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Living In The New Gilded Age

by John on 12/08/2017

newport breakers 1Going back in time can be a fascinating wake-up call.

Recently I was transported to the Gilded Age visiting The Breakers Mansion in Newport, RI.  (It will be on an upcoming episode of Undercover Jetsetter.)

This Gilded Age mansion was built in the 1870s by the Vanderbilt’s.

Inside this now-museum, you can relive the opulence and luxury of America’s wealthiest families.  But you also feel the labor of the servants, many of them immigrants, who made this lifestyle so easy for the Vanderbilt’s and a few other families.

Someone in line said, “We’ll never see a time like that again.”

Newport Breakers 2I thought so too.

Then I woke up and found myself possibly living in the Gilded Age today.

Blame Colin Woodard.  His new book, American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good is a must-read.

I’m only halfway through but I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to understand how history is repeating.  This might be the best book of 2017.

Woodard examines the conflicting formula that is the real foundation of America: the battle of the Individual versus the Common Good.  (My take: When this formula is in balance, America is great.)  Even though Woodard is a journalist, he then becomes an algorithm/historian as he programs the code of the Individual versus the Common Good with the data from his other incredible book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, which shows how each region of the US differs and why.  The result is almost a sure-fire way to predict how various regions have reacted and voted — and how they will in the future.

book cover american character ColinWoodardWoodard’s research just in the first 1/3 of the book shows me how today we are not far from the late 19th Century that embraced a laissez-faire/libertarian philosophy dominant in many of the regions of our country.  In other words, the formula leaned strongly toward the individual and away from the common good.

Consider these parallels:

  • In the 1890s, three people amassed wealth that equaled the bottom 50% of the American population back then.  Today we have the exact same statistic. 
  • In the 1890s, the laws were dictated by a group of oligarchs and monopolists who funded and controlled lawmakers while packing presidential cabinets with industry allies controlling the railroads, steel, and coal. Today we see something similar as a handful of families – like the Kochs and the Mercers — have donated millions to mostly Republican candidates.  That money: controls who runs and who doesn’t; and insures laws get passed that add to the donors’ wealth while widening the current income inequality gap.  book cover strangers in own land
  • Back in the 1890s, the oligarchs forged laws that freed them from social responsibility while lowering their cost of business – at the expense of worker and food safety.  Today we have Flint, Michigan and so much more.

Consider these Gilded Age realities uncovered today:

  • In her book, Strangers In Their Own Land, Arlie Russell Hochschild, examines why so many people in rural Southern states vote against their own interests by giving outside corporations tax breaks to build new plants while many times these corporations eventually hire cheaper foreign help, pollute the land and rivers, shut the plant, and then leave town with no repercussions.
  • An American Sickness RosenthalIn her book, American Sickness, Elisabeth Rosenthal describes how the healthcare industry, backed by Wall Street, ignores cures but instead prescribes a lifetime of treatment.  Why?  A cure brings no money.  A lifetime of treatment is a windfall.  Healthcare has become sick care to help make money for the few at the top – including many of the nation’s stockholders.
  • In his book, America’s Bitter Pill, Steven Brill shows us how major drug companies, the biggest of all political contributors, change the laws regarding drug testing and licensing.  Drugs today are not tested against drugs already on the market.  No, they are tested against placebos.  As a result, we get drugs that are better than nothing. 

On the surface, you can say the drudgery of life back then with workers forced into 16 hour days or children working in coal mines with no protection is far worse than today.  But factor in today’s healthier expectations and examine closer.  Research today shows more than 90% of the ailments that affect us can be cured or controlled by lifestyle changes – exercise, diet, stress reduction, and adequate sleep.bookcover bitter pill  Then realize the healthcare system pushes profit-making – and many times needless — pills and surgeries.

Aren’t the for-profit titans of today hiding life-saving and less expensive alternatives to get the masses to pay more like they did back then?

Being hoodwinked by a class of people controlling the purse strings offering little recourse doesn’t seem too different from a century ago.

That’s just healthcare and the environment I have cited here.  Think about the plutocrats in Congress and the White House protecting the oil and coal industries while hampering forward thinking technologies being embraced by other nations such as China.

So, we’re in a New Gilded Age.  Doesn’t that mean we’re also headed to a New Progressive Age similar to the early 1900s?

Maybe.  The Gilded Age had its share of worker rebellions and violence.

But it took decades – and I would say luck — before reforms were ushered in by Teddy Roosevelt.  Do you see a TR coming through the doors today?  I don’t.

theodore-rooseveltAnd remember, TR became President by a fluke.  TR was VP for McKinley as a favor to Tammany Hall, the New York City political machine, who wanted Teddy and his muckraking tendencies out of New York.  And then, if an assassin hadn’t taken out McKinley then who knows what would have stayed in place as TR sat quietly to the side.

Still, protest and political changes are brewing today.

  • Women are flexing their muscles in the aftermath of the sexual harassment/assault wave.  There is a chance more women in blue and purple states will run and win office.  They will need to run on more than just the anti-white male platform, though, and find some economic solutions that resemble more TR than Trump.
  • Millennials are getting older and by 2020 will have the higher numbers over older Baby Boomers – if they choose to vote.

Remember, things don’t happen in the US until someone’s family members or loved ones start dying from government neglect or incompetence.  And we are not there yet.

Some possible triggers:

  • GOP efforts in 2018 to cut back on Medicare and Medicaid. Should the majority of white senior citizens start dying after Medicare and Medicaid is stripped from their lives, then you might see a majority of Americans rising up to end the current Gilded Age.
  • War in Asia could not only cause many American deaths but see the world economy, including ours, suffer greatly.

I’ll have more thoughts as I continue to read American Character by Colin Woodard.

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