Posts Tagged ‘Gilded Age’

wealth shares

Yesterday, I looked at the enormous wealth of U.S. billionaires and the growing gap between them and the rest of the American people.

Today, I want to examine what’s happened in recent years at the bottom of the wealth pyramid.

We know that, for decades, the share of net personal wealth owned by the bottom 90 percent has been declining. It peaked at 38.5 percent in the mid-1980s and, by 2014, it had fallen to 27 percent—more or less where it started in the early 1960s.

As is clear from the chart above, most of the change occurred for the middle 40 percent (the blue area), since the bottom 50 percent in the United States has owned very little personal wealth. Its share (the red area), which reached a peak in 1987 (2.4 percent), has since fallen below zero (-0.1 percent, in 2014).

Clearly, the small and declining share of wealth owned by the vast majority of Americans challenges the fundamental presumptions and promises of the country and its economic institutions—that American workers should and would share in the nation’s growing wealth. They haven’t and, if current trends continue, they won’t.

In fact, as it turns out, there is only one dimension of American society where wealth inequality is actually decreasing: the racial wealth gap among low-income households. And that’s only because, since the onset of the Second Great Depression, the median net worth of low-income whites has been cut by nearly half—while the median net worth of low-income blacks and Hispanics has remained relatively stable.

According to an analysis conducted by the Pew Research Center of the data contained in the most recent Survey of Consumer Finances by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, there is a large gap between the median net worth of white families ($171 thousand) and both black ($17.6 thousand) and Hispanic ($20.7 thousand) families—a gap that increased between 2013 and 2016. The white-black gap grew from $132,800 to $153,500 while the white-Hispanic gap increased from $132,200 to $150,300.


The gap between whites and both blacks and Hispanics also increased for middle-income Americans (those with incomes between two-thirds and twice the national median size-adjusted income). Thus, for example, white households in the middle-income tier had a median net worth of $154,400 in 2016, compared with $38,300 for middle-income blacks and $46,000 for middle-income Hispanics.

But for low-income Americans (those with size-adjusted household incomes less than two-thirds the median), the racial gap, while still large, has shrunk considerably since 2007, the year the most recent crash began. In that year, the white-black gap was 5 to 1 and the white-Hispanic gap almost 10 to 1. In 2016, those wealth gaps had fallen to less than 3 to 1 and 5 to 1, respectively.

As is clear from the chart above, the major reason for the decline in the racial wealth gap is the fact that the median wealth of low-income whites fell by more than half between 2007 and 2013, while the median wealth of both blacks and Hispanics decreased by much less (around 19 percent).

The cause of both the racial gaps and the decline in white wealth has to do with homeownership, the only major form of wealth held by low-income Americans. In 2007, 56 percent of low-income whites were homeowners, compared with 32 percent each for low-income blacks and Hispanics. The homeownership rate among low-income whites has trended downward since then, falling to 49 percent by 2016, but the rate for blacks and Hispanics is largely unchanged. The decline in low-income white wealth was caused by the crash of the housing market, leading to a fall in housing prices and a decline in the rate of homeownership.

Economically, then, the crash and the uneven recovery moved low-income Americans—white, black, and Hispanic—much closer together at the bottom of the U.S. wealth pyramid. Politically, those changes created losses and resentments that affected the outcome of the presidential election of 2016, which in turn have made it difficult to challenge the conditions and consequences of the Second Gilded Age.


The timing could not have been better, at least for me. It just so happens I’m teaching Thorsten Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class this week. It should become quickly obvious to students that, as I have argued before on this blog, we’re now in the midst of a Second Gilded Age.

This is confirmed in a new report by UBS/PwC, according to which, after a brief pause in 2015, the expansion in billionaire wealth around the world has resumed.

Thus, billionaire wealth rose 17 percent in 2016 (up from $5.1 trillion to $6 trillion), far more than the 5.8-percent nominal GDP growth figure and double the rate of the MSCI AC World Index.** There was also a 10-percent rise in the number of billionaires globally to 1,542. Despite a period of heightened geopolitical uncertainty, the world’s ultrawealthy are flourishing.

The United States still has the world’s largest concentration of billionaire wealth. It grew by 15 percent from $2.4 trillion to $2.8 trillion as billionaires prospered, far outstripping the MSCI AC World Index. Thirty-nine Americans entered the billion-dollar plus wealth band and 14 dropped off.


