In a recent interview with the New York Times, presidential hopeful and perennial socialist curmudgeon Bernie Sanders opined that, “Billionaires shouldn’t exist.”
Boy-faced multibillionaire and sometime millennial curmudgeon Mark Zuckerburg defensively retorted that, while he agreed billionaires shouldn’t exist “in a cosmic sense” (a dig at Elon Musk’s Martian ambitions?), actual billionaires like himself performed a valuable public service through private philanthropy by providing alternatives to government. Moreover, he claimed, “people who do really good things and kind of help other people… deserve to be well-compensated.”
Setting aside the question of whether oversharing personal data along with your kitten pics is a “really good thing,” or worth $70,000,000,000, Zuckerburg’s smugly offensive self-defense echoes of a former gilded age, when robber barons like Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller amassed huge amounts of capital and spent lavishly, while the hoi polloi scrimped by, suffering miserable living and working conditions. The gross disparities of wealth and opportunity during the so-called “gilded age” of the late 19th century presented a sociological and philosophical crisis of American self-understanding, putting proof to the fundamental principles of fairness and equality and the pursuit of the American dream.
Progressive movements and policies of the early 20th century –from Teddy Roosevelt’s trustbusting to the income tax to the direct election of senators - mitigated somewhat the inequities of the time, but the movement toward a fairer distribution of the spoils of industrialization stalled during the excesses the roaring 20s and flattened during the Great Depression. FDR had promised a “New Deal” to protect ordinary working people from the rapaciousness of capital (augmenting the heretofore tacit quid pro quo of government to protect the haves from the have-nots) but his proposed Constitutional amendments instituting a 2nd bill of economic and social rights failed to find purchase in Congress. Despite fears of a socialist revolution, Roosevelt came to office to praise capitalism, not to bury it. His pragmatic application of homeopathic remedies (a microdose of socialism to cure its revolutionary fever) defused the anger and desperation of the toiling masses and turned back the barbarians at the gates of the gilded city on a hill.
Still, social security, FDIC, the minimum wage and a handful of other measures survived, easing the social costs of the plutocratic tendencies in the libertarian pursuit of happiness. The postwar boom created wealth across the class spectrum (though institutionalized racial and gender disparities remained) even as the wealthiest paid a 90% tax rate. But the neo-liberal and neo-conservative turns of the Nixon and Reagan eras reversed the trend, leading to the creation of one of the most unequal societies in the world. Wages grew in line with productivity across the spectrum until 1973, but have stagnated for the middle class and declined for the working class since then (a cynical interpretation of the meaning of “minimum wage”), while wealth for the wealthiest accelerated. While income disparity – especially racial and gender-based- aggravates, the disparity of wealth, driven by longstanding policies of racial inequity –such as the redlined “color of law” built into federal housing policy- is much greater. The richest 1% hold half of all wealth in America, while the bottom 90% share less than a quarter.
At the turn of the 20th century, the wealthiest 1000 families owned more than the rest of society combined; today, the richest 3 individuals have more wealth than the bottom half. A series of tax cuts for the rich since 1992, engineered by the millionaires’ club in Congress on behalf of the already wealthy and powerful, exacerbated these trends and reversed decades of modest gains and hope for the middling classes. Though pitched as a “Jobs Act,” the 2017 Trump/Ryan tax cuts rubbed salt in the wounds of working Americans, redistributing tax obligations so regressively that the richest 400 families in America now pay an effective tax rate below the bottom half of households, the lowest rate in American history.
“The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth,” said steel baron Andrew Carnegie in his 1897 op-ed the Gospel of Wealth, ”so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship.”
As in the previous gilded age, the improper maladministration of wealth in the early 21st century is provoking microeconomic crises and social division along with their attendant political reactions: the neo-progressivism of Elizabeth Warren, the neo-socialism of Bernie Sanders, and the neo-fascism of the Proud Boys and their angry tiki torch parade of the soon-to-be-slightly-disenfranchised (because nothing says nativist white supremacy like Polynesian cultural appropriation made in China and on sale at Home Depot).
While Warren wants to have her cake and eat the rich, too, Sanders, combining Norman Thomas’ charisma with Eugene Debs’ winning streak, speaks (and dresses) in the unreconstructed socialist cadences of the previous century. Meanwhile, the billionaire huckster Trump claims to represent the “forgotten man,” stoking the grievances of his base and the fire next time while tending to his own emoluments. Unlike Sanders, who actually honeymooned in the Soviet Union (how romantic!), Trump’s flirtation with Russia dates only from the Putin years of oligarchs counting their rubles in luxury hotels, sipping champagne and polonium tea.
We are created equal, claimed Locke and Jefferson, and born free. That fundamental birthright of liberty founded the nation and still animates and inspires our politics and culture, but equality and liberty can work at cross-purposes and today the terms are increasingly contested. Should the pursuit of happiness be construed in neo-liberal terms as unconstrained and unregulated self-interest, or as the social capacity of all individuals to pursue their own American dreams? We encourage and celebrate individual success, but it seems somehow unAmerican when the self-interests of a powerful few abrogate the sphere of possibility for everyone else.
“Gilded Age” is an appropriate metaphor for these times, a thin shiny coating covering the coarse base metal beneath, a simulacrum of richness and splendor. There’s another word for “gilded” (tellingly a favorite of the president’s): “fake.” If the base is left to rot, the gilt collapses into a flaccid puddle of tinsel. America has endured and thrived by striking a balance between the private and public interest, between wealth and commonwealth. But time is out of joint, and the joint is out of time, for a reckoning. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another war to pull us out of this one.
Michael Kilburn is a professor at Endicott College and is currently teaching POL315: American Political Thought.