Reflections on the Public Good in the New Gilded Age

By Laxer, James | Queen's Quarterly, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Reflections on the Public Good in the New Gilded Age


Laxer, James, Queen's Quarterly


In the early decades of this century, productivity gains in such industries as steel making and automobile manufacturing took place at a breathtaking pace. The outline of an affluent new satiety began to take shape -- only to come crashing down in depression and world war. By the postwar years, Western nations had learned something important about productivity gains and distribution of wealth. Unfortunately, the hard lessons of the past seem to have been forgotten during the present-day technological revolution.

There are a remarkable number of "feel good" books penned by the wealthy plutocrats of our day. My favourite of these motivational volumes is Bill Gates' 1995 work, The Road Ahead. Just before his personal fortune skyrocketed by $20 billion in a single year -- the greatest short-term accumulation of wealth by one individual in the history of the world -- Gates wrote that Adam Smith would have been pleased by the way capitalism has proved its advantages over other systems in the 1990s. It would be odd indeed if Gates did not have that opinion. In 1996-97, as North American stock markets soared upward, one and a half per cent of all the market gains went to Bill Gates personally -- to one man on a continent of 300 million people.

The historical moment since the end of the Cold War has witnessed an orgiastic celebration of the societal benefits that flow from inequality. When it published its annual "rich list" last year, the Times of London trumpeted the good news that "the enterprise culture is here at last. Soaring asset values have brought a vast increase in wealth for Britain's millionaire class ..."

A century ago, during capitalism's original gilded age, John D. Rockefeller, the world's first billionaire, remarked on what it means for a business to struggle ruthlessly with its competitors. "The American beauty rose," Rockefeller said, "can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working out of a law of Nature and of God."

In today's new gilded age, the twin ideas of equality and citizenship have been driven to the margin. They have become pesky, uncomfortable concepts left over from a bygone day. From the time of the American and French revolutions, the notion that in important respects all people are equal has nourished the evolution of citizenship and the rights of citizens. In my opinion, the first casualty of globalization has been the concept of citizenship.

I would like to focus on the threat the new inequality of our age poses to the ideas of citizenship and democracy and consequently to any authentic quest for the public good.

In part, we can see the inequality in our society clearly in statistics. Over the past 20 years the income gap between the rich and the rest of the population has widened hugely, and the wealth gap has become a chasm. From the mid-1970s to the present, the inflation-adjusted income of the average Canadian male has not increased and remains below $35,000 a year, while the real income of the average Canadian female has increased a little, to just over $19,000 a year. Meanwhile the incomes of chief executives of major North American firms have soared from about 30 times to about 100 times those of their average employees.

The wealth gap has widened much more than the income gap. In 1996-97, when the assets of us stocks grew by $1.4 trillion, half of all the gains went to families with incomes of over $200,000 a year. In the us, the top one per cent of income earners hold 48 per cent of financial assets while the bottom 80 per cent hold only 6 per cent of assets. The three wealthiest Americans -- Bill Gates, John Walton, and Warren Buffett -- have personal financial assets that total about $100 billion. That is as much as the combined financial assets of the 100 million poorest Americans. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Reflections on the Public Good in the New Gilded Age
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.