Today we have a guest post from Francesca Sawaya, author of The Difficult Art of Giving: Patronage, Philanthropy, and the American Literary Market. Called "A fresh, original, and important revisionist literary history,” (Kenneth W. Warren, University of Chicago) The Difficult Art of Giving rethinks standard economic histories of the literary marketplace. In today’s piece, Sawaya looks at the contemporary creative marketplace and sees just how little has changed.
One of the pleasures in writing about late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American culture is how often the controversies alive then remain alive today in new form. Indeed, commentators in the last decade of economic boom and bust have increasingly taken to referring to this era as a “New Gilded Age.” For Paul Krugman, this term is useful for comparing the rates of economic inequality in the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century and now . According to Krugman’s fellow economists, Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, 5% of the national income in the U.S. goes to the upper one-one-hundredth of a percent of the income distribution—statistics unmatched since the old Gilded Age .
Along with this return to extreme economic inequality has also been a sudden surge in philanthropy by the wealthy, culminating in 2010 in “The Giving Pledge.” Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates invited “the world's wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy” . 81 billionaires and their families have signed this pledge. As numerous commentators have noted, this surge in billionaire philanthropy of our New Gilded Age is also reminiscent of a surge in millionaire philanthropy in the old Gilded Age. Buffett and Gates themselves have cited Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller as inspirations. Whatever the good intentions of this new billionaire philanthropy, an obvious question cannot help but emerge: What might be the relation between rising economic inequality in the U.S. and mega-philanthropy in the old and New Gilded Ages?