Criticism of America’s economic elite is dragging the country down, real estate tycoon Sam Zell said in an interview with Bloomberg TV Wednesday. Zell, who led the Tribune Company to a bankruptcy filing in 2008, claimed that the highest-earning one percent of Americans “work harder” than the rest of the country.
“The problem is that the world and this country should not talk about envy of the one percent; it should talk about emulating the one percent,” Zell said. “The one percent work harder. The one percent are much bigger factors in all forms of our society.”
Zell was responding to a question about Tom Perkins, the venture capitalist who compared criticisms of America’s rich to attitudes toward Jews in Nazi Germany in a recent letter to the Wall Street Journal.
Contrary to Zell’s belief, people are working harder without being better rewarded. Since 2000, the gap between productivity and compensation has grown larger than ever before, the Economic Policy Institute reports, creating a “lost decade” for U.S. workers. The federal minimum wage is at its lowest inflation-adjusted level since 1968, and the economic divide has damaged overall growth.
Many billionaires may indeed work hard themselves, but they are also profiting off the stock market and comparatively low taxes for corporations and top earners. The wealthy are also adept at passing down their fortunes to their children without paying estate taxes. Middle- and lower-income Americans who don’t have access to those advantages are in fact trying to emulate the one percent, which is part of the problem. The accelerating rate of wealth among that small group is fueling an “economic arms race in which the middle class has been spending beyond their means in order to keep up,” according to a University of Chicago study. Furthermore, inequality has been linked to depression and psychological trauma.
The American people also care about economic inequality despite often not having such views represented in policy. According to a USA Today/Pew Research Center poll, 43 percent of Americans believe that the government should do “a lot” to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, and 26 percent said it should do “some.” Only 17 percent of respondents said that the government should do “nothing at all.” In addition, half of Americans believe that the economic conditions of the poor are based on circumstances, as opposed to 35 percent who think it is due to lack of effort.