“They say they got where they are by working 60 hours a week for years,” my friend said (I’m paraphrasing). “They made it and they don’t see why they should pay anything to help other people who did not.”
It is a message my friend hears from doctors he knows. (This was one of those intense bar conversations, rapid-fire and wide-ranging. The kind you wish you had recorded to review again later.)
But the “I made it. Why can’t you?” view of capitalism is history written by the victors, isn’t it? An oversimplified success formula derived from too few data points, from too small a sample. We see the same kind of myopic analysis in the nation’s capital. From wealthy politicians surrounded by wealthy donors and wealthy lobbyists. Georgetown cocktail parties, high-dollar fundraiser dinners. When you and the people you hang with are all successful and rich, it is easy to question why everyone else is not. The problem must be them. That’s it, the poor are just lazy.
It’s not that most success doesn’t involve hard work and persistence. But as someone recently wrote, “Politicians can’t get past the idea that the only possible way to fail in America is if you sit back and do nothing.”
Yet the vast number of new startups fail each year. Estimates are all over the board (depending on what you count), but 3 out of 4 failing is not an outlier for new startups backed by venture capital. Half of small businesses fail in the first 5 years according to figures presented by Barry Ritholtz. Those odds don’t compute in an alternate universe where hard work by “risks-takers” guarantees success.
In this universe, watching a child keep trying and keep failing is one of the toughest challenges for a teacher. Obviously, the success formula is infallible. The problem must be the teacher.
In a world out of balance where the spread between rich and poor is at Gilded Age levels, it’s “I’m all right, Jack!” The Golden Rule and the Golden Mean are largely forgotten, as is the old proverb, “There but for the grace of god go I.” This makes “I made it. Why can’t you?” a kind of whistling past the graveyard view of our economy. It blithely ignores the casino aspects of capitalism that failed businesses and the families who owned them experience every year.
Our success formulas involve a certain degree of magical thinking. Victors are eager to share the simple, guaranteed formulas that worked for them and that anyone can copy. Some sell theirs late at night on cable TV. The uncle who hit it big at the slots in Vegas will tell his grandchildren the story of how he became the big winner years later. How he selected his machine. How he guarded it scrupulously. The wrist action he used to shove in dollars. The order he pressed the buttons. The lucky sweater. Most importantly, how persistence pays. The other uncle, the one who went bust and had to sell his watch to get home, will not be telling his grandchildren a similar story.
At a prayer meeting I once attended, a woman questioning her faith was upset that God had not answered her prayers. Another believer offered some handy, “battle tested and battle proven” advice.
“Did you plead the blood? You have to plead the blood.” (Or else the magic won’t work, she didn’t add.) Maybe she had unconfessed sin in her life, someone else offered. See, the distressed woman’s mistake wasn’t in treating the Bible as a book of spells, no. The problem was she wasn’t doing the incantations right. Because crank in a simple formula and the Creator of the Universe must jump out of his box on command, just like Jack.
Our thinking about our own wealth — and others’ lack of it — seems no less magical.
(Cross-posted from Scrutiny Hooligans.)
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