Europe’s billionaire population was static in 2016. Twenty-four entered this wealth band, while 21 dropped off.*** There were 342 European billionaires at the end of 2016.

The biggest jump occurred in Asia. Three quarters of the newly minted billionaires are from the region’s two biggest economies—China and India. China had by far the highest number, adding a net 67 to total 318. India’s billionaire population climbed 16 to 100. Taken together, the wealth of Asian billionaires grew by almost a third (31 percent) in 2016, up from $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion.

So, what do the world’s billionaires do with their vast wealth? Most of it is used to capture even more income and wealth. Thus, the 1,542 billionaires in the UBS/PwC database own or partly own companies that directly employ at least 27.7 million people worldwide—roughly the same as the UK’s working population. And, via an array of financial instruments and “club deals,” they manage to siphon off a large part of the surplus created by the rest of the global working-class.****


Apparently, the world’s billionaires are also becoming major patrons of sports, such as football (both global and American), hockey, baseball, and basketball. According to the report, more than 140 of the top sports clubs globally are owned by just 109 billionaires.*****

One European entrepreneur explains why he owns a sports club in the following way. “Sport is my life and my dearest hobby,” he says. “Further, the publicity you get from the broadcasting is global. The business works according to the theme ‘you win on Sunday and sell on Monday.’ People always identify themselves with winners. A er all, I not only sponsor, whatever I do in this eld must be sustainable and needs to make commercial sense.”

It should come as no surprise that Veblen held a quite different view:

Addiction to athletic sports, not only in the way of direct participation, but also in the way of sentiment and moral support, is, in a more or less pronounced degree, a characteristic of the leisure class; and it is a trait which that class shares with the lower-class delinquents, and with such atavistic elements throughout the body of the community as are endowed with a dominant predaceous trend.

Clearly, the Gilded Age today shares with its historical predecessor a “dominant predaceous trend” that enables the world’s billionaires to accumulate more and more wealth and leaves the rest of us behind.


*The title of this post is from the collection of short stories by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, published in 1873. Apparently, the name chosen by Twain and Warner was inspired by William Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John (Act 4, Scene 2):

Therefore, to be possess’d with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

**The MSCI AC World Index is a market capitalization weighted index designed to provide a broad measure of equity-market performance throughout the world. It is maintained by Morgan Stanley Capital International, and is comprised of stocks from both developed and emerging markets.

***Germany, Europe’s largest economy, also has the most billionaires, at 117. The United Kingdom comes a distant second, at 55, followed by Italy (42), France (39) and Switzerland (35).

****One high-profile example of clubbing together occurred when Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway group backed the ill-fated Kraft Heinz $143-billion bid for Unilever in February 2017. Buffett has a record of helping the 3G private equity vehicle behind the bid to finance its deals. 3G is controlled by Jorge Paolo Lemann, Brazil’s richest man, and his partners. Buffett has added his financial firepower to 3G’s acquisitions of doughnut chain Tim Hortons as well as Kraft Heinz.

*****The Glazer family, worth an estimated $4.7 billion in 2015, controls 83 percent of my own favorite sports team.


What happens when you combine conspicuous consumption and conspicuous productivity?

You get Barracuda Straight Leg Jeans—complete with “crackled, caked-on muddy coating”—on sale for $425 at Nordstrom.

When Thorstein Veblen invented the term “conspicuous consumption,” in his Theory of the Leisure Class (pdf), he was referring to late-nineteenth-century America as having entered the “predatory phase” of culture, when the people at the top obtained their goods by seizure and imputed indignity to the “performance of productive work.”

The clothing of the leisure class reflected this distancing from the world of work—conspicuous consumption combined with conspicuous leisure and conspicuous waste.

In dress construction this norm works out in the shape of divers contrivances going to show that the wearer does not and, as far as it may conveniently be shown, can not engage in productive labor. Beyond these two principles there is a third of scarcely less constraining force, which will occur to any one who reflects at all on the subject. Dress must not only be conspicuously expensive and inconvenient, it must at the same time be up to date.

Nordstrom’s muddy jeans are therefore a perfect example of contemporary predatory culture, when those at the top are afforded the luxury of ironically quoting—but not actually doing—any productive work. Instead, they capture a portion of the surplus and use it to purchase clothing that—in the form of conspicuous consumption, leisure, and waste—shows they are exempted from the exigency of work imposed on everyone else, who are of course required to dress in neat and clean uniforms, just like the servants of the first Gilded Age.


