Friday links! Grifters in a gilded age edition

A turn-of-the century cartoon published by the American Federation of Labor

The big historical misconception of the Gilded Age is that it was an age of great wealth, when really it was an age of widespread poverty. Between 1870 and 1900, growing industrialization and the sudden interconnection of markets by rail made a small number of American industrialists insanely rich. The Gilded Age produced the Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie fortunes. It also impoverished millions of ordinary Americans, who went from self-employment as small farmers and independent craftsmen to working in mills and on railroads—often for sprawling trusts, usually with little control over hours or conditions, and invariably for low wages in an economy driven by industrial-strength inflation. The Gilded Age made a few people rich at the expense of everyone else. It is named for the 1873 novel by Mark Twain, and the whole point of “gilded” is that the gold only covered the surface. Beneath it lay something base that the wealthy wanted to cover up. Anyway, I don’t know why I’m thinking about this in the 21st century, during our second industrial revolution.1 I guess I’m just savoring the fact that nothing like that could happen now. Today is Friday, and our age remains totally un-gilded. Won’t you insist that everything is fine with me?

First, the good news: The world’s 1,542 billionaires got about 20% richer last year, bringing their total wealth to a record-high $6 trillion. The bad news is that money came from somewhere, e.g. people with jobs. Concentration of wealth is now as high as it was in 1905, around the time Teddy Roosevelt started breaking up trusts. That corrective worked, and the competing interests of the world’s aristocrats did not lead to any kind of massive, industrialized warfare nine years later. Update: It did. Anyway, I’m sure that corporate control of US government and the dramatically increased surveillance abilities of the modern police state will lead us to a new progressive era, in which peaceful reforms return economic power to working Americans.

Just look at Whitefish, Montana, for example. Even though it’s far removed from Washington power centers, a local company with only two employees won a $300 million no-bid contract to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electric grid. That’s surely the second-biggest news ever to come out of that town—after the appointment of Whitefish native Ryan Zinke as Secretary of the Interior, which coincidentally happened earlier this year. This morning, the Hill reports that Whitefish Energy’s contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority specifies that “in no event shall [government bodies] have the right to audit or review the cost and profit elements” of the deal. It also stipulates that the government cannot sue the company or its subcontractors for “delayed completion of work.” It’s weird that Puerto Rican officials would sign such an agreement, but maybe they were hurrying to catch a plane while struggling with big, bulging attaché cases. Regardless of how this contract came about, though, I want to stress that it had nothing to do with Secretary Zinke, whose son coincidentally spent a summer working for Whitefish Energy owner Andy Techmanski.2

I keep telling you that Montana is awesome, but you keep living somewhere else. Maybe this will sweeten the deal: we’ve got a husband and wife in Havre who are both running for the same senate seat, one as a Republican and one as a Democrat. Also, they have six aliases between them and can’t prove they are married. Tom Lutey did a little digging and found that almost no part of Willam James Dean and Sarah Dean’s story withstands fact checking or even coheres with the other parts. For example, there was this dispute over why William, who goes by James, changed his name from Daniel Lane Dean some time after he filed papers to run for president in California:

The candidate told The Billings Gazette he changed his name for religious reasons, but he was cut off by Sarah Dean, who grabbed his arm. “I just didn’t like it, I didn’t like his name because they called him Dan and I just didn’t see him as a Dan,” Sarah Dean said. “And he thought that it was because I prayed about it and I got an answer, but no, I honestly wanted him to be a William. And I told him, you have to be a William. I didn’t like his name and all these complications that went with me thinking of him being a Dan and I’m just like, ‘I’m over this.’”

I also grab my partner’s arm and contradict her when she is telling the truth. That’s not the only thing I have in common with Sarah Dean, since I too have written a children’s book, sold wedding dresses, and operated a GoFundMe to raise money for widows in India under three different names. Anyway, I welcome these mysterious grifters from parts unknown to Montana, especially now that we’ve lost Valerie Stamey.

Still, I prefer my pathological behavior to come from people with biographies. Perhaps you heard about Leon Wieseltier, the former literary editor at the The New Republic who lost his deal to launch a new magazine this week after several women accused him of sexual harassment. Guys: Stop trying to fuck women at work. Stop it. This rule applies to both women who work where you work and women whose workplaces you visit as a customer. Don’t try to fuck your assistant. Don’t try to fuck the barista. There are literally billions of women out there whom you can try to fuck when they are not busy making rent. I’ve gotten kind of sidetracked, here, but my point is that A) Leon Wieseltier has been disgraced, and B) now that that’s happened, Vanity Fair has republished their mean profile of him from 1995. It’s amazing—a master class in being very smart but never really doing anything.3 It also contains this amazing observation:

By all accounts, Leon and monogamy were not on good terms. “How can I be with the same woman every night?” he once confided to a female friend. “Do you expect me to eat at the same restaurant every night?” (In point of fact, he did eat at the same restaurant almost every night, the trendy nouvelle American bistro Nora, near his apartment.)

Okay, yeah, but going to a new restaurant doesn’t make you feel like you’re finally living out your teenage dream of getting so smart that you become attractive. As a person who has never had this dream or gone to the same restaurant ten days in a row, I condemn him roundly.

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