“People perish for cold metal”

The interrogators did not write up charge sheets because no one needed their papers. And whether or not a [prison] sentence would be pasted on was of very little interest. Only one thing was important: Give up your gold, viper! The state needs gold and you don’t.

This is all from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. There’s more:

If you in fact had no gold, then your situation was hopeless. You would be beaten, burned, tortured, and steamed to the point of death or until they finally came to believe you. But if you had gold, you could determine the extent of your torture, the limits of your endurance, and your own fate.

It’s a good book, so far, but trying to compare the Soviet Union after World War I and a brief civil war to the present-day United States is a bridge too far. The only Americans today who might share the Gulag experience are the black ones, and even then their situation is less of a gulag archipelago and more of a traditional oppressed ethnic minority.

Mr. Darcy’s Ten Thousand a Year

On popular demand, I’m reviving a reoccurring theme of mine: teaching economic history through the lens of popular culture. Today: bonds, yields and 18th century English financial planning.

In what is probably my favourite piece ever written, I tried to estimate exactly how rich Mr. Darcy was – Mr. Darcy, of course, of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride & Prejudice. I showed that whatever method you use to translate incomes to the present, all characters in Austen’s captivating story are astonishingly rich. But, as we well know today, there are large differences even among the superrich; compare Bernie Sanders (small-time millionaire) with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (single-digit billionaires) or Jeff Bezos (wealthiest man alive).

Using Pride & Prejudice to illustrate some economic point is hardly unconventional (Piketty did this in his Capital in the Twenty-First Century), so let me similarly discuss 18th and 19th century British financial markets using the characters in this well-known tale.

The starting point is the following musing, courtesy of former Oxford Economist Martin Slater’s (2018: 52) The National Debt; how come “female characters in nineteenth-century novels always seem to have a suspiciously exact income of ‘so many pounds per year'”? Where does this money come from? Why is it so exact? And what’s the reason Piketty uses this particular literary example to illustrate the permanence and steady stream of income that capital somehow just throws off?

Consols and Financial Markets

Financial markets are truly awesome – not just in their impressive scope or potential devastation, but in the many different needs they simultaneously fulfil for many different people. Slater ably guides us through the confusing mishmash that is the 17th and 18th century English public finance, but what emerges by 1757, after Henry Pelham’s consolidation of government debt, is two main – and for our purposes, equivalent – securities: the Consolidated 3% Annuities (and the ‘Reduced annuities’), affectionately named ‘Consols’. These were permanent government bonds with annual interest payments of 3%. This means that they had no maturity date, i.e. the holder of the security could expect the government to keep paying 3% of the face value for all future (a Churchill-issued subsequent Consol was actually repaid and retired just a few years ago, after almost a century in service).

Two cool things happen. First, the “initial value” – the face value – of debt running in perpetuity becomes almost irrelevant, since all that matters for the issuer is the ability to maintain interest rate payments; there is no presumption of future repayment. Second, creditors – that is, holders of the Consols who receive the regular interest payments – may trade that asset on financial markets. Since the plethora of different debt assets were now condensed into a single, credible, identical and easily-identified asset, the market for 3% Consols in London developed into a very large and liquid market. With such ease of access and predictable and stable payoffs, the Consols became the instrument of saving for well-off families in Austen’s time.

A note on yields

The Consols, essentially a piece of paper with a face value of £100, entitled the owner to a perpetual stream of payments by the government, in this case 3% – or £3. Now, the actual price at which this paper could be sold in London fluctuated extensively depending on the conditions of the financial market and, most prominently in Austen’s lifetime, the Napoleonic wars. As the £3 annual pay was serviced by the British government, and financial strain during the war increased the risk for defaults (through a foreign invasion or British government itself), the price of Consols was chiefly reflecting the military success.

