Return of the Gilded Age of Robber Barons

Marylin Olds

Marylin Olds

American robber barons were well known for their insatiable greed, their support by politicians and government officials, and their total disregard for competitors, workers or customers back in our Industrial Revolution.

Cornelius Vanderbilt, railroad and shipping magnate, became super rich by manipulating shipping rates and forcing competitors out of business.

Andrew Carnegie, steel magnate, was aided by Congress, which imposed a high tariff keeping foreign competition away. Pinkerton men were used to deal with workers’ strikes.

John D. Rockefeller, Standard Oil and first billionaire, cut out middlemen by buying railroads and going into banking.

J.P. Morgan, financier and banker, caused the loss of lives or limbs of 22,000 railroad workers. President Grover Cleveland aided and abetted with the help of his Congress.

“And so it went, in industry after industry — shrewd, efficient businessmen building empires, choking out competition, maintaining high prices, keeping wages low, using government subsidies. These industries were the first beneficiaries of the ‘welfare state,’ ” wrote Howard Zinn in “The People’s History of the United States.”

“Between 1860 and 1900, the richest 2 percent of American households owned more than a third of the country’s wealth, while the richest 1 percent received a fifth of the country’s income — a figure that again holds good today,” writes Paul Krugman of the New York Times.

A major chasm exists between rich and poor. Our latest battle with the government’s tax proposal will make that chasm of disparities grow faster. Mean spirited to the extreme, our government’s tax bill gives nearly all the benefits to the wealthiest, taken from the poorest.

No, the rich don’t need the extra money. No, there is no such thing as “trickle-down economics”; the rich maintains a tight grip on their treasures. “Trickle down” is a tired charade the Republicans dust off when wanting to cut taxes.

According to Forbes’ annual list of the richest Americans, 400 individuals own a combined $2.68 trillion of wealth — more than the combined wealth of 64 percent of American households. We have not witnessed such extreme levels of concentrated wealth and power since the first gilded age a century ago.

Today, the four richest Americans are Bill Gates (Microsoft, $89 billion), Jeff Bezos (Amazon, $81.5 billion), Warren Buffet (investments, $78 billion) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook, $71 billion).

What have you brought in so far in your lifetime? Is it because you just aren’t working hard enough?

“More than 70 years ago, progressive policies reined in the robber barons, but today’s super rich face no foe in the White House,” writes the Guardian’s Larry Elliot.

We are left with an untethered Congress. “Senate Republicans are ramming the highly unpopular [tax] bill through over the objection of the majority of Americans,” writes Political Dig’s Carl Anthony. “They are hell bent to get all that they can for their wealthy campaign contributors before the American electorate vote them out of office.”

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich nails it: “Republicans have cut deals redirecting $500 billion over the next 10 years. If this were a national emergency in which there was no time for more prolonged consideration, if the economy were teetering on the edge of ruin, if there was broad bipartisan agreement and this were a simple piece of legislation, maybe this lack of due process would be understandable. But none of these conditions holds true. Senate Republicans have done this for only one reason: To pay back their donors, with the public knowing as little as possible about what they’re doing. It is the largest transfer of income and wealth from the bottom 99 percent to the top 1 percent ever attempted. This is a travesty of democracy.”

Reich continues: “What’s the real formula for growth? Better access to education, health care, and transportation, all of which make workers more productive. These more productive workers command higher wages. With higher wages, they purchase more goods and services. These purchases motivate companies to expand and invest, and create more and better jobs. America experienced this virtuous cycle for thirty years after World War II. We invested unprecedented sums in education, health care, and infrastructure. We financed these investments through higher taxes on the rich and on big corporations. The economy boomed and wages shot upward.”

Americans aren’t used to our government not having our backs. There is no longer a governmental pendulum for a swing-back to normalcy.

Our president promises all this is our Christmas present? How clueless must Americans be to believe this?

To so many of the poor, this is a matter of life and death. Meds or food? No health care.

It’s up to you and me. Are you outraged enough yet? If not, what will it take?

It’s the first time in many of our lives to be forced to argue with our own government for what we need. If we don’t, we will be those workers and customers and competitors from the first gilded age without any government protection — but this time, with no help in sight.

Resist. Organize. Talk with friends and family. Arm yourself with information. Your children will thank you, if you succeed. This is not acceptable to us, but this is absolutely unfair to our children.

— Marylin Olds is a Kitsap opinion columnist who can answer questions to the above at marylin.olds@gmail.com.