More people worldwide these days seem to be worrying about inequality — the deepening concentration of our global wealth — than ever before. But not everyone is fretting. Flacks for grand fortune still abound, both on and off the payrolls of our super rich.
These flacks generally busy themselves recycling bromides about the brilliance of our billionaires. Most of us pay these screeds no attention. Still, every once in a while, a shamelessly defiant defense of our indefensible unequal order will grab our attention with claims so audacious we’ll be chuckling one moment and despairing — that anyone could take those claims seriously — the next.
Where to find this sort of shamelessness? The editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal have been a go-to source for years. One of the editors of these pages, Fox News contributor James Freeman, has just offered up what may become a classic in this genre. His piece’s snarky title: “Income Inequality Is Often by Choice.”
“Americans rise up and fall down the income ladder over time,” Freeman informs us, “in large part because of the individual decisions they make.”
In the world Freeman inhabits, those who decide to gain skills and work hard advance smartly in life. We all, he assures us, have a “great chance” to become wealthy since how much people make reflects “how much people work.”
But huge numbers of Americans, Freeman adds, approvingly quoting two Yahoo Finance writers, aren’t working much at all: “Almost one-third of all working-age men in America aren’t doing diddly-squat. They don’t have a job, and they aren’t looking for one either.” These loafers, we’re informed, are getting by via leeching off of others — or worse.
So worry about income inequality? Not pundits like James Freeman. People in the United States, he declares, don’t sit “trapped by greedy corporations.” America’s losers only have themselves, their own sloth, to blame.
Most of us come to understand, as we grow older, that life doesn’t play out that simply. Virtuous habits cross class lines. Disciplined, focused, and tenacious people, we have learned, turn up at every income level. Noble efforts, we realize as we mature, do not guarantee economic “success.”
Nor do dishonorable, even contemptible, behaviors necessarily shove riches out of reach. Lazy, lying, and larcenous people, we know from experience, can and do regularly become rich.
But lazy, lying, and larcenous behavior, we also understand, does not guarantee grand fortune either. Most despicable people we know, or have known, aren’t particularly rich. So what does separate the rich from the rest of us? Just dumb luck? The vicissitudes of happenstance? To a large extent, yes. Dumb luck determines, to a surprisingly huge degree, who amasses massive wealth.
Consider Ralph Roberts. In the early 1960s, Ralph ran a belt-making business. But then along came Sansabelt pants — the beltless trouser fashion sensation — and Ralph felt sure this new craze was going to wipe out the belt business. So Ralph sold off his belt-making operation and needed a new line of work. He found it, at a friendly poker game. A “two-bit” cable television start-up in Mississippi, he learned, was looking for investors. Ralph took the plunge. He sunk a chunk of his belt-business proceeds into the Tupelo cable system. Thirty years later, Ralph’s cable business, renamed Comcast, would be worth billions. Last year, his son Brian, the current Comcast CEO, made $32.7 million.
Scholars who study entrepreneurial success, former investment banker Roy Smith once noted, see this sort of story repeating over and over.
“Academics have been studying self-made businessmen for a few decades, looking for the keys to success and a methodology to teach to young, would-be entrepreneurs,” observed Smith, who taught entrepreneurship at NYU before his 2019 passing, but that search has not yet found “a simple, repeatable formula.”
“Indeed,” Smith added in his 2001 book, The Wealth Creators, “many academics have come to believe that great entrepreneurial success is usually a random event, influenced as much by luck as by skill.”
And the lucky usually get plenty of assistance. Individuals as they rise in corporate hierarchies don’t just make more money. They get more help. The higher up in an enterprise an executive sits, the more help that executive will receive. Corporate America surrounds executive suites with legions of people handsomely compensated to help those at the top succeed — and look good doing it. Not just speechwriters to make execs sound smart, but speech coaches to help them enunciate more forcefully. Not just secretaries to keep their schedules, but fashion experts to help them dress their best. Not just executive search firms to help them hire the “right” people, but executive assistants to drop the bad news on people they want to let go.
In this incredibly supportive environment, large numbers of us would probably be able to function just fine. We would make blunders. We would make lucky guesses. We would muddle through — just like the executives who currently sit at our corporate summits. And why should that surprise us? We share the same basic capacities as our executive suite superstars. Who says? None other than Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve Board chair and a long-time hero of our executive set.
“The vast majority of things which human beings can do,” Greenspan once told a San Francisco audience, “everyone can do, and the difference between those basic skills relative to what the base is, is really very small.”
And if the differences between us run so very small, and if many of us, given the small differences between human beings, could function reasonably well if chance or connections placed us atop a grand enterprise, then by what stretch of reason can someone currently atop a grand enterprise deserve to earn more in a week than any average American could earn in a lifetime?
Those who see our contemporary inequality as no big deal never ask that question. The rest of us most certainly should.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest 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. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.