When the rich cry poor

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.)


  1. colnago80 says

    Professor, there is a difference between the Clintons and the Vice President. President Clinton only began to make big bucks after he left office. Biden has been a Government employee as a Senator and Vice President since he was 28 years old without a break.

  2. Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm says

    The husband of a friend of mine, Tommy, runs a small insurance brokerage and I used to manage his office for him. Back in 2010 or so he brought on 2 agents, both of whom were genuinely broke and struggling to keep the lights on and food on the table. Both of them were constantly wanting their commissions as soon as they came in instead of on the pay day we’d set aside. Virtually every time this happened, Tommy would launch into what he thought was a pep talk. He’d sit there in his quarter of a million dollar house, with his 2 $50k cars in the driveway and tell them all about how he was in the same boat as they were. And then he’d usher them into the next room and show them the $6k Roland edrum kit he’d just bought or his expensive sound system or the over the top PC he’d just built. Drove me up a tree.

  3. doublereed says

    I think these politicians have gotten so used to lying that they don’t even realize when it’s not necessary and just makes them look even worse.

    At least Joe Biden says what he actually means. Nowadays they call it “gaffe-prone” because politicians are supposed to be lying all the time I guess.

  4. colnago80 says

    Re doublereed @ #3

    The Vice President has a habit of running his mouth before his brain is engaged on occasion.

  5. jean-nicolasdenonne says

    No savings account? This strikes me as really weird.

    Maybe something is lost in translation (I am from Belgium) but I thought everyone had a checking account for everyday expenses and a savings account where anything that was left over at the end of the month was put in reserve for larger expenses.

    Am I missing something or is it really common in the US that people let their money lying around on their checking accounts? Plus, that guy has no liquid reserves? What does he do when something unexpected comes up? Open a new credit line? Is this standard behaviour for people who have the privilege of being able to earn enough money?

    How do you trust a politician who makes a crapton of money but yet has no rainy day fund and a negative net worth? He seems entirely dependent on his gig in DC…

    Maybe this is cultural (Belgians have a reputation of saving up like squirrels on steroids) and I am overreacting.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    jean-Nicolas, I think the situation you’re describing of people having savings and checking accounts was more common back when savings accounts earned actual interest. Nowadays, with the rates so low you’re likely to make less than a dollar per quarter, I think many people aren’t bothering with savings accounts any more.

    At any rate, I think Biden’s point was that his wife actually handles his finances. Why he thought this would make him look good, I have no idea.

  7. smrnda says

    I work maybe 50 to 60 hours a week developing software, and it’s far easier than 15-20 hours a week at most real jobs. You are right that you cannot compare what counts as *professional labor* with the type of job a working class person has. It’s shameful to attempt to equate the two.

    On wealth, one reason I am very left of center is realizing what role privilege had in putting me where I am today and knowing how unfairly I benefit from the system.

  8. says

    Clinton has shown herself to be surprisingly maladroit

    She just has a remarkable sense of entitlement. She’s probably genuinely baffled and annoyed when people call her lies out. She’s destined to be the first woman president, damn it, and it’s time for everyone to get with the program!!! Remember she was pretty much the same way when she tried to reconstruct the US’ healthcare system when she was 1st lady. What the heck was wrong with everyone, not listening to her and doing what she said!? Get with the program, America!

  9. says

    I was in Mexico City for a conference, once, and there was a road crew tearing up the road outside my hotel. When I left in the morning, there were 5 guys with picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows, whacking away at the asphalt and prying chunks up. They had no safety gear at all, and it was about 90 degrees at 7:30am. By the time that I came back to the hotel that evening for dinner, the same crew was down at the far end of the block, having ripped up all the surface of a 2-lane street. Whenever someone is complaining about working hard, I think of those guys. One day doing their job would have killed me outright.

  10. colnago80 says

    Re Marcus Ranum @ #8

    Clinton is a very smart woman who isn’t as smart as she thinks she is. She flunked the DC Bar exam the first time she took it, which apparently didn’t sober her up. Admittedly the DC Bar Exam is tougher then most states. However, California’s is even tougher but my sister who went to Santa Clara, not exactly in the same class as Yale passed it on the first try.

  11. DsylexicHippo says

    Am I the only one here who thinks that Biden was making an attempt at sarcasm with his no savings account comment?

  12. busterggi says

    I spent years doing shit work and have the permanent injuries to prove it (though not on paper, my employer somehow ‘lost’ those records). Shit work is a shitty way to live.

  13. says

    President Clinton only began to make big bucks after he left office

    Remember that non-inquisition about Hillary’s options trading? The reason that was all dropped was because everyone in politics, at the time, was doing it and it would have been bad policy to dump that can of worms for the public to see. Hillary was on the take even before Bill got elected. The Clintons weren’t extremely wealthy going into the White House but they were already skilled grifters.

  14. =8)-DX says

    Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but isn’t the whole point of being well off that you don’t have it the same as the other guy?

    The horrible disconnect in these people is that they simply can’t imagine that the working poor are actually poor and the shrinking middle classes are usually at the ‘have one of all the things” stage.

  15. says

    Hillary Clinton has been shooting herself in the foot since 1993, and letting her worst enemies walk all over her for just as long. I don’t think she’d make a bad President, but so far she’s been an absolutely lousy candidate. I don’t wish her any ill, but I really hope the Democrats nominate a more effective leader in 2016.

  16. weatherwax says

    #5 jean-nicolasdenonne : Most Americans do have checking accounts.

    The main exception, at least here in southern California, is in the Hispanic population, especially the more recent immigrants, many of whom don’t trust banks. One unfortunate result of which is they pay check cashing fees and money order fees when they don’t earn enough in the first place.

  17. Ben Cahn says

    What refreshing honesty! Really appreciate in a society where the rich have made a habit of blaming the poor for being poor, claiming its all about “choices” and THEY made the right choices, while the poor made the bad choices. The best information I’ve found about wealth vs poverty is found in the book “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell. Its self-serving nonsense to think wealth and success are simply the results of your “choices”.

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