For those of you not old enough to remember the old Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, they enjoyed unparalleled television popularity back in the 1970s and 80s. The show would “roast” a different celebrity each week, featuring a roster of well-known comedians. One of the staples of those shows was the former vaudevillian star Red Buttons, who would routinely question why a particular celeb was getting honored when some of the greatest members of his nationality (Jews, Irishmen, African-Americans and others) were never feted. It was a different time back then and the routine was a hilarious highlight of the celebrity roasts.
I thought of that Red Buttons routine this past week when I read that the late, former Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, Jr. was to be honored with an eight foot statue in the nation’s capital. Barry, who died in 2014, served three terms before he was convicted of drug possession during his mayoral tenure after smoking crack cocaine in a D.C. hotel with a former lover and sent to jail. He was elected again to a fourth term after his release. It led me to question how we view, define and recognize success.
This country was founded on the ideal that citizens are free to pursue their dreams and thrive based on their own merit. Our government was structured in such a way as to minimize the obstacles preventing us (individually and collectively) from accomplishing the goals we set for ourselves. In the context of business, that success was heralded and the financial rewards were admired. The business acumen, the foresight, the innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit, were what all Americans aspired to achieve. And most set out to do so by their own mer- its and in their own way. Sadly, it now feels as if we are facing more obstacles to success than ever before.
While many still aspire to the pinnacle of the American dream, those without the drive, the know-how or the spirit look to punish those who succeed. One example is the proposed “millionaire’s tax,” a plan to raise the income taxes paid by people who earn over $1 million. I view this as a vehicle for the ultimate division of America – the haves versus the have-nots.
The rationale is that if you’ve been successful in business, then you should have to pay more to the government than others. You pay more not because the services you receive are better or more valuable, but because you’ve been more successful, and so you probably have the money. Where you demon- strated your incentive and became more successful and enjoyed the fruits of your labor, you are now going to be forced to take those rewards and give them to those who haven’t harnessed their own incentive or hard work.
That kind of social welfare punishes people who work hard, take risks and create jobs for others. It’s a view popularized by U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who said this about successful entrepreneurs:
“You built a factory out there, good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads that the rest of us paid for. You hired workers that the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.”
It doesn’t exactly sound like a resounding “thank you” for taking risks, investing your capital and providing employment, does it? Instead it sounds like government wants to punish you—using Robin Hood’s theory of taking from those who are successful and giving to those who don’t even try.
Raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, because it “feels” like a good wage for low-skill workers, is another prime example. All of a sudden, we are not rewarding people based on the quality of the work they do, or the value of the job they perform. Instead, we give everyone the same thing because that is what some decide feels fair. It is the government equivalent of giving everyone in Little League a participation trophy rather than reserving recognition only for those who deserve it (the best hitter, best pitcher or league champions). In Red Buttons’ day, people at the bottom of the ladder were encouraged to get an education or learn a trade so they didn’t have to toil in a minimum wage job. Today, people working in those jobs hold onto the hope that they will be rewarded for doing nothing. They are celebrated in political slogans as rally- ing cries for the next protest march, not because they are working to improve themselves and climb the ladder.
Buttons would have had a field day roasting Marion Barry for serving as mayor of the nation’s capital, disgracing himself and his supporters, serving time in prison and then getting recognized as a hero. He would question why someone, who should be viewed as a failure, gets a larger-than-life statue at taxpayer expense.
DDIFO Executive Director