Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The U.S. and Us: The Mythology of the Self-Made Man

Just before break we discussed the idea of the U.S. as being a place where any citizen over 35 can really become president. Influence and money seem to be important ingredients in political success -- but not everyone has equal access to these commodities. Here are a few examples:

* Caroline Kennedy appears poised to assume the Senate seat left vacant by Hilary Rodham Clinton. Jeb Bush has expressed interest in running for the Senate seat in Florida, the state he ran as governor.

* When Alaska's two senators take their seats in the new Congress next month, their names will be familiar to most voters in that state.Senator Lisa Murkowski and her soon-to-be colleague, Mayor Mark Begich of Anchorage, are the daughter and son of two Alaskans who squared off in the 1970 race for the state's sole House seat. And just think of the Clintons, the Cuomos -- the Daleys in our fair city!

Adam Bellow (son of the late Noble Prize-winning Saul Bellow!) sees nothing wrong with nepotism. In his recent book In Praise of Nepotism: A History of Family Enterprise from King David to George W. Bush argues that "[Capitalism] in essence is a family enterprise. Most businesses were and still are started by family members."

Others, including Brown University economists Pedro and Ernesto Dal Bo, are a little more concerned. They argue that in the U.S. -- as in every other country -- "power begets power." And it's been this way since our country was founded. According to the Dal Bo brothers, "Forty-five percent of the members of the first U.S. Congress had relatives enter Congress after them, compared with a still-high follow rate of about 10 percent now. They say that the rate of children following their forebears into Congress outstrips the rate of those who follow their parents into any other career, from medicine and law to plumbing."

That first Congress (1789-1791) launched the record service of two notable families. The Breckinridge family of Kentucky, whose most notable member was Henry Clay, "The Great Compromiser" had 17 family members serve; the most recent, John Breckinridge, left Congress in 1978. And the Muhlenberg family of Pennsylvania had 13 members of Congress between 1789 and 1880, including Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg, the first speaker of the House. (New York Times)

Regarding money, I was struck by a recent article in Forbes magazine. The article quotes Edward Pessen, author of the book The Log Cabin Myth who writes, "One thing is clear, the popular assumption that most of the presidents were of humble birth is wrong." In fact, at least a third of the presidents he examined were in the top 1% of the wealth and class indexes. Who was the richest president (adjusted for inflation, of course)? George Washington. Here's his top ten:


President
George Washington 1789 to 1797
Thomas Jefferson 1801 to 1809
Andrew Jackson 1829 to 1837
Zachary Taylor 1849 to 1850
Theodore Roosevelt 1901 to 1909
Herbert Hoover 1929 to 1933
Franklin D. Roosevelt 1933 to 1945
John F. Kennedy 1961 to 1963
Lyndon B. Johnson 1963 to 1969
George W. Bush 2001 to present

The article singles out Abraham Lincoln as being the biggest beneficiary of the self-made man myth. Mary Todd, his wife, was extremely wealthy, and Lincoln represented railroads and major corporations among his clients.

Last point here: Over this break I also read a book called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In this book Gladwell argues that successful people work hard and make the most of their opportunities, but that not everyone gets an equal opportunity to succeed. Notable celebrities such as Bill Gates and the Beatles seem to grant this point immediately. Jeb Bush, brother of the current president, is one celebrity who refuses to believe this idea, indulging instead in what Gladwell terms "fantasies about being a self-made man." Bush claims that his success is only the result of "his own pluck and work ethic" and that he was actually at a "disadvantage" having a grandfather who was a senator and a father who was president!

Is the self-made man idea uniquely American? Why do we hold on to it so dearly even in the face of a mountain of contradictory evidence?


10 comments:

Jackie said...

