Secret Message In An Econ Textbook, Finally Decoded

A curious series of hieroglyphics appears in the first pages of the classic 1984 textbook, Lectures on Macroeconomics. Recently experts decoded the symbols and were surprised to find a poem. NPR's Scott Simon speaks with the book's co-author, Olivier Blanchard, and his daughter, Serena. Ms. Blanchard was just 8 years old when she wrote the verse that has puzzled economics students for generations.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Generations of economics students have used the classic text "Lectures on Macroeconomics." On one of the first pages of the book, there is a panel of hieroglyphics and the words, in small print at the bottom: From Serena, 1988.

Now, over the years, the authors have become famous beyond the classroom. Stanley Fischer became governor of the Bank of Israel; he's now nominated to be vice chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. Olivier Blanchard is now chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. They are widely cited and quoted.

But only recently have experts deciphered that panel of hieroglyphics and what it's doing there. What ancient secrets of economic does it impart to our times?

Olivier Blanchard joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

OLIVIER BLANCHARD: Happy to be here.

SIMON: And from New York, Serena Blanchard, as in: From Serena, 1988. Thank you for being with us.

SERENA BLANCHARD: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Now, Ms. Blanchard, you were only 8. So how did you wind up getting cited in this eminent textbook?

SERENA BLANCHARD: I wanted to write a poem for my father's book. I wanted to write an introduction. Apparently, he was looking for some form of dedication page. So I was tying my shoe one day, and I came up with a poem, and I offered it to my father and to Stan. But I think Dad can probably explain the rest from there.

OLIVIER BLANCHARD: So she had written a very nice poem but not exactly something close to economics. And I went to Stan. And Stan is a very nice man but clearly, thought that the poem didn't quite belong to a serious book like ours. So being smart and polite, he found a way out. And he told Serena that the poem was about Egypt. And therefore, if it had been in hieroglyphics, then Stan would have been delighted to have it as the front page of a book. But unfortunately, it was not. And he thought he was done.

(LAUGHTER)

OLIVIER BLANCHARD: He was not.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: So, Serena Blanchard, what happened then?

SERENA BLANCHARD: Apparently, I was a very stubborn 8-year-old and felt my poem should be in the book. So I went to the library, and I got a book on hieroglyphics...

(LAUGHTER)

SERENA BLANCHARD: ...and copied the symbols that most closely resembled the text. And we had a friend who lived across the street who was an artist, and he helped me translate it into proper copy. And then we resubmitted it to Stan.

OLIVIER BLANCHARD: And Stan was stuck.

(LAUGHTER)

OLIVIER BLANCHARD: And so he smiled, accepted defeat, and this became the first page of this book.

SIMON: All right, so this came to light recently because Stanley Fischer was head of the Bank of Israel, and he's nominated to be vice chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. Somebody got the idea that it was about time to find out what this is all about, I gather.

OLIVIER BLANCHARD: Somebody thought - somebody in my team thought that it would be fun to actually put this as a challenge, and basically promised a prize to whoever would be able to make sense of that page.

SIMON: This is your team at the International Monetary Fund.

OLIVIER BLANCHARD: This is my team at the International Monetary Fund. And to my astonishment, somebody did.

SIMON: Serena Blanchard...

SERENA BLANCHARD: Yes.

SIMON: ...can I get you to share the English translation of the poem in hieroglyphics that you wrote?

SERENA BLANCHARD: Absolutely. (Reading) There was a laugh of the Egyptian past that I will be the last to know. I asked my mom, but she didn't know. I asked my mask, but I forgot he wasn't alive.

SIMON: The thing of it is, Olivier Blanchard, you put those hieroglyphics in that poem in the front of an economics textbook. And, in fact, every line seems to indicate something about economic thought. Or am I just projecting?

OLIVIER BLANCHARD: I think you're just projecting.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: The power of suggestion. So there's no source of inspiration or instruction here?

OLIVIER BLANCHARD: I don't know. The sales have been good, so you can...

(LAUGHTER)

OLIVIER BLANCHARD: It had some effect.

SIMON: Well, thanks very much for being with us, Serena and Olivier Blanchard. Serena Blanchard's hieroglyphics appears in all editions of the classic "Lectures on Macroeconomics," by Stanley Fischer and Olivier Blanchard. Pick up your copy...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...at your local airport bookstore.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Thank you both very much for being with us.

OLIVIER BLANCHARD: Thank you, Scott.

SERENA BLANCHARD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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