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Written by Jim Jordal   
Thursday, 06 February 2014

AMERICA’S NEW GILDED AGE

By Jim Jordal

 Don't be afraid when a man is made rich, When the glory of his house is increased. For when he dies he shall carry nothing away. His glory shall not descend after him. Though while he lived he blessed his soul-- And men praise you when you do well for yourself---He shall go to the generation of his fathers. They shall never see the light. A man who has riches without understanding, Is like the animals that perish.

Psalm 49:16-20 WEB

Most of you are aware that the distribution of wealth in the U.S. is the most extreme it’s been in the past 100 years. Wealth is increasingly being concentrated in the top few percent of the population. In fact, the top one- percent of the people has more wealth than the bottom 40 percent. And this disparity is not slowing, but increasing.

Some people who already possess wealth, and unhappily many of we lesser folks, swallow the propaganda that all wealth is deserved. The myth is of course that since all wealth is the product of hard work and great diligence it rightfully belongs to its possessors. Anyone seeking to redistribute that wealth by whatever means is an enemy of free enterprise and economic market justice. According to this reasoning even obscene wealth should be kept from the clutching hands of tax collectors. Anyone suggesting that something is wrong with this situation is immediately labeled either a socialist or a foe of "The American Way" and is immediately pushed out of the mainstream of politics and economics into the social no-man’s-land of extremists, gold bugs, and cheap money advocates.

So at present the faulty belief persists that extreme wealth disparity is good for the country. But some are beginning to awaken to the truth that extreme maldistribution of wealth is a threat to the essential principles we consider to be the foundations of our culture. Today we’ll compare the two "Gilded Ages" and next week look at the dangers to our way of life presented by this extreme.

A century ago we faced a similar situation as the giant railroad, steel, timber, coal, banking and oil trusts led by names now familiar to us---Carnegie, Rockefeller, Mellon, Hill, Vanderbilt, Weyerhauser, Morgan--used their wealth to create a subverted government responsive mainly to their need for the economic freedom necessary to generate endless profits. The result was the late 19th Century Gilded Age with its Hudson River mansions, The Breakers at Newport, R.I., Martha’s Vineyard, Manhattan towers, and ostentation almost beyond belief.

As the domination system of the rich and powerful gradually gained power by suborning legislative bodies, breaking unions, corrupting courts, and spreading their wealth where it would do them the most good, a movement of farmers, laborers, radicals rose in resistance. Populists, Progressives, and various kinds of Socialists first formed discussion groups, then resurrected labor organizations into a variety of crusading political parties. They reached their peak in the Election of 1896, running Populist/Democrat William Jennings Bryan on a platform of plentiful silver money against conservative Republican William McKinley representing the wealthy and their demands for the Gold Standard, with gold as the only backing for money.

McKinley, representing the power structures, won the election but lost the people. Populism continued on for another generation, finally weakening with the coming of President Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressives who empowered some of their demands, especially land and resource conservation and control of the powerful trusts. Populist/progressives finally fizzled out as a political force in the great decade of the Roaring Twenties, culminating in the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression.

Today the Gilded Age is here again with Silicon Valley and Wall Street billionaires possessing economic and political power not seen in many generations. Some commentators claim we are entering a stage we might call Plutocracy, with a few people having great financial power ruling the remaining amorphous mass of people utterly without political or financial power sufficient to make a difference. But there are limits to how much chicanery they can achieve, and we seem to be probing these limits today.

Next week we’ll discuss some of the adverse consequences arising from our skewed distribution of money and income.