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Monday, November 17, 2003

THE PRECISE MAGNITUDE OF A WIFE-WANTING GOOD FORTUNE 

How rich is Fitzwilliam Darcy, the villain-turned-hero of Pride and Prejudice? Brad DeLong asks and answers that question--twice--in a recent post in his Semi-Daily Journal.

First the question. We know from Mrs. Bennet's ecstasies upon learning of Elizabeth's engagement that Mr. Darcy is worth "Ten thousand a year!" So what's a yearly income of 10,000 early-19th-century British pounds worth in early-21st-century American dollars?

Well, says DeLong, $6,000,000 if you look at the problem in relative income terms--that is, "relative to the average of disposable incomes in [Darcy's] society." But if you focus instead on relative utility--that is, what someone today would need to spend to get and enjoy what Mr. Darcy could get and enjoy with his glorious "Ten thousand a year!"--the answer shrinks to $300,000. Why? The world of the Bennets and Darcys (and Austens) was "desperately poor" compared to ours. "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." DeLong gives as an example the fact that Nathan Meyer Rothschild, the Bill Gates of the day, died from . . . an infected abscess.

A fair point, but surely the $6,000,000 relative-income answer is better than the $300,000 relative-utility answer if we want to know how rich the characters in the novel felt Mr. Darcy to be, especially in a novel in which the anxieties attendant to insecure wealth are the coiled spring at the center of the workings. While an infected abscess would have done in rich and poor alike in Mr. Darcy's world, so too would (say) inoperable cancer in ours. There's always something that money can't buy; in fact, there's always an infinite number of things that money can't buy, even if the infinity of Mr. Darcy's world was of a greater magnitude (per Georg Cantor) than that of ours. To continue with the mathematical metaphors, the unobtainable is a constant that appears in both the numerator and the denominator, so the sensible thing is to cancel it out and ignore it.

What's more, we can run the comparison of relative utilities in the opposite temporal direction. The Bennets' pecuniary (and thus social) orbit may be lower than those of the Darcys and Bingleys and de Bourghs, but consider this: the Bennets are a family of seven living with servants in a comfortable country house presided over by a patriarch who spends almost the entire novel at leisure in his library. How much would it take in today's dollars to pull off that trick--without working? Let's start with the $300,000 per year figure, just to use a number close at hand, and let's assume you'd need $500,000 in pre-tax income (to keep things round) to net $300,000 in disposable income. At the 3-5% annual rate of return befitting the cautious investment strategy of a country squire, you'd need somewhere between $10 million and $16.7 million in wealth to clear that much income every year without invading your corpus.

And that's just to keep up with the (relatively) lowly Bennets.

In other words, while we 21st-century folk may have the edge if wealth is measured in terms of infected abscesses, we may lag if extended leisure is the yardstick. Which world yields more utility would seem to be a matter more of taste than of calculation.

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