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What the New Gilded Age Looks Like


The New Gilded Age is not just about growing income inequality, grotesque wealth and conspicuous consumption for the .01%, and politics controlled by corporate leaders openly buying elections. It is about all of things, just as it was in the original Gilded Age. But there’s a lot more facets of it. Mike Konczal recently wrote a long-form book review of the recent works of Nicholas Parrillo, Dana Goldstein, and Radley Balko in the Boston Review. I want to quote him here:

Adam Smith was not the first, but he was certainly one of the most eloquent defenders of justice delivered according to the profit motive. In The Wealth of Nations, he wrote that since courts could charge fees for conducting a trial, each court would endeavor, “by superior dispatch and impartiality, to draw to itself as many causes as it could.” Competition meant a judge would try “to give, in his own court, the speediest and most effectual remedy which the law would admit, for every sort of injustice.” Left unsaid is what this system does to those who can’t afford to pay up.

Our government is being remade in this mold—the mold of a business. The past thirty years have seen massive, outright privatization of government services. Meanwhile the logic of business, competition, and the profit motive has been introduced into what remains.

But for those with a long enough historical memory, this is nothing new. Through the first half of our country’s history, public officials were paid according to the profit motive, and it was only through the failures of that system that a fragile accountability was put into place during the Progressive Era. One of the key sources of this accountability was the establishment of salaries for public officials who previously had been paid on commission.

As this professionalized system is dismantled, once-antique notions are becoming relevant again. Consider merit pay schemes whereby teachers are now meant to compete with each other for bonuses. This mirrors the 1770 Maryland assembly’s argument that public officials “would not perform their duties with as much diligence when paid a fixed salary as when paid for each particular service.” And note that the criminal justice system now profits from forfeiture of property and court fees levied on offenders, recalling Thomas Brackett Reed, the House Republican leader who, in 1887, argued, “In order to bring your criminals against the United States laws to detection” you “need to have the officials stimulated by a similar self-interest to that which excites and supports and sustains the criminal.”

We are once again turning into a nation where everyday people have no say in the basic functions of government. As Konczal says, the Progressive Era began the process of taming the most unequal parts of the nation, in this case, bringing honesty and transparency into government. There is a reason that Republicans from Glenn Beck to Karl Rove openly lament the Progressive Era as when the nation went off the rails. They dream of the Gilded Age and they have gone very far in creating it. Making public service about profit rather than service is another piece of the New Gilded Age, as it was for the first.

Obviously read the whole thing for many specific cases.

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  • Phil Perspective

    Making public service about profit rather than service is another piece of the New Gilded Age, as it was for the first.

    And what are “Democrats” doing about it? Democratic mayors are privatizing city services, and even the schools. We have a shitty, racist Governor in Missouri. And that’s not even half of it. Then people wonder why voters registered as Democrats will not vote. Why should they given what Democratic politicians do?

    • postmodulator

      Feel better?

    • Larrry

      This just proves that the Democrats need to nominate Dog the Bounty Hunter for president, just to show that not only both sides do it, but that Dems will do it better.

      • Phil Perspective

        The point being is if we’re going to be forced into parliamentary-type parties, what good does it do to have Landrieu think the way to win is to shower more love on the Keystone Death Funnel then here opponent? Does anyone else outside her campaign circle think that’s going to work?

  • c u n d gulag

    Even I, a political animal/junkie my whole life, am getting sick of our politics.

    When we vote in a guy who promises hope and change, and in his first two years gives people hope by changing our health care system for the better – not perfect; far from it, but better – what do the voters do?
    Give him the most radical House of Representatives since before the Civil War.

    Now, they give him a radical Senate majority.
    A majority that cares far more for the rich and powerful, than for the ordinary citizens.
    Which means a Congress that doesn’t care about “We the people, but ‘Them, the wealthy and powerful people.’

    I’m spending more and more of my day reading novels, and less and less time blogging.

    After last Tuesday, I’m very, very depressed.
    And fearful for my country, and the world.

    At a time where the climate is on the brink of irreparable change – for the worse – people voted in a Congress that doesn’t believe in climate change.
    OR SCIENCE, for that matter.


    • MAJeff

      Even I, a political animal/junkie my whole life, am getting sick of our politics.

      Me, too. I was so excited about going to see Otello at the local opera instead of sitting around for election results. Got down to the theater…and realized the show was a week later. Back home for election results and beer and just plain stupidity.

      I mean, seriously, Ernst and Cotton and Lankford. There’s no way a sentient human being can look at any of these fuckwits and say, “Yes, these are intelligent and ethical leaders who will make fine decisions.” If you do think such a thing, there is very definitely something wrong with you. And America is filled with fuckwitted crackers and morons.

      • Lee Rudolph

        And America is filled with fuckwitted crackers and morons.

        Safe enough for you to say.

