Wealth should generate wealth

For over a century, one of the foundations of U.S. culture was our fondness for the “rags-to-riches” story arc. The stories of Horatio Alger Jr. gave this notion its most prominent showcase. Alger stories emphasized self-improvement through hard work, luck and pluck. They portrayed working-class orphans achieving phenomenal wealth through individual effort and chance. So popular was this narrative that many a true captain of industry—men like Andrew Carnegie—built their life narratives around it.

Nowadays, it appears, the rags-to-riches myth has fallen out of favor with some conservatives, or at least with Airfredd22, who wrote online to critique my position that the mining industry should contribute more to the state. “No poor man has ever created a job and never will,” airfredd22 wrote.

I suppose that at the time that Andrew Carnegie was creating jobs, he wasn’t exactly poor anymore, but the thrust of this statement has completely departed from the original Alger line, which at least granted poor folk the theoretical capability to become as economically productive—and successful—as they decided they wanted to be. (“Rags to riches” was always more myth than reality, so I’m talking about ideology, here, not historical fact.) The notion that large corporations should be free of any financial return to the economies that host them is often predicated on the number of jobs they create.

But economic statistics tell us that it is, in fact, the relative “poor man” (or woman) of our economy that creates the most jobs. Small businesses employing 50 or fewer employees as a group make up more than 80 percent of our national economy and Nevada closely follows this pattern. Government is another top employer. And even though mining companies in Elko are hiring while all other economic sectors are declining, the mining industry still creates less than 1 percent of jobs in Nevada, while education—one of several taxpayer-funded sectors hurt by our hands-off attitude toward corporate taxes—provides 10-15 jobs for every single mining job.

Meanwhile, Nevada’s story arc is one of “riches to rags,” as property values continue to vaporize like virga on a hot summer day. The state’s unemployment still leads the nation this month. I’m compelled to remind my gentle reader that it wasn’t “poor men” (or women) gambling on Wall Street that annihilated 10 years’ worth of prosperity in six months. Sure, I will grant that wealth, invested wisely, can and does beget wealth. But high-risk, high-stakes manipulation just as surely creates destruction and poverty. Nevada has always been a state with a wide gap between rich and poor, and our taxes and political structure are organized to keep it that way.

The phrase “No poor man has ever created a job and never will” is just one of those platitudes that sounds meaningful until one starts to hold it up to reason. As we start to question what forces in our economy really do create good, well-paying jobs, we are forced to realize that this idea is more hollow than the original rags-to-riches myth. Worse, it is condescending to people afflicted with poverty—a fast-growing percentage of Nevada’s population.

Some historians say that the Horatio Alger myths were a strategy to keep working-class people from organizing into labor unions by emphasizing individuality over collective bargaining. I wonder what historians of the future will say about today’s mythology. The working middle classes actively protest any government restraint of the corporations who vaporize their hard-earned cash and home values while eliminating their jobs.