Tarotnomics: Part 1 – The cards

While enjoying the economics at the NZAE conference this year, I felt that, in 2013, I should really submit something.  After a few beers I worked out that my comparative advantage likely lies outside the core of economics – and so I decided that a paper on the economics of tarot card reading was in order.

Now I have written on this issue briefly before, and I have even given the economy a tarot card reading at one point.

With the idea in mind, and motivated by the suggestion at NZAE from Berk Ozler that crowd sourcing papers was a good idea – I’m going to put together the concepts on the blog.  The way I see it, I’m doing the paper in my spare time, and I do the blog in my spare time, so why not mix the two.

As a starting point I want to do something pretty simple – I want to explain broadly what the actual tarot cards are.  Once we have that, we can move on to thinking about readings, and then get an idea of how a tarot card reading represents a type of “model”.  With that in mind, we can work out what attributes of a model this reading has.

Once we’ve then listed down what an economic model is, we can compare and contrast – through this process, we can hopefully shine a light on what economic models represent, how they are useful, the things we have to keep an eye on, and the possible pitfalls.

Note:  If there is anyone around with knowledge about analytical tarot card reading then comments would be much appreciated – especially if you are also well versed in economic methodology, given that’s the direction I’m coming from here.

Cards cards cards

A tarot card deck involves a number of cards – unsurprisingly.  The deck can be split into two distinct parts:  The Major Arcana (22 cards) and the Minor Arcana (56 cards).

The Major Arcana correspond broadly to Jungian archetypes, representing fundamental elements of the self and the self in others – they are part of what is broadly termed the “collective unconscious“.

This all sounds very scary/fluffy, but in simple terms the collective unconscious simply implies that there are a set of images and ideas that we share as individuals – they are part of the way individuals represent and understand things going on.  Now these shared images/representations could be genetic, or they could be social, or historical – however, when looking over many societies in the current day these shared images do provide a good way of describing and discussing elements of a individual and a social situation they find themselves in.  The are caricatures of situations, issues, and parts of our personality that everyone can relate to.

These cards represent broad, strong, visceral images and ideas – they can stand independently, but the 22 cards as a whole can be seen as a “cycle”, going from the start of an individual’s adventure with the Fool, to its final conclusion with the World.

The Minor Arcana is more akin to your standard set of playing cards.  There are four suits – in my deck these are Wands, Swords, Cups, and Pentacles.  These represent Clubs, Spades, Hearts, and Diamonds respectively.  In terms of elements of the self they represent creativity, intellect, love, and materialism in some sense.

I prefer to split this into two groups as well.  There are the face cards (King, Queen, Knight, Page) and the non-face cards (1-10 of the given suit).

The face cards represent a fundamental element of that suit, with different levels of maturity and masculinity/femininity depending on which card it is.  The non-face cards tell a story that is in some way related to the element of that suit, starting at the first card and concluding at 10.

Now the clear archetypes we pointed at when looking at the major arcana cards still exist here.  But while the major arcana provided “strict caricatures” of these archetypes, the face cards provide a more disassociated version that mixes archetypes.  Furthermore, the non-face cards take this evolution and push it even further.  As each non-face card represents only a small part of a larger narrative it thereby lightly touching on all archetypes which are contained in that broad narrative – the only discipline imposed on these face cards is what point in the story we find ourselves in.

In this sense, as we move from major arcana into the face cards and then into the non-face cards, we are gradually moving away from what is relatively easy to define through personal introspection to what is harder to define – or in some views this can be the same as moving from viewing things within ourselves to outside ourselves … given that what is external of us does not give us the depth of feeling, but in many ways seems broader.

In this way all the cards seem to have a purpose, and they all fit into part of a story.

This sounds very deterministic – and wordy

On the face of it, the way the cards are set up makes it seem as if they have one, or at least limited, meanings.  And as individual cards that is the way they are designed.

However, stepping back a bit – these cards are elements that we are going to use to help us build a model to do something (we haven’t defined what, or how, as of yet).  When we start to do this, you may be surprised how much these “strictly defined” cards bend.

BUT, these cards are taking individual elements that we agree exist – those elements are in front of us when we try to use the cards from any given purpose (such as playing go fish, or trying to “divine the future”).

And you see all the stories I created to describe the ways cards relate to each other – “moving from outside to in”, “depth vs breadth”.  These are conceptual elements that can be used to tie ideas together.

The cards, and the relationships between them, exist as the elements we require to use the cards as a tool.  However, although such description of these elements is necessary to build our model – it is far from sufficient.

And in fact, for what we need to do in terms of comparing “tarot models” to “economics models”, the amount of description I’ve provided may seem excessive – but best to err on the side of caution for now.

Furthermore from that exercise we received an ESSENTIAL point – that the cards and the archetypes they represent are only of use when we can gain value from them through personal introspection.  This will be a central element of any form of tarot card reading – and I am likely to argue that this is a central part of economic reasoning.

What have we just done

I believe we have just undertaken an ontological exercise when it comes to describing the creation of a tarot card model, and the practical implementation of a tarot card reading.  I say this because we have just now defined some of the fundamental elements of study that we will use – if I’m in fact abusing the term feel free to tell me 😉

In of itself this exercise is practically useless – now we need to go on to discuss the methodology of building a “tarot card model” or “tarot card reading”, and while doing so we can use the elements of the cards described here to help give it flavour.


So what have we discovered about tarot cards in neat bullet pointed form:

  • The cards use archetypes, which are essentially caricatures of essential elements in society, individuals, and the relationship between individuals.
  • The cards can essentially be tied together to describe any given situation involving the individual or their social situation.
  • Interpretation of the cards comes from personal introspection by both the reader and the client

So given these essential elements of the model/tarot cards, how can we describe a model/tarot reading?

  • Matt said:

    If there is anyone around with knowledge about analytical tarot card reading then comments would be much appreciated – especially if you are also well versed in economic methodology ..

    Read tarot and know economics: I reckon you’ve fallen at the first hurdle of ‘economists not in the real world’ …    😉 But I’ll be interested in anything forthcoming.

    • What can I say, they are all frames that people try to use to understand the world around them – and given I figure most economists like to compare us to physics I thought I’d have a bit of fun and try something a little less … reputable 😛

      • I’m going to write about historians soon. WIll that satisfy the ‘less reputable’ criterion?

        • Hey hey hey, I have a lot of respect for history as an academic discipline!

  • Rob Hosking

    You realise you’re asking for headlines about ‘voodoo economics’ with this, don’t you?

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  • hahah Matt, you are full of fun.
    I married my Thai girlfriend. She is a tarot card reader by profession. But it is silly fortune telling.
    She toild me my life would be very difficult till I married her. Now i marry her and mostly I am happy.
     hahah ha Matt wish you luck dude you funny man good fellow .
    Anybody who know Eric is funny and good.