Lessons From the Gilded AgeRoundup
tags: Gilded Age, Economy, income inequality, Trump
Sarah Jones is a staff writer for The New Republic. @onesarahjones
America is in a new Gilded Age, or so the headlines say. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like the Gilded Age,” Bloomberg warned in February, noting that the late nineteenth century “was a time of exploding economic inequality, stagnant living standards, growing concern about monopolies, devastating financial crises ... brazen political corruption, frequent pronouncements that the American republic was doomed, and seemingly unending turmoil over race and national identity.” Even some Republicans agree: “Back then you had iconic innovators who built these dominant companies and amassed great fortunes,” Brad Mehlman, once George W. Bush’s assistant secretary of commerce for technology policy, told The Washington Post last year. “You’ve got that again today. You saw income inequality spike. The last time it was as high for the top 10 percent as it is today was the Gilded Age.”
These comparisons predate the Trump administration. They greeted the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century back in 2014, when Politicomagazine dedicated a full issue to “The New Gilded Age.” And surely they will outlast Trump, given that the aforementioned conditions only seem to be worsening. But are we really living in a new Gilded Age, or is this just the status quo for America? The answer lies in how society responds to today’s troubles.
“I think of it more conceptually than maybe statistically, but in the Gilded Age inequality was a function of the Great Leap Forward, of industrial revolution and economic growth, which happened unhinged from other kinds of compensating social institutions or mechanisms of wealth redistribution,” said Leon Fink, a distinguished professor of history at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the author of The Long Gilded Age. “So it was a great explosion of wealth creation, combined with a really immature or even invisible welfare state. It just cemented the initial inequalities of a very new and wealthy class.”
In 2018, we aren’t witnesses to a new industrial revolution, but we are experiencing a digital one. The new monopolies live in Silicon Valley. While their advances aren’t as tangible as the westward march of the railroads and the early growth of mass production, they have reshaped our lives, and the consequences are newly apparent. Amazon will deliver most anything to your door within two days—or perhaps even two hours, if you live in one of the wealthiest cities in America—but doesn’t pay many of its workers a living wage. Uber will pick you up within minutes and take you anywhere for the fraction of the cost of a taxi cab, but its drivers are treated as disposable. Facebook and Google have made the world more interconnected and informed, but at the cost of users’ privacy (and sometimes the truth).
Historical comparisons are rarely precise. Income inequality today is indeed at levels that recall the Gilded Age. But labor conditions don’t compare to those depicted in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and the legalized political corruption encouraged by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision isn’t nearly as brazen as the machine politics of the late 1800s. The key difference, however, is that there was no welfare state back then: It took the grotesque inequalities of the era to inspire the necessary social reforms. ...