Picking Some More at Piketty

One of the interesting aspects of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is the way in which the tome makes use of literary allusions from Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac to make Piketty’s points about income and social mobility. I am fine with using literary allusions when they fit, but while Piketty may have used Austenesque references appropriately, he may not have done the same with Balzac:

However, Piketty makes no differences between the worlds of Jane Austen and Balzac. Balzac’s world is primarily urban rather than rural and it is much more diverse than Austen’s. Contrary to Austen’s landed gentry with its inherited wealth, the novels of Balzac are full of successful entrepreneurs, journalists, attorneys, medical doctors, and artists who lead pleasant and interesting lives. While not as rich as the banker Nucingen — a self-made man, but not always the most scrupulous — they lead comfortable lives due primarily to their hard work and talent.

It is true, however, that Balzac’s successful professional characters are all males. The women who manage to change classes in Balzac’s world tend to come in two varieties: those who marry successful entrepreneurs and those free-spirited courtesans who invest their money carefully — at times benefit from insider trading — and accumulate a significant patrimony that guarantees an elegant life in old age. Balzac’s courtesans also play a redistributive role that Piketty might have praised. They zero in on the richest one percent, ruthlessly obtain a large part of their fortune, and redistribute it lavishly among a large crowd of witty but otherwise poor friends (Rastignac among them) and artisans of all sorts — milliners, seamstresses, cooks, coachmen, and decorators.

In spite of the contrast between the stagnant rural world of Jane Austen and the world of mobile nouveau riche found in Balzac, Piketty seems to perceive no differences between the two. He summarizes the inequality and lack of mobility in Balzac’s literary world in chapter 11 of Capital, in a section called “the Rastignac’s dilemma”. Rastignac, a student of law, has only two choices in life: marry a rich but dull heiress and lead an elegant life, or pursue a professional career that will likely lead to poverty and mediocrity. Though Vautrin, the escaped convict in Balzac’s novels, does indeed present this dilemma to Rastignac, it is unfair to pretend that it is representative of the diverse world described by Balzac. This interpretation is so skewed that it seems that Piketty has been reading Balzac through inequality glasses.

I guess I have a problem with both the accidental and the purposeful misuse and misreading of literature in order to prove political and economic points.

Going back to economic analysis for a moment, be sure to check out Scott Winship, who casts doubt on the notion that wealth has become as concentrated as Piketty claims that it has been. The data that Winship cites is

. . . likely to lead us to conclude that, at least in the U.S. since 1989, the Piketty-Saez and CBO income concentration estimates have overstated the increase in inequality substantially. Interestingly, a wide array of research has found that inequality between the middle class and poor has not risen meaningfully since the 1980s.