Sunday, December 4, 2011

I'm Better Than You

The U.S. is a meritocracy—the land of opportunity.
The rich, powerful, and famous are rich, powerful, and famous because they are better than you or me.

Paris Hilton is rich and famous based solely on merit. The same goes for former U.S. President George W. Bush, who is smarter than all other Republican challengers including John McCain and he is smarter than John Kerry. Or at least he works harder than them. That is why he achieved what he achieved. The rich, powerful, and famous work harder and are smarter than everybody else. That is why they are where they are and have what they have.

They certainly work longer, harder hours than the ordinary working-class citizen or working poor—like me. Like my parents.

My bilingual, computer programmer dad, and my multilingual resident-alien Belgian-implant mother worked harder than anyone I’ve ever known. They had 4 jobs between them. My father woke up at 3am every morning to do his paper route (I often tagged along) and then he worked minimum wage jobs during the day. My mother worked a minimum-wage job during the day and worked a janitorial job in the late evening after office workers had gone home for the day. I often went along, and so did my dad.

Even with all this, we had to get support from other means. I mean FoodShare, church support, and U.S. government welfare. My mother volunteered for a program called FoodShare that required a certain number of volunteer hours each week in exchange for cheaper food (not free, just cheaper). The local church leaders advised my parents that they had to exhaust all government welfare options before the church would assist at all. Of course, my parents complied. They wanted to feed their 3 children. They worked long, hard hours, but fell short each month. They needed a little extra help.

They didn’t spend extravagantly. We had a modest house in a poor neighborhood. We didn’t own a car. We didn’t have cable television. For part of my childhood, we had a black and white television so small that it makes iMacs look big. My parents didn’t smoke or drink or gamble. They didn’t waste money. All of their hard-earned money went to the basics: food and shelter. I didn’t even get new clothes or used clothes. I got hand-me-downs from a neighborhood family. I got what was left over after their 5 boys had worn them and were finished with them.

And my parents weren’t stupid either. My dad was a certified genius and held a Mensa membership. Still, all this intelligence was balanced with a social disability. He had trouble relating to people. He was brilliant, but challenged. Even though he technically qualified to collect social security disability, he chose to work, and he worked hard. He set a good example for me. Where was the American Dream for him?

As an adult, I have worked since I was 14 years old. I worked full-time and went to school part-time for 8 years to earn my BA in Organizational Management. My wife and I both worked for several years having 2 incomes to get by. When we had kids, rising daycare costs limited our options to one income with my wife staying home to raise the kids. She will be back in the workforce soon. Our youngest just turned 4 years old. When I was first married more than 10 years ago, I had to work 16-hour days to make ends meet. I worked full-time from 10pm until 7am every day before going to my almost-full-time job. Both positions were skilled trade positions. I worked as a CNA Certified Nurse Aide certified through the state of Colorado. Still it took lots of work to just make enough money to live. I didn’t have any luxuries or unnecessary expenses. Just a car to get to work. When I had kids, I had to ask for church help and government help during a time of tough trials when my wife almost died and the hospital bills nearly bankrupted us. And we had health insurance! Our insurance had exceptions and conditions. I had to pay several thousand dollars out of pocket before they would even begin paying for procedures. Then they fought every step of the way and tried not to pay for several life-saving operations for my wife. After the first 2 weeks of hospital stay, my wife had to be in and out of the hospital having surgeries for 6 months. She wasn’t allowed to lift our 3-month-old baby because she was restricted to only being able to lift 10 pounds. For a while, I felt like a single dad. And boy do I have respect for single parents. I worked hard every night until after 1am and then stayed up with the colicky baby for several hours.

Was I entitled to help from the government? No. Was I grateful for the help? Yes. How would my existence affect society if I didn’t have anyone to turn to? If I just became homeless and lost my job? What kind of investment was it by the church and government programs to keep my family off the streets and out of poverty? I am glad for the help. I was working full-time the entire time, but still made so little that I qualified for government assistance. I was technically in poverty. I needed a helping hand.

I have improved my earnings each year, but even after 20 years in the work force (almost 15 of which were full-time as an adult) I still barely make as much money as a starting school teacher. I have a few prospects and I’m up for a promotion at work. I hope they pan out. I am sure I will keep advancing slowly throughout my life. But where is my American Dream? Why do I have so little when I work so hard?

Millions of working poor are like my parents and like me. Why aren’t they rich, powerful, and famous? Millions of Americans are smarter than billionaires, but they are poor. Millions of Americans work harder than billionaires, but they live in poverty. Thousands of charismatic, hard-working, professionally-trained actors, musicians, and sports players are better than the ones with contracts and fame, but the well-trained, educated, smart ones are, for the most part, poor. Now, I agree that these last few examples of the entertainment industry are very subjective. But come on now, Vanilla Ice? I’m sure there are a hundred highly skilled but unknown rappers who would put Vanilla Ice to shame. Is it possible that the luck of being able to get your demo tape into the right hands might play a small role in whether or not you get famous as a musician?