      • Malaclypse

        I mean, seriously, Ernst and Cotton and Lankford. There’s no way a sentient human being can look at any of these fuckwits and say, “Yes, these are intelligent and ethical leaders who will make fine decisions.”

        I see you those three crooks, and raise you one Rick Scott.

    • Just keep reminding yourself: it wasn’t everyone, it was a minority of the minority. Of course, the system is set up to empower the minority of the minority, but at least there is some solace in knowing that we are not actually in the midst of the Asshole Apocalypse.

      • Larrry

        Well, maybe not yet in the midst of the Asshole Apocalypse, but we were there under Bush and it could be much worse next time with Bush’s Iraqi adventure having blown up the Middle East and the Neocons having stirred up the shit in Ukraine. Not doomsaying, but jus’ sayin’.

      • postmodulator

        I take absolutely no pleasure in knowing that the disaster shouldn’t have happened.

      • c u n d gulag

        Now the Republicans will put all of the blame on President Obama, and make their claim for a Republican President to work with a Republican Congress, and heal this country.


        Say, “HELLO!”, to Christian Theocratic Fascist Plutocracy/Oligarchy!

  • Bruce Vail

    A 1770 Maryland Colonial Assembly debate is relevant to current Republican desires to repeal The Progressive Era? Ummm….

    • Yes absolutely. Konczal is showing how the government basically became for sale from its founding. This led to all sorts of problems that came to a head during the Gilded Age and which Progressives fought against, rather successfully. Examining the roots of these problems are absolutely relevant.

      • mud man

        government basically became for sale from its founding

        You have said it yourself.

      • Bruce Vail

        I take your point. Maybe you’ll agree it is an obscure reference point that does little to advance the argument about modern politics. This debate took place before the formation of the United States, after all.

        I quite like Konczal as a general rule.

    • Origami Isopod

      There are no common threads throughout United States history. It’s just a series of atomized events.

  • liberal

    Not so clear Adam Smith should be invoked as what we’d call nowadays a (right-)libertarian. After all, he’s the guy who said All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.

    • The Dark Avenger

      And he discussed mercantilism with regard to the British Empire:

      In the system of laws which has been established for the management of our American and West Indian colonies the interest of the home-consumer has been sacrificed to that of the producer with a more extravagant profusion than in all our other commercial regulations. A great empire has been established for the sole purpose of raising up a nation of customers who should be obliged to buy from the shops of our different producers, all the goods with which these could supply them. For the sake of that little enhancement of price which this monopoly might afford our producers, the home-consumers have been burdened with the whole expense of maintaining and defending that empire. For this purpose, and for this purpose only, in the two last wars, more than two hundred millions have been spent, and a new debt of more than a hundred and seventy millions has been contracted over and above all that had been expended for the same purpose in former wars. The interest of this debt alone is not only greater than the whole extraordinary profit, which, it ever could be pretended, was made by the monopoly of the colony trade, but than the whole value of that trade, or than the whole value of the goods, which at an average have been annually exported to the colonies. It cannot be very difficult to determine who have been the contrivers of this whole mercantile system; not the consumers, we may believe, whose interest has been entirely neglected; but the producers, whose interest has been so carefully attended to; and among this latter class our merchants and manufacturers have been by far the principal architects.

      The importation of gold and silver is not the principal much less the sole benefit which a nation derives from its foreign trade. Between whatever places foreign trade is carried on, they all of them derive two distinct benefits from it. It carries out that surplus part of the produce of their land and labor for which there is no demand among them, and brings back in return for it something else for which there is a demand. It gives a value to their superfluities by exchanging them for something else, which may satisfy a part of their wants, and increase their enjoyments. By means of it, the narrowness of the home market does not hinder the division of labor in any particular branch of art or manufacture from being carried to the highest perfection. By opening a more extensive market for whatever part of the produce of their labor may exceed the home consumption, it encourages them to improve its productive powers and to augment its annual produce to the utmost, and thereby to increase the real revenue and wealth of the society.

    • Davis X. Machina

      No book, with the possible exception of the Bible, has causes more problems through bad reading than The Wealth of Nations — and what is Theory of Moral Sentiments, chopped liver?

      • Linnaeus

        No, it’s communism. Obviously.

      • DrDick

        It really is amazing how much Free Market fundamentalists overlook in Wealth of Nations and how they completely ignore Moral Sentiments.

        • Aimai

          Yes, I wanted to come back and just say that I think that (boston globe) take on Smith is pretty one sided and not really respectful of the kinds of arguments Smith was actually making.

          • DrDick

            He was a strong proponent of progressive taxation and strong regulation to limit collusion and cheating by businesses. He also argued that the interests of the merchants and of society are not the same and that society must pass such regulations as necessary to protect itself from the excesses of the capitalists.

            • Brett

              His “invisible hand” quote definitely gets cited more than the one where he points out that merchants can rarely meet without conspiring to rip off the public.

