Work Ain’t Got No Class: The Non-Idle Rich vs. The Over-Worked Poor

He seems a bit upset…

The Atlantic recently put out an article that had been making the rounds called Why Americans Work So Much.

This article gets to the point faster than the last article I looked at that tackled similar themes. The article concludes that income inequality accounts for why we in the US have had increased production but the benefits have been so unequally distributed between the rich and poor.

The article also cite a paper, by Benjamin M. Friedman, an economist at Harvard University who appears to be the key source for their argument.

Looking at the study myself, it was difficult to make much sense of it. As I’ve mentioned before, studies that seem to revolve much more around math tend to easily puzzle me. But this one tended to be very dry in its wording and organization which also proved difficult. The conclusion was a very milquetoast variety of, “the government needs to work more on infrastructure” which, as an anarchist, proved dissatisfying to me for obvious reasons.

I’ve concluded that, for once, the article that quotes the study is worth quoting more than the study itself:

Inequality declined in America during the post-war period (along with the duration of the workweek), but since the early 1970s it’s risen dramatically.

This can be seen in the median worker’s income over this time period, complete with a shift in 1973 that fits in precisely with when the workweek stopped shrinking.

According to Friedman,

“Between 1947 and 1973 the average hourly wage for nonsupervisory workers in private industries other than agriculture (restated in 2013 dollars) nearly doubled, from $12.27 to $21.23—an average growth rate of 2.1 percent per annum. But by 2013 the average hourly wage was only $20.13—a 5 percent fall from the 1973 level.”

For most people, then, the magic of increasing productivity stopped working around 1973, and they had to keep working just as much in order to maintain their standard of living.

I want it to be clear that I’m not claiming that Friedman’s ideas about income inequality are the end of any sort of debate about work or income inequality itself. But it seems at least plausible to me that part of the reason would be related to lower-income folks wages being stagnant or actually falling.

This would contribute to making it much harder for poor people to be able to afford things they feel are easily attainable in a better economy. Things like working water, electricity, a roof over their heads, etc.

To further back up this claim, The Atlantic’s article cites a story about a former middle-class man who is now barely getting by. But anecdotes only get your claims so far. So I dug around around a bit, looking for the original study that The Atlantic and the other site mentioned.

It took more time than it should’ve but, here it is (also see here for another analysis and here for the poll numbers (PDF)).

Unfortunately, I can’t find exactly where more than half said that they’d like to work harder.

The best I can find that even approximates that is folks who aren’t salaried reporting feeling less anxious than those who aren’t.

And well yeah, duh.

But that doesn’t mean the wage-workers want to be salaried either.

Another interesting thing I noticed from this poll was:

In spite of the deep anxiety felt by Americans across demographic groups, there remains a sense of optimism – that hard work is more important than luck in getting ahead and that the American Dream is still attainable. In fact, 72 percent of respondents believe that they have a fair opportunity to achieve the life they hope for.

So that would seem to suggest that folks still think hard work (what you know vs. who you know) and not luck (or connections, social capital, etc.) is what they need, i.e. jobs that work them much more.

I suppose that isn’t very surprising but it’s still a bit disappointing. It would be nice if more folks realized that the game is stacked against them and that there isn’t much of a chance of beating “the house” (so to speak) on its own turf.

I’d suggest instead trying to take the means of production in their own hands. Not through expropriation but through new technologies like 3D printing, garage tech, homemade crafts and so on. Individualizing the means of production and putting it into the hands of the worker can be its own form of direct action.

Now, as with any advice I give, there should be disclaimers.

For starters, obviously such means aren’t available or viable to everyone.

Thankfully as technology becomes more abundant it tends to become less expensive and therefore more accessible to the working poor. And even if technology isn’t in their interests it could be a successful aid to their own projects.

Projects that once make them money on the side could become more lucrative. Things like hair-braiding, selling jewelry, having garage sales, opening up your own private book store, etc.

None of these things are “revolutionary” but if they’re able to aid people’s lives (as they always have) then I don’t see why we shouldn’t call for more individualization (and as it accumulates, socialization) of the means of production, away from the capitalists.

Speaking of the 1%, one of the most interesting things from The Atlantic article was this tidbit towards the end:

This explanation leaves an important question: If the very rich—the workers who have reaped above-average gains from the increased productivity since Keynes’s time—can afford to work less, why don’t they?

