2020: The New Gilded Age

Wed, Jun 12, 2019 - 12:43pm

The Gilded Age was known for its rapid economic boom, technical advances and rising income inequality. Sound familiar? Bruce Mehlman, policy strategist and co-founder of Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, posits the U.S. is entering a new Gilded Age, swapping Rockefeller and Carnegie for Zuckerberg and Bezos.

A New Gilded Age

On a recent edition of FS Insider, Mehlman outlined some of the similarities between the Gilded Age of the last century and today. In the old era, electricity, railroads and oil drove the economic boom. Now, information, the internet, mobile technology and artificial intelligence are stepping into the role of rail and electricity.

We also see similarities in globalization in both eras, with new methods of transportation further shrinking the planet. Immigration has again become a prominent issue. Inequality is on the rise, Mehlman noted, and wealth is increasingly concentrated in fewer hands. Consumer protection laws were concerned with food and worker safety in the last Gilded Age, where today problems loom over data collection and privacy.

Rise of Populism

Another striking parallel is the rise in populism around the world. Last time, the move toward populist politics Mehlman said, “tended to reflect the worry that the existing policy regime wasn't sufficient, and that people were worried about the future. They felt like politicians weren't up to the challenge, so they kept voting for change and they're voting for change again.” Mehlman noted that the election of President Trump was a symptom – not the cause— of today’s rise in populism.

“In the 2018 midterm elections, we saw the highest turnout in 104 years in an American midterm election,” Mehlman pointed out. “It's the highest since the Gilded Age. That's all whole lot of folks and all the models suggest there will be high voter turnout again in 2020.”

Reigning in Market Excesses

Just as the innovation of the automobile sparked heated debate about safety and regulations, and reordered entire industries, so too is the rise of data and artificial intelligence in its disruption of traditional systems.

Today’s businesses are running rampant in ways similar to the old Gilded Age, with information security increasingly a topic of discussion. There are real questions about censorship and the role of companies such as Facebook in controlling content posted to their platform.

“We need some basic consumer protection,” Mehlman said. “It's great that there's innovation… but we still want to make sure things are safe and effective instead of just relying on the market to let us know...”

Mehlman sees the coming decade of the 2020s repeating many tropes from last Gilded Age and the 1920s. Listen to his full interview with FS Insider to find out if he thinks this will help or hurt President Trump’s reelection in 2020 and what a new decade of massive change means for the U.S.

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