A Sabbatical at the Invisible College M.P. Dunleavey of the New York Times found my "How Rich Is Fitzwilliam Darcy?" and wants to talk. So I promoted it, and then I remembered that the comments were very good, and I reread them.
This is, I think, the promise of the Invisible College that might come into being via the world widee web. In the real world of Berkeley, I don't have "Jam" and "Invisible Adjunct" and "Pouncer" and Ian Whitchurch and John Emerson down the hall. On the internet I do.
Here are the best of the comments:
For the purpose of this exercise, though, what matters most is social status, which is an entirely relative affair. As such, the picture of Mr. Darcy as a 6-million-dollars-a-year man gives a rather more accurate portrayal of the motivation behind this gushing re-evaluation of Darcy's charms: tis as easy to love an extremely rich man as a poor one, nay, far easier. Posted by: Abiola Lapite on November 15, 2003 04:45 PM
Please remember that Darcy's income is symbolic. It is literally as good as a lord's. There were no commoners at that income level then. And Darcy must be a commoner: "you are a gentleman and I am the daughter of a gentleman." That said, a good bit of the basket that a Darcy, had one existed, would have bought would have been personal service. You probably can't buy the sorts of levels of personal service nowadays that a rich man during the Napoleonic wars could. Certainly not for $300K. And Schumpeter reminds us that no labour saving device is as good as the attentions of one body-servant. I'd go with $6M. Posted by: jam on November 15, 2003 04:56 PM
Historical price indices are based on the prices that (still) exist in series. Mostly agricultural. This works when we're considering the experience of labourers, most of whose income went on food. It's reasonable to say that a labourer earning 10s a week during the Napoleonic war had the equivalent of $3,000 a year. This, for us, is desperate poverty. But the upper classes (once you get above a couple of hundred a year) didn't live in a price regime dominated by food prices. Servant costs drove much of it: transport, housing, personal grooming and clothing maintenance, at least. What would be the modern equivalent of just the gardeners' bill to keep up Pemberley's grounds? We don't have good series for these prices. So they aren't incorporated into the indices. So the indices don't well reflect upper-class experience. Posted by: jam on November 15, 2003 06:21 PM
I always remind myself that, just one hundred years ago, I would have died from a ruptured appendix, at the age of 18. I'd pay quite a bit for the opportunity to breathe for the next 5 decades. Posted by: andrew on November 15, 2003 06:34 PM
From Auden's "Letter to Lord Byron":
You could not shock her more than she shocks me:
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of "brass",
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
I'm trying to remember the title and author a book on Austen that includes a chapter on money/worth/value -- as I recall, it had a good discussion of the difficulties of arriving at contemporary equivalents. Very different price regime, as Jam points out. And it's hard to translate landed wealth into consumer spending power, in part because c. 1811 there simply wasn't (in relative terms) that much to buy (but service was obviously a major expenditure for those who lived high).... The book I mentioned... is Edward Copeland, Women Writing about Money: Women's Fiction in England, 1790-1820 (CUP, 1995) (http://books.cambridge.org/0521454611.htm) Posted by: Invisible Adjunct on November 15, 2003 07:05 PM
How did I not come across that Auden poem before? Brilliant and so true. One of my favorite papers ever in college was one discussing whether Austen was being conventionally romantic or coolly realistic about money and matrimony. I argued via Emma for coolly realistic; Emma is the one with the cash in that story, and just about every Austen trope gets upended. Posted by: tavella on November 15, 2003 07:28 PM
"And it's hard to translate landed wealth into consumer spending power, in part because c. 1811 there simply wasn't (in relative terms) that much to buy (but service was obviously a major expenditure for those who lived high)." It's not that there wasn't stuff to buy (although there was lots less stuff). Fitzwilliam Darcy buys the ornamental shape of his bushes, the depth of his lawns, the stocking of his ponds and streams, the polish of his silver and furniture, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. We--or, rather, today's rich--live in a world in which things are cheap and servants are expensive, and in which a host of things that Fitzwilliam Darcy would have liked were not available at all.
For example... Flash back to the late fall of 1993, outside the Roosevelt Room of the White House, where High Clinton Administration Officials and ex-investment bankers Roger Altman and Bob Rubin are talking after a meeting. One of them suggests that they both need to get out of Washington for a weekend, so why not charter a plane and a boat and fly down to the Caribbean and spend Saturday and Sunday doing some serious deep-sea fishing. That is, I think, today's equivalent of Darcy's pride in the formal gardens of Pemberley and in his own sartorial attainment of the standards set by Beau Brummel.
