DO YOU believe that your achievements in life are "all your
This idea pops up frequently in comments on articles about
inequality (like the one Malcom Sharara wrote on November 12): “Everything
I’ve got I worked for,” the commenters say, with the implied corollary that the
poor are just lazy and feckless.
We extend the concept readily to the very wealthy: “He
started out on the ground floor, he worked hard [...] and he made himself a ton
of money,” said a USA citizen earlier this year, about Mitt Romney.
Uh-uh. Puh-lease. Romney, like many a wealthy person,
started further away from the ground floor than the average middle class Joe.
ground floor, in my view, does not mean starting life with a daddy who is CEO
of an automobile company – in the 1950s, when automobile companies really meant
something in the States and in the world.
Few of the super-rich around the world have literally
started on the ground floor, even though their profiles say "self-made".
Consider Christo Wiese, for example: he is the 367th wealthiest person in the world, at the last count I can find.
helped to establish Pepkor, so after law school and practising at the Cape Bar
for a bit, there was an executive directorship at Pepkor to get him started on
the road to a fortune of $3.1bn.
Richard Branson’s father was a barrister and his grandfather
a judge. Carlos Slim Helu (the richest
man in the world, according to Forbes) was born to a father who started a dry
goods store and bought real estate, which brought him considerable wealth.
Batista, the wealthiest man in Brazil, is the son of a former minister of mines
and energy. And the "most successful investor of the 20th century",
Warren Buffett, is the son of a Republican representative.
Buffett has a pragmatic understanding of how his own
circumstances – and, more importantly, the enabling society that others had
created – gave him a head start.
“I personally think that society is
responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned. If you stick
me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru or someplace, you’ll find out how
much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil.
"I will be
struggling 30 years later,” he said in 1995.
Even someone who really did start a lot closer to the
proverbial "ground floor", like Patrice Motsepe, had some advantages that
perhaps the kids around him in Hammanskraal lacked: a father who ran a
successful grocery store, beer hall and restaurant, for starters, and an
education at a mission school and university.
The result of that early exposure
to business skills, and his education, can be seen in his first successes before black economic empowerment, when he built a business operating out of a briefcase due to lack
Really, ground floor is a myth. None of us achieves anything
entirely on our own: “The opportunities to create wealth are all taking
advantage of public goods – like roads, transportation, markets – and public
"We are all standing on the shoulders of all that came before us,
and creating a society for our children and those that come after us. We have
obligations as part of that,” says Jim Sherblom, venture capitalist and former
chief financial officer of Genzyme, a biotechnology company.
If you listen to much of the rah-rah commentary aimed at boosting
small business of late, you might get the impression that all of us should be
entrepreneurs, that entrepreneurship is the one and only great desirable.
that’s ridiculous. That’s like saying that the salespeople are the only raison d'être of a company – when in fact each
company is a collaborative effort, making and managing to provide a product the
sales force can sell.
Likewise, each country is a collaboration. Its success
stories rely on the input of many different people over a lifetime and more.
each society, the business heroes – the Bransons and Buffetts – are the product
of and propped up by a zillion efforts that often won’t morph into anything
like wealth, or even acknowledgement.
Yeah, maybe the entrepreneurs have got
great drive and charisma, but where would they be without the teachers who gave
them language or arithmetic skills?
The reclusive inventors who created the
necessary technology; the labourers who maintain the power grid; the
journalists whose exposés keep society halfway honest; the healthcare workers
who nurse and treat their staff so they can work; the ditch-diggers and
tea ladies and many more?
“I am because you are,” remember?
That’s one of the reasons why inequality is the enemy: “... greater equality, as well as improving the wellbeing of the whole population, is also the key to national standards of achievement.” (The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Penguin.)
The better the life experiences
of the people who prop up and facilitate all those business success stories, in
terms of health, transport, education and the like, the more successes a
society can support.
So yes, those who’ve garnered wealth do have obligations –
to pay taxes (without cheating), for one, to make contributions to society, for
another, to give back to the matrix which made it all possible.
it’s time we stopped ennobling people who achieve wealth, purely for their
* Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor.