I used to read a lovely picture book to my children, "Raising Yoder’s Barn," by Jane Yolen. It was unique in that it emphasized communal achievement (Amish townsfolk building a barn), whereas most such books tended to focus on the great individual — like Harriet Tubman or Robert Peary. Both perspectives are valid, of course, but in our super-individualistic society, it is important to remember that there are no Tubmans or Pearys without the Underground Railroad and the expedition team.
Those who have excelled in their field often acknowledge this. Denzel Washington, for example, wrote a 'Yoder’s Barn' reminder for adults, "A Hand to Guide Me." The chapters are filled with accomplished individuals like Bill Perocchi; Ron Sargent; Colin Powell; Wesley Clark; Debbie Allen; Bonnie Riatt; George Steinbrenner; and Yogi Berra, expressing gratitude to the people in their lives who helped them reach their potential; the ones without whom they wouldn’t have succeeded.
And really, that’s all that President Obama was trying to say in the speech whose words were later distorted as telling successful entrepreneurs, “You didn’t build that.” He wasn’t telling Perocchi or Sargent or Riatt that they didn’t do what they did. He was reminding us all that we depend on one another; that our individual successes depend not only on the support of the community generally (the schools, roads, and bridges that the President alluded to), but also specifically.
Warren Buffett gets it, which is why he is aghast that he pays taxes at a lower rate than those who work in his office. The Rasmussens get it. They’re the Mormon couple — Republican — in “Inequality for All” that are baffled by the difference between their tax rate (upwards of 30 percent) and Mitt Romney’s (13.9 percent).
To use two characters from "The Lord of the Rings," there are no Frodos without Sams. Even while attention is focused on the man with the ring (Frodo), there are no great individual achievements without a loyal community of followers (Sam) behind them. Sometimes it means even more. Sometimes the Sams are the real Frodos.
Consider, for example, the Internet. It was created at universities (some public), by computer science professors, funded by the Defense Department and the National Science Foundation. These computer scientists did the intellectually challenging work; men such as J.C.R. Licklider, or “Lick” as he was known — the “Johnny Appleseed” of computing. It would take too much space to chronicle the various developments in multiple fields that arose from his work, but those in the know have called him the “father of it all.” A public servant, he held no ownership rights to his research that would make millions and even billions for those to come, which meant no profit from his ideas and no inheritance for his children. The same is true for us, the public who funded it all. And then there’s Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who created the World Wide Web, making it available to us all for free.
Creative businessmen, however, have profited enormously from Lick, Berners-Lee, and the others’ intellectual innovations. Mark Zuckerberg became a billionaire at twenty-three for launching Facebook, and also a Time Magazine “Person of the Year.” But his is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the ingenuity and hard work that went into making Facebook possible. Surely Lick, Berners-Lee, and the others deserve the lion’s share of the reward. Not only did they make Facebook possible, but also everything else that relies on the Internet, such as Amazon, Netflix, etc.
The accomplishments of Lick, Berners-Lee, and the others depended in turn on the scientific community before them, and especially the invention of computers (Lick’s work contributed to PCs), the story of which would take us back to the British mathematicians Charles Babbage and later Alan Turing, as well as the German Konrad Zuse, the Hungarian John von Neumann and the community of scientists at Los Alamos, not to mention John Atanasoff — professors and researchers whose work would later make possible the fortunes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
It’s worse than that, however. It’s not just that many of today’s Frodos balk at the suggestion that they didn’t do it alone (they wouldn’t get a chapter in Denzel’s book, the premise of which is gratitude), but they often stash their rewards in tax havens allowing them to avoid taxes altogether and undercut the federal spending they seem to disdain but that made their fortunes possible. They’re corrupted Frodos using the ring to become invisible and hide their hoard from the Shire.
Mary Barker teaches political science in Salt Lake City and Madrid, Spain.