Making the Most of Your Luck

Library of Congress/Public Domain

Mink Brigade: Labor activist Flora Dodge La Follette (center) and social reformer Rose Livingston (right) stand in solidarity with a young worker during a 1913 garment strike in New York City. These women are part of America's long tradition of wealthy radicals. 

Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good
By Chuck Collins
Chelsea Green Publishing

Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy
By Robert H. Frank
Princeton University Press

This article appears in the Fall 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

Chuck Collins is a traitor to his class and proud of it. The great-grandson of meatpacker Oscar Mayer, he grew up in affluent Bloomfield Hills outside Detroit, went to the same elite Cranbrook School as Mitt Romney, and enjoyed the entitlements that come with inherited wealth. But his parents made sure that Collins understood his good luck and encouraged him, as a teenager, to work to earn his own money (often mowing the lawns of his parents’ wealthy friends) and to engage in service projects to help the less fortunate. As a student in the 1970s and early 1980s, Collins felt ashamed of his moneyed background, hid it from all but his closest friends, and had to decide what to do with his life. 

Collins became a community organizer. Working with the Institute for Community Economics in western Massachusetts, he helped working-class families, including mobile-home residents, create housing co-operatives. With the HOME Coalition in Boston, he organized low-income tenants and waged grassroots campaigns to expand funding for affordable housing, sponsored by community nonprofit groups. With the Tax Equity Alliance for Massachusetts, he worked with unions and community groups to push for progressive tax policies.             

Then, at age 26, he decided to give away his inherited fortune—a half-a-million-dollar trust fund that his parents had set up for him—and to live on his earnings, as most Americans do.  

In the 1980s, Collins began to “come out” about his privileged background and to organize other young people with wealth through the Haymarket People’s Fund, a Boston-area left-wing foundation that gets money from wealthy donors (initially from baby boomers radicalized in the 1960s) and gives it to grassroots organizations working for change. There are now more than a dozen such local foundations around the country that were part of a network with the motto “Change not charity.” He co-authored a book, Robin Hood Was Right: A Guide to Giving Your Money for Social Change.

Starting in the late 1990s, Collins co-founded several organizations—Responsible Wealth, Wealth for Common Good, and United for a Fair Economy—to organize wealthy individuals and business leaders, and to educate a wider audience, about ways to bring about progressive change. Toward that end, he co-authored several books, including Shifting Fortunes: The Perils of the Growing American Wealth Gap; Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality and Insecurity; and Class Lives: Stories from Across Our Economic Divide.

When President George W. Bush sought to get Congress to repeal the estate tax—which conservatives cleverly began calling the “death tax”—Collins joined forces with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates Sr. (father of the Microsoft founder) to wage a national campaign to preserve it. Collins and Gates co-authored a book (Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes), enlisted more than 1,500 multimillionaires and billionaires in support, and garnered a front-page story about their efforts in The New York Times. By 2005, they had stopped the repeal effort.

As director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ Program on Inequality, Collins, now 57, continues to organize, speak, and write about America’s widening economic divide. 

In his latest book, Born on Third Base, Collins examines the increasing concentration of income and wealth over the past few decades and the troubling “warehousing” of wealth by the “charitable industrial complex.” An estimated $600 billion is now “sitting in charitable foundations and endowments waiting for distribution.” He is critical of most mainstream philanthropy for bolstering the status quo—such as wealthy graduates of fancy prep schools making tax-exempt donations to their alma maters. He describes how many private family foundations feather the nests of their board members and lawyers, or serve as public relations operations to enhance the family’s social and political goals. (Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold has recently done an outstanding job exposing the self-serving purposes of the Trump Foundation.)

Collins wants to encourage the richest Americans to share the wealth. He offers ideas to help wealthy people steer their philanthropy toward projects that help build movements rather than build ego-boosting edifices or engage in phony reforms like “corporate social responsibility” programs, which whitewash companies that pollute the environment or exploit workers in overseas sweatshops.

In fact, America has a long tradition of wealthy radicals. A clandestine group who called themselves the “Secret Six” funded much of the movement to end slavery. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many wealthy benefactors—mostly women like Jane Addams—contributed their time, talent, and money to the Progressive Era battle against slums and sweatshops. During the great “Uprising of the 20,000” in 1909 and 1910 (the largest strike by American women workers to that time), and after the Triangle factory fire in 1911, upper-class women like Alva Vanderbilt Belmont and Anne Morgan (daughter of J.P. Morgan, the nation’s richest person) raised money for the workers’ strike fund, lawyers, and bail money, and even joined the union members on picket lines. One of the union organizers referred to them as the “mink brigade.”

