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DON BRUNELL | Nobody starts at the top
Our country is awash in the politics of envy these days.
America has always been the land of opportunity for anyone willing to work hard and seek a better life for their families. But today, their success is demonized.
The presumption is, if you’re rich, you didn’t earn it and you don’t deserve it. But as a rule, most successful Americans weren’t born wealthy. They built their treasure the hard way and employ people.
Thankfully, America doesn’t have a class system. People take risks and move up and down the economic ladder every day. In fact, most of America’s rich and famous started at the bottom.
For example, one of our nation’s first millionaires was Sarah Breedlove. Born to freed slaves in 1867, she made her fortune by developing and marketing beauty products for black women.Brad Pitt, who commands $20 million per movie, started his acting career walking the streets in a chicken suit to promote a local restaurant; and, Warren Buffet, worth $60 billion today, started as a paperboy.
Sam Walton waited tables in college in exchange for meals. When he died, his 1,960 Walmart stores employed 380,000 people. Oprah Winfrey, born into poverty in rural Mississippi, went on to build a media empire worth $2.8 billion.
So, should we hate these people because they’re rich? Is their success “unfair?” Of course not.
“But they should pay their ‘fair share’ in taxes,” rail the Occupy folks. They do.
For 2010, the latest year for which figures are available, the top 10 percent took home 45 percent of the nation’s income, but paid more than 70 percent of the income taxes. That’s up from 55 percent in 1986.
Some of America’s corporate giants had modest beginnings as well.
Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook from his college dorm room. Today, the company is worth $100 billion. Over sixty years, Harry and Esther Snyder built their hamburger stand in Baldwin Park, California into the billion dollar In-N-Out fast-food empire.
Here in Washington, Ed Schweitzer invented a digital electric relay that prevents blackouts by routing electricity around downed power lines. In 1982, he started SEL Engineering in his Pullman garage. Today, the firm employs more than 3,600 people and SEL is a global leader in electric power supply protection and safety.
Is his success unfair?
Historically, Americans have never resented rich, successful people —they wanted to be one of them! But unless you win the lottery, getting rich isn’t easy.
Sure, some Wall Street speculators amassed fortunes seemingly overnight. But many lost them just as quickly and the scammers went to jail. Our system works best when shareholders and customers – not the government – rein in the high and mighty.
And let’s remember that most successful companies give back to their communities. U.S.foundations and corporations donated almost $64 billion to charity in 2012.
Would I like to be rich? The truth is I am abundantly blessed because in America, I had the opportunity to deliver newspapers and earn money for my education. The extra income from our small town family garbage business put my brothers, sister and me through college.
Like most Americans, we worked hard, got our degrees, and built a life and a families we’re proud of. We scrapped and saved enough money to put our six children through college and now retire.
So we feel blessed.
The truth is, nobody starts at the top. Being successful takes hard work and perseverance. Always has, always will. That’s the American way and it works.
Don Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business.