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Morning Feature – The Self-Made Myth, Part III: Fairness Is Not Class Warfare (Non-Cynical Saturday)

May 5, 2012

Morning Feature

Morning Feature – The Self-Made Myth, Part III: Fairness Is Not Class Warfare (Non-Cynical Saturday)

Many responsible wealthy Americans support efforts to foster a fairer economy, and progressive Democrats should enlist their voices. (More)

The Self-Made Myth, Part III: Fairness Is Not Class Warfare (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looks at Brian Miller and Mike Lapham’s new book The Self-Made Myth. Thursday we considered how the “self-made man” myth of the Horatio Alger stories morphed into the “makers vs. takers” meme of Ayn Rand and her followers. Yesterday we saw stories that illustrate what Miller and Lapham call “The Built-Together Reality.” Today we conclude with how “The Build-Together Reality” calls for different policies to support innovation and entrepreneurship.

Brian Miller is the executive director of United for a Fair Economy. Over the past 20 years, Miller has worked to build cross-class alliances of citizens from all walks of life – business leaders, workers, family farmers, seniors, students, and others – to work together for change, promoting healthy communities and an economy that works for all Americans.
 Mike Lapham is the founding director of Responsible Wealth, a project of United for a Fair Economy. Responsible Wealth amplifies the voices of more than 700 progressive business leaders and other affluent individuals in public policy debates to promote progressive tax policy and greater corporate accountability in Congress, in the media, and in corporate boardrooms.

Motivational Speaker Syndrome

Google {keys to success} and you’ll get over 32 million hits, including many books and lectures by motivational speakers. Many are sincere and based on interviews with successful people, such as ABC’s 20/20 episode titled Who Wants to be a Billionaire? 20 Keys to Success from the Superrich. Miller and Lapham quote a simpler version by J. Paul Getty: “Formula for Success: rise early, work hard, strike oil.” In terms of personal motivation, such bromides are useful. They encourage us to find what we do well, learn to do it as well as we can, look past immediate satisfaction to long-term goals, and other success-enabling attitudes and behaviors. It’s easy to ‘get’ that doing these things will improve our chances to succeed, and that’s why the Self-Made Myth is so attractive.

But not all successful people rise early and work hard, nor do all of them practice all 20 of the keys offered by the billionaires on 20/20. Far more important, tens of millions of other people in the U.S. and around the world do rise early and work hard – and practice those 20 keys – yet never achieve financial success. The Self-Made Myth may be useful for personal motivation, but it’s still a myth and when we base policy on that myth, we fall for what I’ll call Motivational Speaker Syndrome: focusing on individual attitudes and behaviors as if improving those were enough to ensure prosperity.

The Wealth of the Commons

While Miller and Lapham acknowledge that successful entrepreneurs do work hard and make sacrifices, they also recognize that:

Try as we may, it is simply impossible to completely untangle the contributions of the individual from those of society in making individual success possible. The entrepreneurs and the business leaders profiled in this book have all benefited, both personally and in their business activities, from the investments and structures made possible through governmental action. The personal testimonies of these successful individuals are a powerful rejection of the self-made myth in the United States.
[...]
In addition to the central role of government, there are nongovernmental actors that contribute to individual success. Images of community barn raisings come to mind as do the supports that many receive through our deep and rich network of nonprofit organizations. Even these nonprofit organizations, however, are supported in part by special provisions of the U.S. tax code. Any comprehensive understanding of individual success must take these societal contributions into account.

As we saw yesterday, well-regulated markets account for 30-50% of a publicly-owned company’s value, as measured both by what happens when a privately-held company goes public and by what happens when key regulations are repealed or ignored and the market confidence fails. Add the value of other hard and soft infrastructure – roads, ports, utilities, law enforcement and emergency services, education, scientific research, intellectual property and contract law, and of course the internet – and most of the wealth in the United States is created by the commons: shared resources and institutions created and/or maintained primarily by government.

Qui Bono?

That Latin phrase translates to “for the benefit of whom,” and it’s an important question to ask about the commons. As Miller and Lapham note, while no individual created or maintains the commons, those shared resources and institutions do not benefit everyone equally. For much of our nation’s history, women and non-whites were excluded from many of those benefits and the authors acknowledge that “Race, gender, class, birthright, and other factors still weigh heavily on one’s prospects in life.” They add that “Even though the story of the self-made man is a myth, we should not cease striving to create the conditions under which every American has a real opportunity to succeed in this world, free of the societal barriers that privilege some groups over others.”

Miller and Lapham also recognize the role of luck:

For every successful business person who rose early and worked hard, there are thousands of others who rose equally early and worked equally hard, but their work did not pay off with the same level of success due to factors beyond their control. An awareness of the randomness of luck should give us pause when we elevate some above others, as though their relative success and wealth is a measure of their work ethic, risk taking and inventiveness and somehow suggests a lack of effort on the part of others.