    • Sly

      The problem with any modern adaptation of Smith is that it requires a complete decontextualization of Smith. It entails dragging someone who wrote about the deprivations of the mercantilist empire some 200 years into the future to comment on the liberal democratic state, and doing so strictly as an appeal to authority. It’s a dumb person saying what they think a smart historian would say. The fact is that Smith had nothing to say about the liberal democratic state because such a thing didn’t even exist in the 18th century.

      But examining someone like Smith in their context, and analyzing how he shaped future contexts, is what you’re supposed to do. For someone like him, who lived at a time when jobs in “public services” were doled out to actual and would-be aristocrats as patronage, “privatizing” such services made sense; it breaks what was an unfair and inefficient system. But warp ahead two centuries, when such services are now run by a professionalized class, and it makes zero sense because that class was created for the express purpose of fixing the new problems created by privatization (which, it should be noted, didn’t even solve the problem of elite patronage).

      • DrDick

        But it also highlights the fact that “crony capitalism” is the only kind there has ever been.

  • mud man

    Learn to grow vegetables. And keep chickens. And make real good friends with the neighbors.

    • DrDick

      I am sure that will work o so well in NYC or LA. If you divided all the dry land in the US equally, it would amount to about 45 acres/household. Of course huge amounts of that are completely unsuited to agriculture (including most of Alaska, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico).

      • Woodrowfan

        pshaw, it worked for the Dawes Act,

        • DrDick

          Don’t tell that to the Five Civilized tribes.

      • Origami Isopod

        You expect manarchists to take reality into consideration? Especially for anyone unlike themselves?

      • mud man

        Of course it’s a human RIGHT to live in a city at 15,000/square mile (NYC: try 27,000). And it’s the responsibility of The Universe to make that work, if it doesn’t it’s because The Left. Or maybe The Right.

        • You do realize that big cities are more energy and water efficient and less polluting than most of the other, less dense portions of this country, right? Or are you a fan of Pol Pot and intend to forcibly return everyone not wearing glasses to peasant status?

          • DrDick

            Of course not, thinking is not in his skill set. All he can do is spout anarcholiberbarbarian gibberish.

      • I keep of list of which neighbors I will kill and eat first.

    • Because when your yard isn’t large enough or doesn’t receive enough sunlight to produce crops adequate to survival (or you get hungry before harvest time), and the chickens die of some chicken disease, you can eat the neighbors you’ve lulled into a false sense of security.

      p.s. Seed vaults an’ gooooooooold.

      • MAJeff


        • If you wanted to survive the coming Gildopalypse you shouldn’t have decided to live in an apartment, townhouse, dormitory or other non-yarded property.

          Fortunately for you, I have a new book on seasteading that’s coming out soon. My chapter on water-proofing chickens is worth the $15 20.

        • Slightly less than a meter.

    • Kathleen

      I will be so screwed when Full Metal Assholepocalypse arrives. I kill plants and freak out when I see bugs. Nature scares me. If I can’t plug it in or flush it, I’m done.

  • CaptainBringdown

    What the new Gilded Age looks like.

    • Lee Rudolph

      That needs to be reimagined and re-rendered by bspencer, stat.

      • rea

        One of the few artists whose work would become less bizarre (and I mean that in the best possible way)if reimagined and re-rendered by bspencer . .

  • wengler

    It’s my fervent hope that robots will rebel against their masters and join the downtrodden in the class war. The rich will then cast the robots as the new racial menace and the robots will destroy all humans. Thus ending the human age on planet Earth.

    A guy can dream, can’t he?

  • synykyl

    … recalling Thomas Brackett Reed, the House Republican leader who, in 1887, argued, “In order to bring your criminals against the United States laws to detection” you “need to have the officials stimulated by a similar self-interest to that which excites and supports and sustains the criminal.” …

    Clearly, Reed was a RINO. Who needs officials at all? True Republicans know that the best course is to just let the criminals take over the work of the officials. Market forces will insure that they do the best possible job of enforcing the laws. … Wait, do we even need laws?

  • Simple Mind

    This just proves that doing harm is easy and doing good takes long-hard work.

  • Origami Isopod

    Try convincing Radley Balko that without the “statism” he decries, we’ll get more and more militarization of the police.

    • TribalistMeathead

      To be fair, in libertarian fantasyland, the military probably wouldn’t have surplus equipment to sell to state and local police in the first place, since they probably wouldn’t have 60 cents of every tax dollar to buy their toys.

      • Origami Isopod

        In libertarian fantasyland, there wouldn’t be police at all. You’d just answer the door with your AR-15 in hand and shoot anyone who knocked just in case they were about to rape and murder your whole family. So, point.

        • rea

          In libertarian fantasyland made real, everyone’s too busy with subsistence farming to worry about crime . . .

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