The rich are not rich because they earned the money; they’re rich because we earned the money for them.

An Open Letter to Harvey “Gollum”

“Over the years, I have paid a significant portion of my income to the various federal, state and local jurisdictions in which I have lived, and I deeply resent that President Obama has decided that I don’t need all the money I’ve not paid in taxes over the years, or that I should leave less for my children and grandchildren and give more to him to spend as he thinks fit. I also resent that Warren Buffett and others who have created massive wealth for themselves think I’m “coddled” because they believe they should pay more in taxes. I certainly don’t feel “coddled” because these various governments have not imposed a higher income tax. After all, I did earn it." (My Response To Buffett And Obama – Harvey Golub)

The biggest lie of the richest men and women in our modern world hides in those few words: I earned it; many of the rich wall themselves up behind its defense to justify hoarding, miserly and often short-sighted, self-serving behavior. And in our current political climate, the loudest Libertarian voices shout: “God forbid a man work hard, get successful and earn his millions.”

There are two legal ways that I know of to make the sort of mega-millions that the richest make: by being paid extremely high wages (the less common approach), and by return on investment. But where does that money come from? In both cases – millionaire’s wages and high returns – it comes from the profit produced by the collective effort of tens or hundreds or thousands of other “hard-working Americans” (or Chinese, or Taiwanese, or Mexicans, etc) who do their best to earn their living wage, who work amongst industrial machines and deal with occupational hazards and put in long hours and unpleasant managers and endure stories of the rich people who own the company complaining bitterly about taxes keeping them from leaving a “little something for the grandkids”, sometimes just to put enough food on the table to feed their family of four.

And somehow those who earn{1} a living, who pay, on average, twice as large a percentage of their income as those who bring home millions more per year, most of them manage to scrape together enough to have a family, buy a house, and leave a little for the grandkids.

What the rich call “earning” is skimming off the labor of modern-day serfs. Sure, serfs today can switch jobs, start their own, and perhaps get rich themselves. And the skimming itself is not necessarily evil, and may be accompanied by some of its own labor:

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that Harvey Golub once put in countless hours a day doing his job at American Express: talking with people, reading reports, making decisions, shaking hands, going out on interviews and a few hundred more tasks appropriate for a man of his position. Let’s say he earns $6,000,000 each year for his hard work, receiving a CEO salary in addition to multimillion-dollar performance bonuses if the company is having a good year, in addition to a significant amount of equity in the company. (If you think this is exaggeration, this is less than he made as CEO of American Express.)

Let’s also pretend, for a moment, that a mid-level operations manager based out of middle America – Willy Loman – puts in countless hours a day doing his job at American Express: talking with people, reading reports, making decisions, shaking hands, giving interviews and a few hundred other tasks appropriate for a man of his position. Let’s say he earns $60,000 a year for his hard work, in addition to a $500 Christmas bonus if the company is having a good Q4.

And finally, let’s pretend, for one more moment, that Joe Sixpack drives every day to his job as a phone support rep for American Express, doing for each and every moment he’s there the things appropriate for a man of his position: answering phones, answering questions, entering data, and filing reports, gets paid only for the time he’s actually sitting at his desk and on the phone (only two 5 minute bathroom breaks allowed, one 30-minute unpaid lunch-break, and more than 3 minutes per hour off the phone is grounds for termination). Let’s say he earns $20,000 a year, with no bonuses, and lives in fear of his call center being replaced by reps in Bangalore.

Let’s imagine they all work as many hours as they can, diligently, doing their best job because they’re proud of what they do and they were raised to work hard. Can we really pick and choose among them and say one works harder than the other? No. And can we really say one earns (“gains or incurs deservedly in return for one’s behavior or achievements”, New Oxford American Dictionary) more than the other? No.

What we make is not what we earn – what each person deserves is a fair, working wage – but what each person gets is related to the socially constructed value of their work.

According to our thought experiment, then:

  • Our society values Gollub’s work at $3,000 per hour.
  • It values Loman’s work at $30 an hour.
  • And it values Sixpack’s work at $10/hour.

