Trust Thomas Piketty on economic inequality, Ignore what he says about literature

Ted Underwood, Hoyt Long, and Richard Jean So in Slate:

ScreenHunter_909 Dec. 14 19.16Six-hundred-page books about economics translated from French don’t usually become best-sellers. Part of the reason Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been so widely read is that it refuses to be just a book about economics. It traces the history of economic inequality with graphs of wealth and income, arguing that the past several decades have seen soaring disparity between the 1 percent and the rest of us. But it also shows how inequality shaped individual lives with stories drawn from novels. When Piketty spoke to President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers in April, even they responded to the literary aspect of his work, quibbling over his interpretation of Balzac.

As literary historians, we’re thrilled to see economists arguing over details in a novel. But Piketty’s claims about fiction and inequality are important enough to probe in more depth, which is why we decided to test some of them on a scale only recently made possible by computers. Piketty’s account of literary history turns out to be wrong—but wrong in a way that casts a surprising new light on the way novels dorespond to the changing economic fortunes of people in the real world.

Novels by Balzac and Jane Austen matter for Piketty because they dramatize the immobility of a 19th-century world where inequality guaranteed more inequality—a world our own century is beginning to resemble once again. Since returns on capital were reliable, especially for large fortunes, the best way to get ahead was to start out ahead; income from labor could never catch up. The stability of 19th-century wealth is felt not only in plots that center on inheritance, but also, Piketty adds, in the references that flesh out a fictional world.

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