Saturday, January 01, 2011

What Pride and Prejudice Can Teach Us About Inequality - Branko Milanovic - Business - The Atlantic

Most people think Jane Austen novels are romantic, which is why I've never been a fan. On the other hand, it's pretty clear, even to me, that her books have a lot to tell us about economics and society:
It will not be giving away the plot to point out that Elizabeth does have some doubts about the suitability of Mr. Darcy, who, in no uncertain terms, expresses his "adoration"--a period euphemism that would be stated quite differently in a modern book. But rebuffing him forever has an additional unpleasant implication. Due to English inheritance laws, if Mr. Bennet dies without a direct male heir, the house and well-functioning estate revert to his obnoxious cousin, the Reverend William Collins. In that case, Elizabeth has to live on her own income, which is basically her share of the £5,000 that her mother brought ("settled") into the marriage. Elizabeth's independent wealth is thus somewhat indelicately estimated by Reverend Collins, who also doubles as her ill-starred suitor, at £1,000. Mr. Collins assumes that she would make a return of 4 percent on it, and hence earn £40 per year. This is a rather measly amount, approximately equal to twice the mean income in England at the time. It is an income that a family of a surveyor or merchant marine seaman could expect.

This is where the love-wealth trade-off makes its appearance. Consider the situation from the point of view of Elizabeth's mother, worried about the happiness of her daughter. On the one hand, Elizabeth can marry Mr. Darcy and enjoy an annual income of £5,000 (we assume that she contributes nothing in monetary terms to Mr. Darcy and that Mr. Darcy shares his income evenly with Elizabeth). On the other, she can fall into what certainly seems to Mrs. Bennet a world of unremitting poverty, living on less than £50 annually. The income ratio between these two outcomes is simply staggering: more than one hundred to one. At that cost, the alternative of not marrying, or perhaps waiting until an ideal lover appears on the horizon, is out of the question. One would really have to hate Mr. Darcy to reject the deal he is tacitly offering!
For Elizabeth Bennet, it's not really a question of love. It's about how much she's willing to negotiate.