A little book with a powerful message, The Self-Made Myth, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham, appeared earlier this year. Let’s hope it doesn’t suffer the fate of the equally compelling Wealth and Our Commonwealth, by William H. Gates Sr. and Chuck Collins, published 10 years ago only to quickly vanish.
Odds are you may not have heard of either book, yet both convey a message that must be heard if we are to save a functioning democracy. Both books ought to play a role in the impending battle for the presidency because they touch on the fundamental principles on which this nation is governed.
Wealth and Our Commonwealth came out in the midst of the debate on whether to repeal the estate tax. It expressed the view of several hundred wealthy individuals who urged that the tax be kept. Their reasoning was simple. They had made their fortunes with the help of a government that provided the infrastructure and environment in which they could thrive. They didn’t grow rich solely by their own wit and perseverance. There was a silent partner, who deserved to inherit a portion of the estate.
Bruce Barlett of the Wall Street Journal evidently did not agree, as he wrote in his review, “The core is about the need to combat inequality and vilify those behind the movement to repeal the tax.” The central theme of the book was never mentioned. Rather, the goal of the review seems to have been to discourage anyone from even thinking of glancing at its pages.
In a sense, Wealth and Our Commonwealth was put on the WSJ shelf of banned books. The book disappeared and few were ever aware that hundreds of millionaires and billionaires had begged to be taxed.
But that is not the last such appeal. In response to a campaign to lower taxes on the wealthy, Garrett Gruener, the entrepreneur and founder of Act.com, in 2011 wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, titled, “I’m Rich; Tax Me More.” Gruener pointed out that a higher tax rate would have no effect on his business decisions: “None of my investments has ever been motivated by the rate at which I would have to pay personal income taxes.”
His rationale for taxing the rich more heavily concerned the equilibrium between supply and demand. “When inequality gets too far out of balance, the wealthy end up saving too much while the middle class can’t afford to spend much unless they borrow excessively … A thriving economy doesn’t just need investors; it needs people who can buy the goods and services businesses create.”
Gruener’s argument faded into the past, scarcely noticed. Such lack of attention brings me back to The Self-Made Myth, the latest effort of the wealthy, still begging to be taxed more. They do not give up easily. This book is an antidote to the Horatio Alger novels of the 19th century that reinforced the image of the hero who did it all on his own.
In The Self-Made Myth, successful entrepreneurs acknowledge the essential role of government in their success. A few chapter titles convey the spirit of the book: “Jerry Fiddler: Public Support for Education Helped Get Me Where I Am,” “Amy Domini: Regulation Makes My Industry Possible,” “Abigail Disney: Government Creates a Fertile Ground for Business.”
Even a CEO with a preposterous salary must admit he did not do it alone.
If we swallow the Horatio Alger myth, these corollaries follow by pure logic: First, government and its regulations should be reduced to free the “job creators.” Second, the poor are poor because they are lazy. Third, great inequality in wealth is just a reflection of comparative amounts of effort. Fourth, progressive taxes “punish success.” Fifth, efforts to secure fair wages are extortions from those who create wealth. Sixth, safety nets promote laziness.
This cluster of beliefs forms a myth believed even by those who are far from rich but hope that someday they too will rise high on the economic ladder.
Yet, when even the rich question the myth fostered by the novels of Horatio Alger and Ayn Rand, we should listen. The wealthy know what they are talking about. Hard facts. Nonfiction. They beg that we listen to them. At our peril we close our ears to their pleas and look away.
Must we wait for a new celebrated work of fiction, a novel that displays the consequences when government is expelled from almost every aspect of our life, reduced only to defending us from threats domestic and foreign? If we disregard Wealth and Our Commonwealth and Garrett Gruener and The Self-Made Myth, we may need such a novel to help us grasp at last what many of the rich have been asserting for a long time. The title is waiting: Atlas Shared.