ONTD Political

Book Review & Excerpt - The Self-Made Myth

6:24 pm - 04/28/2012
The Self-Made Myth: Debunking Conservatives' Favorite -- And Most Dangerous -- Fiction
A new book makes a strong case that nobody ever makes it on their own in America.
Source - Alternet
By Sara Robinson
April 25, 2012

The self-made myth is one of the most cherished foundation stones of the conservative theology. Nurtured by Horatio Alger and generations of beloved boys' stories, It sits at the deep black heart of the entire right-wing worldview, where it provides the essential justification for a great many other common right-wing beliefs. It feeds the accusation that government is evil because it only exists to redistribute wealth from society's producers (self-made, of course) and its parasites (who refuse to work). It justifies conservative rage against progressives, who are seen as wanting to use government to forcibly take away what belongs to the righteous wealthy. It's piously invoked by hedge fund managers and oil billionaires, who think that being required to reinvest any of their wealth back into the public society that made it possible is "punishing success." It's the foundational belief on which all of Ayn Rand's novels stand.

If you've heard it once from your Fox-watching uncle, you've probably heard it a hundred times. "The government never did anything for me, dammit," he grouses. "Everything I have, I earned. Nobody ever handed me anything. I did it all on my own. I'm a self-made man."

He's just plain wrong. Flat-out, incontrovertibly, inarguably wrong. So profoundly wrong, in fact, that we probably won't be able to change the national discourse on taxes, infrastructure, education, government investment, technology policy, transportation, welfare, or our future prospects as a country until we can effectively convince the country of the monumental wrongness of this one core point.

The Built-Together Realty

Brian Miller and Mike Lapham have written the book that lays out the basic arguments we can use to begin to set things right. The Self-Made Myth: The Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed is a clear, concise, easy-to-read-and-use summary that brings forward a far more accurate argument about government's central role in creating the conditions for economic prosperity and personal opportunity.

Miller, the executive director of United For a Fair Economy, and Lapham, a co-founder of UFE's Responsible Wealth project, argue that the self-made myth absolves our economic leaders from doing anything about inequality, frames fair wages as extortion from deserving producers, and turns the social safety net into a moral hazard that can only promote laziness and sloth. They argue that progressives need to overwrite this fiction with the far more supportable idea of the "built-together reality," which points up the truth that nobody in America ever makes it alone. Every single private fortune can be traced back to basic public investments that have, as Warren Buffet argues in the book, created the most fertile soil on the planet for entrepreneurs to succeed.

To their credit, Miller and Lapham don't ask us to take this point on faith. Right out of the gate, they regale us with three tales of famous "self-made" men -- Donald Trump, Ross Perot and the Koch brothers -- whose own stories put the lie to the myth. (This section alone is worth the price of admission -- these guys so did not make it on their own!) Once those treasured right-wing exemplars are thoroughly discredited, the middle of the book offers a welcome corrective: interviews with 14 wealthy Americans -- including well-known names like Warren Buffet, Ben Cohen, Abigail Disney, and Amy Domini -- who are very explicit about the ways in which government action laid the groundwork for their success. Over and over, these people credit their wealth to:

* An excellent education received in public schools and universities. Jerry Fiddler of Wind River Software (you're probably running his stuff in your cell phone or car) went to the University of Chicago, and started his computer career at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Bookseller Thelma Kidd got her start at Texas Tech and the University of Michigan. Warren Buffet went to the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Nebraska as an undergrad. And beyond that: several interviewees paid for their educations with federal Pell Grants and Stafford loans.

Over and over, the point gets made: public universities -- and the good public schools that feed them, and the funding programs that put them within financial reach -- have hatched millions of American entrepreneurs who might not have been fledged without that opportunity to get an education.

* The support of the Small Business Administration and other government agencies. Ben Cohen notes that almost all the business training he and Jerry Greenfield had came from extension courses at the University of Vermont and Penn State, and small brochures produced by the SBA. And as they spun up, they also got an Urban Development Action Grant from the federal government. Other interviewees started their businesses in incubators or other quarters provided or arranged by their local city governments.

* A strong regulatory environment that protected their businesses from being undercut by competitors willing to cut corners, and ensured that their manufacturing inputs are of consistently high quality. Glynn Lloyd of Boston's City Fresh Foods points out that nobody in the food business can get by without reliable sources of clean water; and that the USDA inspection process is an important piece of his quality control.

