In the past few months, we’ve heard more than ever about economic inequality. This increased awareness is a breath of fresh air, but it’s not enough by itself. We can’t just point out the existence of inequality. We must uproot the ideological underpinnings that support it. No matter how unequal wealth and income are, if people can rationalize it in their minds as the result of some working harder or being more virtuous than others, then our efforts to rein in inequality will fall flat
Yes, CEO salaries continue to soar while the rest of America futilely spins its tires in an economic ditch. Yes, our nation is facing a new Gilded Age where the top one percent holds as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined. But for those hard-liners on the other side – and a significant chunk of swing voters in the middle – the retort is, “So what!? If they earned it, they should be able to keep it!”
But did they, as individuals, really earn it? That’s a key question we explore in our forthcoming book, The Self-Made Myth, which offers a more honest story of financial success in the US. We explore how those who have achieved such success did so not just because of hard work, but also with the help of luck, privilege, and the shared investments we all paid for in our nation’s transportation systems, schools and universities, publicly-funded research, courts, and more.
Elizabeth Warren brought this theme closer to the spotlight last year when she said, “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own… You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for… You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God bless! Keep a Big Hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” President Obama gave credence to this very idea in numerous instances throughout his recent State of the Union address.
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In writing The Self-Made Myth, we interviewed a refreshing breed of business leaders who readily acknowledge the role that government plays in making their business success possible. Kim Jordan, CEO of New Belgium Brewing, speaks of the roads that carry their Fat Tire beer around the nation. Glenn Lloyd of City Fresh Foods and Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream speak of the confidence provided by food safety regulations. Thelma Kid, co-founder of David-Kidd Booksellers in Tennessee, speaks of the SBA loan she got as a woman entrepreneur breaking through the glass ceiling.
They worked hard, no doubt, and were often lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time. But their success was magnified many times over through the work of their employees, and by leveraging the vast infrastructure created through our tax dollars. In acknowledging the role that government plays in making their business success possible, these entrepreneurs make a strong case for why they should pay more in taxes. It’s not about “punishing success.” It’s about a responsibility to pay it forward.
If we are to translate the newfound awareness of extreme inequality into lasting social change, we have to go after the rationalizing arguments that have permeated our public dialogues. President Obama had it right when he closed the State of the Union with the words, “No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other's backs.” As many have said, and as Obama echoed in his speech, “we are all in this together.” That has to include those at the very top.