The New Gilded Age

“In the 1980s capitalism triumphed over communism. In the 1990s it triumphed over democracy and the market economy.” – David Korten, “The Post Corporate World: Life After Capitalism”

An era of “rich” poverty: widening inequality masked by a thin golden veil of prosperity. This was what Mark Twain coined the Gilded Age, one obsessed with consumption and unchecked capitalism from the late 19th to early 20th century – the time of the Industrial Revolution. Turn of the century, era changing innovation, a widening wealth gap, and blind consumption? Sounds like the modern age. In fact, according to Thomas Piketty and his avid followers, perhaps it is.

The dynamics have hardly changed. The tech moguls replaced the robber barons. Illegal immigrants replaced blacks as second-class citizens. Inequality is at its worst since this first age. And although the first Gilded Age was filled with the optimism of the American Dream, this new one – not so much.

According to Piketty, the prospect of wealth as an exclusive relic of family dynasties is almost inevitable – at least, in the current state of affairs. Although Americans still pursue that Gatsby-esque green light, the new generation of disillusioned millenials who are entering the workforce in one of the greatest Recessions since the Great Depression and political satirists like John Oliver are quickly dirtying this optimism. Frankly, people are just less optimistic about class mobility. Even if most Americans don’t even realize how bad wealth inequality is.

Although Obama has cited inequality as the “defining challenge of our time,” politicians have largely forgotten about this issue. Obama specifically speaks of income inequality, not even touching upon wealth inequality (likely the true driver of inequality). Why? It’s a threat to the privileged. We don’t want that.

Regardless, the industrial revolution, although during an era of gross inequality, offered beautiful innovations that truly changed the course of human history. Similarly, today’s digital revolution has altered our trajectory from what the 1960s thought would be a space-trotting civilization to a far more inwardly looking species that is increasingly more connected.

Just as the industrial era encouraged increasing literacy through public education, this Information Age offers the opportunity to learn through a network that offers unfiltered information. Anyone can contribute, everyone can contribute. No publisher determines what people can read. In a sense, this is the next chapter in education. Anything and everything is at our fingertips, streamlined by search engines like Google and Bing. We can get more information and in less time.

Seemingly unlimited steel and oil drove impossibilities unimagined in the previous ages. Cars, radio, film. Today, in the digital age, we truly do have an unlimited resource: our minds. Software innovations are almost limitless (save for, of course, fundamental mathematical limits – that of course may be broken in the future). While tycoons of the past relied primarily on monopolizing and streamlining resources, modern American billionaires rely on marketing and innovation – creating products with set expiration dates that Americans didn’t even know they needed but would eventually become almost a second brain.

The internet age, honed by bright-eyed optimists into now billionaire moguls, offers a weird new kind of socialism. The internet is one of the only unregulated spaces, one becoming increasingly available, popular, used. So long as the FCC allows it, the internet is an equal space for everyone, where anyone can be discovered and listened to. This is how a research project by two Stanford students became the most used search engine in the world. Of course, today’s billionaires aren’t only “tech geeks.” Some still are just businessmen or venture capitalists that invest in companies started by big brains. Some are all of these things. Unfortunately, the monopolies that run the mass corporations that control this free flow market are, well, monopolies. And their owners have only been getting richer.

Back in the 20th century, wealthy businessmen had an invested interest in providing for their workers, the masses. Why? The threat of an alternative to the big money capitalism running rampant: socialism. In the classic American fight against socialism, moguls supported their workers, keeping them satisfied so they would feel the optimism and enthusiasm crucial to keep capitalism alive and prevent a “downfall” into socialism. Today, this isn’t the case. There isn’t an imminent political threat of revolution. Globalization offers international consumers and resources. Billionaires don’t really have to care as much, and Americans are less optimistic.

But “zillionaire” Nick Hanauer warns his fellow plutocrats that if they don’t start caring about this devastating economic gap and removing themselves from the delusion of everlasting American capitalism, the pitchforks will come out. Out of the ashes of unchecked inequality will rise a revolution. Maybe it won’t be with pitchforks or even guns. Maybe it’s something along the lines of Edward Snowden or the hacker group Anonymous. For a new age, an information age, a new revolution. But that hasn’t happened. Yet.

Unfortunately, although the manifestations are slightly different, the reality remains. Inequality is one of the defining challenges of our time. The rich just keeps getting richer. So, how exactly did this happen all over again? Who are the moguls of our time? What problems do we still face? And is there any hope for the future?

In the coming weeks, What Weekly will take a look at this New Gilded Age, in the hopes of trying to understand what we have learned from the past and how this generation’s moguls compare.