I know, gone for a week and then post twice in two days.  I warned ‘you people’ when I started this column I’d write whenever the mood struck me.  I’ve been moodstruck.

Dateline August 11, 2012: “We look at one another’s success with pride, not resentment, because we know that as more Americans work hard, take risks, succeed, more people will prosper, more communities will benefit. And individual lives will be improved. America, America is just more than a place, though. America is an idea. It’s the only country founded on an idea. Our rights come from nature and God, not from government. That’s right. That’s who we are, that’s how we built this country. That’s who we are. That’s what made us great. That’s what made us great. We promise equal opportunity, not equal outcomes.” Those were the words of Congressman Paul Ryan on the day he was chosen as the Vice-Presidential candidate for the Republican Party.

I agree with part of what he said and I take great issue with the other part.  Permit me to break it down for you:

I can point to dozens of Conservative commentaries in print and across the web where it has been stated that Liberals/Lefties have confused the basic concept of equal opportunity and equal outcome.  The Constitution is their hallmark document to base that statement because it says we are guaranteed “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, not happiness.  Name me one Liberal, anywhere who has claimed we have the “right” to be happy.  You can’t, and the common theme is that those who have less are merely envious of those who have more.  It has been taken a step further; “We’ve done away with grades on schoolwork, winners and losers in school games, and in some places, valedictory honors in graduating classes.  Liberals seem to think it’s a crime for some people to have more things, more money, or a bigger house than other people.” That’s quite a broad stroke with which we Progressives have all been painted, and again, show me a single Liberal who has made that argument.  That’s right, you can’t.

We have not done away with grades on schoolwork.  I know because the neighbor kid brings his report card over to me every quarter.  You see, his parents have little money and I told him about this great program we have here in Missouri called the “A-Plus Scholarship Program”.  If high school kids follow some pretty stringent rules of academics and comportment, they can get their first two years of college paid for.  That’s right, if they work hard, stay in school, are on time and are there every day, complete their school work to the highest standards and demonstrate citizenship skills above and beyond, they can get two years of their tuition covered by this fully funded program.  This program was designed to give greater access to students who would have been left at the educational sidelines due to the financial circumstances of their parents.  It’s not “given” to them – they earn it and they do it the old-fashioned way and they couldn’t do it if we had done away with grades on schoolwork.

We have not done away with winners and losers in school games.  I know because I faithfully attend the local high school football game every Friday night (GO BULLDOGS!).  The two teams do not pointlessly play for an hour and then divide the score up evenly at the end.  One team wins and one team loses and that’s the way we Liberals like it, believe it or not.  Yes, some schools have eliminated the class valedictorian and salutatorian honors and instead choose to honor the highest 2% of students who have excelled academically.  Can someone please direct me to the source proving this is some evil Liberal/Socialist plot and further tell me why it’s such a bad thing?  Besides looking good on a resume, please explain to me how this label guarantees someone an advantage in life over being named in the top 2% of their class, which incidentally, also looks pretty damned good on a resume.

But here’s the big lie to which I take the greatest offense: “Liberals seem to think it’s a crime for some people to have more things, more money, or a bigger house than other people.” No, we don’t.  We don’t.  We just don’t.  Please, please direct me to a single Liberal who has made that comment.  That’s right.  You can’t.  When someone works hard and has a body of work for which to show how they got their wealth, no one is happier for them than a Liberal.  If a man worked hard, started say, a construction company, employed other people and has structures to show for his work, that’s a noble thing.  If a woman writes a great novel and that novel is purchased by enough people for her to have attained great wealth, that’s a noble thing.  If a group of people creates an idea that furthers technology in ways that are measurable, that’s a noble thing.  Here’s the type of wealth creation Liberals have a problem with…

I will use the children of Sam Walton, the founder of WalMart, as a perfect example.  Now, Sam was the quintessential self-made man who came from nothing and built an empire.  He was a beloved figure to his employees and he had something to show for his hard work.  Sam was the father of four children, and when he died, he left everything to his children.  In the years since Sam’s death, his children have changed his vision and “created” quite an empire for themselves, amassing more wealth than 40 percent of the entire population of the United States. In 2007, their wealth equaled the bottom 30.5% of the national wealth.  By 2010, that figure was up to 41.5%. Was it because they made something?  No. It was because of what they took.  The Walton family lives on blood money.  They drive wages and living standards for their employees far below the level needed for existence.  During new employee orientation, new hires are instructed on how to apply for public assistance, food stamps and Medicare.  A company with their financial holdings could easily provide better wages and affordable health care benefits to their employees, but they choose to allow taxpayers to pick up that tab.  70 percent of all items sold in their stores are made in China, using slave labor in many cases, and has put so many American businesses out of business because they can’t compete with cheap goods made by slave labor.  Simply put: WalMart is bad for America.  What does WalMart actually make?  Nothing.  As an outlet for cheap Chinese goods, they are the antithesis of everything that made America great because they put more people out of work than they employ and lower our standard of living.

