By Daniel Shaviro
Jewish immigrant families from a century ago, such as my grandparents on both sides, often had a distinct set of intellectual and artistic values. Suppose that, of two siblings born to a similar family, one had turned out to be Bill Gates, and the other had become the third violinist at the Philharmonic. Everyone in the family would probably have said, “It’s a shame Bill didn’t turn out as well as his sibling.”
With such a background, it was predictable that if I didn’t find a career in the arts (though I’ve written a novel, the royalties wouldn’t pay for a Fresh Direct shipment) I would at least become an academic. In that capacity, I’ve been teaching and writing for more than thirty years, mainly about tax policy, but also in related areas such as social justice, inequality, budget deficits, Social Security, and Medicare. But for fun I read works outside my fields, focusing especially on literature, high quality genre fiction, and history.
When Thomas Piketty published Capital in the Twenty-First Century, I realized that I could now combine my professional and side interests. Piketty had the great idea of using works of literature as a tool for increasing our understanding of inequality in different eras. Unfortunately, however, his discussion of such classic works as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Honoré de Balzac’s Le Père Goriot is neither very deep nor entirely accurate. For example, he views Goriot as showing that early nineteenth century France was a pure rentier society, in which only inherited capital mattered—not what one achieved personally. This ignores the fact that Goriot is in large part the story of Eugène de Rastignac, to this day the preeminent arriviste or social climber in all of French literature.
I decided that I could do better than Piketty in using literature to help us understand inequality in different eras (although I respect his great work with economic data). In Literature and Inequality: Nine Perspectives from the Napoleonic Era Through the First Gilded Age, just published by the Anthem Press, I take a deep dive into a set of classic works that range from Pride and Prejudice and Goriot to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Mark Twain’s (with Charles Dudley Warner) The Gilded Age, and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.
My aim has been to enrich and deepen, qualitatively albeit anecdotally, what bare economic accounts can tell us about the feel of inequality, and how it was both rationalized and condemned, in different countries and different eras. I explore, for example, the cultural differences between American and English inequality, and the relationship between America’s two Gilded Ages: that which occurred during the late nineteenth century and that which exists today.
The book was fun to write, and I hope is fun to read. It does not require familiarity with the works that I discuss. Literature and Inequality is available from Amazon and other online booksellers, including in a Kindle edition, and I would be delighted to discuss it with any readers who wish to pursue a dialogue about it.