When the market price of a debt falls below its face value, the effective interest rate (the “yield”) that a prospective investor receives increases; paying £50 for a Consol with face value of £100 and a £3 perpetual interest payment, effectively earns the investor 6% interest instead of 3% (3/50 = 0.06). Since the Consols were the most dominant asset on the largest financial market in the world, their price became “the single most important asset price in the world economy” as Klovland (1994: 165) called it. Here’s the yield on Consols during Austen’s life:

JA, yield on 3%

It reached a low of 3.11% in 1792 (almost at par), and a high of 6.22% in 1798 (below £50) after the suspension of the gold standard.

The Bennets and the fortunes of handsome young men

The families of Pride & Prejudice made good use of this thriving financial market – not specifically for trading but for financial planning (others, such as British economist David Ricardo, and the banking families of Rothschild and Barings, made some of their fortune trading Consols).

In the novel, Mr. Bennet – the protagonist Lizzy’s father – has an income of £2,000 a year (again, see my 2016 piece for three different attempts at “translating” these sums into today’s money). It is not clear what his income comes from, but it’s a fair guess that it stems, like many other landed gentry of the time, from renting out farm lands belonging to the family home Longbourne. In addition, we know that Mrs. Bennet’s portion to the family home is a £5,000 contribution which is the sole inheritance the (five) Bennet daughters are entitled to.

Now, the way well-off families like the Bennets would make use of Consols was to ensure that non-inheriting children had at least some source of income after the passing of their father. The underlying concern in Pride & Prejudice, causing Mrs. Bennet to worry so about fortunate marriages for her daughters, is that the Bennet estate is entailed away to Mr. Collins – and with it the presumed rental income of £2,000 a year. That would leave the girls homeless, reduced to living off Mrs. Bennet’s inheritance of £5,000.

Austen began writing First Impressions (the initial title for Pride & Prejudice) in October 1796. During the decade leading up to this, the yield on Consols had been firmly within the interval 3.5-4.5%, hovering around 4% for years. It should thus not surprise us that Mrs. Bennet’s fortune of £5,000 presumably consisting of Consols, would have been purchased at around £75, predictably yielding the family an annual return of 4%. Indeed, the characters of Pride & Prejudice seem to be squarely set on 4% being the general norm. For instance, in a desperate attempt to enhance his already-inane proposal to Lizzy, Mr. Collins explicitly says:

“To fortune I am perfectly indifferent, and shall make no demand of that nature on your father, since I am well aware that it could not be complied with; and that one thousand pounds in the 4 per cents, which will not be yours till after your mother’s decease, is all that you may ever be entitled to.”

(Chapter 19, p. 133 in the 2009 HarperCollins edition)

Here we see the great use that Consols offered families like the Bennets. Once the Bennet parents pass away, the £5,000 of Consols could be divided equally among her children; Lizzy’s share would be a thousand pounds, which earns her an annual 4% interest return, or £40 (although maybe several year’s earnings for a regular worker, this was a rather small sum for such rich families – in contemplating Lizzy’s sister Lydia’s imprudent marriage, we learn that Mr. Bennet spent almost £100/year on Lydia’s purchases and pocket money alone). Being liquid financial assets, dividing up the Consols among children was very easy, and their steady income stream ensured that they would have at least some income. Bar Napoleonic conquest, the interest payment on the Consols would reliably show up year after year.

As for the handsome young men, Mr. Bingley’s case is easier than Mr. Darcy’s. We know that Bingley’s income is not agricultural, but investments from a fortune of almost  £100,000 inherited from his father, who had not yet acquired an estate. The fortune was “acquired by trade”, where (being from the North) cotton or shipping are prime candidates, but the slave trade is also a possibility. We also know that the ambiguity of his annual income (£4,000 or £5,000) lies well within the return from a fortune of that size invested in Consols. Indeed, for Bingley to hold that kind of fortune, earn that income and still not have an estate of his own, suggests that his financial wealth consists predominantly of Consols – perhaps complemented with some other stock (Bank of England or East India Company stock are plausible candidates). Clearly, new money.

