I wrote the letter below in response to a NY Times op-ed piece by a Harvard econ professor.  N. Gregory Mankiw uses himself as an example of why rich people would stop working if taxes were higher – a dangerous myth that circulates whenever talk of raising taxes arises.

I’m sharing it here because I’ve had access to some very ambitious people who are motivated by money, and they don’t think in the same way that normal people do.  I’m speaking of the people who put aside their families and their relationships for the sake of business, and those who wage war to make a profit.

My family members are primarily good-hearted working-types who can’t even conceive of the type of greed that they hear about in the news each day.  My grandpa can’t imagine that people would actually wage war over oil – for him, there is nothing as valuable as a human life.

For many rich and powerful people, money in the bank is worth a lot more than a human life.  The role of government is to safeguard the people from this type of dangerously ambitious greed.  When this type of myth is spread, it results in policy that undermines the ability of good people to make a decent living – much like the recession that we’re in today.

from Aaron McManus
to ngmankiw@harvard.edu
date Thu, Oct 14, 2010 at 11:57 AM
subject Ambitious people don’t work less, but academics might.

Mr. Mankiw,

With all due respect, you are spreading a highly damaging myth by using yourself as an example.

As an academic, writer, and teacher, it’s safe to assume that you’re motivated by thoughts and ideas.  Your concept of the legacy that you want to leave most likely is propelled by thinking about the innovative thoughts that can impact and shift the way that economics are considered in the general public, and not about how much money is in the bank when you die.  You say yourself that you “don’t aspire for much more than a typical upper-middle-class lifestyle.”

You have fought hard to get to your position of success as a Harvard professor – but please consider that most of the people who are in the top 5% of income-earners do not define success in the same way that you do.  Please consider these two (cliche) quotes from two “titans of industry”:

“Life is a game. Money is how we keep score.” – Ted Turner 


“After a certain point, money is meaningless. It ceases to be the goal. The game is what counts.”  – Aristotle Onassis

When people are playing a game, they simply want to achieve the highest score.  It doesn’t really matter how the rules are defined – because a basketball player scores more points per game than a soccer player does not make him a superior athlete.  They are simply playing games with different rules. 

The athlete, like the titan of industry or the academic, is motivated by a level of mastery.  Most successful people define themselves by comparison to others within their field – we want to “best” our competition, to emerge victorious – this could easily be wrapped into a larger discussion of human nature emerging from a competitive biological drive motivated by natural selection.  The difference is that the “titan of industry” keeps score through money – the Forbes list of the richest people springs to mind.

Why would someone who has worked exclusively to attain vast sums of wealth simply stop?  The wealthy people I’ve known who have “worked their way up” do not have a sense of “enough” – they want to see simply how much they can attain before they reach retirement.  It’s the same motivation that I see with people playing video games – the quest to see if they can beat the high score of the other people who play the same game.  In the case of the financially-motivated, the higher the bank balance, the higher the quality of lifestyle.  In our consumer-driven world, there is no end to the status symbols that can be attained  – and consequently no end to the desire to attain them.

By using yourself as an example, you promote an idea which resonates with “normal” Americans who are not exclusively motivated by money. Most people are not titans of industry, and have not had direct access to the minds of the uber-wealthy.  Most people aspire to a sense of “enough” – they desire security for themselves and their children, and probably a place of contentment – the noble “pursuit of happiness” that we are told we are entitled to as Americans.

The myth that you are spreading becomes dangerous because you attach it to economic policy – and your position at Harvard and the nature of an op-ed piece in the NY Times lends credibility to your views.  The problem is that our policy is not shaped by people who have a sense of “enough” – many of our past presidents and global leaders of the past 300 years have reminded us of the dangers of big banks and the military-industrial complex who simply will not stop seeking wealth until they die.  In its ideal, our government exists to protect “average people” from those who would do them harm in the quest of attainment.

Our legislative process determines the “rules of the game” that the uber-wealthy play – but these “rules” are felt by average people as the economic policy that shapes our lives.  Is it realistic to assume that a titan of industry would withdraw from the game simply because it was a little harder to increase his or her wealth?  No more realistic than believing that Michael Jordan would have stopped playing basketball if they moved the net an inch higher.  It simply increases the challenge, which whets the appetite of the ambitious person, not drives him or her away.

Good fiscal policy requires more than just increased taxes on the wealthy.  There are many challenges that we face as a country, and our sharpest minds should be attuned towards solutions.  I would ask you to consider the mentality of the people who drive and shape our economic policy, and put yourself aside.  I think that if you do, you’ll find that you do not share the same motivations as those who would seek only money.  You probably have more in common with hard-working Americans who simply want to provide a better quality of life for their children and their communities than those who would stop at nothing to attain vast sums of wealth.

Please consider the ramifications of spreading the idea that rich people would stop working if taxes were higher.  The net impact of the myth that you are spreading will be harmful to the policy that results.

Thank you for your consideration.


Aaron McManus



—– update: 10/15/10 I received an email reply thanking me for my comment, which was certainly gracious of Mr. Mankiw.