Friday, September 14, 2012

Doesn't Anybody Remember George Bailey?

It should not surprise me that in this capitalist nation of ours our political leaders measure success by the number of people one employs and the size of one’s bank accounts – be they offshore or otherwise.  The Republican National Committee Convention last month where Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan were handed the nomination to the RepubliCANT Party  trotted out speaker after speaker who informed us of the nostalgic days when their parents were humble small business owners who made it real big.   

We all know the backbone of the American economy is small business. Frank Capra knew this in 1946, in his homage to small town life, Its a Wonderful Life, where George Bailey and his small savings and loan acts, among other things, as a buffer between the greed and contempt of the most powerful man in town, Mr. Potter, and the devastation of poverty in Bedford Falls. The film epitomizes the romance we have in this country with small town life and our love of community. 

In the 2008 presidential election we heard a lot about Main Street and Wall Street and their
interdependence.   The story of the importance and success of small business was at the heart of the RNC’s Convention this year.   Starting a business is probably one of the most difficult endeavors one can undertake.  The small business man or woman gets all of the benefits and rewards of owning a business, but also assumes all of the risk.  It must be a very stressful experience when things don’t go well and a wonderful one when it is profitable.   The RNC also touted the importance of the corporate world in creating and maintaining jobs and job growth.  They, rightly so, embraced the importance of business to our way of life in this country. Capitalism is not all bad.

BUT I’ll be damned if anyone is going to tell me that the only people in this country who are successful or who work hard are people who own businesses or those who work in the corporate world. That is the message that came through loud and clear at the RepubliCANTs National Convention.   

Everyone measures success differently, but success is not only about money. It is also about progress,  personal achievement, creativity, love and community. George Bailey thought he would be successful if he traveled around the world and left his small town forever behind him. Try as he might, he never got to leaveft home, but turned out to be the "richest" man in town. A woman's success used to be measured by how well she married and the amount of children she gave birth to. Feminism came around and women realized their success did not depend on their looks or their fertility.  Once upon a time you were considered successful if you graduated from high school and got a job with good benefits and a  pension.  Nowadays you're lucky if you can get a part time job with a bachelor's degree. Owning a home used to be a symbol of how successful you were until the housing boom and we were convinced anyone could own a home.  We see how that turned out. Our own measures of success as a people have evolved drastically in the past forty years.

Many of the RepubliCANTS on the stage in Tampa reminisced about their parents and their struggles,  equating their parents' struggles with their own.  Everyone brought up the quote by President Obama, famously taken out of context by the RepubliCANTS, about the interdependence of government, entrepreneurship,  the drive of our citizens, and the economy.  Many of the speakers from Chris Christie to Ann Romney  talked about the humble beginnings of their, mostly European,  parents and their choice to emigrate to the U.S.  insisting that nobody helped them build anything.  Ok.  So why didn't their parents stay in their own countries and build or create whatever it was they wanted in Wales, or Italy or Ireland?  In the case of Governors Susana Martinez of New Mexico, and Nikki Haley of South Carolina, why didn't their parents or grandparents stay in Mexico or India, respectively? Because they needed help. They knew the United States is a place where you can be whatever you want to be.  The United States equals opportunity.  Everybody knows that. Even if you are not well off or financially comfortable, you know that coming here means your children will have a better chance to grow and improve their lives and their children's lives. 

Haley and Martinez in particular are vexing figures.  They both proudly spoke of their parents success and how they did it on their own.  But, did  Haley and Martinez do it on their own?  Martinez no longer works for her parents' security guard business.  She went to school and became a lawyer.  Do you mean she didn't benefit from their labor?  Her parents didn't help her in any way? And, Haley, who worked for her parents' company, Exotica International, for a time, seems to owe most of her financial stability to the labor of others.  Both she and her husband are on the taxpayer's dime since he's a federal employee and she's Governor. I know if I had a business that was as profitable as they say their parents' businesses were, I  would cut my daughter off a piece. Of course, these two women earned what they have, they worked hard to get where they are.  But take their argument to its logical conclusion  and it exposes obvious contradictions.
Whatever success I have achieved was built on the shoulders of my mother who barely knew how to read, but told me I had to get an education, and my father, who was always home teaching me that life also had to be fun. Where would I be without the government who had enough faith in me to give me thousands of dollars in Pell grants so that I could go to college and graduate school?  What about all the people who have helped me in my career, giving me a job when I had no experience?  Where would I be without my friends who have helped me through so many difficult times? 

I may not have my three bedroom, three bath condo yet, but I know I'm successful!  I live better today than I ever did as a child when I was growing up in public housing.  I am a well-educated person with a master's degree working in a field where I do my best to help others learn to improve their own lives, in my old neighborhood, no less!  I support myself and my child, almost exclusively through my own labor.  I have never been arrested.  I vote in almost every election, and I am an all around good citizen.  So because I don't own a business or have a  vacation home in the Hamptons, or have six figures in a bank, I should feel bad about what I have accomplished?  I may not be RepubliCANT successful, but I sure am George Bailey successful.

"Dear George, remember, no man is a failure who has friends."
from Its a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra, 1946.

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