Remember the Gilded Age, the period running roughly from the end of Reconstruction to the beginning of the Progressive Era?
The term Gilded Age was coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in the book, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Twain and Dudley satirized the excesses of the era while revealing the serious social problems hidden behind a thin gold gilding.
It was an era of staggering economic growth marked by the rapid industrialization of the North and the West, fueled in part by the arrival of millions of immigrants from Europe. Industrialists and financiers like Rockefeller, Gould, Carnegie, Stanford, Huntington, and others made fortunes on a scale never-before seen in the United States. Some of the newly rich were not shy about flouting their money, and the Gilded Age became a synonym for excess.
Yet it was also a time of extreme poverty, with the gap between rich and poor probably wider than in any other era in the nation’s history. Much of the politics of the Twentieth Century revolved around narrowing the gap. Certainly, the adoption of the income tax in 1913 helped level the playing field, as did the reforms of the Progressive Era and the New Deal.
Sadly, maldistribution of wealth today approaches the levels of the Glided Age. New data compiled by prominent economist Emmanuel Saez show that the in 2012 the top 10 percent of wage earners took home more than half the total income. That’s the highest percentage of income garnered by the top 10 percent since the government began collecting these kinds of statistics. And the top one percent took home more than 20 percent of the income earned, one of the highest levels on record since the income tax was instituted a century ago.
The booming stock market, rising home values, and surging corporate profits (built on worker productivity and efficiency, not on expanding markets and creating new jobs) have conspired to put more money in fewer hands. The disparity in wealth is a long-term trend, decades in the making, exacerbated by the steady erosion of manufacturing jobs and the crumbling of the national infrastructure (fixing it would create tens of thousands of jobs).
The lucky few have benefitted since the recession began five years ago, while the incomes of most Americans are still depressed by high unemployment and stagnant wages for both blue- and white-collar workers.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for the working poor to make ends meet. McDonald’s demonstrates this fact on its corporate Web site, where it tries to help its workers manage their family budget. To make ends meet, the fast food giant suggests its workers get a second job. McDonald’s assumes a monthly net income of $2,060, which includes $955 from the second job.
McDonald’s, to put it bluntly, concedes that it does not pay its workers sufficiently. (Even with that second job, it’s hard to see how a family of four could survive on an income of less than $25,000 a year.)
By contrast, the super rich have few worries: They live in a world of $88 million condos and private islands in the Bahamas costing $40,000 a night.
The wonder is that this second coming of the Gilded Age has not brought on a more vibrant politics of protest. There is, of course, the Occupy Wall Street that began two years ago, but it has fizzled, lacking a message beyond mere disdain for the rich.
The surprising victory of Bill de Blasio, a true progressive, in the Democratic primary for New York City mayor may signal a rise in voter consciousness of income equality in America.
De Blasio shows that leftist politics can triumph. It’s time for other progressives to follow his example and run campaigns addressing income inequality.