Same as the old boss.
– The Who
Commentary about economic inequality often compares the situation today to America’s Gilded Age. Back then they had the Robber Barons. Now we have the Robber Nerds. Same dif? It depends who you ask.
A quick check of a list of the Robber Barons on Wikipedia reveals the names of several household brand names that still endure, plus numerous key universities and charities. And this article from a European source — The Truth About the Robber Barons from the Mises Institute ( “30 Years of Austrian Economics, Freedom, & Peace”) — says don’t be too hasty to condemn:
“The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are often referred to as the time of the ‘robber barons.’ It is a staple of history books to attach this derogatory phrase to such figures as John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the great nineteenth-century railroad operators — Grenville Dodge, Leland Stanford, Henry Villard, James J. Hill, and others. To most historians writing on this period, these entrepreneurs committed thinly veiled acts of larceny to enrich themselves at the expense of their customers. Once again we see the image of the greedy, exploitative capitalist, but in many cases this is a distortion of the truth.”
For more, consider the following articles, whose titles telegraph whose side they’re on. but they’re all worth reading:
The Robber Barons Weren’t Robbers. Here’s Why. The Learn Liberty project of George Mason University (2017).
Robber Barons. Economists View (2007, reprinting a 1998 article).
The Dark Side of the Gilded Age. The Atlantic (2007)
The Myth of America’s Golden Age. Politico Magazine (2014)
On the lighter side, see P.J. O’Rourke’s Up To a Point: Robber Barons Make Way For Robber Nerds. Rockefeller, Carnegie, J.P. Morgan: This country used to produce impressive if immoral captains of industry. Now we’re stuck with unrefined geeks like Mark Zuckerberg. The Daily Beast (2014).
One thing seems to be consistent in all these commentaries: both then and now. soaring wealth for the haves and a commensurate decline for the have-nots occurred in a capitalistic, market-based economy. A second key point gets less consensus: whether the Barons benefited then and the Nerds are benefiting now from government policy and financial subsidies (including tax breaks in our day) — i.e., whether the economy was then and is now truly a free market.
Satisfy yourself, but at this point, after examining far more sources than I can cite in a blog post of this length, and having interviewed a couple free market champion friends of mine, I can comfortably say, as they did, “There never has been a free market.” Instead, what we had then and what we have now was and is a skewed version of capitalism — a perfect political and economic storm that made economic inequality possible back in the Gilded Age and makes it possible again today. This is the missing piece that Econ 101 and its simplistic supply/demand curves doesn’t provide.
The result in both eras has been a new class system that morphs the Horatio Alger ideal into a Great Gatsby reality. When the new class system hits the job marketplace, the result is a vast worldwide demographic of the Angry Left Behind — unhappy, disillusioned, dissatisfied, depressed, and even suicidal workers suffering from meaning malaise. What bothers them is often equated to the same anger that has fueled worldwide political shifts such as Brexit, Trumpism, the move to the right in Germany and France, and a whole lot more. (See for example No Job Left Behind and Back to Work, and countless more initiatives and opinions like them.)
When the subject of economic inequality invokes those kinds of inflammatory developments, it’s no wonder we don’t want to talk about it. Which is precisely what we’ll continue to do, right here. Stay tuned.
Here’s the original music video of The Who’s We Won’t Get Fooled Again. Watching it draws you all the way back into the turbulent, polarizing 60’s — if you remember them, that is — and the tone feels eerily similar to what we’re living with today. By the way, who said, “If you remember the 60’s, you really weren’t there”? Find out here
And who first called the Robber Barons era the “Gilded Age”? Find out here.