This weekend marked the start of the 2012 Olympic Games. Like many Americans, and others around the world, I spent much of my time watching on TV as talented athletes from many nations competed to be recognized as the best at whatever sport they have devoted much of their lives to mastering. As I watched the shouts of encouragement to team mates in the team competitions, the joy of victory on the faces of the medalists, and the agony of defeat on those who didn’t place, or placed lower than they expected, I was struck by a statement made by the President of the United States recently, and how it not only applied to businesses, but to individuals as well; even those individuals competing at the Olympics in London.
The President was speaking of those who have built businesses in this country that provide jobs for millions of worker. His statement? “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that…” The implication? Government financed and built infrastructure is what enabled you to do what you did. Without that, you would have nothing.
Likewise, if you’ve got a gold medal, you didn’t do that either, and for the same reasons. As the President put it, “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.”
Someone gave you help. Somewhere, there was a great teacher who encouraged you – paid for by taxpayer dollars. There were the roads and other infrastructure that allowed you to get to practice; the jet aircraft that flew you to London – do you think those just appeared out of nowhere? Of course not! It was the government that made air travel possible. If not for the thousands of fans packing the stadiums, and the millions more watching on TV, there would be no Olympics for you to compete in. If not for the BBC in London, a government owned enterprise, where would you be today? Who would even know you had won?
You think that you won that gold medal in swimming, or gymnastics, or track. But who built the stadium, answer me that? Where did the money come from? Taxpayers, that is who. So, my friend, you think that it was your hard work, your determination, your blood, sweat and tears that produced your victory? Think again. Just as the man who built Microsoft, or Apple, or Ford Motor Company didn’t really build that company, neither did you really win that medal. You are just part of the collective; the lottery winner in the game of life, supported by your fellow humans, without which you would be no better than the meanest beggar in the lowliest hovel on the face of planet Earth.
You know, now that I think about it, the same thing applies to those in the professional sports and entertainment industries as well. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony; you guys may think you are great, but guess what? You didn’t do it yourself. The great teachers, great coaches, and infrastructure arguments apply to you as well. You didn’t do that; someone else made it happen. Same holds true for Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, and Barbara Streisand. In fact, I find it interesting that those on the left excoriate businessmen, bankers, and anyone else that is rich – anyone else except actors, actresses, newscasters, or athletes.
Anyone ever heard of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr? Mr. Sulzberger is the chairman of the board for the New York Times Company, a company which, among other holdings, owns The New York Times. The New York Times has been one of the leaders in ripping bankers, business owners, and anyone on the right a new one for being “rich.” They have been especially voracious concerning Mitt Romney and Bain Capital. Mr. Sulzberger has been the chairman since 1997. I wonder how much he makes or is worth?
According to MEDIAite Power Grid, Mr. Sulzberger ranks #20 among media moguls, with a net worth of approximately $200 million. Not too shabby, though of course one would expect someone in Mr. Sulzberger’s position not to be a pauper. Nor do I begrudge him his money, although as the son of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the previous publisher of the New York Times, and grandson of Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, and the great-grandson of Times owner and publisher Adolph Ochs, one could hardly say he was born to poverty. Still, he is credited with making many innovations at the Times which have helped to improve the paper’s bottom line, and it is undeniable that he is a successful businessman in his own right.
It is also undeniable that at different points in his career, he has made decisions that cost people their jobs, whether directly or indirectly. And yet, have you seen any media outlets or owners excoriated on national TV or print media? Well, of course not! They write the news after all!
How much do big-name TV personalities make? In 2010, Katie Couric was reportedly making $15 million a year. Simon Cowell, $75 million. Ryan Seacrest, $38 million. Oprah Winfrey reportedly makes a whopping $275 million a year. Isn’t it interesting that millions of common Americans pay money to watch millionaires do their version of “work” every day? We pay millions to watch millionaires play extremely popular games, like basketball, football, baseball, and hockey. Heck, we even pay to watch them play things like golf, tennis, and bowling.
We pay millions to be entertained by millionaires on the silver screen, and on the glowing tube in our bedrooms. How much was Andrew Garfield paid, for example, to play Spiderman? Well, not nearly as much as Tobey Maguire reportedly would have been paid for a Spiderman 4 movie. Heck, Garfield, at $500K was a steal next to Maguire’s purported $50 million price tag. Still, $500,000 to make a movie? With the price tag doubling with each successive film?