Life is NOT fair. I don’t expect it to be. I don’t advocate taking money or things from some people to try to even things out or artificially make things more even. The U.S. meritocracy system is NOT fair. That is something I wish were different. If I run faster than the guy who didn’t train, I want to see me get the gold medal or first-place blue ribbon. However, I was not the fastest runner at my High School.

I was faster than 99.99% of my High School peers. I could run the mile in 5:18 and the 2-mile in 12:28. But I never won a race. Not one. Did I expect a ribbon? No. Did I expect a trophy? No. Did I complain or think that I deserved to win? No. But I will tell you, I was sure proud of my effort. I was proud of myself for running 10 miles a day in 105 degree weather. I was proud of myself for being able to hike so well that I once carried a person down the hill on my back, after hiking up the toughest hill in Phoenix. You know, the time when your quads are shredded and wobbly. Yeah, I was in that kind of shape. I could look at anyone in any of my classes and know that I was faster.

I had a friend who was so fast that he could run a 4:18 mile. He was one of the fastest runners in the state of Arizona. Did he qualify for a college scholarship? No. Then what chance did I have? None. Did I cry? Did I curse the world? No. I took out tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. That was the only way to go to college and I believe that education is key. So I worked hard for 8 years and EARNED my degree.

So why do I say the U.S. is not really a meritocracy? That it is not really the Land of Opportunity? Because the smart, the fast, the strong, the creative, the persistent, the hard workers do not get the riches, power, or fame. Why is that? Is it true that being born in a rich family or having parents or friends with good connections might play a role? I strongly believe that with hard work and intelligence Americans can IMPROVE their lot in life. They may move from lower middle class to middle class, but they will not get rich.

Even so, do I advocate taking money from the rich? No. Do I begrudge them their position in life? Actually, I don’t mind. They happened to get there or they worked their way there or a combination of the two. They deserve their position. I don’t give it to them. It is not mine to give. They are there regardless of my opinion. But don’t tell me they are better than me.

Don’t tell me they all worked hard to get there. Don’t tell me that poor people are lazy or don’t work hard. Don’t tell me that all poor people have to do to get rich is to work long, hard hours, or be smarter. There are plenty of smart people who are not rich. What kind of meritocracy ignores merit? What kind of meritocracy lets the fast and strong lose the race or contest, or lets the brilliant get beat out in the test? Can you tell me that not one person deserved to be at Yale instead of George W. Bush? Somebody didn’t get to go to Yale because he did. Where is the evidence of meritocracy in that? Did he really score higher on the SAT or ACT tests than his rivals? His “C” average speaks for itself. You can’t tell me that his father’s position had nothing to do with his being accepted over someone who was possibly more qualified. Yes, I said “more qualified.” Isn’t that the definition of meritocracy? The ones who work the hardest and deserve it most, get the prize?

Please don’t mistake this for me whining about not being further ahead in life. I will continue to progress. I work hard. I am intelligent, charismatic, persistent, kind, and I excel at communication. I doubt I’ll ever be rich, though. That’s not how it works. Did you know that the single biggest determining factor in a person’s socio-economic class is the parent’s socio-economic class? Almost all Americans end up either in the same class or the one above or below it. Almost no Americans jump from poor or working-class to rich or wealthy. Yes, it COULD happen, but how likely is it? Is it predicated upon hard work and persistence? No. Because if it were, I would already be rich and so would millions of other Americans.

I am not a douche-bag a$$hole like Adam Carolla, the millionaire, says about the 99% of Americans. I am not upset at the 1% who earned their living. I am not upset about the 1% who didn’t earn their wealth. I am upset with the Wall Street crooks. I am upset about the ones who broke the law, not just behaved unethically, but broke the law. I am upset about the too-big-too-fail banks who took our taxpayer money, but didn’t pay it all back (some didn’t even pay it back at all) and I’m upset at the banks who made and are making record profits and still not paying us back, you know, the taxpayers who bailed them out. At least the car companies we bailed out paid us back—with interest. We made money on that! The taxpayers made money for bailing out General Motors! 

I identify with Occupy Wall Street because my beef is mainly with Wall Street. I don’t hate or envy Bill Gates. I don’t wish I were Donald Trump or Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich. I wouldn’t trade places with them for all their money and fame. I prefer to work my way up. Even knowing that I may never be rich, I want to follow my own path, earn my own way. Just don’t tell me that the rich people who are less intelligent, less charismatic, and lazier than me deserve their riches more or that they are there based on merit and merit alone. Don’t call me lazy, stupid, or a douche-bag a$$hole because I am not as rich as Adam Carolla. And don’t tell me the rich, powerful, and famous are better than me, or anybody else in the bottom 99 percent.

I’m Raphael Workman and I am the quiet, hard-working 99 percent.