Thursday, May 15, 2014

Thomas Piketty III

I am now about halfway through Capital, and, though economics is hard to get excited about (or read at all), I have to applaud Piketty for, at a minimum, opening the economic dialogue far more effectively than any American economist has been able to for at least thirty years. Conservative economists are lining up to take potshots at him, but, historically speaking, they've already lost the battle in that they have been forced to address his arguments: without him they would have been left to restate their distorted version of reality ad nauseum.

Since at least one of my readers is literary, today I'll write about Balzac. As it happens, I've read Le Pere Goriot, which Piketty uses extensively to make his point about economic life in developed countries during the early nineteenth century. I don't consider Balzac to be one of the greatest writers, because there is a comic book quality to many of his characters. This was particularly apparent in La Cousine Bette, but I didn't notice it as much in Le Pere Goriot. As a reader who enjoys realism, Le Pere Goriot is one of my favorites by Balzac. I should also mention that Balzac clearly was a major influence on Dostoevsky, who was similarly long-winded but is reasonably credited with introducing the inner life of characters to novels.

Piketty describes in detail the plot of Le Pere Goriot in order to show how becoming wealthy was far easier through marriage or inheritance than through hard work. The criminal Vautrin explains to the young Rastignac that he would be more successful at obtaining a good life by marrying into wealth than by becoming a lawyer and working diligently for many years:
By the age of thirty, you will be a judge making 1,200 francs a year, if you haven't yet tossed away your robes. When you reach forty, you will marry a miller's daughter with an income of around 6,000 livres. Thank you very much. If you're lucky enough to find a patron, you will become a royal prosecutor at thirty, with compensation of a thousand ecus [5,000 francs], and you will marry the mayor's daughter. If you're willing to do a little political dirty work, you will be a prosecutor-general by the time you're forty....It is my privilege to point out to you, however, that there are only twenty prosecutors-general in France, while 20,000 of you aspire to the position, and among them are a few clowns who would sell their families to move up a rung. If this profession disgusts you, consider another. Would Baron de Rastignac like to be a lawyer? Very well then! You will need to suffer ten years of misery, spend a thousand francs a month, acquire a library and an office, frequent society, kiss the hem of a clerk to get cases, and lick the courthouse floor with your tongue. If the profession led anywhere, I wouldn't advise you against it. But can you name five lawyers in Paris who earn more than 50,000 francs a year at age fifty?

Vautrin then goes on to suggest that Rastignac marry into money in order to obtain an income of 50,000 francs at age twenty. He has a candidate lined up and will assist Rastignac by killing her brother in order to expedite her inheritance.

Although the point of Piketty's reference is to make his ideas intelligible in a non-technical way, I find Vautrin's calculations interesting in their own right. His schemes are hardly any different from those made by people everywhere, if only more extreme, but they are rarely discussed with such candor. Literature like this has given rise to a prejudice within English-speaking countries suggesting that the French are morally bankrupt. However, I see the same phenomenon in America, with the thoughts hidden, sometimes by self-delusion. Thus, American businessmen crave vast wealth and rationalize their behavior by thinking that they are "job creators" or that they are "creating value" or that they are engaging in the "creative destruction" of inefficient companies. Or they are reinforcing America's economic and military might in order to withstand the evils of terrorism, communism, totalitarianism or whatever. One of the most bizarre aspects of American ideology has been its convoluted linkage of Christian values to the virtues of the wealthy. In my view, today's ruling class contains a hidden element of Vautrin, and many wealthy people in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere are sociopaths in disguise.


  1. There are so many articles and podcasts about Piketty. I generally lose interest pretty quick however your post was interesting to the end. Not exactly on topic but for some reason it makes me want to read a post about Russian money in US esp NYC. Is that something you could comment on.

  2. I'll try not to bore everyone about Piketty, though I can't ignore him; he is the phenomenon of the moment, but will probably be of greater importance than Beyoncé or the Kardashians.

    I don't know much about Russian money in the U.S. I did follow the story about Russian tax havens in Cyprus. When I lived in the Chicago area, there were a few thug-like Russian ex-pats living there. Russian oil money controlled by the oligarchs is sloshing around all over the world. Some people think Putin has $40 billion under his control.

    1. Putin's narcissistic, strong arm tactics are pretty out there. Hard to know if that style is what's needed or going to serve well but that's what they've got. I can believe the $40 b whenever oil is involved. We have oil here in AB and we have no provincial sales tax Thank you oil.

    2. The Russians aren't used to warm and fuzzy democracy. They went from serfdom to communism, and the old-timers like Putin think democracy is a joke. Unfortunately he isn't completely wrong: Obama seems naive in comparison. If Putin wasn't a thief I might find admirable qualities in him. As for Obama, it would be fine with me if he took an early retirement.