We recently celebrated the Fourth of July, when we celebrate American independence and the success of the colonists’ desire to be self-ruling. The United States was the first of England’s many colonies to gain its independence, something that would not be repeated until Canada broke away nearly a century later. It’s a testament to Americans’ individualistic, rugged, bold ways.
But we didn’t do it alone. We couldn’t do it alone. Despite George Washington’s exceptional instincts, the Continental Army simply didn’t have the money, men, training or ships needed to defeat the British. So they were lucky to have the French, who were fuming after losing almost all their territory to the British in the French and Indian War. The French pummeled the British at sea, gave the Americans weapons and sent soldiers to fight on US soil. It’s no coincidence the treaty ending that war was signed in Paris.
These facts are often lost in the myth of America’s origin. We like to talk of “self-made” individualists who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. We’re told it’s a place where anyone can be president and we can achieve anything if we work hard enough. It’s something like Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, where every child is above average. But of course, the truth is a little different.
All wealthy Americans achieved their status with the help of other people. It may have been parents who paid for their education, allowing them to start out without student loans. Or a grandmother who offers free childcare during work hours. Or a credit union that offered a favorable first business loan. Or taxpayers who help fund the transportation networks that allow them to get to work and ship products. At the root, it’s the productivity of thousands of workers who generate wealth and ultimately make possible a person’s “individual” advancement.
Last year, Forbes listed Bill Gates as the top self-made billionaire. That’s partially true in that he’s the wealthiest, by far. But he’s not entirely self-made. His father was able to become a lawyer through the federal (taxpayer-funded) GI Bill, which helped make it possible for Bill to attend an expensive private school. Bill Gates and Paul Allen first explored computing through the (also taxpayer-financed) University of Washington’s computer lab. His wife, Melinda, stayed home to take care of their children while Microsoft was a young company. Taxpayer-funded research created the Internet and built phone lines and other infrastructure, laying the groundwork for the personal computer revolution that made Microsoft huge.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying Bill Gates isn’t a genius or that he didn’t work hard for this success. But put a genius in the desert, alone, and what do you have? Society helped make Bill Gates rich. He and other wealthy individuals are the product of intergenerational and societal investments designed to build the common good.
That’s why it’s extremely dangerous when these societal investments are cut back and withdrawn. We can see it now with the prolonged debate over just how much the government is going to gut Medicaid and Medicare; or the long-overdue upgrades needed to our transportation networks; or the state Legislature’s unwillingness to fully-fund K-12 schools per the state Supreme Court’s order. We’re cutting up the social contract that creates an America where anyone can succeed.
You can’t get rich if you’re in bankruptcy from cancer treatments. You can’t succeed in business if your employees and customers can’t reach you. You can’t be a great employee — or come up with the next big business idea — if you don’t get a shot at a great education.
If we’re serious about keeping the promise of America, where upward mobility is available to everyone, we have to provide for education, transportation, healthcare, utilities and a myriad of other public good projects for the economy to thrive. And yes, that means paying taxes to fund those investments through our democratic institutions. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how good the cause is, it will fail without a support system.
Take a moment to recognize and remember that our community is what gives us the tools to succeed. Every day is Interdependence Day.
John Burbank is executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org). His e-mail address is email@example.com.