By Gwydion M. Williams
Do millionaires earn their money through skill and hard work? Millionaires certainly think so. Likewise their right-wing boosters. But just look at the sums involved: it is hard to believe that they deserve that much. Could anyone be hundreds of times better than the rest of us?
A Briton making £100,000 a year might indeed have earned it. The average household income is nearly £30,000, though many get much less. The richest 10% have incomes starting at maybe £63,000. Most of us accept that as fair. It includes people like airline pilots and surgeons, whose skills we need.
But let’s split the richest 10% into two. On top and with most of the real wealth and power we find a Millionaire Class, the richest 1%. And a long way below them are the Next Nine, who are well-off but not millionaires. Or maybe have just one million, perhaps from an ordinary house with inflated value. But people with 2 to 999 millions form a vast and powerful elite. Billionaires are not distinct: they number no more than a couple of thousand. Without the millionsof multi-millionaires, many of them elected to be representatives of ordinary people, billionaires would count for far less.
The Next Nine loosely match the older idea of an Upper Middle Class, though in Britain that was more about social habits and origins than actual income. They have a decent claim to be a real Meritocracy.
The Millionaires are not a Super-Meritocracy. They don’t on average show an excess of the qualities we’d want to reward and encourage
Reagan and Thatcher and the New Right policies from the 1980s have done very little for this Next Nine. The total wealth of the entire economy is greater, but not unexpectedly greater. No ‘economic miracles’ of the sort that happened in West Germany, Japan and Italy. The overall wealth we have as of 2021 is no more than if the successful system of the 1950s and 1960s had been fixed rather than denounced after the crisis of the 1970s. Maybe less.
And considered as individuals, have they really earned it? If they have much greater wealth, do they deserve it?
Bill Gates came from a rich family and a family with several generations as business people. His father was a very successful lawyer, and the son of a furniture-store owner. His mother came from higher up in the business elite: her father and grandfather were very important bankers.
He went to an expensive and superior school, where he was able to work with computers. Back then they were remote well-guarded machines, and school-child access was very unusual. Later on as a rising businessman, he was ‘Mary Gates’ boy’ to one IBM executive at one critical moment.
Gates gained massively because a number of companies unconnected with him found legal ways to produce machines that would run software that Microsoft had made for the IBM Personal Computer.
I’d agree that Gates had talents worth rewarding. But does he merit the tens of thousands of millions that he’s got?
It would be a nice exercise to check the fates of everyone who was in the same year studying maths at Harvard as Gates. Who on the face of it had similar talents, but I’d assume most had much less glorious and well-rewarded fates. I’m not a journalist and have much else I want to work on: I offer the idea to whoever wants it.
When we complain about millionaire privilege, right-wingers call it ‘politics of envy’. But when well-off people seem to have earned it, they are generally accepted. What gets resented – but not nearly enough – is how much the Millionaire Class has grabbed since the 1980s.
Let’s imagine another world in which hairdressers got 20 or 30 times the incomes they had in the 1980s, yet did a rather worse job of cutting people’s hair. They would be resented by many who have nothing against them in their current role.
Millionaires are in practice the same people who’d have been chieftains or barons or warlords in earlier eras, except that many more of this elite come from poor or middling backgrounds. But there were always some who were self-made. And even now, only a minority actually come from humble beginnings.
The New Right either ignore the effects of power in gaining wealth, or want the stronger to win. And then make the naïve assumption that the winners are the best.
The Next Nine include much of the talent that needs rewarding. How much they get varies between societies, but socialists looking to win elections should say simply that the present set-up is acceptable. Our loud complaints should be about the vast rewards that have gone to just a small elite. We should say that such people do not need or deserve much more than the Next Nine get.
Hard Work is found all over. As are various mixes of ingenuity, skills, a gift for handling people, a good memory, and high intelligence. I would agree that these are found more in the most prosperous 10% than in the rest. But talents are found all over, and not always rewarded. Often worse rewarded than before the New Right took over, since they tend to view anything not generating cash returns as burdensome. And exploit the natural good feelings of people like medical workers to keep their wages low. Give vast rewards to selling and advertising, which get cash returns but mostly don’t make the society any richer.
More importantly, I’d deny that genuine merits are more often found in the richest 1% than in the Next Nine.
Looking at real details of real people, I found that some had inherited their wealth and done nothing much for it. And those who were self-made mostly had a mix of good luck and good connections, as well as talent and hard work.
Specifically, things that improve an individual’s chances of being part of the Millionaire Elite include:
- Rich parents
- Educated parents
- Parents with practical experience of commerce in the modern world
- Parents with useful social contacts
- Social displacement – where you live is not where you clearly belong
- Membership of a minority subject to definite but limited discrimination
- Being in the right place at the right time
- Being a hobbyist in something that turns into a profitable industry
- Being saved from a setback by sheer luck
- Obsessive concern with a particular interest
- Sociopathic attitudes
- Personal tragedy
- An obsession with power
- Cunning dishonesty within the law
- A willingness to take big risks
- Cunning dishonesty that extends to grey areas like tax avoidance
- The inheritance of vast wealth
- Cunning dishonesty that is blatant illegality, including tax evasion.
