The Gilded Age Then, The Gilded Age Now – OpEd


How many people in India are going hungry? Researchers working on the Global Hunger Index are currently tracking 125 nations across the world. Exactly 110 of those nations, those researchers reported last fall, are suffering less hunger than India.

But India, by contrast, is doing quite well on the gluttony front. Few nations today can lay claim to a wealthy elite as gluttonous as India’s. Earlier this month, that insatiability made headlines worldwide. The occasion that sparked this global attention? A pre-wedding party for the youngest son of India’s — and Asia’s — richest billionaire, the 66-year-old Mukesh Ambani, the chair of India’s biggest corporation.

This three-day “ode to excess,” noted one British commentator, featured feasting that “even Nero might have thought a little over the top.”

The over 1,000 guests at Ambani’s gala, the Times of India would report, had 21 chefs at their beck and call, preparing 75 different dishes for breakfast, over 225 choices for lunch, 275 for dinner, and another 85 items for “the midnight meal.” Why so many different dishes? Heaven forbid, quipped columnist Arwa Mahdawi, that any guest “would have to suffer the indignity of eating the same food twice.”

The proud papa behind all this excess, news reports guesstimated, may have spent as much as $120 million on the party, a pittance — about 0.1 percent — of the $117 billion or so in his personal fortune, a net worth that Forbes says makes Ambani the ninth-richest person in the world.

The food, of course, only gobbled up a portion of that $120 million outlay. The most dramatic piece of that expense? Ambani shelled out, India Today believes, somewhere between $8 and $9 million for an appearance by the superstar Rihanna, enough to convince the 36-year-old singer to give “her first full live show in almost eight years.”

On hand to enjoy Rihanna’s surprise set: a host of Ambani’s fellow super rich from all around the world, including the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Ivanka Trump from the United States. Also on hand: Bob Iger, the chief exec of the Disney entertainment empire. Disney and Ambani’s own Reliance Industries corporate giant have just cut a deal to merge their Indian media operations.

For Ambani, Iger, and the rest of their deep-pocket set, excess just seems to come naturally. Ambani’s mega-billionaire party guest Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, has been busy lately building a secret compound on Hawaii’s Kauai island that may end up costing as much as $270 million. That outlay, notes Wired, will be enough to put in place both an underground bunker and, above ground, a 30-bedroom mansion complex “with a total floor area comparable to a professional football field.”

Back in the middle of the 20th century, hardly anyone in America could have imagined that the future would bring this sort of over-the-top excess. By the end of the 1950s, the super rich appeared to be getting squeezed out of existence by a combination of top-bracket federal income tax rates as high as 91 percent and a vibrant labor movement that had significantly narrowed the pay gap between top corporate execs and their average workers.

Those taxes and that vibrant labor movement reflected, in turn, America’s widespread disgust at the decades of swelling grand fortunes in the half-century after the Civil War, an era of excess that Mark Twain had early on tagged the “Gilded Age.”

Back in that Gilded Age, just like today, grand private parties had come to symbolize the excessive wealth of an outrageously unequal era.

The hostess for the most famous of those Gilded Age soirées would be Caroline Astor, the spouse of the grandson of John Jacob Astor, pre-Civil War America’s most famous awesomely affluent tycoon. Every January, this famed “Mrs. Astor” — “Gilded Age Gotham’s society doyenne” — would welcome into her mid-Manhattan mansion the 400 worthiest of New York’s rich. She typically hosted the evening wearing a huge necklace that had originally belonged to Marie Antoinette.

How big a deal did Mrs. Astor’s annual ball become? The New York Times would eventually start publishing the annual list of her 400 guests. But why just 400?

“There are only about four hundred people in the fashionable New York Society,” Astor’s sidekick Ward McAllister noted in 1888. “If you go outside that number, you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or make other people not at ease.”

Five years earlier, those nouveau rich left off the Astor guest list had started putting on their own galas, with the Vanderbilts hosting a huge masquerade ball — for some 1,200 well-heeled guests — to celebrate the opening of their brand-new Fifth Avenue mansion. Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt came into this spectacular affair “swathed” in satin and carrying “a battery-powered light that she could raise over her head like the Statue of Liberty.” Dinner, catered by the renowned Delmonico’s, would begin at 2 a.m.

Other Manhattan deep pockets would underwrite ever more imaginative affairs. The financier Henry Clews hosted a “servants ball” that had New York’s wealthiest dressed up in rags and uniforms all made specially for the occasion from the “finest fabrics.” A “circus ball” had the city’s finest carrying peanuts “as a 12,000-pound elephant clomped about.” In 1897, still another ball turned the Waldorf Hotel into a replica of the palace at Versailles.

In today’s dollars, the hosts of that last affair shelled out nearly $10 million to stage their festivities, a sum ample enough to outfit all the guests with party favors that included “jewelry for the ladies and cigars wrapped in $100 bills for the men.”

The upper crust of this original Gilded Age, author Renée Rosen noted a few years ago, would eventually choke “on their own conspicuous consumption.” By 1913, the ferocious inequality that this consumption so highlighted had helped bring into effect the first modern federal tax on high incomes.

By the mid-1940s, the federal tax rate on top-bracket income had jumped to over 90 percent, and that rate would hover around that level until lawmakers droppedit down to 77 percent in 1964 and 70 percent in 1965. Two decades later, the Reagan years would sink the nation’s tax rate on top-bracket income all the way down to 28 percent, and the years since then have only inched that top rate — on paper — back to 37 percent.

By the start of the 2020s, this light tax touch on America’s most financially favored had left America’s richest 0.01 percent with 10 percent of the nation’s wealth, five times the top 0.01 percent’s wealth share in the late 1970s — and over 10 percent above the top 0.01 percent’s share of the nation’s treasure in 1913.

This past fall, analysts at Forbes announced that America’s richest 400 now hold a combined wealth of $4.5 trillion. In 2023 overall, researchers at the global property broker Knight Frank reported late last month, the world’s 500 richest — led by the rich of the United States — added an incredible $1.5 trillion to their personal fortunes.

Our age has clearly become the gildest of all time.

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati co-edits at the Institute for Policy Studies. His books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win.

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