* Enforceable copyright and intellectual property laws that enabled them to protect good ideas. Abigail Disney recalls that her father, Roy Disney, and her Uncle Walt made and lost one great cartoon character -- Oswald the Rabbit -- because they didn't have copyright protection. They didn't repeat that mistake when Mickey Mouse was born three years later, launching the Disney empire.

* A robust system of roads, ports, airports, and mass transit that enabled them to reliably move their goods both within the US, and around the world. Kim Jordan of New Belgium Brewing (the makers of Fat Tire beer) points out that "Beer is heavy, and it needs to be transported in vehicles. Certainly, the highway system has been important to New Belgium Brewing." Lloyd also points out that Boston's excellent public transit system enables him to draw on a far wider employee base.

* The government's role in creating the Internet, without which almost no modern company can function. Anirvan Chatterjee built Bookfinder.com (now a subsidiary of Amazon.com), the world's biggest online used-book marketplace, as an entirely Internet-based company -- an achievement that wouldn't have been remotely imaginable without DARPA, the establishment and enforcement of common protocols, and significant congressional investment in the 1980s to take the Internet commercial.

* The ability to issue public stock in a fair, reliable, regulated marketplace -- a benefit that raised the value of several interviewees' companies by about 30 percent overnight. Peter Barnes, founder of Working Assets, spoke with concern about the loss of trust in this system over the past decade. "The corporate scandals [Enron and Worldcom] caused people to stop trusting the numbers that companies were reporting. Imagine how much value is created by trust and the whole system that assures that trust?"

Besides the government, most of those interviewed also locate their companies in the context of a large community of customers they utterly depend on for their success. "It takes a village to raise a business," says Nikhil Arora of Back to the Roots, a sustainable products company that came about through partnerships and grants from UC Berkeley, Peet's Coffee and other interested parties.

Others are quick to acknowledge the contributions of their employees, without whom their companies wouldn't exist. When Gun Denhart and her husband sold their company, children's clothier Hanna Andersson, in 2003, they distributed a healthy portion of the sale proceeds to their employees, prorated on the basis of their length of service.

All businesses exist within a vast network of human connections -- customers, vendors, employees, investors, and the communities that support their work. These stories make it clear: saying you did it all yourself and therefore don't owe anybody anything is about as absurd (and self-centered) as saying that you raised yourself from babyhood, without any input from your parents, and therefore don't have any further obligations to your family.

The Role of Luck and Timing

We all know wealth isn't just a matter of hard work, brains or talent. Most of us probably know hard-working, brilliant, or extraordinarily talented people who aren't being rewarded at anything close to their true value. So perhaps the most intriguing and useful part of the book is a long discussion of the many other essential factors that go into making someone wealthy -- factors that are blithely brushed off the table whenever the self-made myth is invoked.

Rich conservatives have to downplay the role of luck. After all, if we think they're just lucky, rather than exceptionally deserving of exceptional wealth, we'll be a lot more justified in taxing their fortunes. But luck -- the fortunate choice of parents, for example, or landing in the right job or industry at the right time -- plays a huge role in any individual's success. Timing also matters: most of the great fortunes of the 19th century were accumulated by men born during the 1830s, who were of an age to capitalize on the huge economic boom created by the expansion of the railroads after the Civil War. Likewise, the great tech fortunes almost all belong to people born between 1950 and 1955, who were well-positioned to create pioneering companies in the tech boom of the late 1970s and 1980s. Such innovative times don't come along very often; and being born when the stars lined up just so doesn't make you more entitled. It just makes you luckier.

Because Americans in general like to think we're an equal society, we're also quick to discount the importance of race, gender, appearance, class, upbringing, and other essential forms of social capital that can open doors for people who have it -- and close them on those who don't. The self-made myth allows us to deflect our attention from these critical factors, undermining our determination to level the playing field for those who don't start life with a pocket fat with advantages.

What Changes?

The book winds up with specific policy prescriptions that can bring the built-together reality back into sharper political and cultural focus. The last section shows how abandoning the self-made myth for a built-together reality creates fresh justification for a more progressive income tax, the repeal of the capital gains exemption and raising corporate and inheritance taxes. It also makes a far more compelling philosophical backdrop against which progressives can argue for increased investment in infrastructure, education, a fair minimum wage, a strong social safety net, and better anti-discrimination laws.

