Back in February 2011, Jay Goltz, a “thinking entrepreneur” who “employs more than 100 people at his five Chicago businesses”, wrote an article for the New York Times headlined “The dirty little secret of successful companies”. In it, he argued that every “great company” had to be ruthless in firing “the people who would probably be rated six on a scale of one to ten”.
Goltz asked: “How would you feel about flying on a plane with a pilot who is a ‘six’? What about the nurse who cares for your mother in the hospital? The mechanic who fixes the brakes on your car?”
A year later, he posted a follow-up blog in response to a comment from a Tulsa-based reader, Jo-Ann Youngblood, who had insisted: “There is nothing wrong with being an average (mediocre) employee… Stop trying to force people to get to the next level.” In response, Goltz wrote that she had “every right to embrace [her] mediocrity” but: “If I hire too many people with that attitude, I will be out of business. This is Capitalism 101, survival of the fittest.”
At a time of record long-term unemployment and with the economy still suffering from the immediate effects of the 2008 financial crisis, Goltz argued, to be “average” was an outdated luxury. “For most people,” he wrote, “having a job for life is no longer an option. And for many of those who have been unfortunate enough to lose their businesses or their jobs during the recent years of economic turmoil, I suspect work is now, if it wasn’t always, a high-priority event.” Coasting from payslip to payslip doing the bare minimum, then, was out. In Goltz’s view, mediocrity was incompatible with the demands of advanced capitalism. The winners take all.
Nonetheless, during his Democratic primary campaign last year, Bernie Sanders roused crowds by shouting in the general direction of the super-rich: “You can’t have it all!” But they don’t seem to have noticed. After more than four decades as the nation’s economic majority, the middle classes are now matched in number by the tiers above and below them. According to the Pew Research Center, the share of aggregate income held by middle-income households plunged from 62 per cent to 43 per cent between 1970 and 2014. In the same period, that of those in the upper-income bracket rose from 29 per cent to 49 per cent.
Meanwhile, the global billionaire population grew by 6.4 per cent in 2015 to a record size: there were 2,473 of them, holding $7.7trn of the world’s wealth. They may not, in the end, be able to have it all. But it looks like they’re trying their damnedest.
Billionaires are a symptom of economic ill health. In his 2007 book The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman describes how the gap between rich and poor was actively reduced by the co-operative, often bipartisan “political environment” of the postwar years that took “a relatively equal society with a strong middle class” to be America’s “normal state”. During this period, which ended roughly with the rise of Reaganism, “billionaires more or less vanished from the scene”. In 1925, there were 32 in the US; by 1968, there were just 13. Today, America has 540 billionaires, which amounts to more than any other country on Earth and more than all of Europe combined. And one of those “winners” is in the White House.
In his inauguration speech on 20 January, Donald Trump promised: “America will start winning again. Winning like never before.” He may have been talking about the country’s global position (which is odd, since the US remains comfortably the world’s largest economy), but what will “winning” look like domestically? For there to be winners, there must be losers; and despite his populist posturing, it remains unclear which America he stands for.
The president’s TV catchphrase – “You’re fired!” – which he resurrected in his embarrassing first press conference after his election in January, suggests that he represents the interests of the Capitalism-101-Jay-Goltzes rather than those of Average Joes and Janes. What we know so far about the trajectory of his presidency supports this. The cuts he has pledged, for example, are “loaded towards wealthy individuals who have little propensity to spend the gains they make”, according to Andrew Hunter of Capital Economics in the Independent. And I’m a believer when it comes to nations managing trade to their advantage, but unless Trump does the unthinkable and actually pursues a long-termist strategy in his industrial policy (much as Barack Obama did when he could, as in the auto bailout in 2009), any intervention he makes will be cosmetically beneficial at best.
That the US has elected a “winner” of this kind is hardly surprising. In Georges Simenon’s novel Maigret at the Coroner’s, the French police inspector of the title goes to the US to observe its justice system, and spends much of his time pondering what makes Americans so distinctly American. And then it strikes him: “[Their] goal was to win at the game, no matter what that game was.” That’s why gangsters who reach the top of their trade seem to get as much respect as the leading bankers and sportsmen. That’s why billionaire industrialists are celebrities. The American dream is about starting at the bottom and going “up where the air is clean”, as Tom Waits put it.
The problem with this national dream of individual exceptionalism – the sense that to be a “winner” is the only valid way of life – is that if everyone were to achieve this and win, then no one would have won. Best would be mediocre. In his 1990 book An Enemy Called Average, the American minister and speaker John L Mason encourages his readers to “choose to be a person who is on the offensive, not the defensive”. Victory must come at the expense of someone else. For there to be winners, there has to be a lot of losers. It’s a hard way to live.
Look to Italy, the Netherlands and France and you’ll see less desperation to reach the top, and a healthier attitude to what the Goltzes and the Trumps would dismiss as mediocrity. Half of the Dutch population, for example, works part-time; a quarter of men and three-quarters of women work less than 36 hours per week. They have more time to exercise and be with their friends and family. Is it a coincidence that the Netherlands is one of the happiest nations in the world? Working fewer hours doesn’t make a person mediocre, of course – but it reminds me of Jo-Ann Youngblood’s complaint about not wanting to be forced to rise to the “next level”. A good life doesn’t have to be about beating everyone else. It doesn’t have to be a race. We don’t really have to win to be happy.