Last night on social media, I made this observation:
Someone who believes the 1% are wealthier because they work harder has never met a migrant farm worker, a janitor or a single mother.
That provoked quite a bit of commentary, sharing and reposting on both Twitter and Facebook.
I wanted to expand on that a little bit this morning. If you’re not sure what I’m referring to in the first place, see the recent discussions in the online and print media world about the public defensiveness of the 1%. This piece from Talking Points Memo is a good place to start, as it links to a number of other pieces.
Basically, there’s a self-valorizing myth among the wealthy in America that they got to their current situation due to their exceptional hard work. (I’m ignoring inherited wealth for the purposes of this discussion.) That same argument is used to justify high salaries in the legal profession and elsewhere. I am not saying that the wealthy don’t work hard, but it’s a ridiculous claim that hard work is the causal difference between wealth and lack of wealth.
That was my basic point. Poor people in general work much, much harder than rich people, for far less reward. It’s something many people of wealth are either unaware of or have long since forgotten.
I’m not throwing stones at the Bastille here. Prior to my own going on disability, my annual income put me in the top quartile of American wage earners. A proud member of the 25%, I suppose. I have absolutely benefited from the privileges of my birth and social class, and from being a white collar knowledge worker. And I have worked pretty damned hard over the years.
But I’ve never, ever had a job where I worked as hard as the custodial staff who cleaned the buildings I worked in at night. Or where I worked as hard as the people who picked the tomatoes that I could find in my salad at lunch every day.
Though I have been an exceptionally hard worker, I never confused my economic success with exceptionally hard work.
It’s not about working smarter, either, which is one of the fallback positions in this argument. Yes, knowledge workers can be highly paid. Ask any successful attorney or senior IT person. But teachers work smart every day, and so do emergency responders, while neither of those professions is highly paid. Likewise anybody in the lower end of the advertising world. And those are just lines of work that leap to mind in the first moment’s reflection.
Though I have been an exceptionally smart worker, I never confused my economic success with exceptionally smart work.
As my mother, a/k/a tillyjane, explained to me once when I was a young man, in our society we don’t pay people according to how hard they work, or how important their jobs are. If we did, teachers would be at the top of the pay scale. In our society, we pay people according to how well they can make the money move.
The examples easiest to perceive are top-tier athletes and actors. Because a big name star can increase the take at the gate or the box office, they’re paid more. Essentially, it’s a form of commission. Likewise people who work in high end sales, or Wall Street level finance. They’re commissioned, either directly or indirectly, because of the financial transaction volume they generate. Likewise C-level officers of major corporations, who are compensated as highly as they are because they are supposed to be able to influence corporate revenue.
The 1% are where they are not because they work harder, or because they work smarter, but because they are able to influence the flow of money.
Note that I am neither defending nor attacking the system. I’m merely pointing out that the current argument being advanced by some among the 1% is specious and self-serving, designed to appeal to the American archetype of the self-made success and the idea of class mobility.
The reality is much, much tougher. Me, I’ve never been poor. Sure, I’ve been student-poor. I’ve been lower middle class-poor. I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck. I’ve been financially distressed by a real estate bankruptcy (in the 1990s) and by extraordinary medical expenses (these past six years). But I’ve never in my life had to choose between feeding my kids and paying the heating bill. I’ve never broken my back working two and three jobs while trying to figure out how to pay $1,000 worth of bills with $600 worth of income, and no way out.
Those people, who are millions of Americans, work much, much harder than Sam Zell or Tom Perkins can ever imagine. Those people, whose lifetime earnings will be less that the monthly cash flow of the household of someone in the 1%, work much, much harder than almost any of us who are not also that poor can admit to.
Because there is your injustice. Not the paranoia of the extremely wealthy who realize they are at the top of a dangerously unbalanced pyramid. But the work of millions that keep all our floors clean and all our salad plates stocked.
Me, I’m close enough to being one of those wealthy that I’m probably standing on the ethically challenged side of this divide. But even I can see the strains in the system.
Should it be this way? I’m honestly not sure. That’s the way our system works. Rightly or wrongly, that’s the way our system is designed to work. I’m not advocating revolution here. But I am advocating honesty, rather than self-valorizing paranoia and class-based whining about the class-based oppression allegedly suffered by the privileged.
Because in honesty, we can define our problems. And in defining our problems, we can solve them. And frankly, Perkins and Zell et alia are right about one thing. Hard work should be rewarded. So let’s recognize who works hardest in our society, and let’s have an honest discussion about how to reward them.