By Max Lawson

Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam International & EQUALS Podcast co-host

My family & I really enjoyed the new Netflix period drama Bridgerton, a kind of technicolour Jane Austen pastiche soap opera which was great fun to watch.  Like Austen’s novels, it is set at the beginning of the 1800’s in England during the Napoleonic wars.  And like Austen it centres entirely around marriage, this time the on off romance between Daphne Bridgerton and the Duke of Hastings (pictured above).  The events move from one glamourous ball to the next, with lots of heartache in-between. Daphne’s family are well-off but her father died. Securing a good marriage is important for her future, but she also wants to marry for love.

Several inequality experts including Branko Milanovic and Thomas Piketty have drawn on Jane Austen’s work as it is a very precise description of life in the 1% and the 0.1% at that time in history.  She gives very clear accounts of different levels of economic income and what that entails.

During the time of Austen, the value of money was very stable.  The average income remained around £30 a year for nearly a century. For Austen, to live a life that was elegant, comfortable, with servants and money for books and amusements, an income of around twenty to thirty times that was required, or around 500 to 1000 pounds a year. In the UK at that time British aristocracy was about 25,000 people, which was the top 1% of society at the time. They were a class of prosperous property owners.  Within this number were the even richer nobles (lords, barons and knights) numbered around 1500.  Needless to say, this was a very unequal time.

They were living during the transition from an ancient society of nobles and peasants to the beginnings of modern capitalism based on a regime of property ownership- something Piketty writes about at length in his new book, Capital and Ideology.

The first thing to note about these times is that none of the rich people have got rich through working. It is not possible to have the kind of wealth described by Austen and in Bridgerton through a profession, it is only possible to do it by having enough property that you can live comfortably off the interest from that property. The primary way to get rich was to either be born rich or marry someone rich.

Historically this property had been primarily land, and the rents derived from that land. At that time, the annual income from capital was a reliable 5%, so you needed capital that was worth about twenty times its annual yield.  So an income of 10,000 pounds would require a capital of 200,000 pounds. Whilst land remained a key source of income, capital portfolios were already becoming more and more diversified.  In Austen’s novel Mansfield Park, one of the characters must go to the Dutch Antilles for a year to tend to his plantations.  Austen makes no mention of slavery at all which was its peak at this moment in history. The country was also prosecuting a lengthy and expensive war against Napoleon and financed this in large part by borrowing from the rich.

Cover of Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park

These messy real-world events barely make a dent on Austen’s and Bridgerton’s world of Lords and Ladies.  Through the miracle of property and ownership it is all transformed into a sanitised and secure income that allows a life of leisure.

In the modern world, the gradations of rich are billionaires, ultra-high net worth individuals (definition varies but generally those with over $30 million in assets) and high net worth individuals (again definition varies but those with at least $1 million in investable assets).

The UK has around 14,000 UHNWIS and many more HNWIS.  Whilst ordinary savers are having to cope with negative interest rates, stock markets are booming and the super-rich in today’s world could certainly expect the same rate of return as in the time of Austen, around 5%.  So a member of the UHNWI class in the UK would expect a minimum annual income of around £1.5 million, which should allow them to live comfortably with enough books and other entertainments.

Piketty’s main contention in his most famous book, Capital, is that we are gradually returning to an age where inherited wealth and the returns from income on property will become more and more important. 

Despite the chaos of COVID-19 and the economic catastrophe that it has caused, the fortunes of the super-rich have bounced back already and continue to grow.  This will be a key message in our annual report for Davos next week. Maybe people will look back on Covid-19 as a moment that accelerated the return to a hyper-unequal patrimonial society of the super-rich.

“The Inequality Virus” Oxfam Davos 2021 Report Cover

Maybe also in years to come there will be period dramas, starring characters based on people like Kim Kardashian, organizing her elaborate 40th birthday party in October last year on a private island whilst her compatriots faced lockdown, death and destitution.  She was apparently humbled by her privilege at least which was good to hear.

© Kim Kardashian West/ Twitter

For now, a second series of Bridgerton has been commissioned which is great news.

Counting to a billion

In 2007 Jeremy Harper, an American, made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for counting aloud to 1,000,000 for charity, live-streaming the entire process. The count took Harper 89 days, during each of which he spent sixteen hours counting. You can watch the moment Jeremy Harper reaches a million here. He began on June 18, 2007, finishing on September 14. Based on this impressive effort, others have tried to calculate how long it would take to count to a billion. At 16 hours a day, without any days off, it would take 285 years to count to a billion.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Jeff Bezos has seen his fortune increase by 78.2 billion.  If someone was to sit down and count those dollar bills for him (assuming he would be too busy to do it himself) it would take them 22,287 years.

Have great weekends everyone, until next time!