I would say it's political satire, but in the Lone Star State, really, what's the difference?

20 July 2012

On the Fallacy of the Self-Made Man

It often seems as if the Texas State Seal ought to be emblazoned with the byline, “Proud Home of the Self-Made Man.” Indeed, according to many, Rick Perry is the walking, talking embodiment of this concept. As the Houston Chronicle puts it, “In many ways, Gov. Rick Perry is the iconic Texan, a self-made man whose rugged individualism has come to define his public life, for better or worse.”

But what does it mean, really, to be “self-made”? This term the Chronicle has coupled with it, “rugged individualism,” seems to fit the stereotype quite nicely. I am inclined to think that the mental image that springs to my mind when I hear phrases like this is not terribly different from what most people envision—particularly my fellow Texans: A salt-of-the-earth, grassroots, tough-as-nails type of man; a man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and through nothing but hard work and individual merit, made something great of himself, in the face of considerable odds. A truly self-reliant, rugged individual, who never took a dime from anyone and doesn’t owe the world a dime. Perhaps even a pair of boots named Freedom and Liberty….

At least this is what I picture. And it does seem to be the very essence of the Great American Dream. If absolutely nothing else, it’s damn sure the Texan Dream, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to draw parallels between this ideal and the staunchly conservative position that typifies Texas politics, along with a substantial portion of the nation. And anyone that dares to challenge this glorious Texan/American Dream, may the Good Lord have mercy on their soul…

But challenge it he did, our beloved President, and the conservative talking heads roiled with unchecked rage. In a scathing article published in the Dallas Morning News yesterday, staff editorial writer Mike Hashimoto effectively attempts to crucify Obama for comments made last week to a crowd in Roanoke, Virginia; comments which Mr. Hashimoto apparently equates with sacrilegious desecration of the Great American Way. But I shall now let Mr. Hashimoto speak for himself: 
[Obama] slapped aside the efforts of business builders and owners in what’s supposed to be a free-enterprise system, was it a mistake or a mistaken revelation? As the news business goes, the quote has been reduced to this: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.”
My answer would be to track back through his government-vs.-private-sector comments and his policy prescriptions over time. I think it’s pretty clear that this is a president — of the United States — who has little appreciation for the American way and certainly the American Dream. To his mind, if government doesn’t provide it, it’s not worth having.”
He goes on to argue against what he seems to view as the liberal apologist default position, attempting to invalidate various arguments made in defense of Obama’s comments. To better illustrate his own opinion of such arguments, he quotes Reason.com’s Tim Cavanaugh, who says the following:
The president’s supporters have a multipronged counterargument: Either he didn’t make those comments or they were taken out of context or even if they are in context they don’t matter because we should be reading between the lines.
As an example of the former type, he offers up a Tweet posted by Texas State Rep. Eric Johnson, a democrat from Dallas, who apparently posted on Twitter: “U know #POTUS comment is being taken completely out of context, so why perpetuate a lie? Integrity, bro.” To which Hashimoto replies, “Yeah, OK, bro. Clown question.” Um, seriously? Granted, Johnson’s comments weren’t the most eloquent the world has ever seen, but that was on Twitter… What’s Hashimoto’s excuse? Is this seriously a mainstream news Editorial, or are we reading a random Facebook rant?

Anyway. It isn’t until the end that he finally recounts the President’s actual statements in full:
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.
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.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.  There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own.  I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service.  That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
The article author then closes with the following gem:
So, please, spare me the “roads and bridges” defense. You can wish he didn’t say what he said, but to pretend his words don’t mean exactly what they appear to mean falls far short of reasonable. “Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.” In Obama’s mind, obviously, that somebody is the government. And I think most Americans would reject the notion that this is a country where we are “allowed” to thrive by government.
Now, I’m going to refrain from taking cheap shots at the grossly substandard quality of writing offered here because, frankly, he did a mighty fine job of that himself. And why add insult to injury? Instead, let’s just focus on the disassembly of this appalling excuse for an argument—if one can even call it that.

Actually, despite his overt claims that he’s actually making one here, I cannot, in good conscious, even classify this as an argument. An argument requires, at a minimum, two things: Propositions/statements/evidence and a conclusion, which do all seem present here, but there’s a catch: to be an argument, the propositions have to actually offer support in some way to one’s conclusion, and inversely, the conclusion has to be supported in some way by the propositions offered. This is why they’re typically called “supporting statements.” All I see here is a conclusion: Obama is the Devil. I kid. But that isn’t too far from the truth. Hashimoto more or less tries to convince his readers that Obama has opened up a good ol’ fashioned can of Texas whoop-ass on our beloved “self-made” man; however, despite his painstaking efforts to present it as such, this rant amounts to nothing more than a randomly asserted belief—which, contrary to popular belief, is NOT an argument.

