Gilded Age levels?

中国日报网 2015-01-09 10:43



Gilded Age levels?Reader question:

Please explain this phrase: Gilded Age levels of income inequality.

Gilded Age levels?

My comments:

In other words, a great degree of unfairness in income distribution – a few, very few, people make a lot while most others make little, very little.

The degree of inequality is so great, in fact, that it rivals the levels of wealth inequality of the Gilded Age era of yesteryear America.

All you need do is learn a bit about the Gilded Age of America.

Literally, Gilded Age is an age of sparkling rapid economic growth – To gild, as in the phrase gilding the lily, is to cover it with a thin layer of gold or something that looks like gold. Gilding the lily, of course, is quite unnecessary as the lily is beautiful as it is.

Gilded Age is a similar metaphor. If the phrase is not coined by Mark Twain, then the great American writer certainly popularized it with his book Gilded Age: A Tale of Tragedy. The book is a get-rich-quick story of a few brothers and sisters in the late 19th century. Read it, if you haven’t – much of Twain’s descriptions resonate today and more so in China than perhaps America itself, where capitalism has moved on from its rudimentary crudeness in the early days.

Anyways, late 19th century represents America’s great economic leap forward. Amid the great march west, after the discovery of gold and oil and the expansion of rail roads, a few Americans became the first millionaires in history. These super rich, in contrast, made ordinary working families look very poor.

Hence, the Gilded Age is remembered today as an age of great income inequality.

Again, read Twain’s book and learn a bit about the Gilded Age. You’ll gain a lot of insight into what’s going on today.

For now, let’s read a few media examples of Gilded Age in use:

1. The other day I found myself reading a leftist rag that made outrageous claims about America. It said that we are becoming a society in which the poor tend to stay poor, no matter how hard they work; in which sons are much more likely to inherit the socioeconomic status of their father than they were a generation ago.

The name of the leftist rag? Business Week, which published an article titled “Waking Up From the American Dream.” The article summarizes recent research showing that social mobility in the United States (which was never as high as legend had it) has declined considerably over the past few decades. If you put that research together with other research that shows a drastic increase in income and wealth inequality, you reach an uncomfortable conclusion: America looks more and more like a class-ridden society.

And guess what? Our political leaders are doing everything they can to fortify class inequality, while denouncing anyone who complains--or even points out what is happening--as a practitioner of “class warfare.”

Let’s talk first about the facts on income distribution. Thirty years ago we were a relatively middle-class nation. It had not always been thus: Gilded Age America was a highly unequal society, and it stayed that way through the 1920s. During the 1930s and ’40s, however, America experienced what the economic historians Claudia Goldin and Robert Margo have dubbed the Great Compression: a drastic narrowing of income gaps, probably as a result of New Deal policies. And the new economic order persisted for more than a generation: Strong unions; taxes on inherited wealth, corporate profits and high incomes; close public scrutiny of corporate management--all helped to keep income gaps relatively small. The economy was hardly egalitarian, but a generation ago the gross inequalities of the 1920s seemed very distant.

Now they’re back. According to estimates by the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez--confirmed by data from the Congressional Budget Office--between 1973 and 2000 the average real income of the bottom 90 percent of American taxpayers actually fell by 7 percent. Meanwhile, the income of the top 1 percent rose by 148 percent, the income of the top 0.1 percent rose by 343 percent and the income of the top 0.01 percent rose 599 percent. (Those numbers exclude capital gains, so they're not an artifact of the stock-market bubble.) The distribution of income in the United States has gone right back to Gilded Age levels of inequality.

- The Death Of Horatio Alger, by Paul Krugman, The Nation, January 5, 2004.

2. Wouldn’t it be nice to have lived in a time when you didn’t have to worry about global warming, bullying, airport searches, gas prices, acid rain, PCBs, the obesity epidemic or high cholesterol?

In fact, if you lived from the end of the 1800s to the early 1900s, such concerns would have been furthest from your mind. You’d have far greater concerns because the “good old days” of the so-called Gilded Age and the Gay Nineties, were good for the privileged class but meant severe hardships for most.

Those faraway times are chronicled in a magnificent book titled “The Good Old Days -- They Were Terrible!” by Otto L. Bettmann.

Bettmann began collecting prints and photos as a boy in Germany and earned a doctorate at Leipzig University. He was curator of rare books in the Prussian State Art Library in Berlin when Hitler came to power in 1933.

Dismissed for being Jewish in 1935, when Jews could still emigrate but take little of value with them, he managed to get past Nazi customs with two trunks bulging with 25,000 images, many of them on film negatives he had made. He eventually founded the renowned Bettmann Archive, a commercial treasure house of pictorial material that became a major resource of American culture for scholars, newspapers, magazines, books and television.

“It was a wonderfully auspicious time to arrive in America,” Bettmann once recalled. “Life and Look magazines were on the scene and the era of photojournalism was in its heyday. Budget-conscious editors were clamoring for illustrations. Everybody wanted pictures, and I had two trunks full.”

- The good old days were terrible for many in America,, November 26, 2010.

3. Modesty is a virtue not commonly associated with Dallas, but at a time when the super-rich are a focus of political and cultural scrutiny, high-net-worth potentates here do a good job of blending into the background. It may not be obvious to the outside world, but the rich in Dallas are richer than ever.

In what is shaking out as a regularly occurring historical countercycle, the rarefied strata of North Texas’ extremely wealthy are thriving while much of the country is still hung over from recession.

Memory has embroidered the early ’80s Starck Club-Rio Room era as Dallas’ gilded age. The nation was staggering from an oil shock, a hostage crisis and a double-dip recession, but J.R. Ewing and the Dallas Cowboys sent the message into every TV set: The streets were paved with gold.

Yet the size and proliferation of fortunes that now call North Texas home make the Dom Perignon-loving oilmen of 1982 seem like quaint relics. When Larry Hagman ruled from his penthouse atop the Mansion on Turtle Creek, flash and cash were inseparable. Today, there’s a lot more cash but a lot less flash.

The bumper sticker from the late ’80s Texas bust is still seared into memories as a cautionary tale: “Please God, let there be another boom and I promise I won’t piss it all away this time.”

- Boldface Dallas: Today’s super-rich dwarf the city’s ’80s gilded age by comparison,, January 12, 2013.


About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

 (中国日报网英语点津 Helen 编辑)




















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