Billionaire White House hopeful Michael Bloomberg must have known the question was coming. At the February 19 Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, the question did come — from NBC’s Chuck Todd. Should billionaires, Todd wanted to know, exist?
“Have you earned too much — has it been an obscene amount of — should you have earned that much money?” Todd followed up.
“Yes,” Bloomberg replied. “I worked very hard for it.”
“Hard work” has been the go-to justification for grand private fortune ever since the days of America’s original Gilded Age. In America, the old saw goes, anybody can get rich. You just need to put your shoulder to the wheel, your nose to the grindstone.
That true? Social scientists have tested out this “hard work” case for grand fortune. Success in the business world, they’ve found, most typically comes to those with access to financial capital, via “family money, an inheritance, or a pedigree and connections.” Many researchers, economist Andrew Oswald has noted, “have replicated the finding that entrepreneurship is more about cash than dash.”
None of this research, naturally, has stopped the awesomely affluent from claiming that they deserve their prodigious wealth because they — like Michael Bloomberg — have “worked very hard.”
Back in the 1990s, the decade Bloomberg first crashed into the national consciousness, no man of means made the “hard work” claim more unabashedly that John K. Castle, a New York banker who had built up a tidy personal fortune worth about $100 million.
“None of this happens without working 60 hours a week,” Castle proudly noted to a Wall Street Journal reporter. “But I work 60 hours a week because I want to, not because I’ve got a time clock.”
Castle probably shouldn’t have made that time-clock reference. The enterprising Journal reporter promptly put Castle himself on the clock, figuratively speaking, and followed the New York banker around for a day in the middle of a winter work week.
That day opened, in Florida, with Castle showing off his $11 million Palm Beach estate. Later, the Journal watched Castle wile away the afternoon hours jumping hurdles “astride one of his show horses at his nearby 10-acre farm.” The day ended on the water, with Castle nibbling cheese and crackers aboard his yacht.
This busy day, the Journal reported, hardly qualified as out of character for Castle. During the winter months, he spent a few days at his Florida estate every week. And Castle, the Journal added, also found time to organize a private expedition to the North Pole, climb his way up and down mountains in Africa and the Himalayas, and send his yacht on a two-year voyage around the world.
As an ever diligent and hard-working executive, Castle didn’t have the time to personally skipper his yacht the entire way. Instead, he would fly overseas to meet up with the yacht at exotic ports of call, then captain the vessel for a week or so of sailing until duty called him back to New York. Castle logged almost 150,000 air miles in the process. All time well spent. Chief executives, Castle told the Journal, “need some time to step back and get the broader perspective.”
How many wealthy people labor at schedules as grueling as John K. Castle’s? A sizeable number, apparently. One 1998 Management Resource Group study of Americans who make at least $1 million a year, the Washington Post reported, found that over 20 percent of these deep pockets were taking at least two months of annual vacation.
About a decade later, amid the early stages of Wall Street’s financial meltdown, Bears Stearns chief exec James Cayne became the emblem of sorts for CEO sloth. In the same 2007 month his firm began tottering, Cayne spent ten “working” days either playing bridge or golf.
Cayne had plenty of deep-pocket company on the links. In 2016, the Harvard Business Review reported on research that unearthed “several CEOs who recorded more than 100 rounds of golf in a single fiscal year — roughly one round every three days!”
Now some exceedingly rich people undoubtedly do “work hard” and put in long hours. How many? Hard to say. CEOs and hedge fund kingpins, after all, punch no time clocks. And if they did, would they punch out before joining a potential investor for dinner? Would they log as work time the hours they spend on golf links mixing putts and patter with potential takeover targets? Would they count as office hours the morning commutes they spend chatting on cell phones in chauffeured limousines?
Profound questions. We seem destined to never know exactly how many hours rich people like Michael Bloomberg spend working. But even if we could calculate such a figure, and if that figure were 60 or 80 or 100 hours a week, would these rich then deserve many millions of dollars a year for their labors? That case would be hard to make.
Average Americans who take second jobs to make ends meet routinely work 60 to 80 hours a week without receiving anything remotely close to the robust rewards top execs in the business world regularly pocket. If moonlighting Americans don’t deserve king-sized rewards for the long hours they put in, then why should “hard-working” executives deserve regal rewards for theirs?
Our society obviously places no particular premium value on sheer hard work alone. Nor should it.
“It is not enough to tell me that you worked hard to get your gold,” as Henry David Thoreau once observed. “So does the devil work hard.”
Working hard, Open Democracy economics editor Laurie Macfarlane noted last week, will indeed “generally help you earn more money,” but “not all wealth has been attained through hard work.”
“In practice,” adds Macfarlane, “the distribution of wealth has little to do with contribution, and everything to do with politics and power.”
“No one makes a billion dollars,” as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it earlier this month at New York’s famed Riverside Church. “You take a billion dollars.”
Michael Bloomberg, a $62-billion-dollar man, has taken plenty.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His recent books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Parts of this reflection have been adopted from his 2004 book, Greed and Good: Understanding and Overcoming the Inequality that Limits Our Lives. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.