As for Maguire’s reported $50 million, all I can say is really? As fun as a movie like Spiderman may be to watch, it is certainly an example of “you didn’t really do that yourself.” I have seen the first three Spiderman movies. Maguire did a good job, but come on. Spiderman is not “Casablanca;” you could put just about anyone in the spider suit and get roughly the same result. Not to denigrate his acting ability, but Andrew Garfield is a good example of that. Most of what makes Spiderman Spiderman isn’t the actor or the suit, but rather the technicians and special effects artists behind the scenes. Much as you might like to believe differently, the actor, whomever it was, really wasn’t flying through the night from building to building shooting spider webs from his wrists. That really didn’t happen. So who really deserves the $50 million, or the $500K; the actor, who was fortunate enough to be selected for the part by a director, or the techies behind the scenes?
Speaking of the director how is he any different from that heartless venture capitalist (like Mitt Romney) who puts up cash to turn a company around and ends up letting a lot of people go in order to save the company? How many actors, stage hands, etc are fired by directors every year? How many countless others are denied a job in the first place, because the director didn’t select them? Surely, aspiring young (and old) actors and actresses need work too. Surely they have families, dreams, and aspirations.
For those who “built their business with their own hands,” President Obama is here to tell you that really isn’t so. The people working for you built your business; you just came up with the idea, that’s all; if it hadn’t been for them (and government, of course), you would not have gotten anywhere. You are no better than they.
Of course, if the person who “built the business” hadn’t come up with the idea in the first place, the people who “actually built the business” wouldn’t have had the job in the first place. It seems to me that we actually rely on each other. Workers rely on a person with a vision to create an environment in which they can work, and the person with the vision relies on skilled labor to make that vision a reality. Just as those with the drive, ambition, skill, and yes, sometimes luck rise to the top and become the world’s greatest swimmer, or gymnast, or basketball player while the rest of us watch in awe at their accomplishments. We may wish that we could do the same, but for the most part we lack the ability, desire, or drive to make that a reality.
It is not given to most of us to be the CEO of a successful company, or the quarterback of an NFL football team, or even to be a successful actor or actress. Most of us would like to be such, but really don’t want to do the things that would be necessary to achieve those goals even if we had the talent and ability to get there in the first place. That gymnast might be awesome on the uneven parallel bars at the Olympics in London. But most of us would not ever want to sacrifice what she had to sacrifice to accomplish that feat.
What President Obama said regarding people who build businesses is, as most undoubtedly recognize, ridiculous. Even President Obama must realize that, and wish he had chosen his words better. For someone who is supposed to be one of the most brilliant orators of the century, he does seem to fall short all too often when speaking off the cuff. Then again, the century is still young…
In any event, what he seemed to be saying, or perhaps what he actually meant (if I might give him credit for saying something that he actually didn’t say) was that we stand on the shoulders of giants – those who have come before us, and those who are here today. That which was built by those who came before us shape what it is possible for us to do today. Not a particularly profound observation to be sure, but one which I think most of us, including the CEOs who built businesses can agree.
Yes, we have had teachers, coaches, and the like who have influenced our path. Yes, it is good that roads exist, and that taxpayer’s funded them, so that we can get around and do business. But why do roads exist in the first place? Certainly, why modern superhighways? Would government have built them in the first place, hoping someone would invent something that would make them useful? (Well who knows, with some of the loopy things government funds these days, perhaps they would.)
People who come up with ideas that build businesses that generate jobs are vital to the well-being of a vibrant society. Government just is not good at this sort of thing. Imagine, if you will, the government office of innovation, where average everyday ordinary people sit around at desks waiting for a spark of genius to flare up and ignite some new idea that can spawn a new field of mathematics, or a new technology, or field of science that will change the course of a nation and employ millions. Don’t expect it to happen anytime soon. And yet, how many people can trace their current job, directly or indirectly, to the development of Microsoft Windows, or Apple computer, or the electric light bulb? How would you be getting to work today if not for Henry Ford?
Olympic athletes, I salute you. And I will go on watching your exploits at this and future Olympics. You have worked and worked hard to be where you are. No one did it for you, no one handed it to you on a silver platter. You did it. You may have had help from others; you undoubtedly received encouragement. But you did it.
Last night they played a short clip from a previous Olympics. It was from the 1996 Atlanta games. The U.S. women’s gymnastics team was on the verge of defeating the Russian team – an historic win. It came down to one last person in one last event; Kerri Strug on the vault. She had to nail it. But Kerri fell on her first attempt, injuring her ankle. It seemed that all was lost. But Kerri didn’t quit. Instead, she flew down the runway, executed a fantastic vault, and stuck her landing, standing there on one foot, before crumpling to the floor in pain. Victorious. Triumphant. This will always stick in my memory. I get choked up every time I watch it.
Kerri did it. No one did it for her. She could have given up, but she didn’t. Her coaches, no matter how supportive, didn’t do it for her; couldn’t do it for her. And the government certainly didn’t. She earned it, as did her team mates.
As do those at the London games this year.