We confuse our top-heavy sense of fiscal worth, our stratospherically skewed beliefs about the value of work (which even with actual numbers shows a logarithmic preference towards people in executive and ownership positions) with our understanding of earning – a delusion that richness is an indication of moral or holistic value, a misunderstanding that richness comes with great wisdom and thus gives one not just more ability but also more right than those with less money to determine the path of their money.

It becomes even more apparent that this is a delusion when this is money made by investment. Let’s say a young man named Jimmy Buffet works hard as a musician at a beach resort in the Florida Keys one summer in early ‘77, and earns a fair wage and some good tips for his work. Let’s say he decides to invest the money in Apple and a few other companies that excite him, and he makes a good profit on his investment over the next 10 years, so he hires an investment firm to do the work for him – and they do an awesome job at it.

Suddenly, here’s Jimmy sitting on the beach drinking his margarita and munching on his burger making money residually – getting paid not per hour of work but continually getting more and more for that one summer of work. He’s not earning any more, but the value of his work continues to rise. It’s not a bad setup. But the value of his work is elevated by the continued work of not one company of 10 or 10,000 employees, but by tens or hundreds of them. The value of his investment is the direct result of possibly millions of middle-class workers creating value by working hard to earn their middle-class wage.

So the rich are not rich because they earned their money; they’re rich because we earned money for them and accepted a system where people are paid by their perceived value.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Except when people like Harvey Golub act like Gollum and clutch their purse tight to their chest, whispering “My Preciousssss” loudly and with venom. When some people, who have retired and no longer have children in school and don’t drive and just want to hold tightly onto “what they earned” jump into local government to break down its progress and prevent investment in schools and transportation and hell, even the damn plumbing. These are the self-important self-interested who seem to see nothing beyond their oncoming death and in its approach they seek only to protect their own, and the world around them that has benefited them so greatly no longer holds value to them: aside from family, the world is an enemy that seeks to take back what it gave. Their value to the world drops, and they seek to prevent their riches from dropping with it.

Warren Buffett, on the other hand, offers up his purse and says, “Here, I’ve more than enough, and I understand this is a system of shared service for a common cause” and even if he doesn’t always agree with where the country goes… he understands the system itself is designed that way – to represent a myriad of often conflicting interests as best it can, and that a homogenous set of ideas is a dead-end road.

Golub would have us with no Department of Energy, or Education, when our energy infrastructure, our environment and our children’s education are all already suffering due to political and economic lack of support. He would have us with no regulation, because private companies like BP and Exxon and Monsanto and TEPCO (owners of the Fukushima reactor) are so foresighted and ethically motivated that they would never short-sell human lives and safety for profit.

Golub thinks it’s stupid to pay above-market wages for public works projects (read: this astoundingly rich man who built his fortunes on middle-class labor barely even values blue-collar jobs at the wages they’re paid). He doesn’t believe in energy-efficient forms of mass transportation like trains. He thinks that giving money to his kids and grandkids is the same as giving money to charity.

Golub thinks that we’re just fine with coal and nuclear and fossil fuel as sources of power – he doesn’t believe in spending money to encourage the development of alternative energy sources like wind and water and the sun. And why should he? He’ll probably be gone before Peak Oil really puts a stranglehold on the world.

It’s not that it’s particularly wrong to believe any of these things or hold contrary opinions. In fact, it’s a very popular pastime in modern culture. But when cited as reasons someone like Golub shouldn’t pay taxes, they’re not pragmatic or philosophical differences. They’re conditions he demands must be met before he’ll do what’s expected of every income-earning American: in essence, he’ll pay more when government does what he wants (and only what he wants) it to do. Or as Charlton Heston so aptly put it, Golub will pay more taxes when they “pry it out of his cold, dead hands.”

Are our tax codes twisted and broken? Yes. Are they full of loopholes and preferences to special interests? Yes. Do we need to revisit, revise and simplify them? Yes. But Golub says “fix your system before you ask me for more money.”

Because he earned it.

The middle class has been asking for that for years, Golub. What makes you so special?

{1} (from the Old English earnian, or “get a reward for labor”, itself from the Old Norse önn, “work in the field.”)

Mila (Jacob Stetser)

Mila is a writer, photographer, poet & technologist.

He shares here his thoughts on Buddhism, living compassionately, social media, building community,
& anything else that interests him.

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