All my own work, huh?

Nov 19 2012 07:07
* Mandi Smallhorne
DO YOU believe that your achievements in life are "all your own work"?

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.

The 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.

His parents 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.

Eike 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 of funds.

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 investments...

"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.

But 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.

In 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.

And perhaps it’s time we stopped ennobling people who achieve wealth, purely for their wealth.

- Fin24

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.


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mandi smallhorne  |  inequality



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