Mr. Darcy, on the other hand, is plainly old money. And a lot of it. There are subtle hints in the novel that Pemberley has been in the Darcy family for generations. What we don’t know is precisely how his £10,000 a year is earned. When visiting Pemberley in Derbyshire with her aunt and uncle, Lizzy is told by the housekeeper that Mr. Darcy is such a generous and fair man: “ask any of his tenants”, she says, which indicates that Mr. Darcy, has a fair number of them – as one would expect from a sizeable estate like Pemberley. Now, what we don’t know is if the entirety of his £10,000 a year is reaped from rental income; it could be that some of his income is financial – or that either his financial or rental income is excluded from this rumoured number. Beyond a mention of his sister, Georgiana’s, fortune of £30,000 – which for convenience would likely be held in Consols – we know very little about the personal finances of Mr. Darcy.

The use and abuse of Consols

The financial market for government debt in the late-18th and early 19th century was not created with financial planning in mind, but by incremental improvements to previous government funding problems. The outcome, however, was a striking success for Britain, whose thriving financial market in no small part accounted for Britannia’s Century until WWI.

Moreover, as contemporary economists from Ricardo and John Stuart Mill to Malthus and Lauderdale observed, the recurring interest payments, funded by taxes, may have had quite large macroeconomic consequences. Taxing ‘productive’ investments and trade in order to fund ‘unproductive’ holders of government debt was, it was argued, harmful to the country – and in a time where government expenditures largely consisted of the military and debt maintenance, the impacts of funding the debt was of prime political interest.

Piketty’s use of Austen’s England (and Balzac’s France) was used for precisely the same distinction. Wealth, in Piketty’s view, perpetuates itself, and effortlessly earns its return (never mind the work, risk and selection issues involved). By continually paying the interest on its debt, the governments of Austen’s Britain financed the leisurly lifestyles of the rich, just as the “natural” return of the modern-day rich contribute and maintain today’s inequality.

The Consol was a revolutionary invention, but it is possible that it was not part of Mr. Darcy’s Ten Thousand a Year.

Semiotics in national dialogue: an observation

One thing the Notes on Liberty community may not know about me is that I worked for a while as a research (and writing) extern for the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Because of my academic background in history and the arts, most of my work focused on historical communism, especially as related to propagandist representations from inside communist countries. The experience provided me with an opportunity to immerse myself in the documentation and wording of communism.

Most people know how the Soviet and Maoist propagandists portrayed their own people: the moral, brave underdogs who are hated and despised by rich, corrupt weaklings. Any of the sufferings connected to communism – famines, shortages, economic instability – these were all the fault of external forces. Except in the case of the Chinese, to whom Mao refused to offer explanation and simply told the people that their sufferings were glorious and were sacrifices to the revolution. Hua Yu in his memoir China in Ten Words conveys quite poetically exactly how “glorious” everyone’s sufferings were. Even today, we are still treated to a modern iteration in the form of Nicolás Maduro and his wild accusations regarding the cause of Venezuela’s collapse. Most of the time, the perpetrators are the White House and CIA, though in August 2018 he blamed Colombia and some unidentified Floridians and in December 2018 he threw in Brazil, along with the traditional “White House did it” trope.

What is less commonly known – outside of film and literature aficionados – about Cold War era portrayals is their representation of those who live on the other side of the divide, i.e. in capitalism. Across the board, the portrayals were fairly simplistic – the rich were evil, the poor were good. The premise was always that the former were useless and the latter were meritorious, belonging in a socialist workers’ paradise, instead of in a system that metaphorically chewed them up and spat them out. The propagandists were masters of imposing this interpretive paradigm universally, from traditional Western literature (or even their own traditional literature in the case of China) to news items. For example, the failed yachtsman and minor-league conman Donald Crowhurst became a proletariat hero in the Soviet film Race of the Century in which he is driven to his death by a greedy, capitalist sponsor (in real life, Crowhurst’s angel investor). The propaganda point being that in capitalism human life is expendable. One has only to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to see under which system an indifference to human life was, and still is, ingrained.