Now, in the latest stage of predatory culture, those at the top can purchase fake mud-stained jeans while McDonald’s employees will now wear uniforms reminiscent of the Hunger Games.

What’s next, corsets?*


*Here again is Veblen:

The dress of women goes even farther than that of men in the way of demonstrating the wearer’s abstinence from productive employment. . .

the woman’s apparel not only goes beyond that of the modern man in the degree in which it argues exemption from labor; it also adds a peculiar and highly characteristic feature which differs in kind from anything habitually practiced by the men. This feature is the class of contrivances of which the corset is the typical example. The corset is, in economic theory, substantially a mutilation, undergone for the purpose of lowering the subject’s vitality and rendering her permanently and obviously unfit for work.


Where does all the surplus in the U.S. economy go?

Well, a large chunk of it is captured by the top 1 percent, whose share of national income almost doubled between 1970 and 2014—from 11 percent to 20.2 percent.

Equally interesting is the composition of that growing share of national income, which we can decompose thanks to new data from Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman.


One way of making sense of the way the top 1 percent manages to capture a portion of the surplus is by distinguishing between a labor component (in shades of red in the chart above) and a capital component (in shades of green). Together, when calculated in terms of shares of national income, they represent the total share of national income that goes to the top 1 percent. (Thus, the top lines in the two charts are equal.)

The labor component comprises two categories: employee compensation (e.g., payments to CEOs and executives in finance) and the labor part of noncorporate business profits (e.g, partnerships and sole proprietorships). Capital income can be similarly decomposed into various categories: interest paid to pension and insurance funds, net interest, corporate profits, noncorporate profits, and housing rents (net of mortgages).

As can be seen in the chart above, by 2014 the top 1 percent derived over half of their incomes from capital-related sources. In earlier decades, from the late-1970s to the late-1990s, a much larger share of their income came from labor sources. They were the so-called “working rich.” This process culminated in 2000 when the capital share in top 1 percent incomes reached a low point of 49.4 percent. Since then, however, it has bounced back—to 58.6 percent in 2014. Thus, the “working rich” of the late-twentieth century may increasingly be living off their capital income, or are in the process of being replaced by their offspring who are living off their inheritances.

What this means, in general terms, is the growth of inequality over decades is due to the ability of the 1 percent to capture a large portion of the growing surplus. But there has also been a change in the nature of that inequality in recent years—which is not due to escalating wages at the top, but to a boom in income from the ownership of stocks and bonds. The high incomes of the “working rich,” it seems, have increasingly been used to purchase financial assets.

It looks then as if the working rich are either turning into or being replaced by rentiers—thus mirroring, after a short interruption, the structure of inequality last seen during the first Gilded Age.


There are a few chroniclers of the American condition I’ve turned to and cited over the years, journalists whose reporting helps us make sense of the current economic and political predicament in the United States—especially the condition of the working-class and the rejection of much mainstream thinking during the current presidential campaign. They include Thomas Frank, Esther Kaplan, Frank Rich, and George Packer.

That list should probably now include Alexander Zaitchik. I haven’t yet read his new book, The Gilded Rage: A Wild Ride Through Donald Trump’s America. But, based on interviews (here and here), an excerpt, and other reporting, I’d say he’s a candidate.

This is from an interview with Chris Lord:

CL: OK I’ve read your book, and what strikes me immediately is how ordinary the people seem. You know, we’re used to looking at people like the Tea Party, Sarah Palin’s amazing campaign, then the messages from Fox news and all of these right wing people and it seems that they’re all crazy, but a lot of Trump supporters just seem to be regular Americans. So how do you account for that?

AZ: The first thing to note is that the Tea Party phenomenon may superficially look like a precursor to the Trump insurgency but it’s important to remember that the Tea Party was essentially a corporate-funded fake explosion. They wanted to throw a monkey wrench in the Obama plans and it was funded by the Koch brothers, our biggest industrialists and it involved whipping the evangelicals into a frenzy and had a very different flavour than the Trump phenomenon which is not very religious at all.

Trump is no evangelical’s idea of an ideal candidate for a lot of obvious reasons. And it was also opposed from the beginning by the big money, the deep pockets, and the lobbyists’ networks that traditionally pick the winners in the Republican Party and also manufactured the Tea Party. Trump represents the people who feel hoodwinked by decades of Republican big money corporate politics and realize what the Tea Party was and basically it’s their revenge.

