Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Do you have what it takes to be a billionaire?

What's your pedigree? Are you married to the right person? Do you have the right hobbies? Did you go to the right schools?

In its new listing of billionaires, Forbes magazine reinforces the myth that people get rich thanks to their character, sweat, and connections. Obviously, these assets increase the likelihood, but (writing for CommonDreams.org) Scott Klinger would like to remind us that the rich are often operating under a different set of rules than the rest of us.

Several of the wealthiest billionaires built their empires on public assets. People like Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and Steve Ballmer owe much of their wealth to the billions of government taxes invested in developing computer technology. Other billionaires, like the Walton family, pay their Walmart "associates" poverty wages, forcing them on public assistance to get by. Meanwhile, especially in the U.S., tax rates on the wealthy have plummeted, reflecting a shift in the obligations of the wealthy to the rest of society.

Klinger's article points out that the highest income tax rate fifty years ago was 91 percent. Today, the highest rate is 34 percent. Capital gains taxes have gone from 35 percent in 1979, to 15 percent today. But nobody actually paid those high rates. Instead, the government provided loopholes for people to lower their effective rates when they used their wealth productively. Moreover, inherent in those higher tax rates was a belief that people who make lots of money owe an incredible debt to the society that made that wealth possible. Thanks to the anti-government rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and corporate conservatives, the United States has fallen from the generous ideals of the greatest generation, to the self-indulgent vanity of the "me" generation.

The decline of the United States is being driven precisely by this increasing tendency to shift responsibility away from those who should really be held most responsible. Sure, we all have to assume responsibility for the choices we make, but the cruelty of the rules of the economic system ensure that the poor will be punished for their choices.

The same legal system benefits, and even protects, the wealthy. Note the changes to bankruptcy rules in just the last couple of weeks. You can have health insurance, require major health care, and lose your house in bankruptcy. The rich get to shelter their mansions in bankruptcy.

Here's what's wrong with the Forbes mentality. Not a single person on this planet makes anything of themselves, by themselves. The bootstrap theory of pulling yourself up out of hardship is only half of the story. Everyone requires a community of family, friends, and mentors to help them along. Everyone is a product of their education, upbringing, and the environment they grow up in. Most people who make it at something were given a chance by someone else.

From a legal and economic perspective, the concept of a "free market" is mythology. The capitalist system that allows people to risk investments in productive activities to generate a profit is not the law of the universe. It is a creation of human laws and institutions which guide the stream of benefits from particular activities. Because our culture values the opportunities and productive outcomes that can be achieved by unleashing people's business acumen, and rewarding their successes. But in that kind of a system, there are inevitably winners and losers.

The thing is, when you become something, when you make it to the top, when you strike it rich, you owe it to your community to give something back. The winners in a capitalist society need to realize that when they gain something from the system, they are obliged to give some of it back to keep the system healthy, because, ultimately, history demonstrates that there are alternatives, but none of them are very nice.

From those to whom much is given, much is expected.


At 3/24/2005 02:59:00 PM, Blogger Wirthy said...

I am missing the one key ingredient to become a billionaire: the billion dollars.

At 3/25/2005 10:30:00 AM, Blogger Schroeder said...

I saw a scribbled message on one of those flyer boards on Tulane's campus which read: "Your freedom is in direct correlation to the amount of money you have."

Sure, it's a trite slogan, but on second thought, I thought it merited a little more studied attention.


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