when it morphs into overconfidence and hubris. "Julius Caesar" addresses issues related to the economic effects of regime changes and the interests of the rich and powerful vs. the common people. "The Tempest" teaches powerful lessons about illusions and the human need to attach causality to every occurrence, he says.

"Luck and randomness have been shown to play far more important roles in finance, politics and the global economy," Forlines says, "and Shakespeare knew it. It's a good thing to remember the next time some financial 'wizard' tells us this or that investment/economic plan is the answer."

Bad decision-making leading to the 2008 crash is one of the reasons Forlines came up with the course.

"A lot of these human behaviors Shakespeare examines exist today, and recognizing them in ourselves is important. Human behavior and policy errors leading to bubbles and bursts are, in fact, ones that Shakespeare addressed in most of his plays 400 years ago," says Forlines, whose late father, John Forlines Jr., was a 1939 Duke graduate, president of the Duke Alumni Association, trustee and bank founder. The Alumni House on Chapel Drive is named after him.

John Forlines

John Forlines III

Another lesson Forlines will examine in the class is the equality of women, based on his favorite play, "As You Like It."

"It's his most evolved comedy, written at a time in the late 16th and early 17th century and the hero was a woman," says Forlines, who has not previously taught a university course. "England had a queen, but women in general had few rights. I think there's a good message there: why was Rosalind able to negotiate a truce between warring dukedoms, creatively resolve marital and personal relations while managing her own emotions and courtship? Her success and vitality are things we should all be thinking about."

Forlines, chairman and chief investment officer of JAForlines Global in New York, is a past member of the Sanford School of Public Policy's Board of Visitors. He serves on the Duke Law & Entrepreneurship LLM Alumni Advisory Board and is a member of the Athletics Leadership Council. Two of his three children are Duke alumni.

Now that he's experienced life as a businessman, husband and parent, Forlines welcomes the opportunity to teach Duke undergraduates about the importance of making good decisions.

"Shakespeare provides a mirror on the human condition; we laugh, we cry, but if we are open to opportunities in the world, we will learn," Forlines says. "The 'good' duke -- no pun intended -- in "As You Like It" said it best:

'Sweet are the uses of adversityWhich, like the toad, ugly and venomous,Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;And this our life, exempt from public haunt,Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,Sermons in stones, and good in everything.'"