IMG_6019In Piketty’s book he notes that from the medieval period onward, the wealth in society has never been more evenly distributed than after the Second World War, where the vast destruction of capital flattened out many fortunes based on investments. At that point, if I’m reading him right, the top 1% of people owned 50% of the wealth in Europe.  In the Middle Ages, it’s far higher: 90% of the wealth is owned by the top 1%.

Let’s assume that the Order is not egalitarian in terms of its structure. We know it is not: the Houses, at least, and the Autumn covenants, appear to accrue capital rather than divesting it to the Spring covenants.  Let us further assume that the 90/10 observation holds true. Given that the Order has about 1000 members, this means that there are ten magi who control the vast majority of the Order’s capital.  Can we look at the history and current state of the Order as a series of battles and collaborations between these ten?  If we follow Piketty’s idea that in societies with high concentration, roles do not much change, we can assume that the positions of the ten have remained static, leaving aside great destructions of wealth, like the sack of Constantinople, the Corruption, the Sundering and the Schism.

I’d argue the ten probably include:

The Primus of Tremere

The Primus of Mercere

The Primus of Verditius

The Primus of Bonisagus

The leader of the Oppidum of Lycaneon

The Leader of the Covenant of Venice

The governor of the Bohemian Common

Who are the other three?  Are any of these clearly not in the ten?  Let’s hammer this out in the comments.

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19 replies on “Thomas Piketty Meets the Order of Hermes: The 1%

  1. Setting aside that I may disagree with the premise, we’ll assume it to hold true, and ask:
    What, no-one from Provencal? Aedes Mercurii, probably? Or do we assume any wealth those covenants may have held, has been diminished by the crusade?

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    1. I’m willing to accept Aedes Mercurii might be in this league, yes, but is there an good argument that they have retained wealth for generations and invested it (so that it is capital, rather than just a pile of commodity)? Personally I think that House Verditius shows a lot less development of capital than it should, because magic items don’t wear out. I’m not quite sure why they still live like medieval people at all…

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      1. Aedes Mercurii may very well not have retained their wealth. They were a contender for “10th place”, mostly inheirited wealth.

        As far as House Verditius is concerned, I agree fully (and might well point to the other Verditius Covenant of the Order, in Thebes, but the name escapes me at the moment). But you mention that magical items don’t wear out, and this is actually a matter of some concern to me in this context. It means I’m less than entirely convinced that models like Piketty’s can be applied directly, because there is little to no loss. For Verdi, production would turn into “growth” on an almost 1:1 scale, because there’s next to no maintainance etc.

        All this said, quinchris is correct that we’d need to define wealth for the Order first, before this entirely makes sense. And because knowledge so directly translates into power/effect for magician, I’d propose that Knowledge as Wealth might well be a valid unit, for once.

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        1. Of course the the obvious issue with the Vertidius is that, in most cases, magic items are not Capital. They are not an investment in productive resources. They produce nothing, and generally cannot assist in producing. I suggest that the closest equivalent today is fine art. Having lots of fine art is a sign you are mega rich much it of it self does make you rich. At best art is a storage of wealth but it is not Capital. The same with enchanted items. I suppose you can sell them but you can’t sell the really powerful ones to mundanes and I have not seen a fluid trade in old talismans among magi of the Order.

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          1. They are capital though, in that many of them act to reduce the labour required to produce goods or services, much like machinery.

            I agree that strictly military items are not capital, but in the order what’s the balance between talismans of megadeath and, say, magical lights and looms?

            Also, they provide hygiene factors at greatly reduced cost (by which I mean the preconditions for production) like light, fresh water, clean air, rubbish removal.

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            1. Yes I fully accept that argument. But if we look at the books with the largest number of talisman Magi of Hermes, Antagonists, and Through the Aegis (there may be others). Very few of the talismans do anything remotely “productive”

              I fully accept that most covenants have a number of “labour saving devices” which are used to reduce covenants running costs. Unless the savings that are made are then also invested into further productive assets I will suggest that these are no more Capital than a toaster would be to a modern household.

              I am also reaching the end of my memory of Economics 101.

              I am coming to the view that possession of lots of inherited items may make you powerful in military terms but not in terms of Economic.

