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The Way It Was, the One Percent, and What's Changed?

10/19/2013 03:28 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

In the year 1890 we had no TV and radio, nothing but newspapers, and the newspapers noted that year that more than half of America's vast wealth was owned by only 1 percent of the population.

Sound familiar?

It was also noted that cities were confronting the existence of a permanent "dependent class" of wage laborers.

And the response of the 1 percent?

The tycoon Andrew Carnegie, who made most of his money by insider trading (legal at that time), said that while unfettered competition in the marketplace "may be sometimes hard for the individual, it ensures the survival of the fittest."

Yes, he said that. One of the fit drunk on Darwin.

And in 1890 ex-President Grover Cleveland said that federal aid "weakens the sturdiness of the national character."

Sound familiar? Another of the fit drunk on Darwin.

Mark Twain called it the Gilded Age -- an age of American mass poverty covered over by a thin layer of gold leaf. An age whose anthem was that the survival of the fittest needs to be ensured and the unfit need to perish to maintain the sturdiness of the national character.

Given that mantra, what is the "national character" but a character driven by greed and selfishness?

A few years after 1890, as if to rub it into the faces of the unfit, the mega-tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt had constructed a summer home in Newport in Rhode Island, a 70-room mansion called The Breakers. Cost? About $300 million in today's money. Wood and marble from the four corners of the world. A palace for a prince of the fit.

From 1890 to 2013, 123 years have passed and we're apparently in the same place -- the 1 percent dancing a jig on the backs of everyone else.

Say good night, Gracie.

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