Mad Men's Weiner is "a Reader of Piketty"

Lessons learned from the famous book on inequality

'Mad Men' Creator on the Aspirations of Americans

Matthew Weiner does not think about inequality the way we do -- "we" meaning economists, and the people who write about them. Weiner has been the showrunner on Mad Men since 1999, when he wrote the show's pilot about smoking, drinking and the aching wide gulf between achievement and acceptance. The show begins its last season on April 5th, and I got some time with Weiner on Sunday.

"We have, I do think an extremely socially mobile culture still," he says, "where accumulating wealth can put you at the top of power no matter what your background is." He's drawing a distinction between cultural and economic mobility. Culture is hard to model, and so when economists talk about mobility, they talk about income, using an impenetrable measure called "intergenerational earnings elasticity." This is the likelihood that children will end up in the same income bracket as their parents. It's high in the US. We're worse than Spain, France and Japan and much, much worse than Finland, Denmark and Canada.

But Weiner is a showrunner, not an economist, and so he's looking at more than just money. Income is necessary to success, but it is not sufficient. Success in America, he says, is becoming a white anglo-saxon Protestant, "the currency of power." And WASP is something you can buy, Weiner believes, no matter where you come from.

I think it was the ultimate aspiration. I think it still is actually. Male, female, black, white, gay, straight, anything, is to become a white wasp male. ...I see it when I see rap stars dressed in Ralph Lauren. It's just like the accoutrement of the WASP heritage, whether it's Brooks Brothers, Lily Pulitzer, or Yachts, or Down East, or Newport, or whatever it is, it still has the sheen of success and power. Even when people from the South go to the White House, this transformation happens. It's just as close to the royal lineage of America, and you want to be part of that aristocracy. ...Those are the qualities, however abstract they become, that we all value.

In its own way, this is a hopeful view of America. If you can get rich, you can become important. "There is still an idea," says Weiner, "that if you accumulate wealth, you will be listened to. ...I know it's possible. And I think it's one of the only places in the world where it's possible." Or: It's not a bad thing that Ralph Lifshitz had to become Ralph Lauren. It's a good thing that he could.

This shaped how Weiner read Thomas Piketty's "Capital in the Twenty-First Century." And yes, he says, he actually read Piketty. Or at least a lot of it. "[Piketty] confirmed what I thought," he says, "which is that legislation to protect inheritance in the last 50 years has kept certain people from even buying their way into power." It is harder than it used to be to make a billion dollars. Once you do, however, it's just as easy as it always was to walk into the Brooks Brothers at 44th and Madison and buy yourself a suit.

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