Monday, July 13, 2015

Thomas Piketty and Pop Culture

Most reviewers (at any rate, those who do not instantly react with hostility to the mere idea of the project) seem to agree that Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century is hugely impressive as a round-up of the available data on the subject of inequality.

It has been more vulnerable on the question of its analysis of that data. (James K. Galbraith had the measure of its weaknesses in his review.1)

However, the book is nonetheless packed with interesting and at times quite persuasive observations and arguments.

One surprise was the attention Piketty devoted to cultural depictions of wealth. Certainly his most extensive discussions of this type are of novels by Jane Austen and Honore de Balzac (particularly Sense and Sensibility and Pere Goriot). However, he also pays attention to more recent work--perhaps appropriately turning his attention from novels to American television. As he notes, explicit monetary reference has become less common as a result of inflation confusing the significance of numbers over even short periods of time.

More significantly, he notes that rentiers have been less common. Instead inequality is consistently presented, and justified, as a function of "disparities with respect to work, wages and skills . . . based on merit, education and the social utility of elites."

Not only does it often seem as if "everyone" in television dramas a member of a prestigious profession, but they tend to be at the top of that profession--a top litigator at a blue-chip firm, or a celebrated surgeon, for example. Corporate gods and tech billionaires are a dime a dozen. And their status is always made out to be a reflection not of the advantages of privileged birth, familial connections, school ties, mealy-mouthed careerist conformism, old-fashioned corruption, or sheer good luck, but their extraordinary personal excellence, first, last and always.

Indeed, "everyone" constantly name-drops the elite institutions with which they have been affiliated, on the basis of pure merit, it would seem, since "everyone" was first in their class, wherever it was they went. "Everyone" with a fortune is self-made, through extraordinary entrepreneurship, and very likely also the extraordinary technical skill that enabled them to invent something. And as if their career accomplishments are not enough, "everyone" speaks a dozen languages, plays the piano like a virtuoso, fences like Cyrano, fights like Bruce Lee, pilots their own plane and recites Shakespeare from memory (never mind when they would have had the time to learn all this), all while being immaculately groomed and unfailingly articulate in a way that somehow real-life CEOs, billionaires and chief executives (a Donald Trump, a Silvio Berlusconi, a Taro Aso) never seem to be.

Indeed, Piketty observes that "It is not unreasonable to interpret such series' as offering a hymn to a just inequality." And I suspect how one responds to such a hymn might be a factor in how we respond to such shows. Might it be that being beaten over the head with this "hymn to inequality" is a factor in the boredom or resentment so many feel toward Mary Sue and Gary Stu characters, unacknowledged in any explicit way because of a reticence to talking about inequality or class? It seems an idea worth considering.

1. The most important of these is that Piketty's book is "about the valuation placed on tangible and financial assets," rather than capital, as well as the distribution of those assets through time, and the inheritance of wealth from one generation to the next"--and that while it mostly covers this well, it is a more limited thing than the work's apparent "ambitions," or its "title, length, and reception" suggest.

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