A return to the Gilded Age

Great essay in the Post by Harvard Historian Alexander Keyssar about how modern Republicans are trying to return us to the Gilded Age of unregulated (and very unpleasant unless you were a corporate titan) capitalism.   If you don’t want to read the whole thing (it’s short, you should), here’s the key paragraphs:

That bargain — which emerged in stages between the 1890s and 1930s — established an institutional framework to balance the needs of the American people with the vast inequalities of wealth and power wrought by the triumph of industrial capitalism. It originated in the widespread apprehension that the rapidly growing power of robber barons, national corporations and banks (like J.P. Morgan’s) was undermining fundamental American values and threatening democracy…

Indeed, a century ago many, if not most, Americans were convinced that capitalism had to be replaced with some form of “cooperative commonwealth” — or that large corporate enterprises should be broken up or strictly regulated to ensure competition, limit the concentration of power and prevent private interests from overwhelming the public good…

The regulation of business is decried now, as it was in 1880, as unwarranted interference in the workings of the market: Regulatory laws (including antitrust laws) are weakly enforced or vitiated through administrative rule-making; regulatory agencies are starved through budget cuts; Glass-Steagall was repealed, with consequences that are all too well known; and the financial institutions that spawned today’s economic crisis — by acting in the reckless manner predicted by early-20th-century reformers — are fighting further regulation tooth and nail. Private-sector employers’ fierce attacks on unions since the 1970s contributed significantly to the sharp decline in the number of unionized workers, and many state governments are seeking to delegitimize and weaken public-sector unions. Meanwhile, the social safety net has frayed: Unemployment benefits are meager in many states and are not being extended to match the length of the downturn; Republicans are taking aim at Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and Obamacare. The real value of the minimum wage is lower than it was in the 1970s.

These changes have happened piecemeal. But viewed collectively, it’s difficult not to see a determined campaign to dismantle a broad societal bargain that served much of the nation well for decades. To a historian, the agenda of today’s conservatives looks like a bizarre effort to return to the Gilded Age, an era with little regulation of business, no social insurance and no legal protections for workers. This agenda, moreover, calls for the destruction or weakening of institutions without acknowledging (or perhaps understanding) why they came into being.

Ummm, yep.  A sad state of affairs.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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