They were being told from the beginning that Trump was not an acceptable candidate, anyone who voted for Trump was a bad Republican, if not a bad human being and they just said we don’t care! We’re done listening to you. We’re not going to take Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio or any of these sorts of corporate Republican types that they’ve been fed for as long as they can remember and to your question about ordinary people, they are ordinary people; they’re not paid operatives, they’re not the sort of Evangelical nutjobs you were describing. A lot of them were conservative Democrats, worked for most of their lives in you know good paying unionized labour and now see communities that are parking lots, McDonald’s, strip malls and a whole bunch of people on heroin.

It’s really hard to explain how devastated a lot of these parts of the country are now and people are sliding or treading water living paycheck to paycheck and even people who have pensions or who maybe did OK during the height of the American economy in the golden age are seeing the next generations beneath them with very dim prospects constantly becoming dimmer and that’s where the anger of the title comes from. It was just a lot of rage bordering on desperation and they’re done listening to their Republican masters who they feel brought them to this point.

wealth shares

[modified from the original source (pdf)]

We’ve been learning a great deal about the conditions and consequences of the obscene levels of inequality in the United States—now, in the past, and it seems for the foreseeable future.

Right now, inequality is escalating within public higher education, especially in research universities that are chasing both tuition revenues and rankings. Thus, the editorial board of the Badger Herald, the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin, found it necessary to criticize the lifting of the out-of-state student enrollment cap because it betrays the Wisconsin Idea and is making the university both “richer and whiter.”

Instead of increasing enrollment by targeting low-income and underrepresented Wisconsin students, UW now joins the ranks of public institutions that are happy with increasing the — already substantial — socioeconomic divide on campus. Making UW a bougie playground for the greater Chicagoland area is not the way to keep Wisconsin a world-class institution.

The Wisconsin students are right.* As recent research by Ozan Jaquette, Bradley R. Curs, and Julie R. Posselt confirms, public research universities are increasingly relying on tuition increases to fund their activities.** Thus, they are admitting more nonresident students—both for their out-of-state tuition payments and to raise the universities’ academic profile—and, as a result, the proportion of historically underrepresented students and especially of low-income students is declining. Moreover,

The shift towards nonresident students suggests that public research universities have increased the value they place on students who pay high tuition and have high test scores. This shift is indicative of a deeper change in organizational values, away from the public good emphasis on access and towards the self-interested emphases of academic profile and revenue generation. As scholars, campus leaders, or policymakers, we must ask ourselves, whether these are the values we want our flagship public institutions to promote?

We also need to look at the way inequality played out in American history, and make the appropriate connections to the present and future. In a recent paper, Suresh Naidu and Noam Yuchtman examine the situation of labor markets during the first Gilded Age. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that labor markets in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries are as close as we have seen in U.S. history to the unregulated labor market that is presumed and celebrated within neoclassical economics. But, the authors explain, those Gilded-Age labor markets were characterized by high levels of conflict—between labor movements and employer organizations (over wages and, when workers went on strike, replacement workers or scabs)—which, in turn, called on increased levels of judicial intervention as well as domestic policing and military intervention, generally on the side of the employers.***

And the implications for the United States, in the second Gilded Age:

Looking around today, it is obvious that inequality and conflict over the distribution of wealth and income remain salient a century after the first Gilded Age. History is never a perfect guide, but the late 19th century suggests that even as markets play a greater role in allocating labour, legal and political institutions will continue to shape bargaining power between firms and workers, and thus the division of rents within the firm. What remains to be determined – and battled over – is which institutions are empowered to act, and whose interests they will represent. Regardless, latent labour market conflict seems likely to be a prominent feature of our new Gilded Age.

Finally, what can we way about inequality looking forward? According to Robert Shiller, it “could become a nightmare in the decades ahead.”

The reason for this dire prognosis is that the structures that create high levels of inequality in the first place serve as barriers to policies that might actually lessen the amount of inequality. According to Angus Deaton, “Those who are doing well will organize to protect what they have, including in ways that benefit them at the expense of the majority.” Historically, the only exceptions in capitalist democracies emerge in times of war, “because war mobilization changed beliefs about tax fairness.”

And contra Robert Solow (“We are not good at large-scale redistribution of income”), capitalist societies have consistently shown to be very good at large-scale redistribution of income toward the top—just not particularly interested in moving in the opposite direction, in redistributing income to those at the bottom.