But considering how many people in our state and country would wholeheartedly buy into this random assertion, let’s play along and pretend that it is an argument for a moment, in the interest of exposing its inherent incoherency. If we were to break it down into formal logical structure, it might go something like this:

·       Obama said “If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that.”
·       Most Americans do believe they build their own businesses.
·       Building one’s own business is the American way.
·       Therefore, Obama must be wrong, because we believe in the American Way.

For starters, this pseudo-argument’s only offering of anything even resembling supportive evidence is that most Americans “believe” something. To use his words, Yeah, OK, bro… 47% of Americans don’t even know how long it takes for the Earth to orbit the Sun... Hell, 29% think that the Sun revolves around us. Forgive me for being cynical (realistic?) here, but I would be more than a little hesitant to trust anything the general public “believes,” simply because they believe it. And even if it were true, it’s a circular argument. Non-argument.  Whatever.

So what did we learn from all this? Absolutely nothing—which is kind of the point. The vast majority of arguments waged in this vein contain little to no worthwhile substance, and no matter how many times they might work in the term “argument,” that does not make it such. If you’re going to claim that you’re making an argument, then MAKE ONE. Convince me. Show me some evidence that refutes Obama’s claim that we effectively couldn’t do what we do or make what we make or become what we will become entirely independent of all external factors, namely, the federal government. I’ll give anybody a shot to convince me that’s not true; I’ll listen to whatever coherent case might be made, and I am not so stubborn or arrogant or pretentious that I’m incapable of changing my mind. But you may as well give up the empty noise and tired hand waving, because that is never going to cut it. And as it turns out, Obama happens to be in very good company on this one—with his strongest support coming from the last places one might expect….

A dear friend of mine, Lovelace Soirez, sent me a letter on this subject a while back titled “Taxes and the Myth of the Self-Made Man.” Because I feel that he states this position much more eloquently than I can, I’m going to quote a bit of what he wrote here, and I do hope that he won’t mind.
We can debate all day about whether or not our current form of government is the best way to address the myth of the self-made man, but what follows is the bare-minimum of what needs to be acknowledged when having this debate.  In my opinion, intellectual honesty demands that we acknowledge the role that society plays in shaping who we are.  It's the starting point. The commenter (at the very bottom) sums up nicely why this is so.  We all benefit significantly from public goods... much more so than libertarians are willing to admit.  Sorry there's so much here, but it's worth the read.
He goes on to cite numerous references that collectively serve to decimate this notion of the “self-made man" to the point of virtually irrefutable. I’ll admit I feel a bit guilty for piggy-backing off of his sources here, but I do so only because they are among the best I’ve yet to find. Time and space will not allow me to share them all with you (believe me, I am tempted), but I’ll try to hit the highlights. And like he did, I will apologize for length, along with wholehearted agreement that it’s certainly worth a read.

The first comes from this 2010 publication:
Some of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in North America say there is no such thing as the "self-made man." With more millionaires making, rather than inheriting, their wealth, there is a false belief that they made it on their own without help, a new report published by the Boston-based non-profit United For a Fair Economy, states. The group has signed more than 2,200 millionaires and billionaires to a petition to reform and keep the U.S. inheritance tax. The report says the myth of "self-made wealth is potentially destructive to the very infrastructure that enables wealth creation.”
The individuals profiled in the report believed they prospered in large part to things beyond their control and because of the support of others. Warren Buffet, the second richest man in the world said, "I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I've earned." Erick Schmidt, CEO of Google says, "Lots of people who are smart and work hard and play by the rules don't have a fraction of what I have. I realize that I don't have my wealth because I'm so brilliant."
Yes, you read that correctly. That was a few of those so-called self-made men—among the wealthiest, most successful businessmen in America—supporting precisely what Obama suggested and refuting the generally conservative counter-position.

And here is another obscenely wealthy media-empire heiress, Abigal Disney, discussing the many ways in which Disney could never have been possible for her grandfather in absence of . . . Guess who!

