THE BLOG
02/14/2014 11:45 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2014

The Rich Aren't Rich Because They Work Harder. They Work Harder Because They're Rich!

You lazy bum. Yea, I'm talking to you. Are you a member of the 99 percent? Do you earn less than $393,941 a year? Yep. You're lazy.

That's what Sam Zell says, at least.

"The one percent work harder" than you, said the billionaire real estate investor in a recent interview. That's why they're so much richer than you.

Zell isn't alone. More than a third of all Americans -- and more than half of all Republicans -- believe that the rich are rich because they worked harder than everyone else. When pressed for proof, they usually point to surveys showing that the rich spend more hours working and fewer hours in "leisure activities" than everyone else.

It's a revealing statistic -- but not for the reasons that Zell seems to think.

First of all, the rich work more because they can. They have the option to work more hours. Most middle-class and poor Americans have very little control over their work schedules -- and that's assuming they can even find a job in the first place. Thirteen percent of workers can't find a full-time job -- and virtually none of those workers are in the one percent.

But instead of seeing this crisis for what it is, the one percent prefer to pat themselves on the back for their privileged job security. In his bubble of immunity, Zell cannot see how hurtful his remarks are to the millions of Americans who want to work more but can't.

Second, it is shockingly obtuse to suggest that an hour spent in a comfortable office doing a job you love is even remotely comparable to an hour spent in a sweltering kitchen flipping burgers. Low-wage jobs are so physically demanding that they drive workers into an early grave. Work too hard in a warehouse or a factory, and you can find yourself crippled for life.

By comparison, Zell's definition of "hard work" is laughably -- or is it tragically? -- luxurious. The rich are more than twice as likely as the poor to report that they are completely satisfied with their job, that they are very happy with life overall, and that they rarely or never experience stress. With a job like that, who wouldn't want to work harder?

Not only are their jobs more enjoyable and less exploitative; they are also more rewarding -- and it's not a linear relationship. The economists Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano have found that investing your time in extra work generates a far higher return if you're a high-wage worker. When the middle class and the poor work more hours, they may earn an overtime wage, but when the rich do it, they get promotions, bonuses and better job offers that far exceed their current overtime rate.

That should be obvious to anyone looking at our country's income distribution. The richest 0.01 percent of Americans -- the one percent of the one percent -- earn an average income 578 times higher than everyone else. Even if Zell thinks they work harder, does he really think that they work 578 times harder? Does anyone honestly believe that one member of the super-rich works as hard as 578 of the rest of us combined?

Clearly, hard work alone cannot justify their outsized earnings.

It wasn't always this way. A few decades ago, the income gap wasn't nearly as wide. Over the years, the income of the one percent has been growing a lot faster than everyone else's.

If you ask Sam Zell why this is happening, he'd probably say the rich are working more and everyone else is working less. But he'd be wrong. In fact, the exact opposite is happening: The poor and the middle class have taken on a lot more working hours than the rich, even as their income has grown less.

So, not only does Zell's theory fail to explain the rise of the one percent, it actually gives a reason to oppose it. If more work is a justification for more income, as Zell suggests, then the one percent should be experiencing less income growth than everyone else.

Instead, the 99 percent are finding that they're doing more of the work and receiving less of the income with each passing year.

Zell, in contrast, has always been rewarded for his hard work. The future real estate tycoon grew up watching his father invest in real estate in Chicago. Meanwhile, he had the good fortune to attend one of the top-performing high schools in the country. From there, he went to the University of Michigan, where he got his bachelor's, followed by his law degree, at one of the most elite law schools in the world.

Sam Zell may have worked hard to become rich, but at every step along the way, someone was teaching him how to work hard -- and rewarding him for that hard work.

Most Americans don't have access to those opportunities -- and they're becoming scarcer as the one percent pulls away from the pack. The path to financial stability is harder to navigate than it has been in almost a century. And yet, the 99 percent forge ahead, toiling unseen, unacknowledged, unappreciated by the fortunate few who reap the profits and call themselves the deserving recipients of our great national wealth.