But the most striking thing about the book -- implicit throughout, but explicit nowhere -- was the alternative vision of capitalism it offers. Throughout the book, Miller and Lapham seem to be making the tacit case that businesses premised on the built-together reality are simply more fair, more generous, more sustainable, and more humane. While far from perfect (Disney's empire being one case in point), they are, as a group, markedly more aware of the high costs of exploiting their workers, their customers, the economy, or the environment. Owners who believe themselves to be beholden to a community for their success will tend to value and invest back into that community, and they seem to be far more willing to realize when they've got enough and it's time to start giving back.

The implication is clear: if we can interrupt American's long love affair with the self-made myth, we will effectively pull the center tent pole out from under the selfish assumptions that shelter most of the excesses of corporate behavior that characterize our age. This isn't just another point of contention between progressives and conservatives; it's somewhere near the very center of the disconnect between our worldviews. The Self-Made Myth is an essential primer that gives us the language and stories to begin talking about this difference, and the tools to begin to bend that conversation in some new and more hopeful directions.

Source - United for a Fair Economy


Today we find ourselves facing the lingering effects of the Great Recession. Unemployment is still near double-digit levels. Homes are still being foreclosed upon in record numbers. Banks are still not lending. Despite the enormous challenges we face, our nation seems unable or unwilling to come together and solve the serious problems before us. Instead we are caught in an intractable battle between two opposing views for solving the economic crisis we are in, each arguing that their policy solution is more fair, morally justified, and, in the end, more effective.

We believe that a large part of why we have such differing views in the realm of economic policy is because we have such divergent views on where individual success and wealth come from. In this book we explore a deeply held belief in our society— the myth of the “self-made man,” or what we are calling the self- made myth—and we offer an alternative that we believe is more honest and complete: the built-together reality. These conflicting paradigms are summarized in the table on the following pages (see “At a Glance: The Myth vs. the Reality”). It is our hope that by coming to a deeper understanding of the origins of individual wealth and success, we can begin to achieve greater agreement on solutions to the economic crisis we are in and point the way toward a new era of broadly shared prosperity.

The Self-Made Myth
The self-made myth is the assertion that individual and business success is the result of the personal characteristics of exceptional individuals, such as hard work, creativity, and sacrifice, with little or no outside assistance. Those who subscribe to this myth do so only by ignoring the contributions of society, the supports made possible through governmental action, any head start a person may have received, and just plain old luck. If this were purely a matter of ego and self-delusion, it would not warrant such a book, but the perpetuation of the self-made myth has profound and destructive impacts on our views of government and the public policy debates of our times.

Implications of the Self-Made Myth and the Anti-Government Narrative It Supports
In writing this book, we do not discount the fact that a person, through hard work, creativity, and short-term sacrifice, can better his or her position in life. In most cases one can. To assert that success is entirely the result of such individual character traits, with little or no help from others or society, however, has a corrupting impact on our policy debates. How we view the creation of wealth and individual success has a profound influence on our choices of policies to embrace. It shapes our views on taxes, regulations, public investments in schools and vital infrastructure, the legitimacy of extravagant CEO pay, and more.

The Built-Together Reality
We believe the time has come to re-examine how businesses succeed and individual wealth is created. In doing so we develop a more complete picture, one that includes the important role of hard work but also takes into account the role of others and the many roles of government in laying the foundation for business success. We call this more rounded and honest understanding the built-together reality of individual and business success. In short, the built-together reality asserts that individual and business success is built through hard work but also taxpayer-supported schools, roads, and courts; the contributions of others; and chance factors like luck, historical timing, and various head starts in life.

[T]his book draws primarily from the first-person real-life stories of entrepreneurs, business leaders, and other high- wealth individuals, using their own words. Through their stories, and a few facts we included for good measure, we seek to establish a more balanced understanding of the true sources of individual wealth and business success. Their stories paint a much different picture than the self-made myth. In addition to the importance of hard work, creativity, and short-term sacrifice to their business success, they talk of the contributions of co-founders, colleagues, and employees; the role public investments play in wealth building; the role of government rules and regulations that provide a stable framework for business to operate and thrive; and additional factors such as inheritance, privilege, and luck. This is the essence of the built-together reality.

