• Deborah Yaffe

Brass

Jane Austen, it seems, is the go-to novelist for anyone who wants to write about money.


In 1937, the poet W.H. Auden famously remarked upon her clear-eyed understanding of “the amorous effects of ‘brass.’ ” In 2013, the economist Thomas Piketty used her work to illustrate his argument about the persistence of income inequality.


And last week, the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, the winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics, cited Austen again, in a column headlined “Pride and Prejudice and Asset Prices.”


The piece argues that liberals are wrong to believe that continued low interest rates exacerbate income inequality by inflating the value of assets like stocks, which are largely owned by rich people. By way of illustration, Krugman cites two rich people in particular: the heroes of Pride and Prejudice.


“The marriageable Mr. Bingley had four thousand pounds a year; the estimable Mr. Darcy, ten thousand,” Krugman writes. “Tellingly, Pride and Prejudice doesn’t tell us the value of either man’s estate; the income was the thing.”


Rising land prices in the Regency – like rising stock prices today – might have inflated the men’s net worth on paper but wouldn’t have increased their incomes, Krugman argues: “Mr. Bingley would still have been getting his four thousand, Mr. Darcy his ten thousand, and their tenant farmers would still have been paying the same amount as before.”


Like so many left-leaning New York Times readers, I’m a Krugman fan: I admire his gift for lucid explanation and his ability to churn out tightly – dare I say economically? – crafted columns week after week. And lacking my own Nobel, I am far from qualified to critique his claims about asset prices and inequality.


I am, however, qualified to critique his Austen knowledge, and therefore I feel compelled to point out that, while Mr. Darcy’s ten thousand a year is indeed generated by his beautiful grounds at Pemberley, Mr. Bingley’s “four or five thousand” is not derived from rents paid out of a landed estate. Inconveniently for Krugman's purposes, “Mr. Bingley inherited property to the amount of nearly an hundred thousand pounds from his father, who had intended to purchase an estate, but did not live to do it,” Austen informs us in chapter 4.


And a good thing too: Had Bingley senior lived long enough to buy his own place, Netherfield Park might never have been let to a single man in possession of a good fortune. . . in liquid assets.

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