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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thomas Piketty’s Literary Offenses

Literature can inform economics, but not if it’s used carelessly

As the most talked about book this summer, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been praised for opening up a conversation about the importance of inequality and its consequences. At the same time, the book has been roundly criticized for using unsound economic theory and inaccurate economic data. But two recent articles by Michael Clune in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Stephen Marche in the Los Angeles Review of Books call our attention to another form of evidence that is important to Piketty’s argument.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” Clune observes, “convinces because Piketty supports his arguments about inequality with two innovative forms of evidence largely neglected by his predecessors on both the left and the right. The first is an unprecedented trove of historical economic data…. The second is a series of literary works, which Piketty uses to reveal the social and psychological consequences of this inequality in its erosion of human dignity.”

Clune is right. Literature is an ideal way to gain access to the ways in which those far away from us in space, time, and experience have thought and felt about all kinds of human preoccupations—including matters of money. And Piketty is on solid ground when he makes claims such as, “In the novels of Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac, the fact that land … yields roughly 5 percent of the amount of capital invested … is so taken for granted that it often goes unmentioned.… For nineteenth-century novelists and their readers, the relation between capital and annual rent was self-evident.” That Austen and Balzac feel no need to engage in extensive discussion of the return rate on land does suggest that it is so familiar to their readers that such discussion is unnecessary. And certainly, Piketty is correct to admire the “evocative power” with which “novelists depicted the effects of inequality.”

Where Piketty is on rockier ground is in his assertion that the evocative power of literature comes allied with “verisimilitude.” Sometimes it does. Sometimes it does not. And his assumption that literature does, as a general rule, have greater verisimilitude than “statistical or theoretical analysis” is problematic for two reasons.

The first is Piketty’s tendency to treat novels as if they are economic data, rather than data about how people thought and felt about economics. In his discussion of thieving entrepreneurs, for example, Piketty discusses several contemporary entrepreneurs, some criminal and some not—Bill Gates, Carlos Slim, Lakshmi Mittal, and Teodorin Obiang among them. He then asserts that outright theft is often tied directly to the return on capital, and “it has always been this way.” His support for that assertion? Tolstoy’s novel Ibiscus, the anti-hero of which is “a nasty, petty parasite who embodies the idea that wealth and merit are totally unrelated; property sometimes begins with theft, and the arbitrary return on capital can easily perpetuate the initial crime.” The line between fiction and fact has been completely blurred here. Literature is no longer used just to embody an idea. It is evidence that “things have always been this way.”

But literature is not evidence of how things have been. It is evidence of how people have written about how things have been. And it is a mistake to occlude that distinction.

Piketty’s assertion that literature provides verisimilitude is problematic in a second way: His most substantive claim about literature is simply incorrect. Piketty argues that the period between 1914 and 1945 was a major disruption in the history of capitalism. Those years leveled fortunes and reduced inequality. The inflation and growth that followed two world wars so upended the stability of capitalism that “money—at least in the form of specific amounts—virtually disappeared from literature” after 1945. Marche uncritically echoes this claim, writing, “And so, in contemporary novels, readers almost never learn the key facts about the characters—the amounts in their bank accounts and in their parents’ bank accounts. The absence is a failure, aesthetically as much as politically. Money is the greatest metaphor of them all.”

Unfortunately, the empirical claim that Piketty is making here about post-1945 literature is, like a number of his claims about the empirical economic data, highly suspect. Many who criticize his use of economic data suggest he is guilty of a certain kind of sloppiness, or at the very least, of cherry-picking data in ways that confirm his priors. The same problem appears to be at work with respect to his literary examples. There are, in fact, many examples of specific prices and salaries in major works of post-1945 literature, as even cursory research indicates.

Had Piketty explored the lists of “Best Business Books” that appear so often, he would have found Richard Bissell’s 7½ Cents, which details the agitations of a group of workers in a pajama factory for a 7.5-cent wage increase. The first page of Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit gives an account of the strain imposed on a tight budget when a wife buys a $40 vase during the same week that a husband buys a $70 suit. John O’Hara’s From the Terrace contains a close accounting of a young man’s college expenses, the costs of operating a country club, and the costs involved in starting an airplane company. Frederic Wakeman’s The Hucksters, John Braine’s Room at the Top, and Cameron Hawley’s Executive Suite all contain precise information about business costs and salary amounts.

And Piketty does not just overlook popular mid-century middlebrow fiction. He has missed, or not bothered to consider, some of the major novels of the 20th century. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 gives us Milo Minderbinder, who manages to buy eggs for 7 cents, sell them for 5, and make a profit. MacArthur Fellow Richard Powers includes considerable financial detail about the fictional Clare Soap and Chemical Company in his novel Gain. David Lodge’s Booker Prize-shortlisted novel Small World is hilariously clear about academic salaries. Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral includes detailed cost accounting of glove manufacturing. And Tom Wolfe’s best-selling Bonfire of the Vanities is a symphony of precise economic observations about the “masters of the universe” who inhabit the New York City of the mid-'80s.

In fact, open nearly any great modern novel—Gaddis’ JR, Kerouac’s On the Road, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch—and you will find such details.

Even without leaving his beloved Paris, Piketty could have determined that his claim about literature was false. Though it was, admittedly, written in 1942, Albert Camus’s The Stranger contains Meursault’s friend Sintès, who is irate because his girlfriend has been unfaithful after he provided her with “three hundred francs for rent, and six hundred for her grub, with a little present thrown in now and then, a pair of stockings or whatnot. Say, a thousand francs a month.” And in 1947’s The Plague, Camus carefully describes a character who responsibly sends his sister 100 francs a month, and another who performs the  “discreet but needful duties of a temporary assistant municipal clerk on a salary of sixty-two francs, thirty centimes a day.”

Piketty’s sloppy treatment of 20th-century literature might otherwise be unremarkable in a book on economics. However, when sympathetic readers like Clune and Marche explicitly point to Piketty’s use of literary evidence as a strength of the book’s case against capitalism, the importance of being accurate about the literary evidence and its implications is even greater. When placed alongside the questions raised about the accuracy of his historical data, his clumsy treatment of literary detail is more reason to be skeptical of the evidence on which Capital’s grand conclusions are based. If nothing else, his claim that the economic effects of the wars and crises of the first half of the 20th century caused a “significant rupture” from the 19th-century worldview cannot be supported by the very kind of literary evidence he points to.

When Mark Twain outlined James Fenimore Cooper’s literary offenses, he noted that before a college professor expresses an opinion about Cooper, it would be “much more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have read Cooper.” Perhaps Monsieur Piketty should have done the same in regard to 20th-century fiction.

We are strong supporters of using literary examples as evidence of the way people have thought about economic matters. However, we have also argued that using literature this way must be done with great care and with great respect for both economics and literature. Scholars who want to engage in this kind of work must understand both the economics and the literature well enough to combine them in effective and intellectually responsible ways. Accurately reporting on what the literature says and does not say, and avoiding sweeping claims unsupported by the literary evidence, seem like necessary first steps.

Crossing disciplinary boundaries can lead to powerful intellectual insights. It can also lead to careless work and confirmation bias. We applaud Piketty’s attempt to expand the range of evidence that is seen as relevant to economic arguments, and we are glad to see scholars like Clune and Marche recognizing that part of Piketty’s work. We remain, however, unconvinced by Piketty’s particular argument. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the traditional economic data Piketty is using, the 20th-century literary evidence does not make the case he claims it does.

The authors thank Garrett Hutchinson for his research assistance.