I hear these two assumptions all the time. As a matter of fact, these assumptions are put out there daily and in such a manner that one would assume these right-wing truths to be a priori foundations of all economic and social life.
Yet, they are not... These assumptions, if challenged, turn out to be myth with no foundation in reality at all.
Assumption #1: The rich earn their money
I read an article earlier this week in the business press. It seems Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Kraft Foods, got a pay cut last year. Her pay was lowered from $22.1 million to $13.5 million dollars per year. At $13.5 million per year, Irene earns 270 times what a well paid employee might receive at say, $50,000 per year.
To receive such an amount of money, Irene Rosenfeld and other CEOs must be very special people. Maybe they aren't special people, maybe they're gods! I mean if such people "earn" such money they must have capabilities well beyond what the rest of us humans can muster. Hercules had the strength of 10 men but Irene Rosenfeld has the income of 270. She must be a virtual Super Woman!
Maybe CEOs work harder than anybody else possibly can. With this logic in mind, Ms. Rosenfeld must work 10,800 hours per week, or 450 hours a day. It would be a nifty trick well worth $13,500,000 per year if Ms Rosenfeld did work such hours, but somehow I don't think hours worked is it.
That it's not the vast amount of work done is further indicated by Goldman-Sachs CEO, Lloyd Blankfein who began his tenure at Goldman Sachs with a pre-paid two week vacation. Indeed, I suspect if you looked at the "hours worked" sheet for Irene, Lloyd and other CEO types, one would find a lot fewer hours worked than the average employee. It needs to be this way too. If one owns seven homes - at least six of them at resort locations - then one needs to be able to spend time at these homes. This is hard to do if one is working 450 hours per day.
As for seven houses, this is what Mrs. Lay (wife of Enron CEO Ken Lay) said she might have to give up as a result of the Enron collapse. A true hardship she lamented, because they might only be able to maintain five of these houses.
Ayn Rand, narcissism's greatest contribution to the American literary tradition, states such CEO people really are gods. In Rand's view, human civilization would collapse if such people were not around. Indeed, in her novel Atlas Shrugged, all these genius CEO types retreated to their special hideaway and the rest of humanity died in the mud because without these CEOs people won't know how to raise their faces out of the muck so as not to drown.
According to Ayn Rand, such CEO types are the lords of innovation and creation. Is this true?
In my life, I've met a couple of these true innovators and creators. One was the father of a college housemate. He was a key player in early 1950s and 60s DNA and genetics research. His work, with the work of other scientists, laid the foundation for the kind of advanced genetic medicine that's coming to the forefront now. This guy had a prestigious professorship at an Ivy League university, and I'm sure he made a good salary. But I'm also willing to guarantee he did not make $13.5 million a year, or its equivalent in the 1970s.
Another guy I met was involved in key research which lead to the development of the internet. The work that he and his colleagues laid the foundation for the fortunes made by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. This guy too had a prestigious professorship and made a good salary, but he never made a CEO's millions.
Personally, I have a hard time justifying these CEOs as the lords of creation. Granted, these CEOs are clever people with a greedy knack for making money. But then, we all have our talents. Maximizing greed is however not one of those talents so special as to accord these CEO types their god-like status; at least not to my mind.
So why all this wealth to so few?
In the end it comes down to this: CEOs win the big money because it is they and the corporations they wield who are the ones who write the rules of the game. It is their money which closes a factory and destroys a town for an additional bag of profit. It is their money that buys the politicians and finances the armies of lobbyists that make it possible to destroy lives for more profit on a systematic basis. It is their money which decides what you hear and don't hear through the media and it is their money which buys the rationale for just about every twist and turn going through our civilization. It was certainly their money which so handily has allowed these CEO types to continue their tax breaks while at the same time cutting the guts out of 100 years of social legislation in the name of a "deficit crisis".
Why do CEOs make such astronomical amounts of money? Because they can. Because billions are spent each year painting these CEOs and corporations as the supermen they really aren't. Because as a class, they know that if they force the message enough, even those who know it's a phony message will give up.
Assumption #2: I'm really hurting but everybody else is a dead-beat
I was listening to OPB (Oregon Public Broadcasting network) a couple of days ago. The subject was the incredibly rising cost of a college education. One woman called in. Her story was that her family has recently fallen on hard times yet her son was not going to receive additional financial aid. According to this woman, she and her husband had put a lot of money in the bank, and as a result of this savings, her son's financial aid was not going to be increased.
This woman was outraged. Everybody else experiencing hard times was a "dead-beat" according to this woman. But she and her family were "responsible" and had saved. So, why was she, a "responsible person" being punished by not being given additional aid when her family fell on hard times?
To my mind this woman is a sucker; pure and simple. By "knowing" that everybody else is a dead-beat, this woman will cheer as millions fall into an economic hole and will holler alone at the heavens that what is happening to her is grossly unfair. This woman, with her personal knowledge that all others are dead-beats, will do her part to insure that we never challenge the assumptions behind how we grant an education or why an education is rapidly becoming unaffordable to all except the wealthy.
The Power of Assumptions:
The above two assumptions are pillars in the right wing ideology of corporate power and control. If these assumptions remain unchallenged there can be no real understanding of how our economy and society operate. Without a widely shared reality-based analysis of how our economy and society works, there can be no democracy. As things stand now, the right-wing is doing all it can to reduce democracy to crass demagoguery fueled on myth.
I'd like to suggest that challenging these myths is of the utmost importance. What people collectively think is a material social force... Let's try to de-fuse this force... It all comes down to truth and transparency.