OPINION: Amid rising income inequality, the U.S. enters a Second Gilded Age

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“The peak of the Second Gilded Age.” These will be the words later generations will read in their history books about the year 2017.

They will read in their books that nearly 1,500 billionaires across the globe increased their combined wealth to $6 trillion — double the GDP of the United Kingdom — while half the world’s population lived on $2.50 or less per day.

They’ll read how these billionaires and multi-national corporations controlled politicians, ensuring laws were passed to help them increase their wealth. And then they’ll read how society struck back, although this part of history remains to be seen.

I bring all of this up because Forbes recently released its annual list of the richest 400 Americans. The three richest men in the United States — Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos — now own as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent of Americans, or 163 million people. Combined, these three men possess an estimated fortune of $263 billion.

These findings come from a report published by the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C. The report used data collected by the 2017 Forbes 400, a list of the wealthiest individuals in the U.S.

The cumulative wealth of those on the Forbes 400 is $2.68 trillion, more than what the bottom 64 percent of Americans hold. Even more startling, the United Kingdom’s GDP is only $2.62 trillion. That means 400 Americans combined possess more wealth than a global superpower.

While some may believe this to be a sign of how great the U.S. is, that our 400 richest individuals could in theory be a global superpower if they combined their wealth, it’s telling of the society in which we live.

Sure, we have a growing list of billionaires, but we also have nearly 13 percent of our country living in poverty and another 12 percent who are uninsured.

Arguably, there are two ways in which the Second Gilded Age comes to an end. Either the people elect leaders who will break up the monopolies and impose higher taxes on the elite wealthy, or the people elect dangerous populists who will consolidate power, further exacerbating the problem until the people snap, likely ending in an economic depression.

It is the latter case that has even billionaires worried about the ever-growing wealth inequality. It’s why, as CNN reported in 2016, “Buffett along with Bill and Melinda Gates launched the Giving Pledge. They, and fellow billionaires who join, pledge to give away most of their wealth during their lifetime and in their wills.”

“We’re at an inflection point,” Josef Stadler, lead author of a 2017 report on the growing billionaire class, said. “Wealth concentration is as high as in 1905. This is something billionaires are concerned about. The problem is the power of interest on interest — that makes big money bigger, and the question is to what extent is that sustainable, and at what point will society intervene and strike back?”

During the First Gilded Age, beginning in the late 19th century, the people were fortunate and wise enough to elect progressive leaders — Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt being the two big names — who understood that extreme wealth inequality was not only unsustainable, it directly hurt the nation.

Just because our country was able to make it through the First Gilded Age with society still intact doesn’t mean we can do it again.

We need to think clearly and rationally about this, because the decisions we make today, and the leaders we elect or don’t elect, will leave a lasting impact on our country for generations to come.

Caleb Snider is a junior in political science. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to [email protected]

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