The pop-up teased: 1 simple rule to making a fortune overnight.
By MARY SANCHEZ
The Kansas City Star
Perfect. Thats what greeted me when I went to open the Web release of The Forbes 400, an annual listing of the wealthiest Americans.
I didnt bother to find out what that simple rule is. I think I already know: Pick a rich daddy. Its not the only way to make a fortune, but it certainly is a simple one.
That was on my mind as I perused the Forbes 400 list. The cover photo of the print edition, which hits newsstands next week, features Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Oprah Winfrey. These three came from widely varying backgrounds of privilege (in Winfreys case, none), but nobody would doubt that they earned their many billions through their own hard work and genius.
We read these lists and think, They made it, why cant I? This year, there is an added poignancy to that question because making it has become a major theme of the presidential election. Americans on both ends of the political spectrum feel that opportunity is under threat. But they dont agree on the nature of the threat, as is evident in campaign rhetoric. You didnt build that vs. I built that. The rapacious 1 percent vs. the parasitic 47 percent.
A useful source of reflection on wealth and opportunity is the report Born on Third Base: What the Forbes 400 Really Says about Economic Equality and Opportunity in America, published by United for a Fair Economy, a Boston-based nonprofit. The groups researchers scrutinized the 2011 Forbes list to ascertain what role privilege played in getting the wealthiest Americans their fortunes.
To begin with, the reports authors take Forbes to task for promoting a rags to riches narrative, whereas, in reality, more than one in five of the 400 inherited enough wealth to make the cut. Note such bankable names as Walton, Cargill, Mars, Pritzker and Hearst.
One inescapable conclusion is that it is much easier to make more wealth if you had a nice chunk handed to you at birth. Add in tax loopholes and shelters for investment income, and watch the riches grow.
Born on Third Base fleshes out another factor social capital. You may not inherit much money, or any at all, but still get a serious hand up based on who your daddy knows or what the family business is.
It was once said of George W. Bush that he was born on third base and thought he had hit a triple. Born on Third Base separates the Forbes 400 into five groups: those born in the batters box, on first base, second base, third base and on home plate. Only a little over one-third of the list was born in the batters box that is, in the lower or middle class.
Social capital is a bit like good health. If you possess it, its easy to dismiss its value. If you dont, life can seem like a struggle.
But social capital and other sorts of privilege become noxious when those who are blessed with them are incapable of recognizing their unearned advantage. An attitude of entitlement without reflection is a dangerous characteristic. Mitt Romney, whose attitudes toward the less fortunate are on video record, is the poster boy.
He concluded his now infamous fundraising dinner remarks with this observation: Everything that Ann and I have, we earned the old-fashioned way, and thats by hard work. As if boarding school, paid-for college education, growing up the son of an auto executive and governor in America meant nothing.
We like to think of our country as a place where hard work and ambition are rewarded with prosperity, where the disadvantages of birth can be overcome.
We may dream of wealth, but what most of us want is some measure of security, to get to a better, more certain place. Unfortunately, tens of millions of us have lost that.
The 2012 presidential race, perhaps more than any other in recent history, needs to be about why some people are doing far better than others in this country. Its not all about hard work and perseverance. Its about whether our political system is structured to spread opportunity or to preserve it for the few.
To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to email@example.com.