There is a reason that Marxist and post-structuralist theory and criticism focus on the concept of “the other.” It is because communism can only arise from chaos and conflict. In order to justify its existence and explain its ills and failures, there must be an “other” which opposes it. The other can be the White House, foreign intelligence services, or foreign bankers. “Othering” can be imposed on practically any person or group of people, and the dynamic can be read into any relationship. If one wants to find an “other” in Solzhenitsyn, a very good candidate is Fetyukov from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. For a literary criticism standpoint, Ivan Denisovich Shukov’s contempt for Fetyukov is a case of the former “othering” the latter. “Othering,” while a development of Marxist thought, is not a domain exclusive to communist writing. Ian Fleming used the paradigm, consciously or unconsciously, in his James Bond series, with their black-and-white portrayals of who was the good and who was the bad party.

Study of the language and structures of Marxist thought and propaganda is both lacking and overwhelming today. Yes, on the one hand, our universities have been overtaken with grievance studies and criticism classes. But on the other, the tropes and thought processes of Marxism have subtly appeared in contemporary American dialogue. More insidiously, they are not coming necessarily from the overt socialists, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but from figures that identify as center and right. Ocasio-Cortez and her idol Bernie Sanders might be pardoned for regurgitating Marxist tropes, given that at least these politicians have had the decency to acknowledge their ideological leanings, but for “Conservative” [note the big “C”] intellectuals to do so is indicative of either ignorance or manipulation, both of which are unforgivable.

Consider what Michael Lind, a prominent neo-conservative, wrote in an article titled “Classless utopia versus class compromise,”published in American Affairs in summer 2018,

Democracy, then, requires strategically strengthening institutions that working-class people can control or at least influence. That means, among other things, defending the institutional independence of diverse religious communities, while sometimes favoring pragmatic municipal socialism. Whatever form an authentic grassroots working-class movement might take in the twenty-first-century United States, it is likely to look like historic precedents, including old-fashioned Milwaukee-style “sewer socialism” (municipal ownership of public utilities) and the Salvation Army. It will not look like the campus-based social justice and climate-change NGOs of progressive upper-middle-class professionals or, for that matter, free-market agitprop groups funded by the libertarian rich.

Lind has had a decades-old, well-publicized bugbear with libertarian thought, and to some extent his language reflects this. What is concerning about his words is the justification of localized socialism (history shows that this would not remain local for long) using the language of agency. The entire argument is built upon the fundamental Marxist assumption that the proletariat has no agency, wants it, and must collectivize to have it. In Marxist speak, Lind’s acceptance of the laborer-has-only-his-labor paradigm effectively “others” everyone on the other side of an indeterminate class line – upper-middle-class professionals (progressive or not), college students, free-marketeers, oh, and rich libertarians (one wonders where poor student classical liberals and middle-class libertarians fall in this equation).

In old fairy tales, a common theme is a beloved plant, usually a tree, that begins to wither away. The tree is externally healthy, and no one can discern a logical reason for it to be dying. After a long search, consulting of necromancers, and other typical fairy tale activities, the hero digs around the tree’s roots and discovers that there is a repulsive, venomous animal, usually a snake or a toad, living there, and it is the cause of the plant’s slow decline. Marxist thought and paradigms, not Marxism as an ideology, have become that snake for American Conservatism and center-right politics. Its poison is exacerbated by the fact that its acolytes and proselytizers appear to be unconscious of its presence as they argue that their only desire is to preserve the American Republic through preventing class conflict. But if they are doing is to hurl us faster and faster, more inexorably toward this very breakdown, as their ideas begin to overlap with those of the acknowledged far-left.

Fantasy and politics

I wish fantasy novels offered more political diversity. I adore fantasy, but I’ve begun to chafe at the ironic lack of creativity when it comes to political regimes. The genre may be missing a great opportunity. Or maybe I’m reading the wrong books.