Most actual multi-millionaires have a selection of these. Bill Gates I would credit with 1 thru 4, 7, 8, 10, and 14 thru 17. Now suppose he had lacked his earlier experience of computers? Or had not chosen to drop out of university and pursue this as a business? He would probably have become a professor of mathematics at some minor university, as biographers have suggested. He’d then have inherited millionaire status in 2020 when his millionaire father died.
Someone could do a nice short story set in 2020 in an alternate world. A world where the life of Bill Gates has been obscure and he regrets having not pursued his early computer dreams. He could very plausibly have been exactly the same person, but stayed in the Next Nine for most of his life. And someone else would almost certainly have turned early computer dreams into the powerful business model that was made by Microsoft under his leadership.
He was also one of many IT pioneers who just happened to team up with someone equally obscure, but whose skills were different and meshed nicely with his own:
“Bill Gates and Paul Allen for Microsoft, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak for Apple, Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin for the beginnings of Facebook, replaced later by Sean Parker.”
Looking back decades before and to lost worlds, there is Sir James Goldsmith. I read up about him in the 1980s. At that time he was famous, and was noted for warning us about the terrible peril from the Soviet Union, a few years before its abject collapse. The seriousness with which the Soviets were viewed before their sudden fall has been written out of history by the New Right: yet it is there for anyone who bothers to look. Or who have kept their memory clear, if they are part of my own Baby Boomer generation.
The same people who put Make Orwell History on their t-shirts seem unable to notice when their own people do it. And Orwell himself was a thoroughly dishonest writer, as well as being a glib and sometimes-accurate chronicler of the sins of others.
To get back to millionaire merit, Goldsmith had the first four Millionaire Factors, and then 5, 6, and 11 thru 17. His wife died young, giving him a reckless gambling attitude to life. And in his autobiography, he explains how he was saved from bankruptcy by sheer good luck. He was given time to save himself when the staff of every French bank went on strike for the first time in twenty years. And he himself says that in that era, no one could become wealthy by respectable means after having gone bankrupt.
Relationships are obviously complex. Social displacement, tragedy, obsessions, and risk-taking are things that are more likely to produce poverty and failure than riches. Which to me suggests we’d be better off without them, if social regulation could manage this.
More importantly, the millionaire class has got far more than it deserved since the 1980s. It probably already had too much back then. But loose talk about ‘freedom’ led to economic setbacks for most people in the West.
The radical attempt to set the 99% against the 1% has so far failed, for several reasons. One is that far too many people imagine themselves as part of the winning elite:
“An opinion poll a couple of years ago found that 19% of American taxpayers believed themselves to be in the top 1% of earners. A further 20% thought they would end up there within their lifetimes.”
That’s why I prefer to say millionaire. You’d need to be more than a millionaire to be in the 1% in Europe or the USA. One recent suggestion for taxing them wanted to start at a wealth of £3.4 million. Anyone with less is just near the top of the Next Nine. But at least non-millionaires know what they are.
Labour and left-wingers elsewhere must emphasise that the status of the Next Nine is accepted. Give the income bands – I reckoned above £63,000 a year but not a millionaire. Translate it into monthly income, £5210. Most voters should notice that this is not them.
Avoid loose talk about ‘ending inequality’. Say that some inequality is to be expected, which is the standard Moderate Socialist position. It also has in practice been the case in Communist societies even at their most hard-line. But say repeatedly and loudly and firmly that unfair wealth for millionaires has got vastly worse in Britain since Thatcher came to power.
It is also foolish to denounce ‘Baby Boomers’, who have mostly not gained from right-wing economics.
Using the awkward term ‘high-net-worth individual’, which is close to the actual 1% of Anglo cultures, there are 13 million globally, with 4.7 million in the United States. 348,000 just in New York City: enough to seem like ‘public opinion’. And yet still a small minority, and a selfish minority.
Labour in Britain needs to hammer away at the gigantic gains made by the Millionaire Class.
And the TUC or one of our big Trade Unions might commission a survey to see how measured IQ and paper qualification match to income and wealth. Neither are perfect measures, but they are objective facts. They can be used for number-crunching. They ought to vindicate my assertion that millionaires are not visibly better than the Next Nine in qualities we ought to be rewarding.
It would be nice to include questions about as many as possible of the Millionaire Factors that I mentioned earlier.
Or as a simple start, ask if members of the High-IQ society Mensa would declare their incomes and wealth, as well as the score that Mensa gave them. I’d expect it to be more grist to the mill, though with a likely bias. When I did my own membership test, under supervision since no one is trusted when just self-testing, it seemed to me that there were a lot like me, not even in the Next Nine. Probably with a job they were not deeply committed to and with less recognition and success than they were hoping for. People seeking objective proof that they were smart, as well as the hope of finding intelligent company.
And maybe smart enough to note that the 90% have been cheated, and the Next Nine not really rewarded for their recognised talents.
 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/personalandhouseholdfinances/incomeandwealth/bulletins/householddisposableincomeandinequality/financialyear2020and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Income_in_the_United_Kingdom
 The Economist, September 6th, 2003