The Paquette Column and One Man’s Response To It

Since FDR first shoved ‘Relief’ through a reluctant Congress at the height of the Great Depression, the rich have been trying to get the poor off their backs. In the intervening 70 years they have had the time to formulate a healthy collection of rationalizations, excuses, and accusations to justify their resistance to the concept that they have some responsibility to help alleviate the suffering of the ‘less fortunate’, as the euphemism has it, and the beauty of the Paquette Column is that it uses almost all of them, starting with the title.

Why should I apologize for making lots of money?By Larry Paquette, 1/13/2003

I AM A MEMBER of a small, elite group widely vilified by the press and in letters to the editor. I am an easy target.

My sin is that I am in the financial top 10 percent of the country – those making $100,000 or more – the 35 percent tax bracket, a member of the so-called rich. So it is much easier to paint a picture of me with black heart and ice in my veins, cake crumbs all about, as I grow fat on the backs of the downtrodden.

However, I feel no need to defend my position. Over the years I have worked hard and earned every dollar of the obscene wealth I am accused of hoarding.

What is different about my life and how I came to be here compared with those liberals so willing and anxious to separate me from my compensation?

I worked two jobs to put myself through college. While many my age were off to sporting events or dating or cooling off at swim parties on muggy August nights, I was working in a sweltering factory, assembling bicycles until 2 in the morning. I can’t say for sure where the bleeding hearts were then, but they were not standing next to me night after night, sweating over that endless assembly line.

I look back over the years of struggle and sacrifice and can’t count the number of birthday parties, special events, and family gatherings missed because I had to work or finish a special project. I can’t begin to tally the number of empty nights or lonely weekends when, instead of spending time with family and friends, I was on a business trip halfway around the world.

There is no loneliness like being in a strange country for months, struggling with an unfamiliar language while losing contact with those closest to you.

I wonder at how the mind-set of the country has changed, how the work ethic has been corrupted. When I was growing up, the only rule was that success and achievements resulted from, and were directly related to, hard work. You got back in proportion to the effort you put forth. That’s the way it has worked for me.

How have we changed, then, to an ethic of redistributing the wealth from those who are economically productive to those who refuse to be?

Few will acknowledge it, but the message is clear. Reading between the lines of editorials and letters in the newspapers, I can almost hear the chant, ”You have it, I want it, and you owe me.”

I believe in extending a helping hand whenever possible, but I don’t believe in lifelong support for those capable but unmotivated.

I look at my bimonthly check stub and occasionally can’t help but question myself as to why I am working so hard, when federal and local taxes and deductions for Social Security and Medicare devour 50 percent of my earnings. Is it worth the 50-hour weeks, the personal responsibility, the stress?

The irrefutable fact is that money withheld and spent on welfare by a confiscatory and inefficient government does not create new jobs. Jobs are created from the dividends and investments made by myself and those far wealthier than me. They result from money put at risk, with a chance for an equitable return commensurate with the risk.

New companies, new ventures, new products and new jobs are a direct result of investment exposure. That is the heart of capitalism.

I make no apologies for my financial position. I have worked very hard, earned every dollar and hope to continue earning long into the future. Can the same be said for those standing at the intersection of Hard Work and Success, looking for a handout?

Larry Paquette is a sourcing manager for a manufacturing company in Fresno, Calif.

This story ran on page A11 of the Boston Globe on 1/13/2003.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

Various responses are, of course, possible, from throwing your foot-stool through the window while screaming incoherently in Italian to quietly burning the column in effigy at midnight on the Fourth of July. K formulated the Meritocracy Myth at least in part to help him understand how such a column could be written by someone not a raving lunatic, authoritarian robot, modern-day Scrooge, or Tom DeLay. Considering how angry and disappointed in his fellow man he was, his reply is a model of restraint and calm reason in the face of insanity. Naturally, because it was all those things, it was never published. Well, now it is.

The opinion expressed by Larry Paquette (“Why should I apologize for making lots of money?” Op-Ed, January 13) is a perfect exemplar of a damaging, yet common assumption in American socioeconomic thinking, one I refer to as the “meritocracy myth.” The overall basis of this mythos is a simplistic belief that hard work inherently results in financial reward, and conversely, that lack of wealth inherently indicates ethical flaws.The ultimate exemplification is the belief that *anyone*, regardless of background or circumstances, can pick themselves up into financial success, if they just work hard enough. This assumption of meritocracy is supported by several other simplistic, but false narratives about our society: that the playing field is level; that everyone is given the same starting point in life; that the same opportunities for financial advancement are presented to every individual; that education is uniformly good; that family wealth is not a factor; that ambition and effort guarantee success.

Mr. Paquette believes in this model because it worked for him. And there is no doubt that many Americans with higher incomes have that money due to hard work. But it is equally, and increasingly unavoidably obvious that many others arrived at a position of higher income due to advantages they were given, rather than earned. A minimum wage janitor from a poor school district who is holding two jobs to support a family does not have the same opportunity to create international business contacts, and no amount of harder floor-mopping is going to create that opportunity. The working poor of this country are working, and many of them are working hard. To directly answer Mr. Paquette’s question about how the work ethic has been corrupted is easy: the social narrative that “you got back in proportion to the effort you put forth,” is neither consistent nor reliable. It never was, but now the large business scandals of the past year have thrust the falsehood of that assumption into bold relief. This is the true cause of the change in “the mind-set of the country” Mr. Paquette laments. Yes, the work ethic has been “corrupted,” but it is not the poor who corrupted it.

Part of Mr. Paquette’s position is a legitimate rail against the stereotype of the fat-cat. He rightly feels put upon because the Zeitgeist places him in the same category as Ken Lay and Dennis Koslowski when he has very little in common with them. Unfortunately he counters with a stereotype of his own, that of the shiftless poor looking for financial shortcuts. Both assumptions are incorrect and simplistic. Yes, there are hard-working rich people and lazy poor people in this country. There are also rich people who are rewarded far out of proportion to their effort, and poor people working hard just to maintain an existence on the edge. Income is not inherently a measure of effort.

I worked a very long week last week, and the weeks before that, and I fully intend to work a long week this week. And while I do not consider myself poor, I also have no hopes of joining Mr. Paquette’s income bracket any time soon. Mr. Paquette does not need to apologize for making lots of money, but perhaps he should apologize for assuming I am lazy because I do not.

Don’t hold your breath, K.

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