Implications of the Built-Together Reality and the Public Investment Imperative It Supports
By acknowledging the various factors contributing to wealth creation, the built-together reality lays the foundation for a more honest debate about the issues of our time. The built-together reality acknowledges the way public investments in our shared prosperity lift us all, including entrepreneurs and business leaders. By this view government plays an important role in building a foundation upon which individual and business success is possible, by investing in schools, transportation, and more; by sowing the seeds of innovation; and by ensuring stable rules of the road. With the built-together reality and the public investment imperative that flows from it in clear view, our views on a host of issues and policy choices shift in dramatic ways.

Excerpts from the Profilees

Jerry Fiddler: Public Support for Education Helped Get Me Where I Am

Jerry Fiddler was co-founder, CEO, and chairman of Wind River Systems in Alameda, California. Now a mentor, an investor, and a professor of entrepreneurship, he helps entrepreneurs start new businesses.

“One of the things people don’t talk about is how much we really rely on government institutions to maintain a fair playing field. Entrepreneurship is an equalizer, a way that people who aren’t wealthy can become more wealthy, can become more independent, and in the process can provide a huge amount of benefit to society as a whole. But we live in a society right now that is going in exactly the opposite direction. The disparity in wealth between the bottom and the top is growing dramatically, and the middle class is being squeezed out.

All of us, but especially entrepreneurs, rely on the government’s role of creating a level playing field, and people like the SEC and the FTC [Federal Trade Commission] and other regulating agencies are critical to entrepreneurship. Large business interests obviously put huge effort into lobbying, much of it into reducing regulation, but for small businesses, for startups, that regulation is important. The only way that you can have a healthy startup economy is if you have a level playing field that allows those companies to come into being and to compete, and that has to come back to some level of regulation; the government has to be regulating.

And then there’s the rest of the infrastructure that we need—the roads and the railroads, transportation and information infra- structure that makes wealth creation possible in this country.

To take it up to a higher level, as a country we are absolutely the envy of the world in terms of the intellectual horsepower we put together—the creativity, the technology, the leadership. Why is that here? To me much of it is a product of the entrepreneurial system and of the immigrants who prized education, learning, and initiative. But most of all, it’s a product of the public education system.”

Thelma Kidd: Taxes Are Just the Price of Doing Business
Thelma Kidd is the co-founder of Davis-Kidd Booksellers, which grew to four stores across Tennessee, employing more than 200 people before being sold to another independent bookseller in 1997.

“Women have started, owned and inherited businesses in the United States since the founding of the country, yet official recognition and support for women’s enterprise development has been in existence only for the past 25 years . . .

The first federal government program to assist women’s business enterprises came as the direct result of lobbying from women business owners. Due to their efforts not only in lobbying the federal government but in urging the appointment of women in key agency positions, an interagency government task force was created, and a research study was conducted to review the status of women-owned firms in the US. The resulting report, “The Bottom Line: Unequal Enterprise in America,” documented some of the barriers that women faced in starting and growing their businesses. In response to the report, President Jimmy Carter issued an executive order in 1979 establishing an Office of Women’s Business Ownership within the US Small Business Administration.

Shortly thereafter, a pilot loan program was established, the office began working with federal procurement officials to get more women-owned businesses involved in selling goods and services to the government, and began reaching out to the women’s business community through speeches, conferences, and news releases.”

Glynn Lloyd: Transportation and Food Safety Regulations Help My Business
Glynn Lloyd is the founder of City Fresh Foods, a Boston- based food service and delivery company.

“Well, let’s talk about transportation. We’re a delivery company. We’re going 60 to 70 miles north, east, and south. So without roads, we have no business. We’re using back roads, side roads, and highways. Interesting enough, this was a tough year for us because we do a lot of the schools. Due to the heavy snow, we lost five days of school this year in terms of business, which is unheard of in the past few years. But there would have been a lot more if we didn’t have the infrastructure to clean the streets [and] put the salt down, which I know is very expensive, actually.

Water . . . clean water. We had the issue this year where there was a little concern around water contamination, and they shut it down. We had to pull our water from a different reservoir. And we had to literally boil all of our water here, and it took us back in time. I mean, you talk about taking for granted. I was saying, “What happens if you didn’t have water?” Well, we experienced it this past year. So, those are the basics. We treat it like the air that we breathe, but the reality is, without it, you’re out of business.”

The Self-Made Myth at Amazon
missmurchison 29th-Apr-2012 04:55 pm (UTC)
Yes, and bankruptcy is another Big Government thing. It's in the Constitution.
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