Now, I make fun of Starbuck’s on occasion because I always say it’s the one place I can go where I’m guaranteed not to be the most pretentious person in the room.  In fact, Starbuck’s is actually a pretty decent employer.  Part-time employees can qualify for up to $500 in tuition assistance, they employee nearly 100,000 Americans (64% women and 28% minorities).  Store managers make on average $43,600 a year and the most common hourly job, listed as Coordinator II, nets $35,067, annually.  Around here, that’s decent money.  It isn’t WalMart money, that’s for sure – and they make something – something that doesn’t require putting other people out of work.  That said, I think their coffee sucks.  I’ve never had any that didn’t taste burned (apologies to my sister, Barbie who is addicted to the stuff).  But here’s the meat of Starbuck’s: they offer medical and dental benefits, paid time off, a retirement savings plan, equity in the form of stock options, adoption assistance, domestic partner benefits, emergency financial aid, referral and support resources for child and elder care and yes, a free pound of coffee every week.  Compare that to the WalMart benefits and folks, that ain’t nothin’.

And therein lies the difference – WalMart is concerned about amassing great wealth at any and all cost.  Starbuck’s is concerned about amassing great wealth while placing a high value on the people who help them make and sell their goods.  This is where Liberals can delineate between bad capitalism and good capitalism and we have the critical thinking skills to know the difference, thanks to our socialist educations.  But I digress.  This is about equal opportunity and equal outcomes.  Do WalMart and Starbucks offer equal opportunity? I can easily argue that WalMart does not while Starbuck’s does.  Why?  Because each company, while having the same goal to amass wealth chooses a vastly divergent benchmark in what they value.

This leads me to the ultimate question… does every American have equal opportunity?  You decide.  Let’s take two people from very different backgrounds:

Charles is the fifth born child of African-American decent born in South Central LA.  He lives in a neighborhood where drive-by shootings are the norm, getting to school alive is a challenge and once there he goes through a metal detector to get to his over-crowded classroom where he undergoes standardized testing to which he cannot relate because he has not led a standardized life.  Despite the challenges, he does well in school and qualifies to attend an arts program at a private school, but he can’t go because his family cannot afford the tuition.  Charles grows up, manages to avoid the social pressures of joining a gang, and graduates third in his class.  He works part-time to contribute financially to his two-parent household where both parents also work.  Upon graduation, he qualifies for tuition assistance, but can’t manage to swing paying for books and meals, so he goes to work full-time in construction.  The economy is tough, so he can’t be guaranteed consistent hours and a consistent paycheck, but he continues to live at home and does the best he can.

Willard is the fourth child of an affluent family in the Midwest.  His father was a former car company executive and the Governor of the state.  He attended public school until the seventh grade when he transferred to an exclusive private boarding school.  Regardless that he was not encumbered by social pressures or financial hardship, Willard did not excel either academically or athletically, but his family’s financial and social status afforded him access to the finest education money could buy.  After his high school graduation, Willard spent the next year attending Stanford University, one of the finest institutions of higher learning in the country.  His college career was interrupted to complete a 30-month religious “mission” in France, designed to convert the French to his religion, another experience he himself admits he was not particularly successful.  Upon his return to the U.S., he transferred to Brigham Young University where he completed his undergraduate studies.  During that time, he married and started a family. He and his wife enjoy relating how they “struggled”, living in a basement apartment, though he did manage to excel academically during that time.  Post graduation, he chose to attend Harvard Law School where he earned a law degree and received a Master’s in Business Administration.  He was a stellar student by that point, graduating in the top third of his law class and was named a Baker Scholar for graduating in the top 5% of his business school class.  At the conclusion of his education he was burdened with no loans or debt.  After graduation he went into private consulting and eventually, became CEO of a venture capital firm that became famous for buying out companies, saddling them with huge debt forcing them into bankruptcy, laying off the workers who lost their retirement funds, and making millions of dollars in the process.  He didn’t actually make anything but a lot of money.  Willard went on to run a US Olympic Games that he touts as one of his finest achievements, but he leaves out the part where the American taxpayers bailed out that failed venture to the tune of over a billion dollars.

