For someone who has been in politics for so long and who seems to want to carefully craft her image, Hillary Clinton has shown herself to be surprisingly maladroit. She recently said that “the Bible was and remains the biggest influence on my thinking”. Does anyone really believe that bit of shameless pandering to the religious? Then after the silliness about she and her husband being ‘dead broke’ when they left the White House, she later acknowledged that they had made a lot of money since then but claimed that it was by ‘dint of hard work’.
Let’s be brutally honest. Giving speeches at $200,000 a pop is not hard work. What I do for a living is not hard work even if on occasion I work long hours or on weekends. Hard work is what people do when they put in long hours doing things that are physically taxing. It infuriates me when well-paid white-collar workers in air-conditioned offices equate working long hours with hard work, when others work not only long hours but also in difficult and exhausting conditions and are paid poorly to boot.
Back in 2010 I expressed my annoyance with this attitude and quoted Matt Taibbi, who savaged David Brooks when he made similar claims in a column back in 2010 to justify the huge income differentials in America. Here’s a bit of what Taibbi wrote that I think is worth repeating.
I would give just about anything to sit David Brooks down in front of some single mother somewhere who’s pulling two shitty minimum-wage jobs just to be able to afford a pair of $19 Mossimo sneakers at Target for her kid, and have him tell her, with a straight face, that her main problem is that she doesn’t work as hard as Jamie Dimon.
Only a person who has never actually held a real job could say something like this. There is, of course, a huge difference between working 80 hours a week in a profession that you love and which promises you vast financial rewards, and working 80 hours a week digging ditches for a septic-tank company, or listening to impatient assholes scream at you at some airport ticket counter all day long, or even teaching disinterested, uncontrollable kids in some crappy school district with metal detectors on every door.
Most of the work in this world completely sucks balls and the only reward most people get for their work is just barely enough money to survive, if that. The 95% of people out there who spend all day long shoveling the dogshit of life for subsistence wages are basically keeping things running just well enough so that David Brooks, me and the rest of that lucky 5% of mostly college-educated yuppies can live embarrassingly rewarding and interesting lives in which society throws gobs of money at us for pushing ideas around on paper (frequently, not even good ideas) and taking mutual-admiration-society business lunches in London and Paris and Las Vegas with our overpaid peers.
Brooks is right that most of the people in that 5% bracket log heavy hours, but where he’s wrong is in failing to recognize that most of us have enough shame to know that what we do for a living isn’t really working. I pull absolutely insane hours in my current profession, to the point of having almost no social life at all, but I know better than to call what I do for a living work. I was on a demolition crew when I was much younger, the kind of job where you have to wear a dust mask all day long, carry buckets full of concrete, and then spend all night picking fiberglass shards out of your forearms from ripping insulation out of the wall.
If I had to do even five hours of that work today I’d bawl my fucking eyes out for a month straight. I’m not complaining about my current good luck at all, but I would wet myself with shame if I ever heard it said that I work even half as hard as the average diner waitress.
I had an uncle, a very nice man, who inherited a lot of money and never held a job in his life. Late in life he started a small company of which he was the chairman of the board and the CEO where he would put in a couple of hours a day. He would drop by at home and tell my father that he had had an exhausting day because he had had to draft several letters. My father would be highly amused by what my uncle considered ‘hard work’. But my father worked in a white-collar managerial position all his life and he did not do ‘hard work’ either. Neither do I. We are the fortunate ones who make a good living mostly pushing paper around. We should never delude ourselves that we are hard workers.
Joe Biden, Clinton’s possible rival for the 2016 Democratic nomination, seized on her stumble to highlight the fact that he has no savings account and does not own sticks and bonds in his own name. It is undoubtedly to his credit that he does not seem to have exploited his position in high elected office to massively enrich himself. But while he is undoubtedly far less wealthy than the Clintons, he is not poor either.
For some reason, it seems to have become obligatory for politicians, especially for Democrats, to try and hide the fact that they are wealthy. I don’t see why that is necessary. Luck always plays a role in acquiring wealth and if one became wealthy legally and ethically within the current system, it is not something to be ashamed of. It is possible to belong to the wealthy class without being a servant of it, though it is not easy. FDR is an example of someone who could be a progressive politician on economic issues while being extremely wealthy.
The Daily Show commented on the ‘poor-off’ between Biden and Clinton
(This clip aired on June 24, 2014. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)