The New Gilded Age

All over Reddit there are tons of posts of people getting richer than ever. It’s like the gilded age all over again, but the top hats, canes, and horse-drawn carriages have been replaced by inconspicuous button-down dress shirts and Teslas. They, the ‘new rich’, are not losing sleep over the ‘national suicide’ that Eric and others talk about, or the political or economic crisis always seems just around the corner and inevitable but that never comes. Unlike the first Gilded Age, which ended abruptly with the Great Depression, there will be no such climax or reversal this time around, I predict. It will just go on forever. [0]

A reason why this expansion over the past decade has proven so enduring and why it will likely continue, is, unlike the ’20s, there is little speculation or leverage in this boom. It’s just people coasting off safe, huge investments and incomes, whether large salaries, index funds, trillion-dollar tech companies, and or pricey real estate, not using massive leverage on speculative bets, which is why the start of the Great Depression was so sudden and severe. Instead of using 10-1 leverage to speculate like during the ’20s, it’s more like getting millions of dollars in tech stocks options plus salary, and or having your home go up a lot but without the risks of subprime. It’s the opposite of past speculative booms, in which the general public gets involved, which always ends suddenly and badly (such as Las Vegas real estate in 2005, dotcoms in 1999, etc). There is some speculation in crypto, but it is small relative to safer investments.

Rather than everything being bid up indiscriminately like most asset bubbles, it’s more of a ‘flight to quality’ to the biggest and the highest quality of assets: Bay Area real estate, mega-sized tech stocks, Walmart, Nike, and Disney stock, Tesla stock, treasury bonds, the US dollar, etc. This also is why it will not burst, because investors are not going to just dump these superlative assets for inferior ones.

As discussed inWealth Creation as the New American Religion, today’s wealthy eschew materialism and take pride in being frugal, and the accumulation of wealth is seen as an end goal in and of itself, not a means to something else. With the possible exception of living in a so-called HCOL area or perhaps driving a Tesla, you would scarcely be able to identify who is wealthy or not, compared to >100 years ago, when the wealthy proudly flaunted their possessions, and wealth was something to be admired and displayed, not downplayed.

No one is spending their wealth, save for the occasional private island, New Zealand residency, or private plane. The money goes into ‘trusts’ and then it just sits there, or it sits in stock. It’s the opposite of the 19th and 20th century, when the ultra-wealthy spent profligately such as on philanthropy, homes, and luxury goods. So it would seem as if the rich are effectively working for free, by working longer and harder than ever, but because they are not spending their money, it’s as if they don’t have it. So what purpose does all this money serve then?

Maybe the wealthy fear the pitchforks if they show off, but everyone knows that these people are super-wealthy, as such knoweldge is publicly available. There is no hiding it, so who are they fooling? Or who is going to be fooled by performative acts of minimalism when you are also sending yourself into space?

If I had to predict, compared to the 19th century, conditions today are less ripe for uprising. Democrats such as Sanders have strong rhetoric about the need for the wealthy to pay up, but nothing can be done. The impetus is not there, but also, it’s not like raising taxes is necessary when the treasury can borrow infinite $ at close to 0% forever.

The wealthy are working longer than ever even if they don’t need the money, in part because the returns on capital are so high. Wages for professionals, such as law, medicine, tech, finance, consulting, etc., have really ballooned over the past decade, since 2008 especially, even after accounting for student loan debt and inflation. This makes working long hours more attractive, as the financial payoff is so great both in terms of wages but also by investing one’s income in rapidly appreciating assets such as stocks and real estate (the post-2009 bull market is the biggest and longest ever). [1] Consequently, there are many people on Reddit and Hacker News on popular subs such as /r/personalfinance , r/investing, /r/financialindependence, /r/wallstreetbets (a lot of gambling, yes, but also many individuals who have 6-figures to play with) and /r/fatfire who have amassed considerable wealth by their late 20s or early to mid 30s. Putting in long hours in your 20s and 30s to have a massive nest egg that will last you the rest of your life by your 40s seems like a good trade-off.

Additionally, the wealthy pay a hefty premium to self-segregate from the masses and for convenience, whether it’s expensive private schools, home delivery, vacation homes/retreats, stadium box seating, private jet charters, and so on. It’s not so much about ‘owning stuff’, but rather owning control of one’s personal space and time.

[0] The typical response is along the lines of ‘just wait and see’, suggesting there will a major correction after some threshold of exuberance and froth has been exceeded. But the cyclicality of history is not something that can be taken for granted. There is no ‘iron law’ that empires must collapse, that economies must cycle between booms and busts. Wasn’t that what 911, the 2008 crisis, and Covid were supposed to entail, yet after each crisis the preexisting trends not only continued but accelerated. Anyone who followed conservative talk radio or alt-media for the past decade knows that ‘we’ have been promised that day of reckoning for a long time, at least as far back as under Bill Clinton, so where is it?

[1] Cont. here, a common argument is that large companies are underpaying workers relative to gains in productivity and profits, in order to maximize shareholder value to the detriment of workers. However, in obeying a sort of conservation law, the shortfall between wages that employees are ‘owed’ vs. shareholder equity (profits), can be narrowed or negated by employees investing their wages in said companies. So if Amazon warehouse workers are underpaid, this gap can be negated by Amazon employees investing in Amazon stock, so withheld wages can be ‘redeemed’ via shareholder equity. So that is what is happening now…employees are working longer hours than ever, and then investing said wages into assets, magnifying their effective wages. If invested capital has a real annual return of >20% (which is how it’s been since 2009), whether it’s in stocks or real estate, then working becomes attractive if one’s wages are invested in such rapidly appreciating assets.

2 comments

  1. I think your previous post is right:
    Poor civic unity —-> insecurity —-> wealth as a defensive play.
    Because sure you have a million in the bank, but what if you get cancer with all its costs or someone sues you after getting in a car accident. A job 250k job sounds great until you realize you are a tweet away from being cancelled. Therefore the gilded age ends when civic unity increases, what Turchin calls asabiya.

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