The literary lives of actuaries

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By Daniel D. Skwire | 18 January 2012

Milliman principal and consulting actuary Dan Skwire has authored a remarkable series of articles on the portrayal of actuaries in literature, from Shakespeare and Jane Austen to chick lit. We spoke with him about his ongoing research into the literary lives of actuaries and insurance professionals.

Q: How did you start writing this series of articles?

Dan Skwire: The first one was out of the blue, now almost 15 years ago. The Society of Actuaries was having a contest to see whether they wanted to change their motto, and I was just scrounging around a little bit, probably in a dictionary of quotations, looking up insurance and annuities, and I saw a reference to a quotation that said “An annuity is a very serious business." The quotation was attributed to Jane Austen, who is about the last person I would have expected to comment on annuities.

As chance would have it, I had just purchased a set of Jane Austen novels to read, so I pulled out Sense and Sensibility, and I realized that the whole second chapter of that book is a very technical discussion on annuities, and whether, for example, it's cheaper to pay someone a lump sum of £1,500 or to pay them £100 a year for the rest of their life. I was really amazed at how technical she would get when she was talking about life expectancies and annuities. So I read through the novels and did some research about insurance and annuities at the time, and turned that into an article about actuarial issues in the novels of Jane Austen.

It was probably the strangest article ever submitted to the North American Actuarial Journal. They didn't have any reviewers for it, because it was basically an English Literature article, so they farmed it out to a local English professor, who probably also didn't know what to do with it. But they wound up publishing it, and it got a little bit of attention, and then I just set it aside.

I got started with this type of research again in a more organized fashion about five years later. One of the editors from Contingencies stumbled across the Jane Austen article and asked if they could reprint it. But I told him I had another idea: I was working on some research about a Charles Dickens short story that featured an actuary. I'd been tinkering around with it and hadn't gotten anywhere, but this was a good excuse to finish it up. Contingencies has really turned out to be a great forum for me, because they're interested in articles of general interest about insurance. Since the Dickens article, I've done half a dozen or so others on a variety of authors.

Q: Are there common themes in terms of the literary handling of actuarial matters?

Dan Skwire: Well, I'd broaden that a little bit to the literary handling of insurance in general. I keep an eye out for things that are specifically actuarial, because it's fun to see something that specific, but those examples are a little more limited.

If you think about insurance, however, and especially life insurance, it's really involved with the intersection of life and death and money. These are some of the things that we care about the most, and that we spend the most time thinking and worrying about. Although insurance seems like an abstruse financial topic, it can, in fact, involve emotional considerations.

One of the articles I wrote was on insurance in film noir—the great movies of the '40s and '50s that take a dark look at crime. Insurance features very prominently in a number of these films—jilted lovers with revenge motives, and characters with homicidal motives trying to make money off of crime, for example. Insurance is the vehicle by which they think crime can be made to pay. The emotion that's tied up in all that makes it a very natural topic for literature and the movies.

Q: Have you done much with contemporary literary allusions or is it all in the classical canon?

Dan Skwire: I definitely enjoy reading and researching classical works, but I've done a few pieces that involve more contemporary work.

I recently wrote one on the way actuaries occasionally show up in, of all things, what's known as “chick lit,” the kind of best-selling literature that's one or two steps up from romance novels, but generally written with a romantic story line and a spunky young heroine pursuing love and career ambitions at the same time. I found at least three or four of these books that featured an actuary, either as a main character or as a secondary character, but I wasn't impressed with how they were depicted.

The point was not, I think, to give a realistic portrait of the profession, but a caricature of a profession with a lot of drudgery, and look, underneath this horrible gray exterior, they're not really that boring. It's humorous from the perspective of someone who knows what it's really like, but it's certainly not a particularly accurate or flattering depiction.

Q: Are there instances where writers really get it spot on?

Dan Skwire: The actuarial profession—along with insurance and even business in general—suffers, I think, in its depiction in novels. A lot of authors don't really take it seriously. Perhaps because they haven't had firsthand experience of working in an office, but business is often represented symbolically as a daily drudgery that a character has to survive—what matters is their life outside the office. The insurance work is just a kind of miserable existence. I think that's too bad, because there's a lot that can be done with the whole theme of life and money.

It’s not uniformly true. Film noir did a pretty good job with insurance. Obviously, it was interpreting it in a specific way, often as a motive for crime, but that's kind of an interesting perspective.

