Leonard Schleifer, the CEO of Regeneron, is a billionaire. Regeneron, a global, extremely successful biotech company, has seen the best performance in the S&P 500 for the past three years. A little unknown fact about Schleifer though is that he started out operating a small snow-shoveling business. This surprising revelation led me to begin thinking about the “rags-to-riches” dream associated with the United States. Specifically, I began to wonder whether or not it would be fair to say this dream still exists today. Sure, we haven’t fully pulled out of the economic downturn. Sure, there are vast differences between the wealth of the very wealthy and the very poor. Sure there are many Americans receiving welfare assistance and food stamps. All of that aside, I believe that to an extent, this traditional American dream most certainly still exists.
The only issue is that we need to redefine our expectations for the “rags to riches” dream. First of all, one’s starting point matters. After all, we need a frame of reference for any transition we want to observe. Unfortunately, everyone can’t realistically aspire to be a billionaire CEO or a professional athlete or musician. Even the hoards of Yalies that attempt to “make it big” with On Campus Recruiting aren’t guaranteed to receive the jobs they seek. In fact, the sad fact is that many of them don’t get the ever sought-after consulting and banking jobs.
The important thing to recognize is that improvement is key. Improving one’s life through hard work, ambition, or innovation is noble and ought to be regarded as such. Attaining “riches” doesn’t have to mean elevating one’s economic and social status many strata, but rather one or perhaps two. The classic American dream is available for everyone, so long as he is willing to rationalize what it is indeed reasonable to expect to attain.
So, how to respond to the liberals? Many a liberal will say that even if we equalize starting points, we still won’t have equality of opportunity because of inequalities in family background and environments, genetic predispositions to being smarter, assets, and pure luck. Honestly, they would be right. The question, however, is what are we supposed to do about it? Redistribution, affirmative action, racial or gender quotas, and dumbing down of curricula are not the answers. The answer is to accept the inerasable differences and to work within the system. Everyone can achieve, but the big misconception in the liberal camp is that the riches need to be the same for everyone. Differences are okay. Rather than being cited as examples of pervasive inequality, differences should be embraced. They are the foundation for uniqueness and exceptionalism and the gold standard upon which aspirations can be targeted. Having been inspired by former Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s “Every calling is great if greatly pursued”, my grandfather used to say “Every job is great if greatly pursued.” The same goes for dreams, and for “riches.”