Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO who is considering an independent bid for the presidency, has come under fire from some in the Democratic Party who must be performing an elaborate ironic satire by complaining that if he runs, they will lose (“We would have won the race, but we had an extra opponent!”) — an odd argument from a party calling itself democratic. (President Trump also took a shot at Schultz on Twitter, as I’ve argued before, Schultz would probably draw a fair number of conservative-leaning voters as well.)
However, some like Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren have taken a higher road, and instead of complaining about his right to run, are instead engaging his ideas. He has attacked her idea for a limited “wealth tax” on sums of $50 million or more, and she fired back, pointing out he’s a billionaire.
Schultz responded by pointing out he grew up in the projects of Brooklyn. Twitter users, in the normal self-righteous mode that the platform promotes, were quick to point out that the projects are public housing, so he isn’t “self-made.”
Okay, but he isn’t self-made in the same sense no one is self-made. After all, you could’ve been born in the early 20th century and been wiped out by the Spanish Flu. Luck and the generosity of others all play a role in our life outcomes. However, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t climb a steep hill to his wealth, and he is far from a trust fund baby. One of his parents was a truck driver, and the other served as a low-ranking trooper in the military. He went to a state college. He certainly had a much lower social profile than probably the vast majority of left-wing activists in the NGO sphere in America, and the news media.
The chance of moving from the bottom-fifth of the income quartile to the top fifth, let alone going from someone living in subsidized housing to a billionaire, is small, as Raj Chetty demonstrates:
In fact, the left-wing social media activists attacking Schultz’s self-definition of self-made actually contributes to right-wing arguments that the poor of America are unduly benefiting from government subsidies. But it’s much harder for the poor — yes, even people who live in subsidized housing or receive food stamps — to become rich than the middle class who do not benefit from means-tested programs. This is one of the sad realities of American polarization — that supposed ideological activists are willing to embrace ideas that are not even within their value set simply in order to undermine the other side.
By any measure, Schultz worked very hard and persevered in order to earn his wealth. Rather than taking cheap shots at him, a better discussion would revolve around the policy environment we could promote to make sure more people are able to escape poverty. So far, Schultz hasn’t really offered anything on that front, but demonizing him doesn’t offer alternative solutions either.