Americans with a lot of money are often praised as "hard workers,” but do elbow grease and ambition always lead to wealth?
Covert's interview excerpts have been edited for clarity.
» On the ‘American Dream’: I think it's really baked in from the very beginning. The American Dream is this idea that, these days, is more myth than reality: That in this country you can work hard, and if you do, you can rise as high as you want to go based on your own work ethic.
And we like to tell that story from the very beginning — The Founding Fathers are venerated for being entrepreneurial, the pioneers who went out west plotted the course and worked hard to expand the country ... those stories tend to leave out the people whose backs upon which this country was made — You know, African slaves, the Native Americans, from whom we took most of this land.
» On our culture celebrating wealth: I think we go even further and sort of create this halo around the rich that tells this story: If you have money, you must have done something to deserve it. You must have worked hard. There must be something even good about you that merits that money. And we should therefore venerate you without necessarily questioning what privileges that person started out with, what advantages were they able to take along the way.
There other people who work equally hard — or harder — who don't have those advantages. And so they haven't been able to accumulate the same kind of wealth.
» On whether under-taxing income like inheritances is hurting the country: We've always had some sort of wealth tax in this country because we had this idea that we did not want an aristocracy, and yet we whittled that away. These days, very few people face paying the estate tax. In fact, Republicans and their signature tax overhaul made sure even fewer people have to pay it.
When we allow that to happen, we are starving the government from funds and allowing this upper class to amass more and more wealth that is then not circulating to the rest of us. That is not helping anyone but the people who hold onto it.
Bryce Covert’s piece for Longreads is called The American Work Ethic.