Mark Twain labeled the late 19th century the Gilded Age – its glittering surface masking the rot within. This term applies today for the same reasons: The rich get richer; most everyone else gets poorer. And the public thinks corruption rules.
New technologies similarly transformed the economy in that era and boosted productivity even as life for many Americans grew worse. Bloated tycoons? Desperate workers? A threatened middle class? Poverty amid the sweeping progress? Check, check, check and check.
But the silver lining of our current Gilded Age redux is that we left this stunning income inequality behind once. We can do it again. Americans eventually escaped the Gilded Age because they also made it a period of reform that ushered in the Progressive Era.
The past seems so present. The Gilded Age had immigrants attracted to the idea of golden opportunity and resented by its earlier inhabitants. So do we. In the Gilded Age many Americans regarded Catholicism as an alien religion that threatened the nation, just as many Americans regard Islam now.
Many of the basic economic and political problems we face today are indeed far too similar to those of the late 19th century. Today the top 1 percent of the U.S. population now controls 42 percent of the country’s financial (non-home) wealth. The bottom 80 percent possesses 5 percent. After adjusting for inflation, median household income has fallen by 8 percent since 2007, which was the year before the recession.