Published on Wednesday, September 29, 2004 by the Cape Cod Times
'It Takes a Village to Raise a Billionaire'
by Sean Gonsalves
Did you see the new Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans? Well, there's a stunning revelation lurking beneath the surface of what that list celebrates; something directly relevant to the race for the White House.
According to the Bush world view, in so far as Bush administration policies disproportionately serve the rich based on the hidden assumption that the rich earn their wealth all by themselves and therefore they have minimal, if any, tax obligations, the Judeo-Christian tenet "to whom much is given, much is required" can only be regarded as "evil socialism."
I guess you could call that ironic, seeing as how the president claims that Jesus is his favorite political philosopher, which has apparently convinced a good number of "Bible-believing" Christians that he's their man.
For those who understand the difference between ad hominem personal attacks and legitimate critical analysis of presidential policies, consider the views of the guy who's No. 2 on the Forbes 400 list - billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
Sure, he "earned" all the material wealth he has acquired and he has done it by the book. But he's also honest enough to acknowledge what the "self-made" Horatio Alger myth-believers won't. There's no such thing as a "self-made" millionaire, billionaire or any other kind of aire.
Buffett points out that he attended a publicly supported state school, the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, and is crystal clear that his investment wealth depends on America's social and economic infrastructure.
"I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I've earned," Buffett told the folks at Responsible Wealth. "I happen to work in a market system that happens to reward what I do very well - disproportionately well."
H. Ross Perot Jr., No. 40 on the Forbes list, ought to be able to relate to what Buffett is saying.
Responsible Wealth points out that Perot expanded his company, Electronic Data Systems (later sold to General Motors), by focusing on computer systems and services for Medicare, a government-funded program.
The company's growth - and enormous profits - skyrocketed because it began re-selling the Medicare claims processing system it had developed for Texas Blue Cross under a research and development contract paid for by federal funds.
Responsible Wealth co-director Mike Lapham has a humorous way of putting it. "It takes a village to raise a billionaire. Every taxpayer deserves some credit for Forbes 400 wealth. Yet, while the Forbes 400 richest Americans are doing better this year, their collective wealth rose $45 billion since 2003. (But) median household income fell for the fourth year in a row last year."
RW's co-director Scott Klinger adds: "Some Forbes 400 billionaires want to pull up the ladder behind them. They received government help, but don't want anyone else to. The myth of self-made wealth is used to justify tax cuts for the rich and reduce public investment in the very institutions and infrastructure that not only enable more Americans to become wealthy, but are crucial to a strong and growing economy."
But don't take my word for it. Check it out for yourself. Lapham, Klinger and Chuck Collins analyze this stuff in a report called "I Didn't Do It Alone: Society's Contribution to Individual Wealth and Success." The report also highlights successful entrepreneurs who specifically acknowledge society's contribution to their riches. ("I Didn't Do It Alone" is available on the web at www.responsiblewealth.org/notalone
So let's connect the dots. As hard as this may be to swallow, this line of thinking directly challenges the "honest and straight-forward" Bush view. And it's far more substantive than character debates, pitting the "stay the course" iron-willed guy against the flip-flopper. Why? Well, like my grandfather says, "sometimes a good run is better than a bad stand."
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and a syndicated columnist.
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