              I am also going off the idea that mere possession of vast amounts of Vis as an indicator of wealth. Given that it is generally accepted that Vis is evenly distributed by Art, and that there is no inherent under supply of Vis, and it often literally grows on trees, there is unlikely to be a large scale buying and selling. Yes there is always money to be made acting as broker between covenants but it is unlikely to be the king of wealth that puts you in the mega wealthy.

              My conclusion is that it is difficult to apply definitions of Capital to the Order. Magic makes you powerful, fame and respect makes you influential. Being in a wealthy covenant might make life easier but it hardly makes you powerful.

              No one looks at another covenant and says “they have every thing while I have nothing.”

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          2. I have to admit, I don’t really see talismans as that major a factor, Especially as far as inheirited wealth is concerned. Their major advantages over other items are available only to the original creator (as far as I can tell) and as has been mentioned, they are rarely instruments of production.

            But I see Verdi (and Ingasia for that matter) as being probably full of not only magical conveniences, but also the lab texts to easily create more of these. Is that wealth?

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            1. I only focused on talismans because they tend to be the more powerful of enchanted items and most magi have a go at creating one in their life time.

              I would be happy to accept lab notes as being wealth but the problem is that they are easily copied. Most definitions of wealth and Capital assume that it is limited. For example a block of land, a factory, a mine, an amount of cash. Some one must own it, or share ownership, but there is only one.

              The problem with knowledge as wealth is that you can copy and share it without diminishing its utility.

              Also the problem with Vertidius being a store house of lab notes. I am not sure that there is a selfless tradition of handing in lab notes to the House for the Primus to use as wealth. Most Vertidius magi tend to have that Hubris and Greed thing going for them. I don’t see them as being all buddy buddy and sharing all their secrets, not in the same way as Tremere or Bonisagus.

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              1. I don’t see the House Verditius as a storehouse of labtexts, I see the covenant of Verdi (and probably Ingasia) as likely storehouses (along with Durenmar) as storehouses of _untranslated_ labtexts. Mostly kept in ones own sanctum, at a location perhaps known to one’s apprentices.

                I should point out though, that knowledge being trivially copied and shared, without reduction in utility is a very new idea. Scientia est Potentia – Knowledge is Power – is usually followed by the corrolary Hide it Well. Today it is widely accepted that security through obscurity is about the weakest for of security, this is not a medieval idea.

                Look at some of the fencing manuals published later, especially the Lichtenauer, probably others. These manuals were were apparently intended as a list of mnemonic aids to help the student remember concepts he had been taught orally. They do not “explain” the technique in any detail. On the contrary, the verses are intentionally cryptic and are described as “secret and hidden words” by later masters, who assure us that their opaque wording was intended to prevent the uninitiated from discovering the techniques described therein. Thus knowledge can be shared with the chosen few, but not made truely public. Because why would I want to teach everyone – or indeed anyone – all of my secrets, epsecially secrets I use to stay alive?

                Some of the (more) traditional japanese martial ryu have similar ideas that survive even today, with techniques or even series of techniques that are (supposedly) never mentioned or shown to those not initiated into them. Security through obscurity is failing, but some of them have supposedly stayed hidden for centuries.

                Are secrets then not perhaps a form of Wealth? And surely their value could also be viewed as being time, which is certainly in limited supply to any magus.

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                1. I agree with what you say. I studied sword in a traditional Ryu for many years and you are very correct about their secrets.

                  I like the idea that every magi has some little magical secret that is his alone, that there are Covenant secrets, House secrets and Arch Magi/Primus secrets. It all makes for excellent role playing and makes magic unpredictable.

                  However the original concept is that 90% of the Capital in the Order is held by only 10 people. I think we are having trouble defining what Capital is for the Order ( Capital not wealth or power). While Capital is not completely evenly spread through the Order I feel it is unlikely to be concentrated in a few people.

                  As to the Vertidius? I have do doubt that they have many untranslated lab notes tucked away in libraries describing devices of terrible power. However these are likely to be interesting new ways of vaporizing foes, rather than clever new methods of making cheese which is what would be necessary for it to be considered Capital.

                  There is a similar idea with untranslated lab notes. If they are untranslated then they are unused. This might make them a potential source of future Capital in an economic sense but that is all.

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                  1. Hm. Good points.
                    So, we’re back to having to define “Wealth” in the context of the OoH before we can even discus this.
                    Again.

