Like almost every American schoolchild, I was taught to despise the robber barons of the Gilded Age. Rockefeller, Astor, Vanderbilt: they lived in opulence while their businesses abused workers, compromised their health, ignored their rights and sucked our nation’s abundant natural resources dry.
They bought off politicians with promises of special favors and lobbied hard for low taxes and minimal regulation. Can you believe major corporations once behaved this way? Now that we’ve learned from the mistakes of the Gilded Age, we have more enlightened companies, like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Right?
I’m not so sure. The coronavirus crisis has revealed the terrifying grip our modern barons hold over less fortunate Americans. Amazon more than doubled its profits during the second quarter of 2020. You couldn’t take a masked, socially distanced walk down my street in Pennsylvania without tripping over Amazon Prime packages. And yet Jeff Bezos hasn’t given my town a single orchestra or library and probably not yours, either. Meanwhile, Facebook and Google-owned YouTube spread QAnon conspiracies among suburban moms who would otherwise be busy selling each other nail polish through multilevel marketing schemes.
The robber barons of the Gilded Age are justly criticized for their labor practices. In that sense, they’re not much different from the tech overlords of today. Earlier this summer, a VP of Amazon Web Services left the Everything Store in a fury over the firing of fulfillment center whistleblowers.
Reports of Amazon warehouse conditions have revealed the disgraceful treatment of workers for years. In the COVID era, though, warehouse workers faced an even more relentless working environment, plus, according to the whistleblowers, near-total disregard for their health and safety. The workers who publicly criticized their employer weren’t killed, as they might have been in the time of Andrew Carnegie, but their towns also won’t get a new community center out of it. You win some, you lose some.
This past summer, Mr Bezos and his counterparts at Apple, Facebook and Google were hauled in front of Congress to defend their corporations against accusations that they violate the very same antitrust laws authored to diminish the power of their forebears, the industrialists of the 19th century. At the time of writing, the Judiciary Committee’s report with its conclusions is still forthcoming. Antitrust investigations by the attorneys general of California and New York are also ongoing.
Meanwhile, towns and cities in California and New York languish under the burdens of coronavirus containment. Schools are failing families, small businesses are closing for good and mental-health and addiction crises are deepening. It sure would be nice if each one of these communities had, for example, robust enough educational resources to provide all its schoolchildren with a computer and high-speed internet. Who has the money to help with that? Oh. Right.
The city I live in, York, Pennsylvania, happens to have done very well by the affluent industrialists of the past. A German-born potter opened a factory here in the 19th century, and his dinnerware patterns eventually became popular enough that through the largesse of his descendants we now have, in no particular order, a grand performing-arts center, a prestigious charter school, a few really nice-looking murals and a minor-league baseball team. Nearby Hershey, Pittsburgh, Allentown and Bethlehem are other examples of cities enriched by megalomaniacal tycoons who nonetheless felt they had a responsibility toward the concrete improvement of a particular place.
Rather than investing their inconceivably large fortunes in grandiose but abstract concepts like ‘climate change’, ‘systemic racism’ and ‘curing cancer’, the robber barons built neighborhoods and town squares, libraries, schools, parks, hospitals and museums to be used and enjoyed by the actual people who actually worked for them. They didn’t just fund research labs — they funded whole communities.
But in many towns and cities like these, the once grand architecture is decaying, once bustling downtowns have emptied out and urban schools have been starved of tax revenue by suburban sprawl.
Newly nervous about going outside, young people and families sit at home, listlessly engaging in ‘remote learning’ or scrolling through Instagram or waiting on Amazon Prime packages. In a sense, everyone with a Facebook or Gmail account works for these companies by providing them with a product: our personal data. And yet we settle for so little in return. Our corporate overlords, such as Bezos and Elon Musk, are now so ambitious they have launched space programs, yet they are noticeably less interested in improving public spaces here on Earth.
I spent my twenties in a neighborhood in Queens once known as Hallett’s Cove. In the 1830s, this ambitious village made something of a modest proposal to John Jacob Astor, America’s first millionaire: invest in us, and we’ll rename ourselves for you. Astor, apparently unimpressed, gave the neighborhood $500 and never set foot there, but it renamed itself Astoria anyway. Though that experiment in attracting a town benefactor failed, it has given me an idea.
I’m hereby putting out a call: my town is now accepting applications for a robber baron. In exchange for your ongoing investment in public art and education, you may name every building, street, and amenity after yourself. You can have a private box at the theater, if you renovate it, and all the schoolchildren will memorize your genealogy and the names of your pets.
If 2020 is any indication, the federal government will spend the next administration squabbling over the election and posturing for the media. State and local governments will spend it trying to determine exactly what percentage of occupancy each restaurant is permitted. The field for actually improving the lives of citizens is up for grabs for any rich person with a vision.
This article is in The Spectator’s October 2020 US edition.