[M]y grandfather vowed never to let himself be taken advantage of again. He soon registered a copyright on a new character named Mickey Mouse. It was 1928, and it was neither the first nor the last time the Walt Disney Co. benefited from a federal system of protections, laws and taxes that created fertile ground for building a business empire.
In addition to the copyright protections for Mickey, the Federal Communications Commission regulated the airwaves that carried the Disneyland television series and, of course, the Mickey Mouse Club. The transportation and federal highway system built in the wake of World War II took millions of visitors to Disneyland. The Marshall Plan helped rebuild devastated European markets into which Disney poured its products, turning a quaint American company into a global brand.
Let’s read more, this time from The Economist:
DANA MILBANK wrote a snark-suffused piece in yesterday's Washington Post on a conference call by a group of millionaires who'd like to see their own taxes raised. The group is affiliated with United for a Fair Economy, which pushes for a more progressive tax code. The thrust of the meeting was that Barack Obama's plans to cancel an extension of the Bush tax cuts for people earning more than $250,000 a year are a good first step, but don't go far enough. Mr Milbank quotes fifth-generation paper mill heir Mike Lapham, who thinks he pays "obscenely low tax rates", and notes that the group has pledged to donate the money it saves under the Bush tax cuts to groups pushing for higher marginal taxes on the rich. . . .
 ….Here's the thing: taxes are not charity. It would be a bad idea for wealthy people who feel they should be paying more taxes to instead contribute large amounts of money voluntarily to reduce the national debt. The first, less important reason for this is that any individual's contributions would be meaninglessly small; they can make far more difference by using the same amount of money to advocate for higher taxes, as these millionaires are doing. But the second, more important reason is that even if a million millionaires got together and voluntarily donated money in such quantities that it made a measurable dent in the deficit, it would be even worse, because they would be giving license to other people to continue pay less than their fair share of taxes. It's an invitation to free-riding, with the public-minded rich subsidising the irresponsible and selfish.
If America did not have a severe and potentially catastrophic national debt problem, one could have a legitimate argument in which some people argued for higher taxes and more defense, health care, transportation, etc, while others argued for lower taxes and less defense, health care, transportation, etc. That is not the situation in which America finds itself. For 30 years, we have systematically collected much less in taxes than our government spends; the structural deficit used to be around 3% of GDP, but over the past two years it's leapt up due to the recession. Over the long term, we need to make painful choices to bring expenses and revenues back into line. There are two legitimate arguments one can make here. One is "I think we should raise taxes in the following ways." The other is "I think we should make the following massive cuts in defense, health care, transportation etc." It is not legitimate to say: "Hey, if you feel like paying more to reduce the debts we all incurred together, go ahead; as for me, I'll pass."
And I swear this is the last one, but these are just too great (and important) not to share:
Heimdall wrote:
Apr 9th 2010 3:02 GMT
I rarely see this point brought up, so I'll give it a shot.
A couple of things that you can say about people who are extremely wealthy are pretty non-controversial:
1) They have a lot of wealth.
2) They accumulated that wealth through some mechanism.
Here we get to the controversial part.
Most people who are wealthy credit their situation solely to their hard work, talent, etc. And they credit the situation of the poor solely to their lack of work ethic, talent, etc. Ergo, the wealthy are -- by definition -- deserving of whatever they desire and the poor are equally deserving of their squalor. I think of this as "the Ayn Rand" position.
I'd like to point out that a critical component in wealth accumulation -- possibly even greater than work ethic or talent -- is the infrastructure that the government provides to enable such accumulation: rule of law, the justice system, transportation infrastructure, education, national defense, etc.
Without this infrastructure our wealthy magnate is but a warlord in Afghanistan or Somalia. With them he is Bill Gates or she is Meg Whitman. This infrastructure is a lever by which people can magnify their work ethic and talent.
The wealthy have demonstrably used this lever to a much greater degree than the poor. The poor may get a pittance in food stamps, social security, etc. The wealthy accumulate millions if not billions of dollars by skillfully manipulating this lever.
Shouldn't people who use a thing pay more for that thing?
I submit that an objective measure of utilization of the lever of governmental infrastructure is the wealth that a person is able to accumulate. Thus, the percent of the tax "burden" shouldered by the wealthy should be proportional to the wealth they have accumulated.
Which is not to say that we should have a single "wealth tax". But it is to say that we should recalibrate a diversified revenue stream on occasion such that the top n% as measured by wealth pay approximately n% of taxes.
This is not "confiscation" as some like to say. It is payment for services received in direct proportion to the degree a person uses those services.
In case your typical frame of reference includes a combination of hand-waving pundits and the uneducated powers that be, what you’ve just seen above: these are what arguments are supposed to look like. And unless and until I see something at least comparable from the other side, I will remain of the position that if the “American Way” is synonymous with the “self-made man,” then the American Way is nothing more than a delusion of grandeur.

Unfortunately for those of us in Texas, it is this very myth that fuels the Perry & Co. fire and largely propagates this anti-tax/pro-business culture that the majority of our closest neighbors embrace. We have effectively arranged our state according to a business model based on principles that, so far as I can tell, do not exist. The educated, informed perspective seems to suggest that Rick Perry has it perfectly backwards when he argues that a low-tax/no-tax economic environment is the best recipe for future success. As former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously put it, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” And when it comes to civilized society, most unfortunately for those of us in Texas, we do get exactly what we pay for—with our education system being the prime example.  

So when Mr. Hashimoto said “I think most Americans would reject the notion that this is a country where we are ‘allowed’ to thrive by government,” I suspect he was likely correct; however, unlike Mr. Hashimoto, I also happen to think that most Americans have it wrong

And, again, to Lovelace: Thank younot just for allowing me to shamelessly restate your argument here, but mainly for your friendship and the wisdom that it brings. I am grateful.

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