In early June, I was scheduled to travel to Indianapolis for a wedding. I am admittedly no huge fan of the Midwest, as I endured five intellectually gratifying but frigid winters at Hillsdale College. The quiet but friendly Midwestern culture triggered a good bit of bovarysme and international travel. But I followed the advice of Hillsdale’s Provost, David Whalen, and tiptoed through the Midwest to find its treasures. I fell in love with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and I enjoy Chicago’s unassuming cosmopolitanism – what it loses at the margin over New York City in vibrancy, it gains in humility. So I was excited to return to Indianapolis, and to visit the new Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. Alas, COVID thwarted my best-laid plans.
I am a voracious reader of literature, but I have no formal training in literary analysis. Before this project, I had read precious little Vonnegut: only “Harrison Bergeron”, Slaughterhouse Five, and Welcome to the Monkey House (a collection of short stories). So when I was asked to comment on economic themes in a Vonnegut novel, I was in a bit of a bind. Where to start, in such a rich bibliography? Well, I went straight to the author… in his 1981 collection of essays, Palm Sunday (chapter 18), Vonnegut grades his owns books. I was looking for a balance of economic themes and quality writing. Player Piano (Vonnegut’s first), with its questions of human labor in the face of AI and robotics, was surely tempting… but Vonnegut graded it a mere B. Sirens of Titan (“A”) came up next, and free will was tempting… but I’m no philosopher, and I have limited taste for science fiction. Cat’s Cradle and Slaugtherhouse Five were the lone A+ rankings, but they had no obvious economic themes. This brings us to God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (“A”).
Rosewater deals with income inequality. Groan. Sigh. Why did I choose this, in the era of Sanders, AOC, and equality of outcome? Well, this is still Vonnegut, the author of “Harrison Bergeron”, a short story about a dystopian future where all inequality has been corrected by ham-fisted state interventions. And, besides Vonnegut’s own praise, I just couldn’t help myself; I simply had to select a novel with an unlikely and exciting hero: “A sum of money is the leading character in this tale about people…” I love money! Not filthy lucre (well, not just filthy lucre, as a reward for serving others), but money as medium of exchange, unit of account, and store of value. “The sum was “$87,472,033.61 on June 1, 1964” – or a touch more than $700 billion in today’s dollars (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett, by comparison, are worth a paltry $100 billion each).
In the first 70 pages of this delicious novel, we see a few themes emerge. I will return to more details in my next post, but for now, I have some curiosities:
- Where do Vonnegut’s sympathies lie? Is he being playful, or is he trying to make a point? In chapter 1, he seems to express admiration for business, but worries about cronyism and bribery. Lawyers, it’s pretty clear, are parasites. But what about honest entrepreneurs?
- Honoré de Balzac wrote that, behind every fortune there is a crime. Is this so? Can wealth really not be accumulated honestly?
- What is Vonnegut trying to tell us about the downtrodden? He has a few choice words about the “lazy” and “stupid” Midwestern wards of the Rosewater Foundation. At the same time, if wealth really is hoarded by a “handful of rapacious citizens [who] control all that [is] worth controlling in America” (9), and if those oligarchs can “order the militia to fire into crowds whenever a poor man seemed on the point of suggesting that he and a Rosewater were equal in the eyes of the law” (10) – can the poor really be blamed for their circumstances?
- What do you make of the “Golden Age of Rome” speech (27-31)? Déclinisme seems to be back in vogue, half a century after Rosewater was published. Are Senator Rosewater’s concerns justified, or are they the grumblings of a plutocrat who is losing power to democratic opening?
Nikolai G. Wenzel is the L.V. Hackley Chair for the Study of Capitalism and Free Enterprise, and Distinguished Professor of Economics, Broadwell College of Business and Economics, Fayetteville State University (Fayetteville, NC).