During the media promotion for Big Russ & Me, the late Tim Russert’s much-loved tribute to a father whom he very much venerated, Russert the son talked with bursting pride about how his sanitation worker father had immense common sense even though he hadn't attended college. Without pretending for a second that university life is where wisdom is attained, Russert’s assertion came off as a false note. He seemed to saying that Big Russ's wise ways were a consequence of a lack of education, and a lack of work success.
While blanket dismissal of the insights, morals and ethics offered by the average would be foolish, much more foolish would be dismissal of what the wildly accomplished have on their minds. How ridiculous to reject someone’s thinking just because they’re educated, or rich. Reduced to the absurd, you the reader might ask yourself whom you would have learned more from each morning about hard work, business and life: longtime and legendary General Electric CEO Jack Welch, or a factory worker in one of GE’s myriad plants? The question answers itself. What is wrong with achievement?
This question came to mind last week when a prominent Republican indicated that the GOP was no longer the party of “country clubs." It's instead the home of hard working, blue collar workers. Where does one begin?
On the face of it, the statement was rooted in some kind of Karl Marxian labor theory of value. The more physically exhausting and dirty the work is, the better, more noble and more valuable that it is. Which on its face is nonsense, particularly when it's remembered that the politician describing the allegedly new GOP pays the bills with toil that has nothing to do with dirt, or factories, or anything remotely associated with “blue collar.” In other words, the person proclaiming political alliance with those who work with their hands doesn’t himself. Neither did Marx or Engels. Goodness, by his own admission Bruce Springsteen has never been inside a factory. The politician was pandering.
Furthermore, if we ignore that “blue collar” work is a consequence of economic activity conducted by the “white collar,” we can’t ignore that white collar workers are among the hardest charging people we know. Financial success is enormously difficult to attain, which is why it’s financial success. If everyone were 1 percent in terms of wealth, then it wouldn’t be achievement in the first place.
Republicans used to cheer achievement. They would point out truisms like “I’ve never worked for a poor person.” Rich, white collar workers take on all the risk. They frequently put up their own, hard-earned capital to start a business that, if it fails, drains them of all they put into it. And usually much more. Their employees, including their blue collar employees, only lose their jobs. To offer up but one of countless examples, Nike co-founder Phil Knight didn’t pay himself a salary for years, and then when he finally did it was very small. The employees of this white collar Stanford MBA were paid no matter what. Knight’s grand compensation in the form of an IPO came near twenty years after he started the business, and after twenty years of sleepless nights whereby he worried most every night that the next day would be Nike’s last.
Knight ultimately prospered because he fulfilled a massively unmet market need. That’s what white collar risk takers do. Politicians lionize blue collar workers, but white collar types generally attach “rich” to white collar by virtue of expertly serving those who are exponentially less productive than they are. The Waltons became multi-billionaire, white collar rich by democratizing access to the world’s plenty for the common man worshipped by political types.
Back to Russert, he yearned to attend Canisius, an elite Catholic high school that Big Russ told his son was “very far” from the Russerts in Buffalo, NY. Big Russ wasn’t talking in terms of distance for those a bit slow on the uptake. Needless to say, his son attended Canisius before attaining college and law degrees. He then worked for one of the most intelligent men to ever walk the floor of the U.S. Senate: Daniel Moynihan. No doubt Big Russ was proud of what his son had accomplished.
Think about it. Most parents dream that their kids will achieve more than they did. Republicans used to view upward mobility as part of the “American Dream,” didn’t they? It’s not unreasonable to conclude that the achievement often includes – gasp – country club membership. Lest we forget, the U.S. is about aspiration. It’s the place was where your past doesn’t rigidly dictate your future. Republican hero Ronald Reagan was the son of an occasionally unemployed alcoholic. Blue collar? Yes. Reagan went white collar. He became president. Rest assured that his Hollywood crowd knew its way around Los Angeles area private clubs. Same with his well-heeled “kitchen cabinet.” There’s nothing wrong with financial success, and the exclusivity that often comes with it.
In truth, financial success is the most noble of acts. It represents progress. That the greatest opportunities for blue collar workers are in locales pregnant with the superrich is but another benefit of white collar financial success.
After which, Republicans have at least historically paid lip service to the genius of reduced penalties levied on success (taxes), reduced charges for savings and investment (capital gains), fewer taxes on daily activity (regulation), very light taxes on exchange (no tariffs), and a monetary unit (in our case, the dollar) that can be trusted as a measure of value throughout time. Guess what GOP? The policies you support are all about soaring inequality because they make it most likely that talented people will be matched with capital on the way to white collar achievement.
When Republicans deify average they’re basically rejecting all that they’ve stood for at least since Reagan. The guess here is that Big Russ wouldn’t have approved.