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                    1. Well, Piketty’s interest in the way that wealth accrues intergenerationally. I’d agree that stockpiles of unused lab notes on how to kill people aren’t capital. I suppose it depends on if player characters are typical magi, or if they are frontier magi off carving out territories for themselves in a way that’s odd by the order’s broader standards. In terms of their discretionary use of time, PCs tip the “guns or butter?” equation right over toward guns.

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  2. I think we would have to start by defining what wealth is, for the Order of Hermes. I would suggest that when Piketty is talking about Capital he is primarily referring to arable land. When we talk about Wealth today we are mainly referring to Cash or some other productive resource like factories. Neither of these definitions suit the Order of Hermes. Does any one really care if one covenant has more farm land than other. I think it is very appropriate the the main rules disallow magi from taking the wealthy virtue as traditional measures of wealth are simply not relevant to them.

    I am going to suggest that wealth for the Order will be measured by accumulated stocks of Vis, size of the Library, and enchanted items. Particularly inherited Talismans may well be the definition of wealth.

    Using this definition it may well be necessary to remove the Mercure and Venice from the list of the mega wealthy.

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    1. What’s your thinking on the Mercere, there, Quinchris? I though their floating stock as the vis bankers of the Order might keep them in the teop 10.

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      1. I like the Mercere being at the top ten, but strangely not the Primus. I would hazard a guess that the Mercure are like every other House and unity of purpose is a little lacking, with every member taking on what ever projects they found interesting. Be it exploring, mystery initiations, diplomacy or studying Lores and Knowledges.

        The point I am getting to is that making money, serious money, takes time and dedication. I assume that most Mercure would do a bit of Vis trading when the opportunity arises, but it would be those people who see Vis trading as a serious full time job who would really make the money.

        There may even be a split between the “bankers” and those who prefer the traditional roles of messengers and couriers. The role of the Primus is to manage all of these members and factions, I find it unlikely that he would be really wealthy. Yes he would be wealthy, be not 20% of total Hermetic Capital wealthy.

        I would imagine that the bankers may well fell a little put out at having to subsidize those members of the House who wish to act as mere “mailmen” and not contribute to the very serious goal of wealth creation.

        Money is a serious business. I would imagine that the actual holders of the wealth in house Mercure would be the equivalent of the Buffetts/Packers/Bransens

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  3. I suppose there would be a difference amongst the wealthy as to those who “inherited” their wealth, such as the tremere, and those members who “create” their wealth, such as the Mercure. The Vertidius are probably a bit of both having a long term stack of items from the donations during the various competitions and created wealth from selling items.

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  4. Very interesting discussion. I, too, am failing to see clearly what capital magi may accrue.
    What is wealth for a mage? Time, books and vis, which are the 3 things that allow her to do things.

    Books and visa have already been discussed, and I think that these are part of the thing: the top 10 magi have the finest books/reallia/whatever, and huge stockpiles of vis. Enough magical items that they don’t need to waste time crafting them, too: if they want an item that detects faerie regios, they have it.

    Then, all that is left is time. Having 4 seasons per year is a given. How to go beyond that? I’d say by commanding other magi’s, or their apprentices time. If you need to fix an AC, there’s just no way you’ll do it yourself, of course. But this goes beyond, like having help in the lab to finish a project sooner. They can spend shitload of vis to hire other magi, or trade favors, like access to a book, for this, or anything else which means they can spend another mage’s time instead of their own. Which is also why I don’t see the “knowledge is free” paradigm applying to mythic Europe: you lose a very useful bargaining tool.

    So, if I can give an answer, it’s this: the capital of magi is accrued in 4 forms:
    – access to sources of learning and power, including bound creatures that can use Ritual Powers to Grant you virtues.
    – huge piles of vis
    – huge quantities of magical items
    – favors, or means of pressure (like knowing a lineage’s dark secret)

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  5. I am somewhat reminded that it was here that the Tremere experience of the Schism War echoed Australia’s WW1.
    Perhaps the Schism has altered the 1% pop 90% wealth dynamic. Most certainly Tytalus reaped a lot of wealth afterward. More if the Mirarion interpretation is adopted.
    Mind you Tytalii seem like the group most likely to play havoc with the inheritance system. ‘Boot to the Head’ aside, I can see them splitting the most valuable items between rivals. Possibly among their Beloved Rival and the fila.

    (And to my apprentice, I leave my feud with the maga Lena of Ex Miscellanea; treat her poorly so you may both grow stronger!)

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