At my day job, I’ve been working on a number of articles that were left by writers in various states of unacceptability. Some of them only required what I would loosely call editing. I turned one into a new article. And there were a few that were just hopeless. One was an article I’ve seen so many times before, I don’t understand why the writer thought it was worth revisiting: what rich people do differently from poor people. The implication of these kinds of articles is always the same: if you act like rich people, you’ll become rich yourself!
It’s nonsense. But there’s a reason why it has become something of a genre: the rich and their apologists really want to argue that there is some good reason for people to be wealthy. We supposedly live in a meritocracy, after all. So it just can’t be allowed for people to think that wealth is largely a matter of dumb luck. But of course, it is. Even if you grant the idea of meritocracy, why is it that one person is born smart and another dumb? And you can say the same thing about every other human attribute that a price can be put on.
The article I was dealing with was based on the book, The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy. What it said was that we have the wrong idea about millionaires. The typical millionaire was just your unassuming neighbor who saved money and invested it in the stock market. There was just one major problem with the book: it was wrong. It’s true that there were such millionaires. But as Nassim Nicholas Taleb documented completely in Fooled by Randomness, that was due to the fact that the book came out in 1996 — the end of the longest bull market in US history. In other words, the timing was perfect to find such millionaires. What’s more, there was survivor bias.
So I went looking for a couple of articles that would push back against this narrative. I was still hoping that I might be able to save the article. I disagree with a lot of the stuff I work on; I would still publish this article if I could make it good and more or less true. But what I found made me abandon all hope. The first was an article by Matt Bruenig, In Reality, the Wealthy Inherit Ungodly Sums of Money. A lot of people try to make the argument that the rich don’t inherit that much of their wealth. And so they will show that the poor inherit almost all of their wealth whereas the rich only inherit about 15% of theirs. It’s pretty obvious what’s happening: the poor live hand to mouth and have almost no wealth. Looking at the problem that way is disingenuous.
But Bruenig makes a wider point that I’ve been making for years: what the rich give their children in terms of cash really doesn’t matter. That isn’t the major inheritance that they get. Bruenig noted, “They also pass along social and cultural capital that help their kids capture the scarce supply of highly-paid jobs. Indeed, even rich kids who do not receive a college degree are 2.5 times more likely to wind up as high-income adults than poor kids who do receive a college degree.”
Probably an even bigger myth that is pushed about the rich is that they work harder than the poor. Sean McElwee addressed this issue, Do The Rich Really Work More Than the Poor? To the extent that it is true, it is because the the poor can’t find work. There are a lot of details about that in the article. But I think the more important point on this is that the rich have more fulfilling jobs. As McElwee put it, “The rich are working slightly more hours, but the real story is the dramatic increase in the hours by the poor and middle-class that are not corresponding with higher wages. And these hours are not of the same quality; they are more satisfying and less stressful.”
But you could just watch Chris Rock discuss how a “career” is different from a “job”:
What’s interesting is that the writer of this article I was working on is, based upon his other work, really liberal. But he really bought into this nonsense. And I don’t think he’s alone. This is one of those hidden systems of control. We continue on with our broken neo-feudal system, because most people think the rich really do deserve their wealth. But there really is no evidence of that.