From the radical uprisings of the 1930s through the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the environmental and women’s-rights movements of the 1970s and 1980s, a small but dedicated number of rich radicals and reformers became involved, as patrons and activists, in struggles for social justice. During the 2009–2010 battle for health-care reform, Health Care for America Now—a coalition of unions, community and consumer groups, and faith-based organizations—led the grassroots organizing effort. HCAN’s major funder was Atlantic Philanthropies, a foundation created by Chuck Feeney, whose fortune came from duty-free shops.

“The wealthy have already hijacked our democracy,” Collins writes. He wants to enlist at least some wealthy to help get it back. For progressive social movements to succeed, Collins says, they need “allies among the reachable wealthy.” 

His life’s work is to persuade them to work for a society that raises taxes on the very rich in order to invest in public education, housing, infrastructure, and a social safety net, and to become allies of movements for a higher minimum wage, pro-union labor laws, strict environmental regulations, and campaign-finance reform—in other words, to support efforts to create a more European-style social democracy in the United States.

Collins recounts his meetings with middle-class and wealthy people in churches, community centers, living rooms, and corporate and foundation board rooms, trying to understand their views and feelings and to find the right combination of analysis and agitation to get them to join the progressive causes. At one meeting at a VFW hall in a Boston suburb, he asks 150 retired men, many of them World War II and Korean War veterans, to raise their hands if they purchased their homes with a federally guaranteed mortgage, went to college on the G.I. Bill, or got a loan from the Small Business Administration. Many of them raise their hands. “I’d still be renting without that,” one of them says. “A helluva good investment,” another responds. He asks if they’ve helped their children or grandchildren pay for college, purchase a home, or start a business. Most of them acknowledge that they are, as one man tells Collins, “the grandpa ATM.”  Collins then asks, “How many of your children and grandchildren think of themselves as second-generation beneficiaries of government subsidies?” The men get what Collins is saying, as he sprinkles his talk with statistics about the size and impact of these postwar government programs and the need to help the current generation with a new wave of public investments. After the meeting, a World War II veteran named Phillip tells Collins how much harder life is for his children and grandchildren than it was for him—especially finding a balance between work and family and finding themselves deeply in debt. “People call our generation the ‘greatest generation,’” Phillip tells Collins. “Hell, I guess we were the greatest subsidized generation.” 

Collins knows that most of the wealthiest Americans are unlikely to heed his call. But he believes that there are potentially hundreds of thousands of affluent Americans—not only the super-rich but also very prosperous professionals—who share his unease with our nation’s priorities, widening inequality, climate change, and the unnecessary suffering and insecurity around us. He calls them “open-hearted wealthy people.”

“Here’s the dirty secret,” Collins writes. “The current system is built on fear. Fear and insecurity ripple through the households of the American working class, the impoverished, and the precarious middle class in a nation where one job loss, illness, or other misfortune could leave one destitute. And at the very top of the economic class pyramid, the wealthy are afraid, too. They are afraid that they and their children will fall from economic comfort and status. They are fearful of pitchforks and race riots. And they are wounded by verbal attacks as well.”

In Born on Third Base, Collins sounds like a preacher, an agitator, and a therapist. The book is part memoir and part guidebook, to help both one-percenters and 99-percenters find common ground in building a more humane, democratic economy and politics.

The title comes from a quip by football coach Barry Switzer, who observed, “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” At the 1988 Democratic convention, former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower used that line to excoriate George H.W. Bush, whose father was a wealthy Yale graduate and onetime U.S. Senator. 

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump claimed that he made it on his own because his father loaned him the “small amount” of $1 million. In fact, Trump inherited his father’s real-estate empire worth tens of millions of dollars, made by building middle-class housing financed by the federal government. Earlier in Donald’s career, his father paid his son’s debts. He also took several massive loans from his siblings’ trust funds.

But you don’t have to be a billionaire to believe in what Collins calls the “myth of deservedness.” Most successful Americans—from middle-class professionals to the super-rich—believe they owe their success to their own hard work and talent, even if they come from affluent families. Collins doesn’t deny that hard work and talent are important ingredients to success. But most successful people have benefited from forces outside their control. Having rich parents is the best predictor of future wealth.

