“Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple,” Barry Switzer said. It offers a sticky story, and one that’s true. (More)

Telling Our Stories, Part III: Born on Third Base (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature revisits Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick and their SUCCES checklist, to help us better communicate with voters. Thursday we discussed their first three points: Simple, Unexpected, and Concrete. Yesterday we considered their final three points: Credible, Emotional, Stories. Today we develop a sticky story about inequality and tax fairness for 2012.

The Forbes 400 List: Self-Made Success!

Each year, Forbes publishes their list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. The top 20 of the most recent list include Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison, George Soros, Sheldon Anderson, Michael Bloomberg, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, John Paulson, Michael Dell, and Steve Ballmer, along with the Koch brothers (tied at #4), the Walton family (#5, #9, #10, and #11), and the three Mars siblings (tied at #20). That’s eight computer and internet innovators, three financiers, a casino developer, and nine family business heirs.

Forbes likes to focus on individual achievement. Last year’s version of that story was titled The Self-Made Billionaire Entrepreneurs Who Said No To College. The story cites only a handful did not attend college at all, and includes one member who completed a four-year degree but dropped out of law school. It also includes Mark Zuckerberg, who even the writer admits “would not have launched [Facebook] had he not enrolled at Harvard University.” Regardless, many of these stories seem to fit the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story that Forbes editors and readers like to believe is common enough to define the U.S. economy and the American Dream.

(But Usually With a Big Head Start)

But look at that top 20 list again. Of the 22 names, including ties, nine are family business heirs. That’s a trivially small sample, but it’s consistent with a 1998 study by United For a Fair Economy based on Forbes‘ 1997 top-400 list:

  • 42% Born on Home Plate – inherited sufficient wealth to rank among the Forbes 400. This percentage is higher than that listed by Forbes for inheritors. The reason: Forbes listed as “self-made” people who actually inherited substantial sums or property and then later built that stake into a greater fortune. One example is Philip Anschutz (1997 net worth: $5.2 billion) who is listed as “self-made” even though he inherited a $500-million oil and gas field.
  • 6% Born on Third Base – inherited substantial wealth in excess of $50 million or a large and prosperous company and grew this initial fortune into membership in the Forbes 400.
  • 7% Born on Second Base – inherited a medium-sized business or wealth of more than $1 million or received substantial start-up capital for a business from a family member.
  • 14% Born on First Base – biography indicates wealthy or upper-class background that was to our knowledge less than $1 million, or received some start-up capital from a family member. Due to the study team’s conservative coding rule, it is likely that some of those listed as born on first base actually belong on second or third base.
  • 31% Born in Batter’s Box – individuals and families whose parents did not have great wealth or own a business with more than a few employees.

Although the methodologies and specific questions differed, the 1997 UFE report was generally consistent with a 2007 Treasury Department Report on Income Mobility, and a November, 2011 report by John Silvia and an economic team from Wells Fargo. The shape of these data also fit what Alan Krueger calls the Great Gatsby Curve, showing that greater income inequality correlates to less economic mobility. Canadian economist Miles Corak offers both a graph and a sound theoretical defense of that theory and concludes, “Krueger gets the facts right.”

Facts Are Not Enough

All of these data suggest that already having wealth makes it far easier to acquire more wealth. But facts – statistics consistent with predictions of economic theory – are not enough, as commenter Chris Talerico noted:

A very interesting piece from a non-economists perspective, but I think you have pretty well established why economics can’t be used to solve social problems. Even well established ideas like the Gatsby Curve are meaningless if anyone with an opposing opinion can invalidate it in the public’s eyes by raising a few, already addressed, criticisms. The same thing happen in the more scientific field of biology, so what chance does economics have?

Does economics lead us toward the truth? Maybe, but much like religion its only in the mind of the individual. For those who choose to believe it is true, for those who don’t, it is not.

While many people’s opinions may be as fixed as Talerico implies, not all are. We saw last fall how the Occupy movement changed the political narrative, from a focus on deficits and debt to a focus on income inequality, tax fairness, and opportunity. To continue that and earn the support of Fred, our archetypal median voter, we can’t rely on statistics and theory. We need stories, and more specifically, we need….

A Story of Fairness

For the past two days, we discussed Chip and Dan Heath’s stickiness checklist – Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories – and what each of those concepts means. With those in mind, here’s a story about fairness:

Retired football coach Barry Switzer once said, “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” That’s true, and it makes sense if you think about another game we all know: Monopoly.

In that game, everyone plays by the same rules, and everyone starts in the same place: on Go, with $1500, and no property. From there, everyone takes turns rolling the dice and making decisions. It helps to get lucky, or not get too unlucky, but it also helps to make the best decisions you can. Everyone has a fair chance to win.

But in real life, the Monopoly game started long before you were born. As a child, you follow your parents around the board. You shared their opportunities. You shared their problems. You grew up and got your own game token, but as for where you started and with how much … most of that depended on your parents.

Republicans say the game is fair because everyone plays by the same rules, rolls the dice, and makes their decisions. But when the most important decision in the game is who your parents are … that’s not a decision at all. That’s being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple.

When Democrats talk about income inequality and tax fairness, it’s not about envy or socialism. It’s not about making sure everyone gets the same outcome. It’s about making sure the outcome isn’t decided … before you start playing.

How would you score that story on the Heath brothers’ checklist? How would you improve it?


Happy Saturday!