Hard Work

02/11/2014 12:03 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2014

Never let it be said that the rich are silent. In response to criticisms of Tom Perkins, the wealthy are granting media interviews to make the case for how important they are, in spite of all the class warfare attacks they have to endure.

A letter by Perkins to the Wall Street Journal started everything. Perkins wanted to "call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its 'one percent' namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the 'rich'". The headline read, "Progressive Kristallnacht Coming?" Mostly what this missive proves is that you can be rich but also offensively ignorant, and the desperate need for Mr. Perkins to take a course on the history and operation of the Final Solution.

Such shortcomings, however, did not dissuade wealthy Americans from coming to the aid of their spokesman. A Wall Street Journal editorial, in high dudgeon, told its readers how Perkins' critics' "vituperation is making our friend's point about liberal intolerance, maybe better than he did." Wow, take that, Occupiers.

The most infamous retort came from Sam Zell during an interview on Bloomberg Television. Zell started, "I guess my feeling is that he's right." Elaborating, he continued, "The problem is that the world and this country should not talk about envy of the 1 percent. It should talk about emulating the 1 percent. The 1 percent work harder."

Let's try and analyze these statements, using words with more precision than either Perkins or Zell did.

True, the rich are often more productive, given their position in society. But language counts; that's different from "working harder"; you could, for example, make a lot of money without doing much. Just ask Wall Street.

A far greater exception develops once you factor in inheritance. True, second and third generations of money are often model citizens, and highly productive. Many others, however, are wastrels. Until we ban inheritance (unlikely), there is a big hole in Zell's arguments; if you inherit wealth, not make it on your own, are you productive?

One of Perkins' other comments raised more issues. In an interview with Bloomberg Television, he explained that it was "absurd to demonize the rich for being rich and doing what the rich do, which is get richer by creating opportunities for others."

Let's simply say in response that what is absurd is to overgeneralize the rich's effect on society. It is absolutely true that some rich folks create jobs, often truly vast numbers. Steve Jobs, for example, innovated an entire industry.

Many others among the rich, however, destroy jobs. This is in the name of efficiency and profitability. Both worthwhile goals, but often causing jobs to simply end or be moved offshore. This is euphemistically called "creative destruction," and defended by the rich's advocates. Just ask Mitt Romney how it works.

But I take words seriously, so let's go back to what Zell said. Do the rich, as he put it, "work harder"?

First, there is a difference between "productivity", or "profitability", and "hard work". As noted above, the rich are frequently top producers in society, given their control of resources and power.

But how about working hard? Sometimes, after a bad day, of too many meetings, of too many student problems, of...too much, I bemoan my job and its travails. Then, as I walk to my car, I see a dump truck and the garbage collectors filling it from plastic containers. And I think to myself, "Now, that's hard work". Honestly, would any of these titans like to change places with workers in this industry, even if the compensation was the same?

One other note of reality. The hardest work I can think of is taking care of kids, God's little atomic powered treasures, filled with near unlimited ability to get into stuff. How about mothers who care for two, three or even more at the same time? For my money, I'll match their hard work against the worst day Perkins or Zell ever put in.

Do the rich "work hard"? Quite often, yes, they work very hard. But if that's the basis for apportioning wealth, what about the tens of millions of Americans who perform arduous labors every working day, yet earn middle class wages or worse? According to Perkins' and Zell's own criterion, therefore, that hard work should determine compensation, something is wrong with our society.