Generosity of strangers

Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital is donating $115 million to Oxford University exclusively to fund scholarships for students from low income families. 

“I wouldn’t be here today if not for the generosity of strangers…it is all too easy not to remember,” he said while announcing the donation. 

Oxford announced the donation on Wednesday of last week. On Friday, President Obama made a campaign speech in Roanoke, Virginia, in which he made the following remarks:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who…want to give something back. They know they didn’t get there on [their] own….I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something—there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

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. The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all the companies could make money off the internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President—because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.  

So all these issues go back to that first campaign that I talked about, because everything has to do with how do we help middle-class families, working people, strivers, doers—how do we help them succeed? How do we make sure that their hard work pays off? That’s what I’ve been thinking about the entire time I’ve been President.

The timing of the donation and speech was impeccable because, yes, we do all need to realize that. The best CEOs acknowledge the impact their team, their investors, the market, and even sheer luck had in their success. There’s research that shows how much the success of “star performers” is, in fact, attributable to the environment in which they worked.

It’s important to note that President Obama didn’t discount the important of personal factors: “The point is…that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.” He just placed it in the context of our environment.

This is important because we’re living in an era when the middle class, the heart of this country that holds it together, is struggling. Real middle class income has decoupled from economic growth for three decades now:

(Source: Lane Kenworthy)

Unemployment is not only high and declining very slowly…

…but, worse, the average unemployed individual is unemployed longer than at any time in recent history:

This situation can’t last. Markets aren’t built on theoretical consumers. People have to be able to buy. And if the reckoning doesn’t come in time to harm the wealth prospects of those creating products today, it will come in the next generation.

Government has become a bad word, and I believe it’s largely an outcome of Republican marketing efforts: make government seem evil so that people don’t support spending programs, allowing for lower tax rates on the wealthy with less of an obvious effect on the country’s budget. 

I try to think of better, more charitable explanations, but I can’t. It seems like nothing more than, at best, misguided self-interest because, again, wealth creation is tied to a healthy society. And the above charts don’t paint a picture of a society moving in the right direction.

So in my mind, there’s no way around it: we live in a society together, and all of our welfare is tied together. Government is the means through which we invest in our society for the long-term. If you believe government is broken, fix it. But if you starve it, you’re only harming yourself.

Even beyond enlighted self-interest, those of us who have done well have a responsibility to not be the extractors that destroy the system that allowed us to do well.