Over the weekend, one of the most talked about articles on NYTimes.com was "Among the Wealthiest One Percent, Many Variations." This comprehensive and largely accurate article portraying the lives of the now infamous top wealth earners in America brings a valued perspective to the "99 percent vs 1 percent argument." Buried in the article, however, are salient points that would allow the discussion to elevate past the rhetoric of class warfare and into a guide for those who fear being left behind.
First, as David Mejias, a lawyer quoted in the article points out, "'Not only do we make more money, but if you do a lifestyle analysis, we make a lot more money,' he said. 'Before we even get paid, most of our life has been paid for already.'" A great archetype of a successful person is this: someone who owns a private business that does well. Our current tax system encourages entrepreneurs to take risks and helps maximize the rewards of a successful business. Therefore people who fit that category tend to live pretty well. That's not to say that they have any less financial volatility in their lives than the middle-class (they don't) but while they're on top, they have it pretty good. And many would argue that they've earned it.
Further, while the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent is a catchy phrase, it's a poor metric to gauge the real issue of wealth stratification because, as Mr. Mejias says, income can be easily manipulated by business owners who mingle their business and personal expenses. Many private business owners will decide how much personal income they want to "show the government" only after discussing it with their tax advisors. A better metric is net worth (we can argue about whether that should include the value of their home and their business) which reveals a different reality. The country is stratified between those who have seven-figure net worths and those who have less. About one in 10 households have a net worth greater than $1 million. These top 10 percent may not photograph as well as the jet-setting 1 percent but they live pretty darn good because they tend to own successful private businesses and can create and build wealth in ways that employees typically can't (unless you're Derek Jeter or some other highly-paid talent).
For policy-makers, politicians, and voters, the question is: what happened to the American middle class? For the rest of us it's this: what do I have to do to become one of the top 10 percent?
Here's where we can skip the rhetoric of class warfare and begin to outline a prescription. Again, reporters Shaila Dewan and Robert Gebeloff cover it but they've given it short-shrift. More than once and in different ways, hard work, long working hours, and education are cited as the ways the 1 percent got there. As someone who studies successful self-made people for a living, this is how I interpret that:
Hard work: Taking risks is difficult, both personally and financially. Successful private business owners all took risks to become successful and they continue to take risks every day. Persevering in the face of adversity is not a trait that most middle-class Americans exhibit to the same degree as the top 10 percent;
Long hours: This speaks for itself, really. Here's where you can see a lot of similarities between the top 10 percent and another group that demonstrates outsized economic mobility--immigrants. Both groups work extraordinarily long hours, typically more than 60 hours per week while the middle-class still enjoys a 40-hour work week;
Education: Here the reporters fail to get to the meat of the matter. The importance of education takes on three meanings among the top 10 percent: First, they've studied at that most famous institution, the School of Hard Knocks. This means, they've learned by taking on burdens that most of us avoid, such as making promises they don't know how to keep but are willing to try. Second, networking: the top 10 percent know how to maximize the value of relationships and many of their most important relationships are the ones they develop at college. Third, and truly last, are the skills and knowledge they accumulate in the classroom at the feet of their professors.
The lesson of the top 10 percent is this: Not everyone should become an entrepreneur but if you behave more entrepreneurially, you might achieve greater success.