Excerpts from the Self-Made Myth

Introduction

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.

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