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Can America Escape Its Second Gilded Age?

Extreme and rising income and wealth inequalities are derailing human progress and undermining American democracy at a time when we need effective governance to tackle problems like climate change. Yet despite all the fodder for pessimists, history shows that the optimists still have a strong case.

BERKELEY – Some of us are more optimistic than others about the future. We optimists recognize that it is still possible to escape from the traps that America’s Second Gilded Age has laid.

During a gilded age, productive capabilities are directed away from providing most people with necessities and conveniences, and toward exorbitant spending on status-seeking and other worthless activities. Inherited wealth typically plays a major role, and it is often deployed to block and delay any transformation that could upend the status quo.

Consider global warming, which now threatens to neutralize much of the technological dividend that we otherwise would have had over the next two generations. We are in this mess precisely because coal and oil interests had enough social and political power to delay the transition to zero-emissions energy. Worse, segments of the socially and politically powerful regard democracy as a problem.

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