[culture] The 1% and hard work

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 [info]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.

10 thoughts on “[culture] The 1% and hard work

  1. whidgets says:


    Short time lurker here. I really enjoy your blog and this post in particular I think gets it right in one. The only thing I would add is that the 1% are the folks who directly influence the flow of money because of course none of it would happen without the support staff.
    I don’t know how to solve this one either but I was reading an article recently about some country in Europe where a law had been proposed that would set a limit on wage discrepancies – something like the best paid worker in a company couldn’t make more than 12x the lowest paid worker. That seems to me like it would be a reasonable place to start.

  2. Well-written, and very cogent observations, Jay. What saddens me is the large number of people who do believe the delusion that harder work is why the 1% is where they are–I always figure it is because they possess the irrational belief that lightning will strike and they’ll magically join the 1%. That’s the only way I can explain the nature of the delusion.

  3. Megaera says:

    Librarians and museum curators [wry g]. Just to add a datapoint to your list of knowledge workers who aren’t highly paid.

    Although I do remember thinking when I took my first job out of library school, “Wow, this is a lot of money!” But up till that point in time I’d been a low-level clerical worker, making minimum wage or slightly above, so to me it really was a lot of money.

    Sorry about the digression.

    1. Jay says:

      Like I said, top-of-my-head. Another argument I see from lawyers about their compensation is that they have to recoup the costs of education. But many cops and teachers have masters degrees, not to mention librarians and museum science types, and we don’t see that as a stated compensation factor there.

  4. Right now, I make the most money I’ve made in my life so far (office job as a technical writer). A coworker and I recently chatted about “hard work” after listening to some people in the office complain about something not really worth complaining about. This friend had a lot of odd and hard jobs in his past. In my case, I’ve worked in landscaping and construction during the summer in Texas. I’ve worked on loading docks packing semis; I’ve done my time in factories and warehouses where it was cooler outside in summer than inside near machinery. While my job, now, requires much more thought, some of the manufacturing jobs I had in the past were hard work that required a lot of thought as well.

    It still seems strange to me that I make more money than I ever have while sitting at a desk in a nice office or at home. Not that I don’t believe my salary isn’t merited and earned– I do have more responsibilities than I had at most of my old jobs, but I had a manufacturing job that required me in the shop 7 days a week, to keep new molds ready for Mondays. If I didn’t go in, production stopped; that’s as much responsibility as I have today in ways. I was paid less than 1/4 what I make today, though.

    I don’t know what the solution is to even the views of what constitutes hard work. I’ve worked hard at every job I’ve had, whether it was building something, writing something, or caring for others. It’s easy to say that working in the heat motivated me to move on to “better things,” but I’m fortunate to have that opportunity. I worked with many people from Mexico who didn’t have the same opportunities for moving up that I had. They worked harder than many of the people at those jobs who didn’t like them because of where they were born. While I understand that not everyone can make the leaps I’ve made, to look at entire groups of people who toil all day in extreme conditions and vilify them for where they come from or the jobs they do is a sad line of division.

    I know it’s possible, even among those who make a lot of money, to have a heart and respect those who work just as hard (even harder, physically) because I see it in the leadership of where I currently work. But I know know every CEO and president of a large corporation looks at the world like the people running things where I work; I’m very fortunate to be where I am. Even between me and the upper management of where I am exists those who believe they are somehow better–and work harder–than the people on the grounds planting flowers and cutting grass. Having done that very job in my past, I know everyone in and around the buildings works very hard. Sadly, only one group of workers gets respect from many people. In some cases, the very people saying things like “stop to smell the flowers” don’t care about those planting the flowers; in fact, they might have outright animosity toward them.

    I think what I like most about the thoughts this entry stirred in me is that I’m on the right side when I defend those who toil away to no credit. (And that it’s a reminder that I need to speak up about things even more.) I make sure the guy cleaning the restrooms at work knows how much I appreciate it when we cross paths because I’ve been a janitor and know what it’s like to have some people treat you like you’re not even there. More than that, though: I acknowledge his work because it’s the human thing to do, whether I’ve been there or not.

    1. Jay says:

      You’re talking exactly along the same lines I was thinking, with a much more direct personal experience of both sides of the fence. Thank you.

    2. Rafe says:

      I’ve also had demanding (physically as well as mentally/emotionally) jobs where the pay was abysmal ($7/hr pruning trees with a machete, the same amount as a manuscript editor in a slush house for abusive and dishonest owners, a similar wage stocking warehouse shelves and a big-box hardware store, and $8/hr as an office manager cum sysadmin), and now that I make a relatively comfortable living doing tech support, I can complain about having a “hard” day because it’s busier than usual, but it’s still miles better than any of those situations. My ex-girlfriend was a zookeeper, which is both hard *and* dangerous work for mediocre pay.

      I have no sympathy or patience for people who deride backbreaking, low-wage jobs. Mike Rowe’s “Dirty Jobs” show ought to be required viewing for anyone who thinks putting in an honest day’s work doing something that doesn’t involve sitting in an office or cubicle is somehow a moral or ethical failing.

  5. Rick York says:

    Jay, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it but back in the early 70’s there was a book titled The Troika Incident by James Cooke Brown. One of the main premises in the book is a labor theory of value. Just as your mother said, the worst jobs get the most pay. People like miners or garbage collectors are paid more than the executives they work for.

    Amazon has it for the Kindle. It’s well worth your time. In fact, now that I know it’s available, I’m about to download it for $2.99

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