While I don’t really mean this as a criticism so much as an observation, monarchy and feudalism abound in most other-world fantasies. Or the politics are indistinct. Despite my deep love for Tolkien, he falls into this category as well–either political control is unclear in regions like the Shire, or the region is ruled by an absolute ruler. His most well-known series culminates with the return of the benevolent dictator to the throne, Aragorn King of all the Dunedain (granted, there is intentional Christian symbolism here).

Modern fantasists follow a similar trend. Brandon Sanderson’s books, while wonderful, tend to involve worlds replete with absolute rulers. In fact, in the original Mistborn trilogy, a naive emperor tries to impose a more representative system of government, fails, and then decides that a firm hand is what’s called for. He and other authors like Robert Jordan dabble with some interesting political ideas and do provide a great deal of political detail, but they ultimately tend toward absolutism of some variety. Terry Pratchett’s main city-state on Discworld, Ankh-Morkpork, is ruled over by an absolute ruler, but Pratchett at least takes plenty of opportunity to poke fun at the masses’ constant yearning for a noble king to tell them what to do. Really, all these books are splendid, and politics are typically not their centerpiece–I just think some more variety may be valuable to the genre. (I’m not pointing fingers, as I’m guilty of the same problem–my forthcoming fantasy novel takes place in an empire with an absolute ruler and a largely meaningless parliament).

Fantasists could perhaps take a page from their science fiction comrades, where experiments with politics seem more common. Fantasy authors could do more than tinker with small tweaks to the monarchy and mercantilism of a pre-enlightenment age.  I can’t help but roll my eyes when I hear Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones gushing about how Daenaerys Targaryen is the only person who can swoop in and save the Seven Kingdoms from itself. That’s remedial polisci–surely we can do better. Who wouldn’t want to read about an anarcho-capitalist Iron Islands or a post-communist King’s Landing?

If you have any good recommendations for other-world fantasies that take up this challenge, I’d love to hear them!

New Books: Philosophy of the Novel, French conquests

Just wanted to call your attention to Barry‘s newest book, Philosophy of the Novel. Here’s a description:

This book explores the aesthetics of the novel from the perspective of Continental European philosophy, presenting a theory on the philosophical definition and importance of the novel as a literary genre. It analyses a variety of individuals whose work is reflected in both theoretical literary criticism and Continental European aesthetics, including Mikhail Bakhtin, Georg Lukács, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin. Moving through material from eighteenth century and ancient Greek philosophy and aesthetics, the book provides comprehensive coverage of the major positions on the philosophy of the novel. Distinctive features include the importance of Vico’s view of the epic to understanding the novel, the importance of Kierkegaard’s view of the novel and irony along with his other aesthetic views, the different possibilities associated with seeing the novel as ‘mimetic’ and the importance of Proust in understanding the genre in all its philosophical aspects, relating the issue of the philosophical aesthetics of the novel with the issue of philosophy written as a novel and the interaction between these two alternative positions.

Barry has more on liberty and the novel here and here.

Jacques has a new book out, too, titled Indecent Stories by Decent Women. It’s under a pen name, John René Adolph, for obvious reasons. Here is a 2014 essay by Jacques titled “Why Young Women Are Stupid (If They Are): A Scientific Inquiry.”

Main Street in Gopher Prairie (and elsewhere)

…but there are also hundreds of thousands, particularly women and young men, who are not at all content. The more intelligent young people (and the fortunate widows!) flee to the cities with agility and, despite the fictional tradition, resolutely stay there, seldom returning even for holidays. The most protesting patriots of the towns leave them in old age, if they can afford it, and go to live in California or the cities.

This is from Main Street, the 1920 classic by American Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis. Lewis won his Nobel Prize for his 1925 work, Arrowsmith, and was so upset about not winning the Prize for Main Street that he refused his award for Arrowsmith and publicly complained that he should have won the award for Main Street rather than Arrowsmith (he eventually accepted his prize, years later).

