A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors



Paul Krugman reviews Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century:

Piketty discusses at length the lecture that the scoundrel Vautrin gives to Rastignac in Balzac’s Père Goriot, whose gist is that a most successful career could not possibly deliver more than a fraction of the wealth Rastignac could acquire at a stroke by marrying a rich man’s daughter.[...] You might be tempted to say that modern society is nothing like that. In fact, however, both capital income and inherited wealth, though less important than they were in the Belle Époque, are still powerful drivers of inequality—and their importance is growing. In France, Piketty shows, the inherited share of total wealth dropped sharply during the era of wars and postwar fast growth; circa 1970 it was less than 50 percent. But it’s now back up to 70 percent, and rising. Correspondingly, there has been a fall and then a rise in the importance of inheritance in conferring elite status: the living standard of the top one percent of heirs fell below that of the top one percent of earners between 1910 and 1950, but began rising again after 1970. It’s not all the way back to Rastignac levels, but once again it’s generally more valuable to have the right parents (or to marry into having the right in-laws) than to have the right job.

The New York Times reports that Canada's median income is now at least as high as ours:

Although economic growth in the United States continues to be as strong as in many other countries, or stronger, a small percentage of American households is fully benefiting from it. Median income in Canada pulled into a tie with median United States income in 2010 and has most likely surpassed it since then. Median incomes in Western European countries still trail those in the United States, but the gap in several — including Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden — is much smaller than it was a decade ago.[...] The struggles of the poor in the United States are even starker than those of the middle class. A family at the 20th percentile of the income distribution in this country makes significantly less money than a similar family in Canada, Sweden, Norway, Finland or the Netherlands. Thirty-five years ago, the reverse was true.

Louis Menand reviews a new biography of John Updike in the New Yorker:

Updike’s justifications for scoffing and balking at liberal causes were weak. “I distrusted orthodoxies, especially orthodoxies of dissent,” he pleaded in “Self-Consciousness,” which is just a knee-jerk response to knee-jerkers.[...] Updike was not, of course, a racist, a sexist, or a militarist. He was reacting to what he saw as an attitude, but he reacted with another attitude. Contrariness is not a politics.

But contrariness is a literary motivation. Updike told his mother that he abandoned New York and his staff position at The New Yorker partly because he didn’t want to become “an elegant hack.” Updike was not a mere word processor. He had a cultural project. He wanted to rescue serious fiction from what he saw as a doctrinaire rejection of middle-class life and an apocalyptic interpretation of modern history.

About the Author

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Fine article about Updike by Louis Menand.  Menand says that for Updike, and Proust as well, writing literature is a kind of transubstantiation:

“Ulysses” begins with a mock celebration of the Eucharist—and so, in fact, does “In Search of Lost Time,” a cookie dipped in a cup of tea. The idea is that literary representation is an act of transubstantiation. Literature pulls the real up out of the realm of temporality and insignificance and remakes it into a form that will never decay and never die. There is nothing doctrinally religious about this conception of the literary act. It is at the heart of modernism. “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance,” Henry James wrote to H. G. Wells. That’s what Updike believed."

Not making God present, but somehow making people present for later times. 


As one who is fairly conservative on economic matters, I approach Piketty with my guard up.  But what seems to be his central point (based on reviews and articles I have read), that investors have been earning more wealth than wage workers for many years running now, with the result that inequality has been growing, seems difficult to deny.  Not being a progressive myself, I don't see inequality per se as a problem, but as a Christian I am committed to a preferential option for the poor, and that the poor are stagnating or are worse off than was the case several decades ago, surely is a problem that should concern all of us of any political stripe.  

Regarding Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands et al catching up to us: that's worth at least two cheers, that so many people are doing better than they were before.  I expect the Fed could reverse that trend in five minutes or less if it wished, but I don't know why it would.  If the newly prosperous denizens of these other lands spend their higher incomes on American exports, so much the better for us.  A conservative might look at these income trends and inquire about rates of single parenthood in these various countries.



At first I missed your thread, as I saw Mollie's before it. The rest is , you might say, history. It is a shame that  your thread got lost in the shuffle since it is as important, if not more because of the greater impact on everybody but the one percent. By the way, Jim P, don't you think it fascinating that you defend so strongly the 1 percent when they would not want you for dinner nor allow you to stay on the same floor of a hotel nor their clubs. Among other things. Further, donfirming Krugman you offer no counter to Piketty's book. At least you don't ridicule it. 

