Baum said that in 1900, through the guise of his classic children's novel "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." He was referring to the country's widespread corruption, inequality and greed, masked by the semblance of prosperity in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. Unfortunately, it's 2016, and we're living the same way. It's the New Gilded Age.
Although many may blame Wall Street and feel pangs of anger after watching "The Big Short" (highly recommendable, by the way), the problem runs deeper. Wall Street is only one factor in the screwed-up equation that is our system. In fact, our current state of affairs runs more parallel with the turn of the century Gilded Age than most want to admit. There are serious flaws in our system, inside Wall Street and out. It's a system injected with money and driven by a love of power and greed. We have to connect the dots.
For example, during the Gilded Age we had monopolies (Standard Oil, J.P. Morgan & Co. to name a few), food contamination, low working wages ("The Jungle"), political machines, police corruption, xenophobia, multiple economic downturns (the Panics of 1873 and 1893), and the advent of Jim Crow. Even the journalists weren't exempt from corruption, sensationalizing their brand of [yellow] journalism to make an extra buck (think Pulitzer and Hearst). Today, media conglomerates Comcast and Time Warner run the show. And they control the internet provider market, too.
In the New Gilded Age, Super PACs and lobbyists run the government and allow the banks to get away with such atrocities as the Great Recession. Insurance giants and Big Pharma control the medical industry, and put life-saving medications and procedures out of the reach of those who need them most. We let ourselves be distracted with xenophobic cries for border walls, as those enlisted to protect and serve commit extreme abuses of police power and feed the new Jim Crow.
We can't even trust the food we eat. Although 2011's Food Safety Modernization Act increased the regulations on fruits and vegetables, it did not make any provisions for meat, poultry or eggs. We're lacking food regulations. Our contaminated food sources and reliance on corporate farming have been well-documented by "Fast Food Nation," "The Future of Food" and "Food Inc.," but to what effect? Problems abound in our "well-functioning" system.
Luckily, there are some prominent thinkers speaking out. Two with whom I specifically resonate have been speaking out for years: former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and 2016 presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. One remark from Sanders sums up the situation particularly well:
"We got a collapsing middle class. We have more wealth and income inequality today than we've had since the 1920s. We have all of these enormous issues. And what big money can do is put an unbelievable amount of TV and radio ads out there to deflect attention from the real issues facing the American people."
However, the parallels aren't all doom and gloom. Reform did happen (in some sectors) after much protest, rebellion and civil unrest. Interestingly enough, one of the few highlights to come out of First Gilded Age was the increase in women's rights. Women organized during the Gilded Age and won the right to vote. These days, one could easily argue women are once again in the position to shift the balance of power; that is if you think it hasn't been shifted already.
Whatever your political leanings, these are issues we must address. Over the next posts I will look at how each sector has regressed to its Gilded Age flaws, because what better way to fix the future than by learning from the past? Stay tuned. KT