Main Street is a mean book about small town life (Gopher Prairie, Minnesota) in the United States of America. It’s mean because it’s true. It’s amazing and worth reading and blogging about nearly 100 years later because it still resonates powerfully with today’s reader. The more things change, technologically, the more they stay the same, sociologically.

Lewis was a dissatisfied left-liberal who never quite could make the transition over to socialist, though he was sympathetic to their views and aims. In Main Street, in fact, he lambastes the dissatisfied rural gentry (left-liberals, all) for their condescending dismissal of socialist arguments without ever actually considering them fully. Lewis grew up in a small town in Minnesota, where the majority of the plot of Main Street takes place, and was the son of a country doctor. His privileged, rural upbringing no doubt weighed heavy on his mind when he attacked the American small-town way of life.

He (Lewis) wasn’t an America hater, and neither are most left-liberals. Their conservatism betrays their progressive senses. They don’t want or desire revolution, they want change, and they believe the founders, most of whom were slaveholders, instituted a government that could be run by the people. Left-liberals often come across as bitter and hate-filled, and this essence can seem especially true when contrasted with the thoughts of a conservative-liberal. Lewis was certainly a bitter man (he died of alcoholism in Rome in the 1951), but his mean-spirited attacks on American society were, to him and his fans, the work of a patriot (that most conservative of citizen).

If you haven’t read Main Street yet, I recommend doing so. It’s nearly 100 years old now, a fact that made me smile to myself as I realized I was reading a 98-year old novel. (Sinclair Lewis is somewhat fashionable again due to the popular quote “if fascism comes to America…” being misattributed to his name. The freshness of seeing his name on a bumper sticker just makes the reality of how old his works are that much more interesting.) If you don’t, at some point in your life, read one of Lewis’ major works (Babbitt, Main Street, or Arrowsmith), you will die a philistine.

I finally read Main Street after years of it taunting me on the bookshelf. It was worth it, all the more so because I am dissatisfied with where I am at in life. I don’t quite live in a small town, but I do live in a college town after spending the last 7-8 years or so of my life in major American cities that also happen to be sexy American cities, and the culture shock has been hard to confront. Contrary to popular belief, college towns don’t have all that much “culture” in them. Instead, you have a small population of seasonal migrants and a larger (but still small) population of “locals” who live off of the migrants and off of the few industries that have manged to take root in the community. In order to have any sort of leisure in the American college town you must be either a professional or a shopkeeper. Otherwise, you’re shit out of luck.

Main Street reminded me of the streak of dissatisfaction that runs deep in American society. There’s a plan in motion, here in Waco, that involves professionalizing my wife, so I cannot be bitter, but I am dissatisfied. The large Baptist university here is too practical. Its students (Rand Paul is an alum) are dull, and most are philistines, replete with all the usual stories about traveling “abroad” (to western Europe, where the drinking age is 18…) and not knowing a lick of the region’s rich history. There are no Jews, no Koreans, no South Asian Muslims, and few homosexuals. There is a relatively large black population here, but it is, alas, just as conservative as the white one.

Naturally, Californians are reviled. As are college graduates. As are liberals of any kind.

One bright spot here is, of course, the food. Bar. Bee. Q. Even this, though, the one lone bright spot so far, is brought down despairingly by the fact that pants in my size are rare, if you get my drift. My inner celebration of the stereotype of the parochial and bumbling Southerner, now reinforced by real life, coupled with Main Street‘s piercing insights, have provided me solace in an otherwise empty period of intellectual stimulation in my life.

Nightcap

  1. One of 2018’s best essays about Putin’s Russia Cathy Young, Reason
  2. How the Left abandoned the working class Simon Wren-Lewis, mainly macro
  3. A new (old) political theory about the American Civil War Allen Guelzo, Claremont Review of Books
  4. A Danish Tolstoy? Morten Høi Jensen, New York Review of Books