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The Escalator of Success (Next Time Take the Stairs)

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

When I was a little kid, there was a game I used to play while out and about with my family. Every time we came upon an escalator, I'd run ahead and charge up it as fast as I could, just so I could then stand at the top and "pull" everyone else up by the moving handrail. When they joined me at the top, I'd proudly claim full responsibility. No one could escape being pawns in my victory if they were on that escalator. It was their own fault if they didn't take the stairs.

I was about 5 at the time. But what's President Obama's excuse for applying similar logic to the functioning of business?

"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help," Obama said at a campaign event in Roanoke, Va., last week. "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."

In other words, even if you think you're independently successful in business, there's still a force -- that would be government and collective humanity -- pulling you up the escalator in spite of yourself. And Obama is me, at age 5, overseeing the success of the operation.

The president's argument can be reduced to: "Oh ho! You use the Internet! But you didn't actually MAKE the Internet yourself, did you? And did you use your brain to build 'your' business? You think your brain is all YOUR doing? What about all the teachers paid by the government who put things into your brain? And in the process of building 'your' business, did you flap your own arms and soar off to meet with clients on the power of self-generated energy produced by your very own mitochondria? Or did you grift off the roads laid by government-funded heroes on your way to your faux self-sufficiency and prosperity? I see that you're on the escalator of success. If you're so 'independent,' why didn't you take the stairs?"

If success is going to be socialized, punished or diluted, then why even bother trying? What's the point of going through all that hassle when the credit for success will be spread around? Presumably, the alternative is just to plop down at the base of the escalator and chill out -- an option that looks quite palatable at the moment based on the number of people dropping out of the labor market entirely.

Why bother being more productive only to have it taken away, when you can work less and have the government leave the fruits of your labor alone because you've skillfully ducked the threshold of success above which it's no longer considered your own? That's the danger of this kind of thinking.

This way of reasoning doesn't affect the wealthy, who can relocate elsewhere in the world and find ways for their cash to pirouette out of government grasp. It's the middle-class entrepreneurs fighting to make their way humbly and honestly in an economic downturn, and maybe even pull a few others along with them, who are demonized by such an attitude and bear the brunt of it.

That's one of the biggest problems with class warfare: Little effort is made to differentiate between an independent entrepreneur and a silver-spoon magnate. While Obama claims to support extending the Bush tax cuts yet again for those making under $250,000 annually in support of those entrepreneurs, he was attacking their entire mind-set in the same speech, labeling their individual success as a collective product.

The self-made entrepreneur with a few employees and an annual income of $300,000 isn't a multinational corporation outsourcing to China and stashing funds in the Channel Islands. How much does a person like this really owe society beyond what he's already giving back through his efforts? And at what point, in Obama's view, does such a person's success become his or her own?

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