Did Charles and Willard have equal opportunity?  Hardly.  Does the fact that they did not have equal opportunity have anything to do with the fact that they did not realize an equal outcome?  Of course it does.  If this nation promises equal opportunity, then we have failed miserably.  The Right decries Title IX and affirmative action, because they somehow can’t accept that there has been historical discrimination based on race, color, gender and sexual orientation.  Discrimination isn’t something that can be debated; it’s an historical fact of our nation.  The truth that we have been a nation guilty of systematic discrimination against non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual people isn’t something we should continue to be ashamed of when we try to correct our course through affirmative action.  Affirmative action has always been a means to equal opportunity where the system already in place has failed.  Willard has had a good run and did so both by birthright and having access to a different system of rules for the elite class.

If Americans truly had equal opportunity, things would be markedly different.  Charles wouldn’t have had to pass up the chance to go to that private arts school or college based on family finances and geography.  He might have become the next great painter or musician, because Americans still value those things too, don’t we?  If he hadn’t excelled in that private school, no one would have blamed the system, because once there, the onus would have been on Charles to make something of himself.  Of course, we’ll never know, because like so many Americans, the doors to opportunity remain firmly closed, and that’s the way not all, but too many Conservatives like it.  And had Willard been in Charles’ circumstances and chosen not to apply himself in school, the exclusive Cranbrook School, Standford and Harvard would have been out of the question.  He was able to attend those schools based on his status as a child of privilege.

As for our rights coming not from Government, but from nature and from God, let’s ask Charles great-grandfather about that.  You see, he was a slave who was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.  Let’s ask Charles’ father about that.  You see, he was a black man from Alabama who was told he couldn’t attend the white man’s school or share a public restroom with a white man because he had too much melanin in his skin but doesn’t have to worry about that today, thanks to the Civil Rights Act.  Ask Charles’ mother who has made less money in her lifetime because of the systematic pay discrimination policies against women, but who now makes the same amount as her male counterparts, thanks to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.  Thank goodness Charles isn’t gay, because it’s still perfectly legal in 29 states to fire someone for what they choose to do in the privacy of their own home, in their bedroom, behind closed doors.  You know, I was thinking, there ought to be a law…

There is much to do in this country.  Let’s not waste

Steve Jobs

time by pretending that all things are equal, that every American has the same opportunities and Liberals are nothing more than a bunch of whiny crybabies jealous of the size of the bank accounts of the 1 percent.  We value people who work hard at making something.  We value employers who value their employees.  We value people – all people.  We don’t lionize wealth at all cost and demonize poverty for no reason and we don’t lump every person into the same category because we know people and circumstances are different.  We admire men like Steve Jobs because he created something tangible.  He changed the way we think about technology and taught us to embrace it for all it’s worth while he created beautiful things, like the iPhone and the iPod.  Interesting that he chose to forgo the mansion for the suburban neighborhood and that was his only home (not one of six).  I don’t recall any stories of scorched earth policies where Steve Jobs put tens of thousands of people out of work, though, I do object to the Chinese labor used to make his products.  Please note those jobs were always overseas and were not outsourced American jobs, though that’s of little solace to the Americans who want to work, yes, want to work.

Despite what we’ve been told, Americans are not inherently lazy.  Granting food assistance to a starving person does not entice them to remain on food stamps.  Unemployment checks that are not nearly equal to what a person was making does not entice people to stop looking for work.  Social Security checks do not make old people less “free”.

I’ll make a deal with the Conservatives who trash the poor:  If you’ll stop pretending that every poor person not only deserves their lot in life, but created it because of a character flaw, I’ll stop pretending everyone who talks like you is an insensitive, obtuse asshole who has foolishly swallowed right-wing propaganda hook, line and sinker. Fortunately, I do know a lot of Conservatives who understand poverty is a problem that needs fixing from the outside in, not the other way around and who want to take a balanced approach to fixing the debt which is far from the national crisis we’re to believe it is.

The sooner we can start looking at every American as a part of the solution instead of a part of the problem, we will begin to heal as a nation.

Carol Baker is a free-lance political writer and sometimes satirist.  She is a regular contributor to Here Women Talk.

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