On one side of the class war you have the folks who think the rich obtained their wealth by stealing from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the rich accuse the poor and the middle class of supporting tax policies designed to take from the rich and give to the poor. Is this worldview – the view that others are trying to steal your stuff – an example of paranoia or economics or jealousy?
Obviously some rich people really are thieves, practicing insider trading, bribery, and other unsavory practices. And some poor people really are looking for a free ride. But I think we can agree that the bad apples in every wealth class are the exceptions.
I’ve met a lot of rich people, and as far as I can tell, they aren’t addicted to money, power, or even prestige. I say that for the same reason you don’t crave a ham sandwich at the moment you finish eating one. Once the rich become rich, their motives evolve.
My hypothesis is that the rich are often addicted to hard work itself. Once that hard work produces all that a person needs for personal use, the impulse for hard work doesn’t go away. What happens instead is that the goal changes from becoming richer – which has a decreasing marginal benefit – to making the world a better place. People who are genetically inclined toward industrious behavior will keep working hard long after their persona needs have been met. People don’t change their basic nature just because their bank accounts expand. But people do routinely change their rationalizations, i.e. their stated goals.
If you travelled back in time and asked the 25-year old me why I worked hard, I would have said something about my dreams of someday becoming rich. If you ask me today why I work hard, I’ll say something about making the world a better place. That explanation might even sound reasonable, given that my comics and my side ventures are all designed to improve the world in small ways. But on some level I know all of my reasons are rationalizations. The core truth is that I’m genetically wired for hard work. It’s simply my nature. I’m happier when I’m being productive.
I wonder if instead of dividing the world into poor, middle-class, and rich, we’d be better off sorting the world into people who create more wealth than they consume and people who consume more than they create. There might be a lot of power in that model. Let me explain why.
When we sort the public into wealth classes, we are lured into endless debates on who deserves what and who is stealing from whom. That can’t lead to anything good. But imagine instead we focused on dividing people into net creators of wealth versus net consumers. The creators and consumers of wealth would be found in each wealth class. The goal would be to have more creators and fewer net consumers of wealth.
That might sound a lot like today’s model, and perhaps it overlaps 90%. Obviously everyone wants a world with more creators of wealth and fewer net consumers of wealth. But I think this small mental change in how we sort people might change behavior.
By analogy, I remember seeing a study that said people use less energy at home when everyone in a neighborhood can see their neighbors’ energy bills. As soon as you know you are being compared to your peers, you start turning off lights when you leave the room. Likewise, I think a focus on sorting people into wealth creators versus wealth consumers would change people’s behaviors for the better.
Let me give you some examples of how this can make a difference. Suppose you are poor and a net consumer of wealth. Society has taught you to blame rich people for sending jobs overseas, blame the government for not doing enough, and blame your bad luck. That’s not a productive view. Now let’s say society agrees to define a person who is in school, or in any sort of training course, as automatically part of the creator class. That gives a poor person a clear path to upward mobility. Simply sign up for school or government-sponsored training and instantly become part of the creator class.
If you’re a fat cat wealthy person who stopped producing anything of value long ago, how would you feel to be in the category of “Net Consumer of Wealth”? I think it would cause you to start investing your idle cash in something that would improve your social standing and make you a creator of wealth. To make things easier, let’s assume we label as a wealth creator anyone who invests in a start-up, even if the start-up does not succeed.
What I’m suggesting might seem like a subtle or even trivial shift in how we look at the world. But that sort of shift can be huge in terms of how it changes behavior. Class warfare strikes me as a dangerous worldview. It encourages a win-lose approach to government policy in order to pursue the elusive unicorn of “fairness.” A more productive way to view the world is in terms of net creators and net consumers of wealth, at least so long as society makes it possible for any net consumer to become a net creator by going to school, training for a job, or investing in start-ups. For the middle class, it might simply mean spending less than they earn. I think this approach gets you to a healthy economy faster than a class war.
I know some of you will reject this idea because there’s no clean way to know who is a net consumer of wealth and who is a net creator. But I think common sense gets you close enough.