Friday, May 15, 2020

Inheritance, marriage and swindle: the three ways to the top

Inheritance gives a head start advantage. Marriage is the way to share in that advantage. Business swindle is a way to undermine that advantage.
In my previous post I mentioned that I will review the just published book by Daniel Shaviro’s “Literature and inequality”. Shaviro discusses what nine popular books tell us about inequality of status, class, and income in the societies they describe. The first three books are Jane Austen’s* “Pride and prejudice”, Stendhal’s* “Le rouge and le noir” and Balzac’s* “Le pere Goriot” (with “La Maison Nucingen” in continuation). They describe West European societies during the “Age of Revolutions”. The next three are Dickens’s “Christmas carol”, Trollope’s “The way we live now”, and E M Forster’s* “Howard’s end”. They are set in England during the Industrial Revolution, and just before the World War I. The final three books deal with American inequality: Mark Twain’s and Charles Dudley Warner’s eponymous “Gilded Age”, Edith Wharton’s “The house of mirth”, and Theodore Dreiser’s “The financier” (and “The titan”).

There is obviously a lot to write about the books, their interpretation and Shaviro’s very skillful analysis of societies they describe. Shaviro’s book could set the tone for a new type of social studies that would combine the usual empirical work with archival research and valuable fiction. Indeed all these books of so-called fiction are grounded strongly in the “faction” of their societies and give to an economist many hints of different venues worth exploring.

I have read only four of the nine books dealt with here (indicated by the asterisks above) and obviously my discussion of others depends entirely on what I have learned from Shaviro.

I would like to focus on two themes.

The literature studied here shows us not only the common conflict between the “old wealth” (that could, in the British and French context, be aristocratic wealth, or in the US context, that of comparatively more recent Philadelphia families) and the newly acquired wealth, or between the rich and the poor. The books—all nine—show us that there are only three ways to the top of society: inheritance, marriage, and plunder.

Inheritance is an obvious way in which people can remain on the top. But it is tempered by marriage: if the marriage market were entirely “comonotonic”  the super rich would marry only the super rich, the less rich would marry those just slightly less rich, and so forth all the way to the bottom. The ordinal rankings would not be altered, and wealth and income gaps would get ever wider. But marriages obey to other laws as well: love, sexual attraction, accidents, parental influence, strategic decisions. Thus they introduce an element of entropy in an otherwise hierarchical structure. The social order is often unsettled by marriage. This is discussed in the case of women—most obviously among the books reviewed here by “Pride and prejudice” and other Jane Austen’s novels that revolve around the same question: who is going to marry whom, and how many ₤ of income are respective partners bringing in.

But men’s marriage market is less frequently addressed. Shaviro does not discuss it as such either. Yet it pervades several of the books he reviews. Julien Sorel’s career consists of amorous conquests that gradually allow him to climb to ever higher positions in society, until they also bring him crashing down onto his death. Rastignac likewise in “Le pere Goriot” and “La Maison Nucingen” plans his social ascent entirely on successful secret love relationships and marriages (often simultaneously). In both of these French novels, sexual conquest that we typically  associate with women, is used by men to move from low to high social positions. The same theme reappears in “Howard’s End” where Leonard enters into an ultimately destructive relationship with one of much richer Schlegel sisters. Socially identical is the relationship between Lawrence Selden (aspiring youth) and Lily Bart (well born but struggling) in “The house of mirth”.  Had Shapiro decided to include Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the night” in the American section, he would have had another male hero who uses marriage, consciously or not, as a climbing device.

We thus see that marriage which some associate, and especially so in societies where the role of women was limited, to a instrument of social promotion used by women was in reality used by both sexes. The books reviewed here give us thus—interestingly—a more equal treatment of genders than we may think to have been the case.

The third tool of social advancement is to make money oneself (in this case, however, it is always “himself”). Financial speculators and industrialists are the two favorite occupations: Nucingen in Balzac, Scrooge in Dickens,  Melmotte in Trollope, Sterling in Twain and Dudley Warner, Percy Gryce in Edith Wharton, and Frank Cowperwood in Dreiser. None of them is a sympathetic character. It is remarkable that in all cases the self-made road to the top is described in darkest hues. It is composed of swindles, cheats, cronyism, plunder, and bribery. There is no Horatio Alger or any of Ayn Rand’s heroes here. Even Dreiser’s “The financier”, discussed extensively by Shaviro, while not entirely unsympathetically depicted by Dreiser, owes his success to the readiness to use any means, however sordid, in order to prevail. It is a world similar to what we can see today in any episode of Netflix’s “Succession”.

Now, whether all the climbs to economic power were possible only through bribery and swindle and plunder I do not know. One thinks of Marx’s “primitive accumulation”, of Jane Austen’s Henry Lascelles whose wealth comes from slave plantations in Barbados, or of many beautiful castles and public building (Rockefeller Center in New York?) that were built on the backs (so to speak) of  brutal exploitation or financial malfeasance. It could well be that huge wealth is really impossible to acquire in any other way.

But it could also be that in works of fiction we are likely to be confronted more often by such characters than in real life simply because their lives—the contrast between enormous wealth and dearth of moral qualities—are much more compelling to both writers and readers than a more humdrum success achieved within the confines of legal and ethical rules.

Authors’  uniform emphasis on unethical ways in which wealth is made should give us pause when entertaining a more benevolent view of large fortunes in capitalist societies. Perhaps that most of them were indeed made the way described in this book, and not in the way that Samuelson’s “Economics” (and its various successors) would like us believe.     

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