John Buell

If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?

Beyond the immediate challenge of rescuing our economic system from possible collapse, the new Democratic majority faces one overriding long domestic challenge. Can it reverse a generation-long plunge toward economic inequality not seen since the Gilded Age? During the campaign, Democrats argued that working- and middle-class citizens would be better off under their tax proposals. This debate is important, but it obscures one quintessentially American trait. More workers in the US than in other nations are convinced they are going to become rich. They identify with the interests and ideas of the rich. It is important to reduce taxes on the working class. Nonetheless, fair taxation and economic justice are less likely as long as many believe they are only a little more hard work—or one lottery ticket—away from wealth.

A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that rags to riches stories, so widely publicized here, are actually less common than in much- reviled and more egalitarian European social democracies. Nonetheless, statistical attacks on mythology often fail to address the gut level concerns that feed it.

Reformers must counter Horatio Alger tales of fortune tapping the hard working for great wealth. Many of the largest modern fortunes are not the result of work or clever invention but insider deals that harm ordinary workers and even investors. Hank Paulson’s bailout is administered by Wall Street insiders, who shower billions of dollars on a narrow cadre of investment bankers. These banks in turn plot more mergers even as they abstain from lending to productive enterprises. The income investment bankers make from marketing exotic derivatives that destabilize the world economy is then taxed at about half the rate of plumbers’ incomes. The plumber trying to start a business is paying more taxes so that investment bankers can pay less.

Vivid portrayals of the origins of many modern fortunes serve two purposes. They show much wealth as a consequence of actions with which many citizens do not identify. The wealthy themselves may seem like a less endearing group. They also suggest how implausible rags-to-riches dreams are.

Over the longer term, reforms must address not only pocket- book inequality but also quality of life issues. Even during the ’50s and ’60s, when more workers enjoyed union protections and a better safety net, corporate enterprise was extremely hierarchical. Workers had security but no voice in the structure of their jobs, let alone the broader corporate policies. Labor writer Jane Slaughter points out: “the factories continued to be, in [Walter] Reuther’s words, ‘gold-plated sweatshops.’ … The mind-numbing drudgery, the high injury rates, the heat and smoke … led many workers to hit the bottle—and, in one famous case, led black Detroit Chrysler worker James Johnson to pick up a gun and shoot two supervisors and a co-worker. A jury, after a plant tour, found that brutal working conditions and Chrysler’s shop-floor racism had literally driven Johnson insane.”

With unions on life support today, workers lack even minimal security. Absent a political movement that can advance broader—and in fact more productive—forms of enterprise in which workers share in profits, participate in product design and financial planning, and have representation on boards—it is not surprising that in addition to or instead of the bottle or the gun, aspirations to and dreams of wealth take root.

If becoming rich is the only game in town, some may continue to embrace that dream. Let’s emphasize and enable the choice of other possible dreams. Just as workers seek challenging workplaces, they need the right to refuse overtime and to take future productivity gains in the form of reduced working hours rather than higher total wages.

Because our culture has long celebrated work and because increased labor time helped low-wage workers keep up, that problem has only grown, often not fully recognized or articulated within the current order. Oppressive time demands are a lurking instability that could be potentially mobilized toward progressive ends. Debt relief coupled with providing and celebrating the opportunities afforded by getting off the work/debt/consumption treadmill is essential. If we enhance working-class opportunities to enjoy daily life and present more sympathetic and diverse portrayals of the joys afforded by family and leisure activities, fewer citizens may feel inclined to imbibe the Horatio Alger nectar.

Nonetheless, the route to new orders is often turbulent. Even more equitable ways of life and our understandings of these also enable or hide new manifestations of instability. A new democratic capitalism must become more attentive to emerging rights claims and injustices. Just as some of the most progressive New Dealers were inattentive to claims of race and gender, new claims of exclusion and new forms of rights are surely going to assert themselves. These claims may well be more than extensions of existing rights. In 1930, who could have imagined discussions of the second shift. In 1960, no one contemplated discussions of a right to die.

Perhaps the best way to prevent destructive avalanches and to foster broader social justice is to recognize and acknowledge the shifting and partially impenetrable foundation on which we all stand. Democracy, viewed both as a means of charting a common course and as a willingness to hear dilemmas that may spring from our common course is crucial. So too is time, both as a respite from daily demands and an opportunity to reflect on the unexpected consequences of our best-laid plans. Nature offers both avalanches and rainbows. We need the time and the institutional space to prepare for the former and to enjoy the latter.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Jan. 1-15, 2009

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2008 The Progressive Populist.