GREAT BEND, Kan. - When I was a boy, there was a phrase, a sentence, that I heard often: "Help those less fortunate." My parents used this phrase often, the nuns at St. Patrick's Catholic School used it, my leaders in Boy Scouts of America used it. And it became part of who I am.
As an adult in 2010, I no longer hear that phrase, but I still try to live it. The injunction to "help those less fortunate," is totally out of date in 2010 America. And I think I know why: because it implies that good luck has something to do with success. And that bad luck has something to do with being poor. And many successful people today want to believe they alone caused their success, and that the poor failed because they have some moral defect.
America has a larger class division than ever in my lifetime. The rich get richer, the middle class is shrinking, and the ranks of the poor grow every day. And some successful people believe they achieved success on their own, that no one -- government, or the community, or anyone -- had anything to do with it.
And the poor? They screwed up.
Obviously if they had just worked hard, they would be rich like me, people say. "Poor people have poor ways," they say. Or as Peter Finley Dunne's fictional bartender, Mr. Dooley said: "It ain't a crime to be poor, but it might as well be."
I hear this talk a great deal when those who have done well discuss taxes. These phrases are common: "I worked hard for what I have, and I don't want anyone to take it away." "Luck had nothing to do with it---I worked since I was 10 years old, started out shining shoes." Another one: "Why should those of us who work hard reward those who don't." (Some of these folks inherited a big pile of money from their folks, but still think they did it themselves.)
Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success probably makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Because he points out that those who really succeed on a grand scale -- the Beatles, Bill Gates, Mozart, and even many Canadian professional hockey players -- succeeded in part because they had fortuitous help along the way. Yes, they all worked hard, but so did lots of rock bands from England who never made it. So did lots of computer wizards who never made it. So did lots of Canadian hockey players who didn't happen to have birthdays in January.
Hard work is an essential element of success, but good fortune plays a part. And I think we all knew collectively back when I was a boy that we were helped along the way, that we caught a lot of breaks. And those who didn't catch the breaks weren't morally defective. They were simply "less fortunate."
Sometimes these breaks, these wormholes of good luck, are due to having great parents, good genetics, or knowing the right people to become successful. Myself, I have "lucked out" -- my Dad is a successful lawyer; my Mother was a talented musician and KU graduate. I "lucked out" by having great teachers, both in the Catholic and the public schools. I was born on third base, and I know I didn't hit a triple. (Jim Hightower coined this phrase about George W. Bush: "He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.")
I don't like to pay taxes, but I am grateful for the fantastic education I got at KU, at Great Bend High School, at Lincoln Elementary. I am grateful that both sides of my family (one side Irish Catholic and the other Mennonite) homesteaded here in Kansas due to the generosity of the Homestead Act of 1864. I appreciate all of the public infrastructure---roads, law enforcement, good schools, the judicial system -- that make it possible for me to have the life I've had.
At tax time on April 15, some (certainly not all) wealthy folks suddenly think they were "self made men," and they don't want to pay. They are afraid their money will subsidize those who haven't done well. And it does.
But in the same way that every success has a backstory of good fortune, every story of poverty has a back story of bad fortune. Hard work goes a long ways, but if your parents both had an IQ of 70, hard work won't take you as far as you'd like. Or if you are born with a developmental disability, success won't come easy. Others are born in tough inner city neighborhoods with lousy schools, or have parents who are absent or don't care about their kids.
Lady Luck is the wildcard. Hard work and clean living go a long ways. They are probably the top factor on who succeeds and who fails. But the phrase "Help those less fortunate," although an antiquated phrase in this day of "I've got mine. Now you go get yours," still has some valdity. Today's credo seems to be: "Every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost."
I don't like people who climbed the ladder of success and then want to tip the ladder over on those who haven't climbed it. The American Dream should be accessible to all who are willing to work hard and play by the rules. And often those blessings of good fortune come from government -- a good school, inspiring teachers, Pell Grants, Student Loans, FHA home loans, an SBA loan, a farm subsidy. Sometimes that helping hand of government comes in the form of great employees who received a free public education.
And many who are successful in business---the defense contractor, the public works contractor---have governmental entities as their #1 customer. So government not only helped them get on top, but is keeping them on top. It might be a physician who profits from Medicare or Medicaid, a car dealer who sells police cars, or a business supply store that sells copy machines and computers to local schools and local government.
Deposed KU football coach Mark Mangino's temper was demonstrated quite picturesquely when he cussed out a player (Raimond Pendleton) who returned a punt and dove into the end zone, showboating, resulting in an "unsportsmanlike conduct" penalty. With the expletives deleted, Mangino shouted: "You think you scored that touchdown by yourself? You think those guys blocking for you had nothing to do with your scoring that touchdown? IT WAS ALL YOU. YOU #%@%^* hot dog!"
Mangino had alot of flaws, but he was right about one thing. Nobody achieves anything noteworthy by themselves. And sometimes that helping hand comes not from blockers on a football field, but from a great teacher, a college scholarship, free government land, a Pell Grant, a tax credit.
Those of you who are successful, don't get too uppity. And those who are poor, don't get down on yourself.
Luck plays a role. You can bet on it.