From Robber Barons to Bezos: Is history repeating itself?

It is time to fight for an economy and a democracy that works for all rather than the few.


Ultra-wealthy elites…Political corruption…Vast inequality…

These problems aren’t new—in the late 1800s they dominated the country during America’s first Gilded Age.

We overcame these abuses back then, and we can do it again.

Mark Twain coined the moniker “The Gilded Age” in his 1873 novel to describe the era in American history characterized by corruption and inequality that was masked by a thin layer of prosperity for a select few.

The end of the 19th century and start of the 20th marked a time of great invention—bustling railroads, telephones, motion pictures, electricity, automobiles—which changed American life forever.

But it was also an era of giant monopolies—oil, railroad, steel, finance—run by a small group of men who had grown rich beyond anything America had ever seen.

They were known as “robber barons” because they ran competitors out of business, exploited workers, charged customers exorbitant prices, and lived like royalty as a result.

Money consumed politics. Robber barons and their lackeys donated bundles of cash to any lawmaker willing to do bidding on their behalf. And when lobbying wasn’t enough, the powerful turned to bribery—resulting in some of the most infamous political scandals in American history.

The gap between the rich and poor in America reached astronomical levels. Large numbers of Americans lived in squalor.

Anti-immigrant sentiment raged, leading to the enactment of racist laws to restrict immigration. And voter suppression, largely aimed at Black men who had recently won the right to vote, was rampant.

The era was also marked by dangerous working conditions. Children often as young as 10, but sometimes younger, worked brutal hours in sweatshops. Workers trying to organize labor unions were attacked and killed.

It seemed as if American capitalism was out of control, and American democracy couldn’t do anything about it because it was bought and paid for by the rich.

But Americans were fed up, and they demanded reform. Many took to the streets in protest.

Investigative journalists, often called “muckrakers” then, helped amplify their cries by exposing what was occurring throughout the country.

And a new generation of political leaders rose to end the abuses.

Politicians like Teddy Roosevelt, who warned that, “a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power,” could destroy American democracy.

After becoming president in 1901, Roosevelt used the Sherman Antitrust Act to break up dozens of powerful corporations, including the giant Northern Securities Company which had come to dominate railroad transportation through a series of mergers.

Seeking to limit the vast fortunes that were creating a new American aristocracy, Congress enacted a progressive income tax through the 16th Amendment, as well as two wealth taxes.

The first wealth tax, in 1916, was the estate tax—a tax on the wealth someone accumulated during their lifetime, paid by the heirs who inherited it. The second tax on wealth, enacted in 1922, was a capital gains tax—a tax on the increased value of assets, paid when those assets were sold.

The reformers of the Gilded Age also stopped corporations from directly giving money to politicians or political candidates.

And then Teddy Roosevelt’s fifth cousin—you may have heard of him—continued the work through his New Deal programs—creating Social Security, unemployment insurance, a 40-hour workweek, and requiring that employers bargain in good faith with labor unions.

But following the death of FDR and the end of World War II, when America was building the largest middle class the world had ever seen—we seemed to forget about the abuses of the Gilded Age.

Now, more than a century later, America has entered a second Gilded Age.

It is also a time of extraordinary invention.

And a time when monopolies are taking over vast swathes of the economy, so we must renew antitrust enforcement to bust up powerful companies.

Now, another generation of robber barons is accumulating unprecedented money and power. So once again, we must tax these exorbitant fortunes.  

Wealthy individuals and big corporations are once again paying off lawmakers, sending them billions to conduct their political campaigns, even giving luxurious gifts to Supreme Court justices. So we need to protect our democracy from Big Money, just as we did before.

Voter suppression runs rampant in the states as during the first Gilded Age, making it harder for people of color to participate in what’s left of our democracy. So it’s once again critical to defend and expand voting rights.

Working people are once again being exploited and abused, child labor is returning, unions are busted, the poor are again living in unhealthy conditions, homelessness is on the rise, and the gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else is nearly as large as in the first Gilded Age. So once again we need to protect the rights of workers to organize, invest in social safety nets, and revive guardrails to protect against the abuses of great wealth and power.

The question now is the same as it was at the start of the 20th century: Will we fight for an economy and a democracy that works for all rather than the few?

We’ve done it before. We can—and must—do it again.

Read it on Robert Reich’s blog.


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Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fourteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "Saving Capitalism." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, co-founder of the nonprofit Inequality Media and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, Inequality for All.