Ethics@Work: The long lost idle rich

Bankers' hours of today are like sweatshop hours of yore.

October 11, 2007 22:47
3 minute read.
Ethics@Work: The long lost idle rich

asher meir 88. (photo credit: )


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When we endure a little misfortune ourselves, it generally increases our empathy with those living in misfortune; if we have endured a little hunger ourselves, then we are less likely to suggest to those without bread, "Let them eat cake." But this principle can sometimes backfire, as a hasidic story illustrates. The Maggid (Preacher) of Mezeritch was one of the original founders of the hasidic movement. One day a wealthy man came to seek the blessing and advice of the saintly Maggid. When the holy rabbi asked him what he ate, he replied that he ate a simple diet of bread, like a poor person. To the man's surprise, the rabbi rebuked him and ordered him thenceforth to consume a rich diet in accordance with his means. When the man left, the Maggid's students, who knew his own tendency towards simplicity and self-deprivation, asked the explanation for his strange counsel. He replied: "When a rich man eats meat and drinks meat, he understands that the poor man needs at any rate bread and salt. But when a rich man subsists on bread and salt, he thinks the poor man should eat stones." I'm reminded of this story when I see the current figures on work habits. In the good old days, we had the idle rich. Poor working people had to work 70 or 80 hours a week or even more of crushing labor, while the wealthy worked bankers' hours (typically considered something on the order of 9 a.m.-3 p.m., or about 30 hours a week), if at all, and enjoyed long vacations. Pioneering sociologist Thorsten Veblen gave roughly equal time to the concepts of "conspicuous consumption" and "conspicuous leisure" as ways of advertising one's wealth. My own analysis of historical data confirms received wisdom: that at the turn of the 20th century, the poorest workers put in the most hours. But the idle rich are today an endangered species. A recent study by Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst shows that by the mid-1960s all classes of Americans worked roughly equal hours, while in the last few years the distribution of hours has tipped: the poorest work the fewest hours, and the richest the most. The expression "bankers' hours" is an anachronism, or perhaps a grim joke, as bankers today work the hours of sweatshop workers a century ago. This is a good thing for the economy as a whole. The productivity of these high-end workers is stratospheric; partners in New York law firms bill close to a thousand dollars an hour, with no shortage of clients. There is little doubt that from a national income point of view it's more logical for people whose productivity is a thousand dollars an hour to put in long hours than it is for low-end workers whose productivity is only one percent of this figure. However, I wonder if this phenomenon is healthy for our sense of empathy with the poor. I personally am a bit chastened by the thought that a worker making the minimum wage has to work 80 hours a week to make a middle-class living, but I know quite a few people who could honestly confront this insight with the reply: "Well, I already work that much, so why shouldn't they?" John Kenneth Galbraith once sought to put a little perspective on the acknowledged fact that welfare benefits tend to discourage work effort by pointing out that this is not all bad - after all, "leisure, if you're rich enough, is also a very good thing." Perhaps Galbraith's riposte is lost on this generation, who despite six- and seven-figure incomes actually enjoy little free time. I'm certainly not denying that the solution to the poverty problem must involve greatly increased work effort among members of poor households. But our attitude is also important, and we should summon some understanding for someone who is not enthusiastic about putting in 80-hour weeks for twenty shekels an hour. It's not simple to be away from home for such long hours when you don't have nannies and housekeepers and private schools that keep the kids busy for hours. I won't compare myself to the Maggid of Mezeritch, but I suspect that if a wealthy person boasted to me that despite his great wealth he devotes himself to his work like an ordinary working stiff, I might encourage him to take a vacation now and then or perhaps adopt a pastime. Sometimes we need to be reminded that everyone deserves a break. The author is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.

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