The New York Times that was delivered to my house today included an advertising section titled "Autos: The New Gilded Age of Luxury." Yes, the Gilded Age, an era of infamous inequality, is being invoked to sell luxury cars.
Here's an excerpt from the introductory ad copy, which revels in the decadence of today's ultra-rich:
There are now more than 8 million millionaires in the United States. They don't wear white tie to dinner and wait for the chauffeur to open the door of their Duesenberg. These active, self-made people don't want or need the traditional trappings of luxury.
Luxury today means being able to live wherever you want and commute via the Internet. Luxury today means having the time and money to pursue whatever takes your fancy. Luxury today means being secure enough, emotionally and financially, to not worry about what the neighbors think.
This doesn't mean that symbols don't matter. When almost anything goes, luxury brands are more important than ever. The expanding market of luxury good sfrom Louis Vitton to Rolex to Mercedes-Benz is clear proof that the right name matters. Always.
But when it comes to luxury vehicles, the old paradigms don't apply any more. That's what this section is about: contemporary interpretations of the traditional luxury sedan, plus super SUVs and limited-edition sports cars.
...I predict that 20 years from now, we'll look back and think this was a special time, a New Gilded Age of Luxury. That doesn't mean that there won't be luxury machines in 2025 -- luxury is always in style -- but rather that there may never again be this selection of superlative machines all in one place at one time, demanding our love and desire.
Yes, it is "a special time." Consider this figure, which shows how inequality in the US is returning to the highs it reached during the Gilded Age:
And this inequality has political consequences. Consider the GOP's near-obsession with the estate tax, which affects a handful of ultra-rich families, over the last 10-15 years. For a longer term perspective, I recommend Polarized America by the distinguished political scientists Keith Poole, Howard Rosenthal and Nolan McCarty, which I read part of in manuscript form. The book, which Paul Krugman plugged this week, includes this remarkable picture showing the correlation between polarization and income inequality:
The Times ad is unwittingly correct: this will be remembered as a new Gilded Age.