Jane Austen described what people in her circle cared about—including financial matters.Jane Austen described what people in her circle cared about—including financial matters.

Jane Austen really gives us an interesting and accurate depiction of how people at the time thought about financial matters. She was trying to present a realistic depiction of what the people in her circle cared about at the time. If she's describing a ball, she'll talk in detail about all the different dances that people do, and if she's describing how someone gets from point A to point B, she'll tell you more than you need to know about the different types of carriages and horses that they're using.

And when it comes to talking about how a newly married couple is going to have enough money to live on, then, in that same spirit, she's going to talk about how much they're going to inherit from whom, and how if the inheritance is coming from someone who's old and sickly then it has greater value than if it's from someone who's young and healthy, because the inheritance will probably arrive sooner. She certainly wasn't an actuary, but she was very good at capturing these things that people cared so much about, even to the point where, when she would write specifically about a numerical calculation, like a life expectancy or a present value, I would do my best to check out the math, and it seems like she was just about right.

Q: Have you gotten any particularly interesting feedback or other reactions to your articles?

Dan Skwire: I get a surprising amount of feedback. The Jane Austen article probably generated the most enthusiasm. After I wrote the article, it took almost a year before it showed up in the journal—all hard-core mathematical academic articles and this one thing on Jane Austen. A couple of months after it came out, I started getting all these hand-written letters, primarily from the spouses of various actuaries, all telling me how much they enjoyed the article. I remember at least one letter from a woman who said she never understood what her husband did for a living until he showed her my article!

The others usually generate a letter or two, along with a number of emails. One of the nicest responses I got was on the article I wrote on Wallace Stevens, one of the first modernist poets who worked full time in the insurance business right up to his death, even after becoming a nationally known poet and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. To me, the interesting part about Wallace Stevens was how he managed to keep those two lives going at once, and how not only did they not conflict with each other—he wasn't trying to escape his day job in order to write poetry—but he also found the two of them really essential to each other. At any rate, after the Stevens article came out, I received a letter from an attorney who, maybe five or 10 years ago, had written a first-rate short story about Wallace Stevens for a legal journal. That was fun to connect with someone with a similar interest.

Q: How do you go about finding new ideas for articles?

Dan Skwire: I have a working list now of at least three or four pieces of various types that I'm working on. Sometimes, it's something basic like an actuary who shows up as a character in a novel. I'm also interested in writers and other types of artists who had a career in the insurance industry, like Wallace Stevens.

I just keep reading broadly and it's funny where things show up sometimes. A lot of times, it comes from the most random source.

The most recent article I did, on David Graham Phillips—a novelist almost no one remembers these days, though he was a very prominent journalist around the turn of the last century—was inspired by a short essay in the New York Times about how Phillips was assassinated by someone who took one of his novels a little too seriously and thought that his sister had been unfairly depicted as a character. There was an offhand reference to the fact that Phillips wrote novels that touched on corruption in a variety of industries, such as insurance. Any time I see a reference to insurance, I begin the research process and it leads me down all kinds of rabbit holes. In this case, I realized that the novel Phillips wrote was really a critique of the insurance business, and that it was written at a time when there were tremendous scandals going on in the business, kind of like we've been hearing about the mortgage business over the last few years.

I started researching some of those scandals and I ended up reading for months about the history of the U.S. life insurance industry, the Armstrong Investigation in the state of New York that led to New York being one of the most thorough regulators of the insurance business, and the history of specific companies and muckraking journalists. I had enough to write a dissertation, I think, before I was able to compress it down to a magazine article.

One of the things that I have enjoyed about writing these articles is that I've learned a great deal about aspects of the insurance profession that I wouldn't otherwise have encountered. Some of this is historical knowledge. My article on Daniel Defoe, for example, involved researching some of the earliest work in actuarial science, which took place in 17th century England. But I’ve also had the opportunity to learn about technical topics as well, including surety bonds through my work on Wallace Stevens and reversionary annuities through my work on Jane Austen. So these projects have been educational from an insurance perspective as well as a literary one.

Q: Have you thought about contributing something to the genre?

Dan Skwire: You know, I've never been able to write fiction. I love performing historical research and writing this kind of creative nonfiction, but if I sit down to write a short story, I get hung up trying to come up with the name of the character on the first page, and that's the end of it. So as much as I enjoy reading fiction, and as much as I love the idea of being able to write some financial fiction of my own, I'm not sure I'm wired that way.