And they add the issue of historical timing, which can seem like another form of luck:

Unlike true luck, however, timing is often a reflection of public policies of the era. Those who came of age during the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s – when unions were strong and the government was making massive investments in the United States and its citizens – had significantly more economic opportunity (provided they were white and male) than those entering the workforce now, amidst the Great Recession and a significantly weakened public sector following 30 years of tax cutting for the wealthy.

To argue that fairness is defined by market outcomes, as Mitt Romney does, is to ignore the structures that allow a privileged few to capture most of the benefits from the vast wealth of the commons.

And Many Wealthy People Agree

Although opt-in online polls are weak evidence, one such survey conducted by the Spectrem Group found that 68% of millionaires support tax increases for those earning more than $1 million per year. United for a Fair Economy’s Responsible Wealth project is:

[A] network of over 700 business leaders and wealthy individuals in the top five percent of income and/or wealth in the U.S. As beneficiaries of economic policies tilted in their favor, these individuals advocate for fair taxes and corporate accountability. Their message is simple, and surprising to some: we can afford to pay more; we don’t need any more tax breaks.

Members of Responsible Wealth recognize that their own prosperity and success would not be possible without the foundation of a strong public education system, an effective transportation network, a strong legal system and more. RW members are bound by their commitment to supporting the public investments from which they have greatly benefited.

The policies advocated by Responsible Wealth members include a more progressive income tax, taxing capital gains and dividends as earned income, extending the estate tax, and ensuring that corporations pay their fair share. United for a Fair Economy and Responsible Wealth also advocate investment in rebuilding our infrastructure, both hard infrastructure such as roads, bridges, ports, and utilities and soft infrastructure such as support for public education and scientific research.

And they recognize that social safety nets and an economic floor, rather than the “moral hazard” argued by conservatives, help encourage the entrepreneurship and innovation our nation needs:

One fact that may surprise many readers is that Europe, with its more expansive welfare state and universal health care, has a much higher rate of small business ownership than does the United States. Only about 7% of Americans are self-employed, compared with 9% of French, 12% of Germans, and 26% of Italians. Even when measured by small (fewer than 20 employees) and medium-sized (fewer than 500 employees) firms, the United States is at or near last among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations.

Finally, Miller and Lapham write:

If you are a progressive activist or community leader, challenge those in your group who may instinctively, and mistakenly, assume that all business leaders are against you. Some are, but many others are not. Seek out the business leaders in your community with an open mind and foster cross-class alliances that build greater political power and, ultimately, help better all of our communities. When you see local business leaders speaking out in favor of funding important public services, let them know they are not alone. Applaud their leadership and build new relationships where you can.

A fairer economy is not about “class warfare.” It’s about recognizing that most of our nation’s wealth is created by the commons, and advocating policies that maintain and build that commonly-created wealth to benefit all of “We the People.”

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Happy Saturday!


  • addisnana

    The higher rates of small business ownership in Europe did surprise me. I’d guess that having national health care relieves people of wondering if they go off to start a business and they or someone in their family gets ill they won’t go bankrupt with medical bills.

    I don’t think all business is bad. I spent my career there and met some fine progressives and some caring and compassionate people. The Citizen’s United Decision and the 2008 Financial crash combined with the Koch brothers I think has left main street needing something or someone to blame. Some business people do deserve blame but others not. Blame tends to paint with a broad brush.

    Another thing. Once upon a time the term “self-made man” meant that the person had not inherited a pile of money. That distinction plays well into the rugged individualism meme. When the terms of the discussion change to the support of the commons, the definition changes too. I have found in discussing this that clarifying the definition makes the discussion much easier.

  • winterbanyan

    It is very clear that, given the number of people who work awfully hard and strive for success, a lot of things play a role over which an individual has no control. None of us is ever a solitary actor.

    So many things can affect success, things which are part of the commons and forces beyond out control. For the little guy, success can evaporate in a virtual instant, either because of job loss, a bad economy, or because the city chose to build a road right in front of your business and your customer base starts evaporating. And that’s just a short list.

    What the very wealthy too often fail to realize is that most of us out here work very hard. We just don’t have the cushion they have to get us through when something tanks. But they should also recognize that their success would evaporate, too, if the “little guys” weren’t available to provide all the labor they need.

    Glad to see some are realizing they have a responsibility to the commons, and to the rest of us.

    Sorry for the rambling comment. So many thoughts flooded my head as I read, and I’m having trouble pulling it together.

    I guess what it comes down to is “Don’t pat your own back. Thank everyone who helped you and remember, none of us really does it alone.”

  • NCrissieB

    Just a brief comment before I dash off to work at my county’s Democratic caucus today:

    Please buy and read The Self-Made Myth. It’s a short book, only about 180 pages, but it’s chock full of wonderful stories from successful business people who recognize the huge role of the commons in their success. Miller and Lapham make those stories most of the book, because they recognize that stories are stickier than lists of facts. (Although they do provide some factual analysis as well.)

    As progressive Democratic activists, we must learn and tell these kinds of stories.

    Good morning! ::hugggggs::