Monday, February 1, 2010

Finance as portrayed in Victorian novels

I think of my work on repugnance, and on protected transactions, as part of a broader project of understanding how the workings of the economy are viewed by non-economists, in ways that may have economic consequences. Some popular views are very longlasting, while some, as politicians know, are subject to change, particularly when the economy goes from boom to bust.

One way to gain some intuition about this might be to study how various kinds of markets and transactions are portrayed in literature. The 2009 book Guilty Money: The City of London in Victorian and Edwardian Culture, 1815-1914 by the financial historian Ranald Michie takes a timely look back at how financial markets were imagined in an earlier century.

He looks at how finance is portrayed in novels, writing "Given the steady production of novels over this period, they also provide a means of continually monitoring changing cultural values. In contrast, other evidence of contemporary culture lacks either the continuity or depth necessary to observe trends over time. Cartoons do provide useful snapshots, such as during the Railway Mania, while there was a brief flurry of paintings with a City theme in the late 1870s, but finance only rarely lends itself to visual display..."

In the Winter 2009 issue of the Business History Review, Andrew Popp writes of the book
"The portrayals are rarely flattering: the City is a place of speculation, gambling, fraud, and deceit; financiers are not to be trusted and are often Jewish, foreign, or both; morals are currupted; true religion is impossible; old England is another, better world; the aristocracy are degraded fools; and all widowers, spinsters, and retired clergymen are innocent dupes."
...
"At the end, the mystery remains of how global financial success could coexist so happily with a fiercely antifinancial culture."

All this seems very timely. Yesterday the Times of London reported from Davos on French President Sarkozy's speech about bankers under the headline Davos: Fear and loathing in the Alps
"Sarkozy railed against the evils of unbridled capitalism and reserved special opprobrium for bankers. “To earn such enormous sums and not to bear responsibility is immoral,” he said. There was a stony silence, broken by a clutch of people who had the courage to clap.
“I thank those two members of the audience for their support,” Sarkozy said with a grin, getting a big laugh. "

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