Thoughts On A New Gilded Age


On the heels of an article announcing that the wealthy have so much money they do not know what to do with it, a friend showed me a hotel bar’s offer for a $450 sidecar served with a garnish of gold leaf, in a crystal glass painted with 24-karat gold. 

Gold leaf has become relatively, infuriatingly, common in flashily expensive food.  Restaurants and bars use it as an excuse to price an item ridiculously, clickbaitably high at little expense to them (the quantities used per item must be nearly worthless). Of course, gold adds nothing to the taste of an item, either.  Perhaps I find it infuriating because it is so uncreative, so tawdry.  Surely entrepreneurs could at least have indulged in the “lobster stuffed with tacos” excess of the old Iron Chef Japan, where every mystery ingredient justified the baroque introduction of truffles, caviar and foie gras. 

Gold leaf is literally flimsy. Its presence in expensive food suggests not that no expense has been spared to make an item the best or the most innovative (something that surely the needlessly wealthy could seek out instead), but rather that the conspicuous waste of money itself is the goal in and of itself. 

Gold leaf is a fitting metaphor for what appears to be a new gilded age: a vanishingly thin glittering top covering a base age.  An age of surfaces and plating because there is not enough to go around, nor is there a chance that what there is would be shared, as the lifestyles of those who have are premised on not sharing with those who do not. 

For every Lucius Beebe there is an Upton Sinclair.  The first chronicled the fascinating and crass exploits of the newly wealthy of the last Gilded Age, the latter their disgusting exploitation of the rest of us through control of both industry and politics.  I wonder if future generations will find tales of our current nabobs as interesting as Beebe’s.  Their stories seem almost quaint now, their once infamous names now stately and enshrined across museum wings and foundations across the world. 

It’s not true that you can’t buy taste, it’s just that most people with the money choose not to.  An army of art, design, wine and every other sort of consultant for the good life exists out there, some of them probably even good. Taste may be an inherently bourgeois thing, but at the very least the extravagances of our new gilded age swells could show some inspiration or imagination.

While new mega-yachts continue to swell and wealth superconcentrates, a few of our overlords must have a little taste.  After all, Aston Martin periodically produces (thanks to improbable discoveries of old unused chassis) more of its 1960 DB4 GT Zagato, a car beautiful enough to make a grown man weep, for seven-figure prices.  And I retain hope that someone, perhaps Wei Koh, will one day order a Breguet Réveil du Tsar alarm watch custom-programmed to play the Mighty Science Theater theme from the end credits of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  

I ought to be grateful for the literal gilding of new gilded age purchases.  The last time we were threatened with a possible new gilded age, right before the 2008 financial crisis, the papers heralded that the new status symbol would be… the bed.  Entrepreneurs attempting to sell beds that cost as much as a Jaguar explained that it made no sense for people to pay less for something they spent a third of their lives in. I haven’t seen more about this recently, but I try to no longer read The New York Times.

What could the gilded better spend their wealth on?  I’ll refrain from making a list of the boring bourgeois indulgences I daydream of, having learned over the years I’m happiest with a good book and the ability to sleep in.  And it’s another trap to suggest the charities the cosmically superwealthy (astronomical in both size of fortune and distance from the rest of us) could fund.  Philanthropy is a popularity contest for those who have the privilege of being ill-informed: for the prestige of being a patron of art or culture, for the satisfaction of saving something charismatic (cute animals, for instance) or of sponsoring or doing something outlandish to earn the title of visionary, which is a wealthy person who is a lunatic. Any recommendation for how privileged individuals should be contributing to society is blinkered, for what a society needs – infrastructure, social support, health care, education – requires the collection and administration of funds to causes that aren’t as sexy as think tanks, research chairs or space colonies.  The peace of mind for me, and the rest of us, to put our books down and sleep at night in a society that can function will depend on it.

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