I recently worked out that there are six degrees of economic separation between a dishwasher making less than $8 an hour and a Forbes billionaire, if you multiply each person's income by five. So I decided to crisscross America meeting one of each multiple, to try to understand their financial lives and the vast chasms that separate them. I've written about the journey in my new book, Lost at Sea. The most surprising discovery was how every person on the ladder had invented some illusory way to rationalize their place within the ecosystem. From the very poor to the very rich, everyone had given themselves a reason why it was okay.
So, here are my top 4 illusory ways we justify our place on the income ladder:
1. We can take all sorts of awfulness as long as people treat us with a little respect.
It was Maurice Frantz, the Haitian dishwasher at the bottom of the income ladder, who said this to me. Frantz works in the kitchen at the Capital Grille in Miami's financial district (he told me that in all his time working there he's never once seen a menu, nor the inside of the restaurant, nor a customer). The night before we met one of his co-workers threw away his shoes.
"I checked everywhere," he said. "I called the sous chef and I told him, 'I put down my shoes. Somebody threw them away.' He said, 'Frantz, you know me. I'm cool with you. I treat you like a man. I give you all the respect you need. I talk to you about your life.' I said, 'I know, Chef.' He respects me, the sous chef. He said, 'I don't know what happened to your shoes. I can't tell you nothing.'"
Frantz talked a lot to me about respect and the opposite of respect - humiliation. Like the other day, he said, he was working so hard the busboy told him, "Look at your face. You look like a slave." He says that insult really stung. So he can take the terrible wages, the awful neighborhood he has to live in, the fact that he rarely goes out because it's too dangerous, as long as he's treated with a little respect.
2. If we earned more, who knows what pleasure-seeking scrapes we might succumb to?
It was the couple who earned five times what Frantz earned who said this to me. Their names are Dennis and Rebecca Pallwitz, and they live in a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa, called Urbandale. They make around $900 a week but so much of it goes on taxes and health insurance they can't afford to drive to the East of the State to celebrate their anniversary. Like Frantz, they only ever go out to work and church and to the local park.
Dennis said he wishes they were better off, but there are positives about being poor. It makes people community-spirited, he said. Plus, money can turn a man wayward. Dennis runs a church support group for sex and drug and alcohol addicts. Why did some of those men fall into a hedonistic abyss? 'Because they could afford to,' he said.
So Dennis rationalizes his position by saying that, if he had more, who knows what pleasure-seeking scrapes he might succumb to?
3. Having your own plane would be stressful.
This was said to me by the woman who earned five times what I make (and 25 times what Dennis and Rebecca make). She didn't want me to reveal her name, so I'll call her Ellen.
"Happiness," she said, "is having twenty per cent more than what you need. The trick is not to be too rich."
"Why not?" I asked her.
"People want to go on your private plane. You fall asleep in the middle of conference calls. There's a certain discombobulation when you have too much."
Maybe Ellen was right. Maybe it would be bad to have your own plane. But I remembered that Karl Marx line about religion being the opium of the people - his idea that the elites keep the masses subdued with illusory happiness. But Dennis and Ellen had both suggested to me, surely fallaciously, that greater fortune might lead to unexpected sadness. So we're actually very good at inventing our own opium.
4. We deserve to make $625,000 a week because that's how nature intended it.
It was the man at the top of the tree - the public storage and stud farm billionaire B. Wayne Hughes - who essentially said this to me. His idea is that the markets are perfectly efficient, and allocate benefits and burdens perfectly efficiently, based on talent and merit.
"It's an emotional thing for me,: B. Wayne said. "The idea of entitlement." He snapped the word in the same way Mitt Romney snapped during his 47% speech. "When the politicians said, 'Everybody is entitled to a house,' you saw what happened. And now you have, 'Everybody is entitled to go to college.' Which is stupid!"
"So you're saying everybody is entitled to college, but they should have to pay their own way?" I asked.
"Some people don't belong in college!" he said. "That should occur to you."
I understand why Wayne's great love in life is his stud farm. There's something very thoroughbred-horses about his view of the world. Wayne sees an economy of earning, where those with exceptional talent or exceptional grit rise, as they should, to the top. For Wayne's philosophy to work, though, he needs to see those who don't make it as kind of deserving of their ill-fortune. He talked to me about "derelicts on welfare" in Los Angeles who check themselves into the hospital because they're "bored" and "want feeding" and "we're paying for all that kind of activity." He said too much tax money is spent on "guys going to chiropractors, guys getting massages all over the country! On us! Give me a break."
"I live my life paying my taxes and taking care of my responsibilities, and I'm a little surprised to find out that I'm an enemy of the state at this time in my life," he said.
Of all the people I interviewed, Wayne was the only one who seemed angry about the politics of his situation. Frantz, Rebecca, Dennis - those at the bottom looking up - showed no animosity at all.