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.
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.
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.