Throughout history, it has always been true that if you have the money you can find something to spend it on (unless, of course, it is entailed). And it has also been true that the line between pleasurable convenience and pointless decadent luxury lies at about three times one's current standard of living, and that the line between respectability and unbearable poverty lies at half one's current standard of living--whatever one's current standard of living may be. Posted by: Brad DeLong on November 15, 2003 09:16 PM
Of course, the other thing you can buy with really serious money is an independent foreign policy. The Alberti had one, the Medici had one, and now George Soros has one as well. Posted by: Ian Whitchurch on November 15, 2003 09:30 PM
Keynes mentions somewhere that long-term comparisons of standards of living and of the purchasing power of money are practically impossible because of the change in products and in their quality and because of changes in production technology. At best, one could investigate how much unmilled grain would one hour of unskilled labour buy; but even this is dicey, because both the importance of such grain and the importance of such labour has changed tremendously over time.... On the other hand, Schumpeter pointed out in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, that most of the long-term improvement in the standard of living accrued to the lowest income groups. Queen Elizabeth the First already had silk stockings, but Henry VIII would probably have given a king's ransom for modern dental treatment. Saint Simon mentions Marshall Villars as giving the perfect courtier's answer to Louis XIV, the Sun King, when Louis complained that he had no teeth anymore: "Ah, Sire, who has teeth anymore?" The joke was, that in all Versailles only Villars had a perfect set of teeth. Indeed, any of us old enough to have had experienced the agony of treatment of tooth cavities in the days before the introduction of the high-speed, water cooled tooth drill, knows that my above-performed calculation omits the most important features of the rise in living standards. Posted by: Thomas T. Schweitzer on November 16, 2003 10:11 AM
Ninetheenth-century Britain was desperately poor, and not just in terms of advanced medical treatment. This is an anecdote, but I find it illustrative: For example, in New York City, in 1933, seven or eight people were recorded as having died from starvation, pure and simple (as opposed to disease exacerbated by malnutrition). In "Our Mutual Friend," written by Dickens in the 1860's, at a dinner party given by the very newly rich Veneerings, someone makes an impolite "reference to the fact that some half-dozen people had lately died in the streeets, of starvation." That character is roundly castigated for not adding that the poor are responsible for their own starvation, but it does suggest that ordinary living in London in the 19th century was as difficult as in the Depression. This is what makes the numbers so hard to compare to today's American money: London then was like New York in the worst of the 30's and like the worst of third-world cities today. I say the relative inequalify would have given Darcy's money a social status equivalent to $6 million, even though (land values excepted) the actual pounds probably would have bought only about $300,000 a year in goods and services. Another interesting historical point (if Brad ever feels like bringing it up) is the effect of inflation. I think there as George Bernard Shaw play where a character is getting $10,000 a year and he's complaining that it's not enough for a gentleman to live on. Posted by: Diana on November 16, 2003 11:17 AM
A Chinese novel "The Scholars". The protagonist is a poor, rather ineffectual scholar who is held in generally low regard and treated with polite condescension. But when he finally passes his government test (on the umpteenth try, very late in the game) and becomes eligible to hold office, he starts getting marriage proposals and dinner invatations from people who had scorned him only a few days earlier. The differences in the dynamic are big, though. The protagonist is neither bourgeois nor landed nobility. but a literati (literatum?), comparable to European clergy and poor gentry in some respects but now headed for power (and graft) in government. I read a decade ago that in India a family netting $350 a month could keep a servant. I imagine that's gone up a bit. And frankly, having people catering to you in various ways (not just servants, but people who you run into and want you to marry their daughters) is worth a ton of money even if you can't get fruit out of season. Posted by: Zizka on November 16, 2003 03:26 PM
