The World's Rich Are Not Incomprehensibly Wealthy Because They 'Work Harder'

The richest one percent of the world is 60 times more wealthy than the poorest 50 percent, according to a new report from Oxfam. And the National Review's Kevin Williamson knows why: They just work harder! Yeah, sure.

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The richest 1 percent of the world is 60 times more wealthy than the poorest 50 percent, according to a new report from Oxfam. And National Review's Kevin Williamson knows why: They just work harder! Yeah, sure.

Go look at Bloomberg's list of the world's richest people. The first 85 names on that list have more wealth than the poorest half of the world. 3.5 billion people, or thereabouts, Oxfam tells us, as it asks attendees at the World Economic Forum's annual convening in Davos, Switzerland, to address inequality. Given that the conference is essentially a social club for the people on Bloomberg's list — a list on which Michael Bloomberg himself inexplicably doesn't appear — it's not certain how urgently they will do so. Earlier this month The Wire noted that in 2013 alone, the wealthiest people on that list saw their fortunes increase more than you will ever see in your entire life. Quite literally, unless you think you're likely to amass a $524 billion fortune.

Enter Kevin Williamson with a tip on how to do precisely that. Or, not precisely to raise that amount of money, but how to get rich, how to mirror the habits of the wealthiest people in America. In a column for National Review, Williamson states directly, "The country would in fact be far better off if more people lived the way the top 20 percent do: married, working their butts off, saving and investing their money, and living within their means." The rich are morally superior, he argues directly, because they work more and inherited less of their net wealth than those in the poor and middle class. Mostly, though, he argues that the rich work harder.

There is, to be sure, such a thing as the working poor, but the most salient characteristic of poor households is the lack of full-time workers in them. For the bottom income group, there is an average of 0.42 earners per household, with 68.2 percent of householders not working at all, as opposed to 1.97 earners per household and only 13.3 percent not working for the highest income group.
Data from the Federal Reserve.

To be sure, some poor people work! But most don't, for some inexplicable reason, or they only work part-time. This is either because 1) they love being poor or 2) they are plain old lazy. Or, I suppose, 3) there are not enough jobs for everyone who is out of work in the United States. As of November 2013, there were 2.7 people looking for work for every available job — making it somewhat difficult for those poor people to rapidly ascend into the billionaire class.

That's not the only obstruction, of course. Williamson also argues that the wealthy inherited a smaller percentage of their wealth than did people in the middle and lower economic classes. This is true, as The Washington Post's Dylan Matthews pointed out a few years ago. (Though, of course, "percentage of wealth" results in different calculations when your total wealth is $10,000 versus $10 million.) What certainly plays a role in the wealthy being able to work all the time are the intangible benefits that can be inherited: relationships, educational opportunity, economic security. Williamson's point isn't really to figure out why the poor are poor and how the problem can be addressed — "the fact is that as a practical matter we are running out of ways to spend money on the needy" — but to explicitly argue that rich people are rich because they are better.

Enter Sam Polk. If Williamson can offer anecdotes in his defense (which he does, and they're skippable), we may enter anecdotes as rebuttal. Polk wrote a stunning opinion piece for The New York Times over the weekend, in which he outlines his experiences on one of the few career paths that can transform an upper-middle-class striver into one of the exalted ultra-rich: financial services. "I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted," Polk writes.

[W]orking elbow to elbow with billionaires, I was a giant fireball of greed. I’d think about how my colleagues could buy Micronesia if they wanted to, or become mayor of New York City. They didn’t just have money; they had power — power beyond getting a table at Le Bernardin. Senators came to their offices. They were royalty.

I wanted a billion dollars. It’s staggering to think that in the course of five years, I’d gone from being thrilled at my first bonus — $40,000 — to being disappointed when, my second year at the hedge fund, I was paid “only” $1.5 million.

Did Polk work harder than many poor people? Yes, of course — he had a job. (He also had an education from Columbia University, that helped him get that work.) But it's this mindset, as much anything, that might explain why the world's wealthy have such a massive aggregation of wealth. It isn't that they squeeze 100-hour workweeks into a seven-day schedule. It's that they're well-positioned and deeply addicted. (Here's where I'd draw the easy analogy to Wolf of Wall Street if I wanted to, which I don't, because that movie is overrated.) It's that the push to be rich and still richer far exceeds Williamson's defensive suggestion they're "living within their means." When you actually own Micronesia, having just enough to pay your bills takes on a somewhat different veneer.

Being wealthy is, of itself, morally neutral. Williamson tries to turn a cause of the class divide, the inability of the poor and middle class to find work, into a moral case for the superiority of the rich. He fails, just as surely as Oxfam will fail at convincing the megarich that they should prioritize a reconsideration of wealth distribution. Sam Polk, unlike Williamson, has been rich. So perhaps he knows a little bit more about where their moral inclinations lie.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.