We are unquestionably in a gilded age. If the US is to continue to thrive modifications must come. Better if they come voluntarily as seems to be happening in a few place. To wit the minimum wage increase breakout along with Walmart, Mcdonalds and other biggies supporting the piss poor Tomato Pickers by insisting that their rights as well as wages be increased. DeBlasio's election in NYC and the most gilded place--Manhattan- is another sign that people are trying to right the ship. And we know we can count of Jim P to help out the poor. 

There is, of course, mus more to detail about the problem. But for the moment an incisive article in Vanity Fair, "Perfection Anxiety" should command our attention we always knew that the super rich lived empty lives. Just go ask Willie Shakespeare. But A.A. Gill who wrote the article has damning details:

            " When you have 15 houses, yachts in three oceans, planes, cellars, mistresses, surgery, a library, and a personal charity, new purchases become just a matter of upgrading. And this is where the Perfection Anxiety kicks in. What you need is to have not just the most but the very, very best. The super-rich watch each other like envious owls, to see who’s got a slightly better loafer, a pullover made from some even more absurdly endangered fur. They will go to any lengths to find the best tailors. I know of a man who gets his suit pants made in Italy and the jackets on Savile Row. In his underwear, he’s short, fat, furry, and stooped."

Sorry. Not finished. 

This is of course the fantasy that the one percent is happier. What does Paul the Apostle know that the 1 per cent do not, when he repeatedly writes: "Rejoice Always."

The most striking and funny part of the article, is also pathetic. Gill relates; "As one art dealer said to me, “If you want to know what God thinks of money, look at the people he gives it to.”


" I don't see inequality per se as a problem"

Jim P. ==

I don't either. Bill Gates can own the whole moon, and that's fine with me. But inequality is only half (or less) of what Piketty is about.  His biggest point seems to be that the inequality is both 1) inevitable long run AND 2) that inequality *inevitably* leads to the rich taking in so much profit that the middle class and poor ineviably become poorer and poorer and poorer to a vanishing point.  It is unjust that both the poor and the middle-class people are being turned into poor people because the super-rich are greedy.

Another major point of Piketty's is that conservative economists have been spinning out theories and mathematical models to explain what is going to happen -- but their predictions have been patently *wrong*, yet they have not admitted their errors.   He even give the example of a Nobel prize winning economist who *made up* a model without any figures to back it up, and then treated it as *more than a hypothesis* -- and it's wrong, wrong, wrong. That's crummy.

 Krugman has been saying the same thing, and he adds that it is *dishonest* not to admit publicly that your predicitons were wrong, especially if you're an economist who puts him/herself out to the public as an expert.  I agree, and I go a step further:  if the economists whom you have allowed to form your opinions have been proven wrong about our own continuing recession, then you are morally obligated to look for some better economists to put your trust in (and that means dumping the conservative Chicago crowd including Milton Friedman, though he did admit he was wrong, God bless him).  And, yes, I do think that people of ordinary intelligence are capable of understanding at least the basics of economics, at least when they're motivated.   We have to know at least the basics to vote wisely, so we are obligated to learn them.

Interesting that all sorts of people are buying Piketty.  I gues a recession has motivated all sorts of people to tey to understand it.  Piketty is now Number One at Amazon, a best-seller by any standard. He must write extraordinarily clearly.  No, I haven't read it.  It's already out of print.  And, Yes, I have read a couple of so-called "criticisms" of the book.  Both avoided the big issues, which seems to be the conservative m.o. generally --  i've also read that the conservative politicians are trying to brand Piketty as a Marxist, but it seems he's far from one, though he seems to have some socialist leanings.

Please, go read Heilbroner's "The Worldly Philosophers" if you need a good economics book.

Not being a progressive myself, I don't see inequality per se as a problem,

There's only a finite amount of certain things, and the excessively rich take more than their share. For example, there are only so many apartments in Paris, and I think that something like 20% of them are sitting empty, bought by foreigners who don't live there, while the middle class are pushed out of Paris by scarcity and must spend hours commuting every day: the rich are making life more difficult for others, not to mention the poor who can't afford housing and sleep on the street outside those empty apartments. Because the supply of centrally located apartments is finite, when the rich grab more, the others suffer.


Claire, ditto in Manhattan.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment