Friday, October 16, 2020

Book talk on Literature and Inequality, part one

Yesterday was the long-postponed, and I hope not annoyingly over-advertised, Zoom session regarding Literature and Inequality: Nine Perspectives from the Napoleonic Era Through the First Gilded Age. (If not for the pandemic, this event would have taken place live in April.)

I offered initial remarks describing the book, given that, after which Branko Milanovic and Kenji Yoshino offered comments. Then I took questions and comments from the audience. The session was recorded, and I believe will be publicly available soon, in which case I will post the link. But for now, I’ll use text from my PPT slides as the skeleton for a two-part overview of what I discussed at the live session. Part 1 here will offer general background, Part 2 will look at the book itself more closely.
Autobiographical backstory – This project offered me a chance to use my artistic / aesthetic side, at the same time as my logical reasoning side, to a greater degree than in some of my more conventional academic work. You know the story – tax policy et al by day; books, films, and music after-hours. Using both at once may happen to a degree if one views writing as an aesthetic and not just utilitarian exercise. But other than in my novel Getting It, combining the two has not always been so easy.
Inequality: high-end vs. low-end, not just DMU of isolated consumers – I’ve followed the last two decades’ inequality literature with great interest. But especially early on, I had two concerns about it. The first is that “inequality” isn’t just a unidimensional thing, to be measured in the aggregate, such as via the Gini coefficient. In particular, high-end and low-end inequality – extreme wealth and income concentration at the top, and poverty or deprivation at the bottom – are not symmetric. They raise different types of concerns, and generally are best addressed through different fiscal instruments. This is increasingly widely recognized in the literature now (as noted, for example, in my recent blogpost regarding work by Saez and Zucman).
My second concern, with some of the public economics literature in particular, is that its emphasis on declining marginal utility as THE reason for being concerned about inequality was far too narrow. Humans are competitive and comparative social creatures, not just isolated consumers of market commodities plus leisure, and reductive analyses based on the standard price theory models of a “rational” consumer miss a lot of the relevant considerations.
The “mapmaker’s dilemma,” social science / humanities – My law review article The Mapmaker’s Dilemma in Evaluating High-End Inequality covers a lot of this ground. Initially this was going to be Chapter 2 of Literature and Inequality, but then I realized it didn’t fit there, and published it separately. This piece’s title is based on the story, from both Gulliver’s Travels and the work of Jorge Luis Borges, in which mapmakers realize that the only way to make a map perfectly accurate is to make it life-size. But alas, that seems to hurt its usefulness. Both maps and all other models must simplify, abstract, and shrink the real world in order to be usable, but then there’s a tradeoff between usefulness and accuracy. Neoclassical economics & price theory have achieved great advances through their version of this, but the sacrifice is more costly for some inquiries than others. Evaluating high-end inequality is a case in point, and here one needs to deploy not only other social sciences but also the humanities, because they explore the subjective experiential side of social life.
Piketty 2013, Austen & Balzac – Thomas Piketty’s already-classic 2013 work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, helped give me the idea that one could fruitfully use works of classic literature – more specifically, realist novels from periods including the early nineteenth century –  in this regard. Piketty derives some nice insights from looking briefly at classic novels by Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac, but doesn’t exhaust the intellectual possibilities. Also, I thought he got Balzac a bit wrong, by describing the likes of Le Père Goriot as accounts of a “rentier society” in which nothing matters but your inherited wealth, whereas Eugène de Rastignac, the novel’s hero or antihero, is the preeminent arriviste – rising through the judicious use of his talents, such as they are – in all of French literature.
Project Fun? – The more I thought about this project, the more it seemed clear that, even apart from the intellectual contributions I hoped it might make, it could be quite enjoyable both to write and to read – more so, perhaps, than the likes of What Are Minimum Taxes, and Why Might One Favor or Disfavor Them? Looking back on my thinking, the one flaw seems to have been that it was actually quite hard to write, albeit fun once I had laboriously taught myself the ropes.
“Heading out in new directions without a map” – This is what Paul McCartney later called the Beatles’ process of writing and recording the White Album. They were in a new phase, liberated from their past but done with the psychedelic era. So what next? I faced my own version of this in writing Literature and Inequality. There were really no models out there for the book I wanted to write, nor was I entirely clear at the start just what it was. I had to learn the hard way, through multiple tries, what a given chapter should look like, as well as how they should all fit together. The book consequently took me six years to write (albeit, interspersed with lots of other projects), whereas I usually, when I have the time, write pretty fast.
Technical challenges – Even apart from figuring out what chapters should look like – generally involving the selection of a central through line – and how they should all fit together to develop general themes – I had to handle a lot of technical challenges in getting it done. One was to put in exposition as needed, in the form of offering needed background regarding a given book’s plot and main characters – without making it tedious. This was more needed, of course, for a book like Twain’s & Warner’s The Gilded Age than for, say, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol or Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I had no uniform approach to this, but aimed to solve it case-by-case within the chapter’s flow. It brought to mind the issue any novelist or screenwriter faces, regarding how to supply needed exposition as seamlessly as possible.
I aimed to make the book interesting and accessible to both experts (in multiple disciplines) and lay people. If you read one or more publications in the vein of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and New York / Los Angeles / Boston Magazine, and you’ve read or at least know (such as through movies) say 3 of the 9 books I cover, then you are within the readership I had in mind.


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