Photo of Bill Moyers Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Watch & Listen The Blog Archive Transcripts Buy DVDs
Steve Fraser on Gilded Ages
Cover of THE GILDED AGE by Mark Twain
Watch Video
Read Transcript
June 13, 2008

The BBC reported startling economic equality figures in a recent documentary: the top 200 wealthiest people in the world control more wealth than the bottom 4 billion. But what is more striking to many is a close look at the economic inequality in the homeland of the "American Dream." The United States is the most economically stratified society in the western world. As THE WALL STREET JOURNAL reported, a recent study found that the top .01% or 14,000 American families hold 22.2% of wealth — the bottom 90%, or over 133 million families, just 4% of the nation's wealth.

Additional studies narrow the focus: This from the Pew Foundation and THE NEW YORK TIMES: "The chance that children of the poor or middle class will climb up the income ladder, has not changed significantly over the last three decades. "This from THE ECONOMIST'S special report, "Inequality in America:" "The fruits of productivity gains have been skewed towards the highest earners, and towards companies, whose profits have reached record levels as a share of GDP."

This trend, among others, has some historians and cultural commentators comparing our era to that of the late 19th century Gilded Age. Bill Moyers guest Steve Fraser notes its hallmarks: crony capitalism, extreme inequalities in wealth and income, ostentatious spending and wage depression. Mark Twain is responsible for naming the period between Reconstruction and Roosevelt, 'The Gilded Age.' As THE OXFORD COMPANION TO UNITED STATES HISTORY notes, it is the only period to be commonly known by a pejorative name. Find out more about the Gilded Ages of 19th and 21st centuries below:

It appears that your computer does not have the Flash Player required to view the Media Player. Visit Adobe to download and install the latest version of the Flash Player.

Fraser notes that the first Gilded Age was met with labor unrest and political agitation. AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE magazine suggested the second might be as well:
In the course of the 20th century, there were several eras of growing economic inequality. On a few occasions, they came to an end in a relatively gentle way, with democratic elections and more egalitarian legislation. More often, however, they were ended by a catastrophe, such as the Great Depression, a violent social revolution, or a world war. When the rich went out, it seems, they normally did so with a bang, and not with a whimper. The way things are now going, it is likely to be so in the future.

Steve Fraser

Steve Fraser is an author, an editor, and a historian, whose many publications include the award-winning books LABOR WILL RULE: SIDNEY HILLMAN AND THE RISE OF AMERICAN LABOR and EVERY MAN A SPECULATOR: A HISTORY OF WALL STREET IN AMERICAN LIFE. Most recently he is the author of WALL STREET: AMERICA'S DREAM PALACE He is a senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and has written for the NEW YORK TIMES, LOS ANGELES TIMES, NATION, and AMERICAN PROSPECT

Published on June 13, 2008.

Guest photo by Robin Holland

Related Media:
photo by Robin HollandDavid Cay Johnston
Bill Moyers interviews NEW YORK TIMES investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winner David Cay Johnston who says America's system has been rigged to benefit the super-rich.

photo by Robin HollandNell Irvin Painter
Historian Nell Irvin Painter examines what history reveals about the current state of inequality in America. Does today's economic disparity indicate a new "Gilded Age" that threatens democracy?

Kathleen Hall Jamiseon, photo by Robin HollandJohn Bogle
Investment industry giant John Bogle says that as more and more money managers take control over corporations on Wall Street, Main Street is paying the price.

Wall Street An American Recession?
Veteran market watcher Robert Kuttner and Wall Street insider William H. Donaldson give their read of the current economic landscape and discuss the risks of the deregulation of the financial industry.

Payday for CEOs
Overpaid Airline Execs? While high-flying executives from the nation's top airlines get big compensation, workers and retirees are seeing cuts.

References and Reading:
Statistics on American Economic Equality

"Inequality in America: The rich, the poor and the growing gap between them," THE ECONOMIST, June 15, 2006
"After 2000 most people lost ground, but, by many measures, those in the middle of the skills and education ladder have been hit relatively harder than those at the bottom. People who had some college experience, but no degree, fared worse than high-school dropouts."

"Higher Education Gap May Slow Economic Mobility,"
Erik Eckholm, THE NEW YORK TIMES, February 20, 2008
"The chance that children of the poor or middle class will climb up the income ladder, has not changed significantly over the last three decades."

"Middle Class Under Siege,"
COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW, Dean Starkman, June 11, 2008.
Among the statistical studies reviewed is one published in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, which found that the top .01% or 14,000 American families hold 22.2% of wealth — the bottom 90%, or over 133 million families, just 4% of the nation's wealth.

"The Rich Get Richer," AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE MAGAZINE, James Kurth, James Kurth.
"According to the Congressional Budget Office, from 1979 to 2001, the after-tax income of the top 1 percent of U.S. households soared 139 percent, while the income of the middle fifth rose only 17 percent and the income of the poorest fifth climbed just 9 percent. Last year American CEOs earned 262 times the average wage of their workers—up tenfold from 1970."

"Poor Prospects," THE ECONOMIST, Oct. 7, 2004.
"Over the past 30 years, most of the increase in America's wealth has accrued to those who need it least. In 2003 the top 5% of households took 21.4% of the income, up from 16.6% in 1973. A survey for Time/CNN in 2000 showed that 19% of Americans believed they were in the top 1% of earners."

Gilded Age History

THE GILDED AGE: A TALE OF TODAY, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, 1873
Read the complete text of Twain and Warner's scathing indictment of wealth and politics.

'Consuelo and Alva': An Early Story of Celebrity, NPR, Feb. 1, 2006
By the time she she'd made her debut in 1895, the entire country knew she possessed $20 million -- a sum equal to almost $4 billion today. But that money placed Consuelo in a sort of golden coffin.

DEMOCRACY: A NOVEL Henry Adams, 1880. This classic novel of political power in the Gilded Age was published anonymously by Presidential grandson and great-grandson Henry Adams.

Lewis Hine Photographs
The George Eastman House has dozens of Lewis Hine's photos from Ellis Island and working-class New York at the turn of the century.

View the complete text and illustrations of Riis's ground-breaking study of the Gilded Age poor in New York.

Additional links of interest:

Also This Week:

Bill Moyers Journal analyzes the growing inequality gap on the ground in Los Angeles where recently union workers marched to bring attention to how they are getting squeezed out of the shrinking middle class. Follow the march with our virtual map.

Steve Fraser, historian and author of WALL STREET: AMERICA'S DREAM PALACE, discusses the modern parallels and differences to the first Gilded Age, the big disparity between the rich and poor, and the increasing strain on working Americans.

Holly Sklar, co-author of RAISE THE FLOOR: WAGES AND POLICIES THAT WORK FOR ALL OF US, discusses what current economic conditions say about the state of the American dream.


Senator Bernie Sanders, "The Collapse of the Middle Class"
Senator Sanders' office received over 600 responses from all across the state, as well as some from other states. This small booklet contains a few of those letters.

Our posts and your comments
For Educators    About the Series    Bill Moyers on PBS   

© Public Affairs Television 2008    Privacy Policy    DVD/VHS    Terms of Use    FAQ