By W.T. “Bill” McKibben, Senior Counsel, The Great Lakes Group
In 1873 Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner published The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. The name stuck, roughly covering the period from the end of the Civil War to the Trust Busting Teddy Roosevelt era. At its height around 1900, the top 10% percent of Americans soaked up about half the income with the top 1% getting about 40% of that amount. That left the 90% to divvy up the other half, slim pickings at best.
After Teddy Roosevelt leveled the playing field and the labor movement spread the bucks around even more, income inequality was not as big an issue. The two World Wars that devastated the infrastructure of nearly all other developed economies, gave America a running start during most of the last 100 years. However, toward the end of the 20th Century and into the early part of the 21st, the rich and powerful began to tilt the table in their direction again. The laws put in place following the Great Depression that protected little folks fell to a “Deregulation Era.” Enter a new Gilded Age.
Tax loopholes and corporate subsidies added to tilt the American landscape toward the super rich. So we find ourselves just where we were in the last Gilded Age – half the bucks going to the top 10% and 40% of that going to the top 1%. The middle class has been devastated and the poor are scrambling to keep their heads above water. We’re left with a set of social problems covered by a “thin gold gilding” – the same outlook seen by Twain and Warner in 1873.
That leads to some questions. Is it morally and ethically acceptable? Is it financially sustainable? Teddy Roosevelt didn’t think it fit inside any of those parameters. He saw it as just wrong. It isn’t as if this new Gilded Age came about through the efforts of those who are benefiting. When the laws of the land are twisted to give any group an advantage, it’s just plain wrong. What’s really bad about the current situation is that the recession so many are struggling to crawl out from under was triggered by reckless bankers who we had to bailout to avoid a major depression. They are now doing better than ever and the stock market is booming.
A recent Pew Research Center study shows that almost all Americans understand how the makeup of this Gilded Age came to be. Given an open-ended question the answers came in all over the spectrum, but two out of five pointed to loopholes in our tax system, followed by all the usual suspects; government policies, corporate influence, greed, etc., etc., etc. Although remarkably, 10% believe that a poor work ethic and reliance on government handouts created inequality; really! A gilded age is unsustainable; it’s bad for the poor and for the rich alike.