April 14, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Pity Howard Schultz, the poor billionaire
A Senate committee was mean to him.
Earlier this month, US Senator Bernie Sanders forced former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to testify about the company’s labor abuses before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Schultz was cranky about it, and when Sanders referred to him as a billionaire, he lashed out. In doing so, he neatly explained the myth of meritocracy, and showed why it is such a pernicious ideological excuse for our ugly winner-take-all capitalist system.
“The moniker billionaire, let’s just get at that, OK?” Schultz told Sanders. “Yes, I have billions of dollars. I earned it, no one gave it to me … It’s your moniker constantly, it’s unfair.”
The moniker billionaire is not unfair. Schultz is worth about $4 billion, which means he has more than a billion dollars. That makes him a billionaire.
Schultz, though, thinks that the term is invidious. It implies he is a rich fat cat, bloated with power and selfishness.
So he protested.
“I grew up in federally subsidized housing. My parents never owned a home. I came from nothing. I thought my entire life was based on the achievement of the American dream. Yes, I have billions of dollars. I earned it, no one gave it to me. And I’ve shared it constantly with the people of Starbucks.”
In Schultz’s view, he is not really a billionaire, because he started out with relatively little, and worked hard to become wealthy and powerful.
Apparently, billionaires are people who don’t deserve their money. Schultz, though, is virtuous, which makes him an honorary, or even an exemplary, member of the working class.
Schultz is much richer than his parents. I don’t doubt that he worked for that money. And he looks at the hard work he put in, and he concludes that it was the work, and perhaps some genius, which led to the money. His victories are his virtue. His money, from his perspective, shows that he deserves his money.
But does it?
Is it really the case that the best people are the most successful people?
Look at your own life and the people you know. Are your bosses always models of virtue? Is your own effort always rewarded? Have you ever known a smart, hard-working person who failed?
Most people, I think, would answer no, hell no and yes.
Hard work is often a prerequisite for success. But lots of people work hard. And many people aren’t in a position to capitalize on that hard work without some mix of privilege, connections and luck.
The US is in fact a particularly stratified society. Almost half the people in the bottom economic quintile in their 30s will be in that quintile in their 50s. More than half of those who start in the top quintile stay there.
The rich stay rich, the poor stay poor.
Virtue has little to do with it.
So what about Schultz? He’s prone to exaggerating his childhood poverty. His father was a truck driver and the family certainly wasn’t starving.
Brooklyn’s Bayview neighborhood, where Schultz grew up, was quite comfortable — and 93 percent white. Had Schultz’s family been Black, he probably would have been frozen out of the community.
Without government help and white skin privilege, would Schultz have been in a position to work himself up to being a billionaire? Maybe. Louis Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey did.
But maybe not.
Schultz insists on his own hard work and merit because it makes him feel good. But it also justifies his power and his treatment of workers.
If Schultz deserves his position, as he says, his money is a kind of divine gift for his awesomeness, which he has “shared … with the people of Starbucks.”
If Schultz just was in the right place at the right time with the right privileges, he didn’t really “earn” his money, and he’s not really donating it out of generosity to Starbucks employees.
Rather, those employees work to provide a service to customers, and to provide income to Schultz.
Starbucks isn’t a charity. It’s a business, which makes Schultz a ton of money, not because he’s an angel, but because he’s a capitalist using his billions to make more billions.
The myth that billionaires are hard-working geniuses validated by their fortunes is the flip-side of the conviction that poor people deserve their poverty and misery.
And it’s part of the same ideology that says that working people should stay in their place and be grateful for whatever their betters give them.
That’s why Schultz often seems to see the Starbucks union drive is a betrayal. All these unworthy workers who don’t have as much merit as Schultz are trying to band together and steal his hard-won fortune.
Schultz isn’t just defending his own virtue when he insists that he is a meritorious billionaire. He’s defending the system that gave him his billions.
And he’s defending the exploitation and mistreatment of his workers. If those at the top got there by virtue, those at the bottom deserve their lot.
Billionaires like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Howard Schultz have a lot invested in convincing us that the distribution of wealth is just. They want billionaires to be celebrated, not questioned by Senate committees.
But wealth is not a sign of virtue. It’s a sign that you got lucky, and that you hoard power and cash at the expense of the rest of society — and especially at the expense of your employees.
Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.