With Barack Obama in the White House — and the greatest economic meltdown since the Great Depression upon us — an era may finally have ended, an era that has dragged on excruciatingly for nearly three decades. Over that span, wealth has been cascading into the pockets of the already privileged, and apologists for that privilege have sat in the political driver’s seat, orchestrating wave after wave of privatization, deregulation and tax cuts for the awesomely affluent. We’ve had an epoch like this before. Historians call that earlier epoch the Gilded Age. But our recent decades of staggering economic polarization lack a label. Last June, in our special Nation issue on “Extreme Inequality,” we set out to remedy that situation. We announced our first-ever “Name Our Epoch!” contest.
We invited Nation readers to attach a moniker to the decades since the late 1970s, those long years of soaring grand fortunes for the super rich — and a fading American dream for nearly everyone else. And you responded, with over 4,000 entries.
Good ones, too. You gave us “Ages:” the Age of Avarice, the Age of Disparity, the Gated Age. You gave us “Greats:” the Great Regression, the Great Betrayal, the Great Fleecing.
You dabbled with word games: the Crassical Period, the Bust Bowl, the Bling Bang, the New Steal.
Our trio of esteemed contest judges — historian Howard Zinn, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, and novelist Walter Mosley — patiently contemplated this avalanche of imagination. They ended up agreeing on a sober, almost wistful, label submitted by a twenty-something government statistician in Washington, DC. His submission and their choice: The Borrowed Times.
Bryan Williams, our contest winner, says that tag “conveys to me more a sense of queasiness than of doom.” With income redistributing upwards, he points out, individual Americans have had to borrow heavily “to keep themselves afloat,” and, as a nation, we’ve borrowed from the future.
We’ve also, notes Williams, “borrowed our global prominence from an earlier and different era.”
“Then we’d earned it,” he adds, “and now we’ve borrowed it.”
Williams graduated from college five years ago and has seen many of his upper-middle-class classmates go on to become lawyers, investment bankers and consultants. He often asks them “how people working seventy-hour weeks can feel like anything but slaves.”
“I also ask them why such hard-working and intelligent people have jobs that mostly move already-existing fortunes around,” says Williams. “I get as answers mostly blank stares.”
For his winning “Name Our Epoch” entry, Williams will get a lot more than that. He’ll be receiving autographed books from our three eminently distinguished judges and a fitting, if cheap, reminder of the epoch he has labeled: a model of a private corporate jet.
Want to help shape the new epoch ahead? Our online Extreme Inequality pages feature an annotated list of resources that can plug you into the activism we need to build a more equal future. Just point your browser to this Nation guide.