Can the One Percenters be redeemed?
Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good
Chuck Collins 2016
What do those who were born into wealth think about the whole inequality situation? Do they defend it- saying that they deserve everything that comes their way? Or do they feel secretly ashamed, knowing that they don't have to put an honest day's work like others do? Do they hoard their money and hide in gated communities, or do they reach out and try to help those less fortunate than themselves? Billionaire Warren Buffet has pledged to give away most of his money, but most one per-centers are not like Buffet. They set up complex trusts for their children and grandchildren and shield their money in overseas accounts to avoid paying taxes.
Barry Switzer's quote above gives an accurate picture of the dilemma of those who are fortunate at birth. Through no efforts of their own, many of the wealthiest wealthy find themselves surrounded by wealth and privilege at every turn. For them that is normal and the way things are. But they all have to reconcile that reality with the reality that they read about for those less fortunate. To explain this disparity, many of them resort to the born on third base fallacy- they think that they are innately better than others, and have earned what they have even though they haven't.
Chuck Collins is one of the one per-centers who decided to give it all away, and has written this book- Born on Third Base, that tackles some of the nasty tricks his fellow millionaires use to hold onto their money. Collins is the great grandson of Oscar Meyer, and his family has coasted on the meat company fortunes for generations. At the age of 26 he decided to give away most of his money at half a million dollars, and pursue a career as a writer and social justice advocate. This is one of ten books that Collins has written on the subject, one that he knows from the inside out.
This book, and I imagine most of the others of Collin's books, is a diatribe against the extreme concentrations of wealth in America today. 150 or so of the richest families donate most of the money to political campaigns, and thus dominate the political agenda no matter which party wins. The imbalance has gotten worse with every generation, and the wealth gap has led to a profound empathy and information gap. The wealthy, convinced of their superiority and invulnerability, cut themselves off from the rest of society with private jets, gated communities, country clubs and private schools- to the point where they never have to rely on public services at all except for the occasional trip on the highway. This disconnection causes profound problems- from a crumbling infrastructure to inaction on climate change, from declining public schools to a badly frayed safety net that the rich neither need nor care about.
Collins spends several chapters debunking the great man theory of success. In this theory, (aka the Horatio Alger story), spunky and energetic men work hard and build great wealth all by themselves, with little help from others, and often over the obstructions of inferiors. This is the main justification for enormous disparities in amounts of wealth today- it is earned by the people who have it, and society at large had no part in it. Collins interviews older veterans who benefited from the GI Bill, cheap FHA loans, and a progressive tax system in the 1950's, when they built up their nest eggs. Their dirty secret, as many come to realize, is that they didn't do it alone- they had help from the government and others.
He interviews Bill Gates senior (the dad of the billionaire), who tells a great story of how the great benefits of the infrastructure that greeted some Americans was vastly superior to what greeted third world families. A baby up in heaven would give up a fortune to have a chance to be born with that opportunity instead of the poverty that afflicts much of the planet. Though Collins doesn't mention it, Barack Obama brilliantly reflected this sentiment in a 2012 speech that he later received a lot of flack for:
"There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.)
"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet."
We all want to think of ourselves as successful and competent, to take credit for our place in the world. But the economy today is so convoluted and unfair that mental gymnastics are necessary to justify private islands when there are homeless veterans out on the street.
Collins takes aim at the charity industrial complex, which is run by the wealthy to benefit the wealthy and the causes that they deem worthy to support. Most of the money donated today is donated by rich people and foundations, and 30% goes to churches, 12% to hospitals and medicine, 8% to the arts, and 12% to foundations. Very little trickles down to the needs of the 99%, and very little goes to smaller charities that are less established. (Even the United Way, which was one of the last sources of pooled funds for lesser known charities, is changing their allocation formulas because of the decline in unrestricted donations.) Collins singles out foundations especially for their tendency to overpay their directors and sponsor lavish trips and meetings.
The final third of the book is mostly directed towards fellow one per-centers, so it went over my head. He talks about "bringing the wealth home," which I assume means somehow changing the behaviors of the Scrooges at the top and forcing them to give up their cozy offshore tax dodges. He points to others like himself that came from wealth and are trying to change the world, and it's encouraging to see that there are others like Collins who are rejecting the fiction that they grew up with. In a sense, he says that the affluent suffer from their disconnection and privilege, and it's in their interest to open their wallets and hearts and reconnect with the world out there.
This author is one of the world's biggest forces working to heal inequality. His website, inequality.org, is an impressive one with plenty of links, studies, and ideas on how to make people more connected and less isolated. There is a huge problem today with connection, as I have written about with other books, and this man is trying to do something about it. He recommends something called a resilience circle- a group of 10 to 20 people who organize, meet, and help each other, which is what our ancestors used to do. (Check localcircles.org for more info on these.)
Collins has been a tireless advocate against what he sees as a rigged economy, and he has intimate knowledge of how people at the top rig the systems in their favor. Whenever I eat an Oscar Meyer wiener from now on, I will think of him. We are all in this together and none of us is alone in our greatness nor our misery. It took guts to pass up the kind of wealth that he passed up. He could have lived a life of leisure and luxury, but instead became a tireless advocate for connection and community. We need many more like him and fewer like Donald Trump or Jeff Bezos.