In 2012, President Obama took a lot of flak when he said, “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” The Romney campaign used that remark to attack Obama for being anti-business and for downplaying the importance of initiative and talent. But the ads conveniently ignored the rest of Obama’s comment—that government-funded education, infrastructure, and research helps businesses prosper in “this unbelievable American system that we have.” He noted that “when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

That’s essentially the theme of Collins’s book. He writes, “One huge barrier to change is that privileged people don’t always see the countless ways that the deck is stacked in our favor.” Much of Born on Third Base is devoted to cataloging those ways and encouraging wealthy people to recognize the various forms of privilege that shaped their personal and career trajectories. Collins examines the unequal opportunities made possible by both family and societal forces, including postwar mortgage subsidies and college tuition assistance that mostly benefited whites and have long-term consequences for subsequent generations, and the various kinds of “enrichment” investments (travel, music lessons, summer camp, visits to museums, and others) that affluent parents can afford but others can’t. 

He recounts meetings and interviews with wealthy people who, like him, got involved in progressive causes. Some were not born to wealth but they, too, came to recognize that they didn’t make it on their own.   

Collins isn’t into guilt-tripping, which often paralyzes people from taking action. People have no say regarding the families they are born into, but they do have a choice about how to use their wealth, privilege, and talent moving forward.

“It is in no one’s interest to continue operating as if a few privileged people are going to escape on a spaceship or retreat to a mountaintop enclave,” he writes. His book, he writes, “is not a plea for charity or altruism, but an appeal to our real self-interests,” because widening inequalities of wealth, income, and race “are bad for everyone.”

Most of the people whom Collins profiles explain that their wealth made them feel isolated, lonely, disconnected, lacking a sense of community. Several describe how renouncing their wealth for a simpler lifestyle, or simply finding progressive avenues to direct their philanthropy, freed them from these feelings and gave them a greater sense of purpose.

 

COLLINS DRAWS ON economist Robert Frank’s 2007 book Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich to explain the different “subdivisions” in the nation’s class system. That book helped Collins find ways to appeal to people based on their class and professional status, religion, gender, and whether they come from “old wealth” or “new wealth” backgrounds.

Frank’s newest book, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, complements Collins’s Born on Third Base. It is well written and engaging, because Frank includes anecdotes from his own and others’ experience that reveal the major impact that luck and chance have on one’s career and well-being. He describes how he emerged from two near-death experiences (a heart attack and a windsurfing accident) as a result of luck, and he recounts the serendipity involved in getting his first academic jobs. He reports on research showing that the month that one is born influences one’s chances of becoming a professional athlete or a corporate CEO. For example, 40 percent of professional hockey players are born in the first three months of the year, but just 10 percent are born in October, November, and December. Frank explains that January 1 is the birth-date cutoff for youth hockey teams. That extra year of training gives older kids a lifetime advantage. 

Frank acknowledges, “It’s clear that most of the biggest winners in the marketplace are both extremely talented and hardworking.” But he argues that the wealthy tend to underestimate the role that chance plays in success and explores how this discourages support of taxation. Like Collins, he believes that if wealthy Americans understood the role that luck played in their own  success, they might be more empathetic and compassionate toward the disadvantaged and more willing to pay taxes to support the common good.

“If being born in a good environment is one of the luckiest things that can happen to anyone,” Frank says, “it is failure to appreciate luck’s importance that has done the most to undermine our collective stock of good fortune.”

Frank explores the impact of social background, inheritance, and nepotism on economic success. These stories and research summaries lead up to Frank’s big idea. He warns that America’s economy is severely hurt by a chronic under-investment in public goods—schools, bridges, roads, public transit, and other infrastructures. His solution is a progressive consumption tax to raise sufficient funds to address the nation’s problems without harming the rich. They’ll still be able to afford the lavish lifestyles many have grown accustomed to. Whatever downsizing it requires won’t matter because it won’t change their relative position in the economic hierarchy.

Frank recognizes that most rich people will resist such a scheme, because they believe they earned their good fortune and government has no right to confiscate it through higher taxes. Frank wrote Success and Luck to persuade rich people to recognize the role of luck and privilege in their lives. If they did, they would be more grateful about their success and more willing to share their wealth to promote a more equal economy and more humane country. His book is an important corrective to economists’ tendency to ignore the role of luck—both inheritance and random good or bad fortune.

The two books are good complements. Frank uses logic; Collins uses narrative. As an academic economist, even one well-versed in social psychology, Frank has considerable (perhaps too much) faith in reason as a persuasive force. Collins’s book is more compelling because he’s an activist and an organizer, comes from a wealthy background, and is a better storyteller. For Collins, movements must engage a new generation of wealthy allies who, like the “mink brigade” a century ago, are willing to break ranks and become traitors to their class.

 

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