BRATTLEBORO—One of the most enduring myths in American life is the idea of the “self-made man.”
Chuck Collins, author of the new book, Born on Third Base (Chelsea Green Press), will be happy to explain to you why it is total nonsense.
Collins is a researcher, campaigner, storyteller, and writer based at the Institute of Policy Studies, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C. He was at Everyone’s Books on Nov. 30 to talk about the subject of income inequality in the U.S.
He brings a unique perspective to the argument. He was once a member in good standing of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans before giving away his inheritance at age 26 and spending the next three decades working to reduce economic inequality.
Collins, who splits his time between Guilford and the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, offers the story of Martin Rothenberg, the owner of several technology companies, as an example of how wealth is really created in America.
When Congress first tried to abolish the federal Estate Tax in 2000, the Institute of Policy Studies was asked by then-President Bill Clinton to find business leaders who supported his decision to veto the bill.
Rothenberg stood up at a news conference and the White House and said, “My wealth is not only a product of my own hard work. It also resulted from a strong economy and lots of public investment in others and me.”
‘I didn’t do it alone’
A son of first-generation immigrants, Rothenberg went to public schools in Brooklyn, N.Y. He said he had access to great public libraries. The GI Bill paid for his undergraduate degree, and his graduate work was paid through a fellowship that covered his student loans in exchange for several years of teaching.
Rothenberg further explained that the high-tech economy wouldn’t exist if not for public investment in research and development of technology.
“The entire field of Internet technology I work in was built with public investment. I didn’t do it alone,” he said. “So should I pay an estate tax? Of course I should! Don’t I have an obligation to pay back to the society that has made everything possible for me? Don’t I have an obligation — a duty — to ensure that other kids, who grow up poor like I did, should have the same opportunities for education and employment?”
Collins points out in his book that, in the carefully cultivated backstory about how Donald Trump became a business success, he glosses over “the glide path to gold embodied in his life.”
His father, Fred Trump, “was a successful and well-connected real-estate developer in New York City. The elder Trump made a lot of his money building Federal Housing Administration (FHA)-financed new homes in Brooklyn. During World War II, he got the contract to build FHA housing for U.S. naval personnel near major shipyards along the East Coast. Donald Trump not only inherited a real-estate empire valued between $40 million and $200 million, but he also received family training, social networks, and financial connections.”
This, Collins said, is what is meant by the oft-repeated aphorism that “some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they’ve hit a triple.”
“The richest 20 Americans collectively own as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent of Americans,” he said. “This kind of inequality is bad for all of us.”
Collins himself was born on third base, being the great-grandson of meatpacker Oscar Meyer. He grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., a wealthy suburb outside Detroit that was home to the top executives of the auto industry.
“My father liked to joke that ‘bringing home the bacon’ had a different meaning in our family,” Collins said. But compared to his even-wealthier neighbors, “I thought we were middle class.”
But Collins’ epiphany about exactly how well-off he was came when he was 26, in a 30-unit mobile-home park in Bernardston, Mass.
In the spring of 1986, a couple of years out of college, Collins was working for a social service agency that helped tenants in mobile parks organize and buy the parks and run them as tenant-owned cooperatives.
The park was up for sale, but Collins said he knew the tenants didn’t have the resources to buy it. “I knew a third of the residents had a zero- or negative net worth,” he said.
They were $35,000 short of the $150,000 need for a down payment, a sum that was enormous for the tenants, but Collins said he realized he could pull out his checkbook and pay it himself if he wanted to.
Collins said that when he brought the bad news to the tenants, something extraordinary happened. Several of the tenants stood up and pledged their life savings to the effort. Before long, they had enough money to take to the bank and complete the deal.
“I never saw that kind of solidarity before,” he said.
And that solidarity convinced him that he needed to give away his inheritance. His father questioned his judgement, but ultimately gave his blessing to take out the $250,000 that was in Chuck’s name so he could give it away.
“Even after doing that, I had no comprehension of the mountain of privilege that I still had as a white, college-educated male in the United States with a debt-free education and an extended family and social network,” he said.
But a few months later, when the home he was living in burned down and he lost all he owned, Collins said the first people who showed up to help were the people from the Bernardston trailer park.
That story, of solidarity and people coming together for the common good, is a story that is needed today, Collins said.
Changing the frame
He wrote in his book that he wants to challenge what he thinks is the “makers versus takers” narrative of contemporary conservatism, where “the virtuous ‘makers’ are the hardworking job creators, the engines of the train, who also pay most of the taxes. And the ‘takers’ are freeloaders, getting government handouts and not contributing.”
This frame, he wrote, “attaches a stigma of shame to those who need help, including the most vulnerable segments of our society — the young, the old, those with mental illness and disabilities. It stigmatizes people who ask for help or confess their real needs. And it discourages those celebrated as successful from confessing to help they get along the way.”
The alternative, he wrote, is creating a new narrative as epitomized by Rothenberg, the “we did it together story,” and recognizing that “over our lifetimes, we all have needs and gifts to share. We are all dependent and interdependent. There is a fluidity of giving and receiving that cannot be reduced to a dehumanizing binary set of labels that flow from crude economic measurements.”
The role of stories is important, he said, because “data doesn’t change people’s minds.”
He said the election of Donald Trump proved that “an unequal society produces a regressive politics,” but Trump’s election “may provide an opening for progressive populism” and inspire people “to build institutions that support a new economy.”
“Commonwealth is what makes wealth possible,” he said. “In the years between 1945 and 1975, we taxed the wealthy and invested the money in education and housing. We created a broad middle class as a result. We can do that again.”