What False Impression Do The Rich Create For The Aspiring Rich?

In his book “Coming Apart”, sociologist Charles Murray interviewed and collected data from America’s economic upper class, and noticed a strong discrepancy between what the modern rich practice and what they preach.

The latest fashion among the ultra wealthy involves practicing what Murray calls ecumenical non-judgmentalism, or a complete posture of not judging the life decisions of others out of a social fear of being called biased or some type of -ist.

Murray summarized his findings with this passage: “Non-judgmentalism is one of the more baffling features of the new upper-class culture. The members of the new upper class are industrious to the point of obsession, but there are no derogatory labels for adults who are not industrious. The young women of the new upper class hardly ever have babies out of wedlock, but it is impermissible to use a derogatory label for non-marital births. You will probably raise a few eyebrows even if you use a derogatory label for criminals. When you get down to it, it is not acceptable in the new upper class to use derogatory labels for anyone, with three exceptions: people with differing political views, fundamentalist Christians, and rural working-class whites.”

Murray’s point is political, but it also has personal implications. Murray observed that the work hours of the ultra wealthy are intense–with 67.4 hours per week being the average–with an estimated 87% “efficiency rate” of hours logged tying to some specific work-related task. And yet, despite this unusually high level of effort, the ultra wealthy that have such an all-encompassing work ethic are bragging about it less than ever.

Murray speculates on why this change has happened–he guesses that someone who brags about their work ethic will immediately be forced to address the poverty of an unemployed man who doesn’t get a chance to work at all, endure accusations of elitism, or have to justify whether he thinks that his 67.4 hours per week make him better than a janitor working the same hours yet earning a fraction of the annual income.

The incentives have changed. Sixty or seventy years ago, mild boasting about your work ethic would earn you a pat on the back for your contribution to the American spirit and economic devotion to your family. Now, it is more akin to kicking a political football–those that nearly maximize their productivity potential must properly genuflect and use the social glue phrases that provides recognition towards those that do not have the opportunity. Humility is great when it is an authentic and truly voluntary reflection; the meaning is lost when it is offered as an insincere expression of social compliance.

This trend towards moral relativism matters because it creates a false impression–those who accomplish great things through sustained hard work, the sacrifice of non-economic priorities, and perpetual trade-off decisions are not conveying the importance of those ingredients for success when they give speeches or talk before audiences that are conditioned to expect politically correct platitudes. It creates a disserve for those that seek to mimic of the economic success of the current economic elite because the aspirants do not receive detailed information about the importance of hard work and the necessity of making certain life decisions (specifically, Murray calls upon the upper class to “preach what they practice.” In running their households, the upper economic class is adamant about raising children that complete their education, get married, and have kids in that order. But in public pronouncements, they will never admit to this priority scheme.)

I think Charlie Munger caught onto this trend at a 1989 Wesco meeting for shareholders when he was asked about the morality of tobacco investing at the institutional level. The backdrop of the RJ Reynolds leveraged buyout, and the speculation of Warren Buffett’s involvement, may have triggered the question. Munger mentioned that the morality of owning tobacco stocks had proceeded through two waves–first, back in the 1950s and 1960s, institutional investors had no moral problem buying Philip Morris shares for California Teacher’s Pensions because it was not dispositively proven that tobacco was harmful and it would violate fiduciary duties to invest on rumors and controversial morality.

Then, once the adverse health effects of tobacco were settled in the mainstream discourse, the track changed–institutional investors began to say “Hey, who am I to judge?” towards the morality of tobacco investments, arguing that it would be a bourgeoisie imposition of morality to lecture the working-class about their smokes (the harm caused by smoking is distributed unequally among the economic classes. Less than 1% of those that earn more than $100,000 per year smoke more than two packs per year, while almost 18% of those earnings less than $25,000 per year smoke cigarettes). The phrase “Who am I to judge?” is a great addition to your character when evaluating behavior decisions that do not cause harm, but it leads to an abdication of responsibility and a dereliction of moral duty when it turns a blind eye to behavior that causes social, economic, physical, political, or spiritual harm.

I loved Bruce Springsteen’s introductions on The River Tour in 1980 and 1981 because he chose to emphasize the importance of hard work in realizing goals. He would often say: “If you want your dream…you’ve got to remember…you’ve got to work for it.” Even as his politics have diverged from this, it is worth noting how all the self-created characters in the Springsteen universe accept personal responsibility for their life’s decisions. Even when he covers the Sting song “I Hung My Head”, he changes Sting’s lyrics from “I beg their forgiveness” to “I ask no forgiveness” and “I pray for God’s mercy” to “I ask for no mercy.”

If you lean on the advice of the successful as a primary source for how you live your own life, you need to develop the ability to detect the difference between candor and politically correct pieties. In his diary, President John Quincy Adams wrote: “Idleness is sweet, and its consequences are cruel.” The formula has also been about acquiring causal knowledge and then applying hard work to turn the abstract idea into something tangible that you created. In recent times, the necessity to be a workhorse has been discounted. You shouldn’t let that fool you. An exceptional work ethic remains the powering force for realizing any of your life’s material ambitions, and your ultimate satisfaction relies on resisting the indulgence to pretend otherwise.

Sources Consulted: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/edwest/100140724/non-judgmentalism-%E2%80%93-the-new-upper-class-hypocrisy/

Janet Lowe, Damn Right! Behind The Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000).

Charles Murray, Coming Apart (New York: Crown Forum, 2012).