I have been reading Hershey by Michael D’Antonio, a biography of the remarkable Milton S. Hershey, who is known as much for his humane treatment of his workers as he is for the candy company he created. To put Hershey’s life into perspective, D’Antonio provides a good picture of life at that time. Hershey came to power during the period of the robber barons and continued in business up through the end of World War II. I knew that the period around the turn of the 20th century was a bad one with high levels of income inequality. What surprised me was the fact that this period wasn’t really any different than it is today. At the peak of the robber barons, the top 1% of Americans controlled half of all the nation’s assets. In 2007, the top 1% of Americans own roughly 35% of all the nation’s assets. If you don’t include primary residences, this number jumps to 43%.
Unfortunately, the trend seems to be in the wrong direction. A hundred years ago, many businessmen thought it was important to make workers as happy as possible in order to keep the society stable. They understood that high levels of income inequality might lead to revolution. Today, the dominant philosophy is a Calvinist belief that the rich are morally superior. I dislike both inequality and social disorder. So I am none too happy to be living in this second period of robber barons. We could really use some more people like Milton S. Hershey.