Challenging the Self-Made Myth

Challenging the Self-Made Myth

No one who has succeeded in America actually did it on his or her own.


Over the last thirty years, anti-government arguments by conservative pundits and politicians have gained prominence, and the rhetoric this 2012 campaign season seems more toxic than ever. Republicans are relentlessly pushing the notion that lower taxes, less regulation and small government (except for defense) will magically end the recession and create a better country, and “job creators” will lift all boats.

It’s BS. As Congressman Barney Frank recently said, “I’ve never seen a tax cut put out a fire. I’ve never seen a tax cut build a bridge.”

Americans benefit every day from government—from consumer protection to roads and bridges to food and safety regulation—even people who claim to hate an “activist government” are some of the prime beneficiaries of the safety net at a moment when there are still over four unemployed workers for every available job and nearly one in six Americans lives in poverty.

But the GOP has wagered its future on ruthlessly and relentlessly attacking government—it isn’t about to let reality get in the way of its crusade.

Republican presidential candidates are tripping all over one another trying to prove who will take the biggest axe to government the quickest. So Mitt Romney labels regulations “the invisible boot of government to bring us all down” and argues that “we need to get the federal government out of education.” Rick Santorum fearmongers about “the narcotic of government dependency,” and Gingrich plays to old myths and racial stereotypes as he spreads lies about food stamps—one of the bright spots of the safety net in terms of responding to the needs of the Great Recession.

Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy is spot on in writing of Republican presidential plans to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and FEMA, “So what happens when disaster strikes? Who comes to the rescue—the local church, the Rotary Club? Who ensures that our food is safe, the air and water clean?”

Understanding that government has always been fundamental to the success of individuals, businesses, communities and this nation is becoming a key issue in the 2012 election. Even if it must also be reclaimed from Super PACs, lobbyists, and Washington insiders, the problem isn’t “Big Government,” it’s Big Money capturing government.

No one has homed in on the need to reset the narrative on government more effectively than Elizabeth Warren who laid out her cogent argument simply and powerfully in a gritty video clip that went viral: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. You built a factory? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

President Obama, too, picked up on this theme in his State of the Union address when he said, “No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs.”

These ideas are reflected in a new book—The Self-Made Myth, by United for a Fair Economy’s Brian Miller and Mike Lapham. Former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich says, “This book challenges a central myth that underlies today’s anti-government rhetoric: that an individual’s success is the result of gumption and hard work alone. Miller and Lapham clearly show that personal success is closely tied to the supports society provides. Must reading for all who want to get our nation back on track.”

A central thesis of the book is that the greater an individual’s success, the greater his or her dependence on public infrastructure, public investment in research and innovation, and regulations and fair rules—all of which business leaders in the book cite as essential to their own accomplishments.

Indeed, the profiles of business people who recognize the important role government plays in their success are one of the great contributions of The Self-Made Myth. Kim Jordan, CEO of New Belgium Brewing, talks about the roads carrying Fat Tire beer around the nation. Glenn Lloyd of City Fresh Foods and Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream discuss the confidence provided by food safety regulations. Thelma Kid, co-founder of David-Kidd Booksellers in Tennessee, cites the importance of a Small Business Administration loan she received in helping her to break through the glass ceiling. The book also debunks the tiresome claims by the likes of Donald Trump, Ross Perot and the Koch Brothers that “self-made” means supporting a “you’re on your own” kind of politics and economy.

The 1 percenters profiled in this book are ready to stand with the 99 percent, and they aren’t alone. Co-author Lapham is founder of Responsible Wealth, a network of over 700 business leaders and wealthy individuals that advocate for more progressive taxation. There are also thousands of “high-road” businesses represented by the American Sustainable Business Council, devoted to a vibrant, just and sustainable economy. More than fifty local chambers of commerce have denounced or canceled memberships in the US Chamber because its hyper-corporatized ways fail to represent the values of small businesses and entrepreneurs who are connected and committed to their communities. What all of this means is there’s now a real and growing potential for new alliances between progressives and businesspeople who recognize that we are all in this together.

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