I thought the quote “power begets power” is interesting, especially because I have actually only ever heard the word “begets” used in “evil begets evil”. I think it is very true, that power only leads to more power. We, as Americans, want to believe that we have worked hard for what we have. In a way it’s our justification. “Oh, it’s okay that I have more money that half the world because I worked hard for my wealth”. For some it’s true, but as the income gap grows, the amount of people starting low and climbing to extreme wealth is becoming less and less. It was different back in the day when you could make millions on something new, yet simple, like steel. The entrepreneur business is becoming more and more difficult, but I don’t really think there is anything we can do about it. People work hard to give their children a better start than they had, so you can’t expect that child to then start poor when their parents just spent their whole lives raising that child to wealth. I think that it is the unavoidable result of what we’re running, and I actually, and regretfully, think the train of power only leading to more power for the exact same group of people, is only going to get worse.

Miles said...

I believe the self made man is not necessarily strictly American, but I do believe that it is one of Americas favorite claims. I don't think other cultures in the world like China, India, or Europe embrace this idea because of they're class system societies. America prides itself on being a classless society, yet our presidential candidates speak of main street, the middle class and the Wall street big Whigs. But when one looks back on our nations history, they cant help but find great stories that express these ideas. For instance, John D. Rockefeller revolutionized the oil industry. Or like Jackie mentioned, Andrew Carnegie, son of a poor Scottish immigrant and builder of U.S. Steel, not to mention the donation of his fortune to the building of libraries. Point is, it's Americas favorite motif and its a great story to dream about.

Max Rice said...

While campaigning for president mike huckabee said "some people and born on third base yet say they hit a tripple" He's right, the American class system allows for unequal oppurtunity in terms of people obtaining power. Eventhough the U.S. could and should do a few things like fixing the education system to create equal oppurtunity, the powerfull will always find ways to maintane power. It is impossible and implausible to set up a functional meritocracy. Although America's class system has flaws, it works. And if you disagree, quit your whining and suggest an actual solution to the problem.

Adam said...

I believe that in it's whole, the story of the self made man is more than American. It is hard for me to give concrete examples though as I write this I can think of two self made men for outside the US. Reguardless, I think Americans are truly inspired by the story of the self-made man. We enjoy hearing about over-coming poverty to become ecnomically succesful. Just think about this in movies, the Pursuit of Happiness captures the self made man. Here is man who works tirelessly to support his son and get a job that is extremely competitive. We Americans enjoy the self made man story, that is why we always hold it so close to us and our country.

Adam said...

I believe that in it's whole, the story of the self made man is more than American. It is hard for me to give concrete examples though as I write this I can think of two self made men for outside the US. Reguardless, I think Americans are truly inspired by the story of the self-made man. We enjoy hearing about over-coming poverty to become ecnomically succesful. Just think about this in movies, the Pursuit of Happiness captures the self made man. Here is man who works tirelessly to support his son and get a job that is extremely competitive. We Americans enjoy the self made man story, that is why we always hold it so close to us and our country.

Adam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Boris P said...

The story of the self made man is a classic American story. The reason we hold on to it is because America is "The land of opportunity". We want to show the world that in our country anyone can become president. While this may not be true, we like to present it as true. When you look at many world leaders, they come from families of wealth or previous political importance. We want America to look like a place of Equal opportunity for all and the story of the self-made man perpetuates this idea.

Kimber said...

The self-made man appears to be more of an American phenomenon than elsewhere in the world. In Europe, there was a class system and Royal families that tended to define a person’s station in society. Without Royalty in the United States, power and “statue in society” seem to arise from money. As you described, many top politicians came from money. They are not as “self-made” as they’d like people to think. Although our current society says it values the “self-made” man, we see over and over that wealth and fame give many the edge. How would you describe President elect Obama? Was he a “self-made” man?

Matt H said...

I believe that a self-made man means that you are a man who has created them self from a no-body to a some-body. An example of this is Bill Gates. Yes he was going to Harvard, but he wasn't known at all. The computer industry was almost non-existent when Gates started. He created his name, and an industry. That right there is a self-made man.

Danny M said...

I agree with the Matt's definition of a self made man, but I also have one more thing to add. I think that a self made man is someone who was not born into a higher position in society. I feel that a self made man is someone who makes his or her way up to where they are now from hard work and belief in himself.