Personally, I would rather follow this sort of discussion all week rather than another round of the "why are we ruled by idiots?" game. Other literary considerations, as you will, please? For openers: Agatha Christe once wrote that, as a girl, she (mis)estimated she would never be so rich as to be able to afford a motor car, but never so poor as to be unable to hire servants. (servantS in the plural, I emphasize, though Dame Agatha took that for granted.) Paralleling the reference to GB Shaw, above, one might note that Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities suggests that one simply cannot exist in New York City on a salary of a mere million dollars per year. (It takes at least SIX, per Wolfe ... in despite of Brad's notion that "luxury" begins at a mild THREE times one's current income.) That in mind, is it worth noting that many of those who are constrained to earn their million (or more) per year may still be living "paycheck to paycheck" in much the same fashion as any of our middle-class wage earners? Alternately, those who might derive a moderate income of some $40,000 annually, but purely from dividends and interest on investment, might live quite leisurely and comfortable lifestyles in rural areas. What is "not having to get up for work every Monday morning" worth? Posted by: Pouncer on November 17, 2003 06:11 AM
I tend to think that a higher estimate is in order because such incomes were comparatively rare then and there and the political and social power that would accrue to its possesor would be much greater than the lower numbers, which all sorts of random cardiologists and stockbrokers make today. The whole conversation brings to mind Locke's Second Treatise where he writes: "Sect. 41. There cannot be a clearer demonstration of any thing, than several nations of the Americans are of this, who are rich in land, and poor in all the comforts of life; whom nature having furnished as liberally as any other people, with the materials of plenty, i.e. a fruitful soil, apt to produce in abundance, what might serve for food, raiment, and delight; yet for want of improving it by labour, have not one hundredth part of the conveniencies we enjoy: and a king of a large and fruitful territory there, feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day-labourer in England." Posted by: Robert Schwartz on November 20, 2003 03:17 PM
Here's the original again:
The mother of the bride-to-be says:
Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice, Chapter XVII of Volume III (Chap. 59): Good gracious! Lord bless me! only think! dear me! Mr. Darcy! Who would have thought it! And is it really true? Oh! my sweetest Lizzy! how rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! Jane's is nothing to it -- nothing at all. I am so pleased -- so happy. Such a charming man! -- so handsome! so tall! -- Oh, my dear Lizzy! pray apologise for my having disliked him so much before. I hope he will overlook it. Dear, dear Lizzy. A house in town! Every thing that is charming! Three daughters married! Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord! What will become of me. I shall go distracted.... My dearest child.... I can think of nothing else! Ten thousand a year, and very likely more! 'Tis as good as a Lord! And a special licence. You must and shall be married by a special licence. But my dearest love, tell me what dish Mr. Darcy is particularly fond of, that I may have it tomorrow...
So how rich is Fitzwilliam Darcy, anyway? What does ten thousand (pounds) a year in the aftermath of the Napoleonic War mean, really?
I have two answers, the first of which is $300,000 a year, and the second of which is $6,000,000 a year.
Consider it first in relative income terms. Output per capita--annual GDP in America today divided by the number of people in America--is valued at some $36,000. Our crude estimates tell us that output per capita in Britain just after the Napoleonic Wars was valued at some 60 pound sterling a year.
Thus in relative income terms--relative to the average of disposable incomes in his society--Fitzwilliam Darcy's 10,000 pounds a year of disposable income gave him about the same multiple of average income in his society as an annual disposable income of $6,000,000 a year would give someone in our society.
On the other hand, my guess is that someone today with a disposable income of $300,000 a year can spend it to get the same utility as Fitzwilliam Darcy could by spending his disposable income of 10,000 pounds a year. This is a guess--a guess that our material standard of living today is some twenty times that of Mr. Darcy's England.
John McCusker, How Much Is That in Real Money?, says one pound after the Napoleonic Wars had the purchasing power of 70 dollars today. I think that economic growth over the past two centuries has been significantly faster than do the sources of McCusker's price indices: I think standard price indices overstate inflation over the past 180 years by almost half a percent per year... getting us down to a multiple of 30 in going from pounds in 1820 to dollars today in terms of real purchasing power. The jump from $300K to $6M comes from the guess that they were about 1/20 as well-off in a material sense as we are. But all of these numbers are nothing but benchmark guesses that give only rough orders of magnitude.
Nevertheless, it is an informed guess. By our standards, early nineteenth century Britain was desperately poor. There are lots of things we take for granted--and that are for us trivially cheap--that Fitzwilliam Darcy could not get at any price. Consider that Nathan Meyer Rothschild, richest (non-royal) man in the world in the first half of the nineteenth century, died in his fifties of an infected abscess that the medicine of the day had no way to treat.