I asked Friedman about this and he theorized that for many top earners, work is a labor of love. They are doing work they care about and are interested in, and doing more of it isn’t such a burden—it may even be a pleasure. They derive meaning from their jobs, and it is an important part of how they think of themselves.

And, of course, they are compensated for it at a level that makes it worth their while.

The article linked goes to a New York times article from 2012 called,Among the Wealthiest 1 Percent, Many Variations.

Though the article sounds like it’s going to be really cringe-worthy (do the rich really need such a defense NYT?) it’s only…mildly cringe-worthy:

Even in down times, the 1 percent has staying power, being far more likely than any other group to stay where they are rather than slip to lower rungs of the economic ladder.

“I definitely see it around me,” said Anu Chandok, 36, an oncologist in Lake Success, referring to the country’s economic pain. “It just personally hasn’t affected me yet.”

Residents say they like the area’s diversity. “As a politician, I go to black Baptist churches, Orthodox synagogues, Catholic churches,” said Jon Kaiman, the supervisor of the Town of North Hempstead, which encompasses the area. “Some people live in $10 million houses and some people live in half-million-dollar houses, and their kids are playing basketball together.”

That’s just a few that particularly screamed out to me.

I mean, these folks are being sincere about the $10 million and the half-million dollar as if that is what diversity means. And the statement that, “It just personally hasn’t affected me yet.” is so astronomically obvious that I can’t even believe someone thought that was worth saying.

Regardless of these things, the article is genuinely interesting:

Still, they are not necessarily the idle rich. Mr. Katz, who sometimes commutes by amphibious plane and sometimes carries luggage for Talon Air passengers, likes to say he works “26/9.”

Most 1 percenters were born with socioeconomic advantages, which helps explain why the 1 percent is more likely than other Americans to have jobs, according to census data.

They work longer hours, being three times more likely than the 99 percent to work more than 50 hours a week, and are more likely to be self-employed. Married 1 percenters are just as likely as other couples to have two incomes, but men are the big breadwinners, earning 75 percent of the money, compared with 64 percent of the income in other households.

Dr. Chandok said she had never heard the Occupy Wall Street slogan “We are the 99 percent.” Two children and 11-hour workdays, she said, do not leave much time for politics.

I think all of Friedman’s points are fairly intuitive and make a good deal of sense to me. But I’m betting there are many other factors involved. One of which is the institution of family and the pressure for rich individuals to continue the hard work that their family has done to get where they are.

So it becomes a cyclical process where a lot of connections, social status and capital and surely some amount of hard work led to a particular result. And now that they’ve gotten that result, maintained it for so long, they want to keep it and likely expand it as much as possible. This will, of course, take a lot of work on the part of the individual.

Now, this “work” that is happening here is aided by many personal servants. It’s helped by their social capital with other networks of people and their connections therein. It’s also probably very well paying and possibly even something they enjoy doing.

I mean, who doesn’t enjoy making their parents proud on some level?

I’ve said this recently to my therapist but being an individual in some sense might sound exciting, rebellious and “cool” but it’s also isolating as fuck sometimes. In that sense, it’s sometimes hard to blame people who are rich for merely continuing the tyranny of work internally or externally.

My point here isn’t that we should necessarily feel worse for the rich than the poor. The amount of work they (may) do is more but this doesn’t actually mean much. If the work is more likely to be a passion, better paying, easier due to established social and material capital and more flexible, then why wouldn’t they work harder?

Honestly, that could even be a possible ideal post-work world in some sense.

One where individuals work at their labors of passion which are well paid, flexible and individualized to their needs as is practical.

A world where this division between rich and poor is severely diminished, to the levels that it’s a pretty blurry line.

As the anarchist Benjamin Tucker said:

If the men who oppose wages—that is, the purchase and sale of labor—were capable of analyzing their thought and feelings, they would see that what really excites their anger is not the fact that labor is bought and sold, but the fact that one class of men are dependent for their living upon the sale of their labor, while another class of men are relieved of the necessity of labor by being legally privileged to sell something that is not labor, and that, but for the privilege, would be enjoyed by all gratuitously.

And to such a state of things I am as much opposed as any one.

But the minute you remove privilege, the class that now enjoy it will be forced to sell their labor, and then, when there will be nothing but labor with which to buy labor, the distinction between wage-payers and wage-receivers will be wiped out, and every man will be a laborer exchanging with fellow-laborers.

As I’ve said before: No class but the leisure class!


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