In fact, neither Shiller nor the nine other economists who contributed to a recent project on long-term forecasting “expressed optimism that inequality would be corrected in the future, and none of us ventured that any major economic policy was likely to counteract recent trends.”****

Shiller uses Satyajit Ray’s 1973 movie “Distant Thunder”—about the Bengal famine of 1942-43, when millions died, almost all from the lower classes—to illustrate our current dilemma. There was plenty of food in the Bengal Province of British India to keep everyone alive but “the food was not shared adequately.”*****

Systems of privilege and entitlement permitted hoarding of food by people of status whose lives went on much as usual, except that they had to brush off starving beggars and would occasionally see dead bodies on the street.

It’s clear that, today, there are plenty of goods—food, clothing, and shelter—to go around but they’re not being shared equally. Not by a long shot. The problem is, existing “systems of privilege and entitlement” permit the accumulation of wealth on one end and misery on the end—just as they did during the first Gilded Age and, unless things change, will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the lives of people of status go on much as usual, in their “bougie playground”—except they have to brush off the contemporary equivalent of starving beggars and occasionally see the analogy today of dead bodies on the street.


*It should perhaps come as no surprise that a prominent mainstream economist, Rebecca Blank, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2013, is the one who sought (and won) an end to the cap on out-of-state and international students.

**As Stephanie Saul reports,

According to the College Board, the average cost of attending a four-year public university, including room and board, increased from $11,655 in 2000 to $19,548 in 2015, in inflation-adjusted dollars. In the City University of New York system, tuition at four-year colleges is now $6,330, having increased by $300 each year since 2011, when it was $4,830. . .

“What Sanders figured out — it’s not the $65,000 cost of attendance at some of our pricier privates driving the debt bubble, but rather the disinvestment and privatization of public higher ed,” said Barmak Nassirian, the director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

***This is one of the examples I use in my graduate-level course on the Political Economy of War and Peace—that the United States has its own history of intrastate wars (which, like many such wars in recent times, have been class wars) and that, as the authors explain, “military and law enforcement institutions of the United States, in particular the Army, the National Guard, and the FBI, can trace their origins to the federal troops, state militias, and private Pinkertons deployed in 19th century labor conflicts.”

****The key point Shiller does not address is the role mainstream economics has played both in creating the current levels of inequality and in creating barriers to imagining and enacting policies and strategies for doing away with the grotesque levels of inequality we are witnessing today.

*****Amartya Sen famously argued that democracy prevents famines. That may be true. But it doesn’t prevent hunger or the other economic and social catastrophes that stem from the high levels of inequality we’ve witnessed during the first and second Gilded Ages in the United States.


The American Economic Association was, in the beginning, a radical organization—founded in 1885, according to Marshall I. Steinbaum and Bernard A. Weisberger, by “Richard Ely, an avowedly Christian Heidelberg-trained professor at Johns Hopkins with a calling to make economics a friend of the working man.” Now, of course, it is anything but radical.

What happened?

Steinbaum and Weisberger’s analysis is that

University presidents seeking stature for their institutions appealed to rich donors among the period’s Robber Barons, and that appeal was unlikely to be successful when rabble-rousers in the economics department were questioning the foundations of American capitalism, in particular the monopolization and labor exploitation that made the Robber Barons rich in the first place. . .

What had happened was that economists realized there was much to be gained in terms of professional stature and influence from making themselves appealing to the establishment, so they banished those elements that tainted them by association. In 1895, one of Ely’s students, Albion Small, the founding chair of the new, Rockefeller-endowed University of Chicago’s Sociology Department, did not come to the aid of another Ely student, Edward Bemis, after the latter’s public criticism of the Chicago traction [streetcar] monopoly brought down the wrath of the university’s president William Rainey Harper and its conservative chair of economics, J. Laurence Laughlin. Despite episodes like those of Adams and Bemis, economics was by no means as conservative then as it eventually became starting in the 1970s, but neither would it countenance a direct challenge to the economic status quo nor affiliate itself with radical elements in organized labor or elsewhere. Even Ely himself eventually came around after his own notorious trial before the Wisconsin Board of Regents in 1894. He returned to the AEA as its President in 1900, and though he was long affiliated with the “Wisconsin Idea” and its progressive exponent, Governor Robert LaFollette, he was careful not to stray far from the new, milder orthodoxy.

Perhaps the causes of the transformation in U.S. economics during the first Gilded Age help explain why academic unfreedom in economics is so prevalent now, in the second Gilded Age.