"1 simple rule to making a fortune overnight," the pop-up ad teased.
Perfect. That's what greeted me when I went to open the Web release of The Forbes 400, an annual listing of the wealthiest Americans.
That was on my mind as I perused the Forbes 400 list. We read these lists and think, "They made it, why can't I?" This year, there is an added poignancy to that question because "making it" has become a major theme of the presidential election. Americans on both ends of political spectrum feel that opportunity is under threat. However, they don't agree on the nature of the threat, as is evident in campaign rhetoric and imagery. "You didn't build that" vs. "I built that." The rapacious "1 percent" vs. the parasitic "47 percent."
A useful source of reflection on wealth and opportunity is the report "Born on Third Base: What the Forbes 400 Really Says about Economic Equality and Opportunity in America," published by United for a Fair Economy, a Boston-based nonprofit. The group's researchers scrutinized the 2011 Forbes list to ascertain what role privilege played in getting the wealthiest Americans their fortunes.
To begin with, the report's authors take Forbes to task for promoting a "rags to riches" narrative, whereas, in reality, 85 of the 400 had inherited enough wealth to make the cut. Note such bankable names as Walton, Cargill, Mars, Pritzker and Hearst. Nearly 40 percent had inherited a "sizable asset from a spouse or family member."
One inescapable conclusion is that it is much easier to make more wealth if you had a nice chunk handed to you at birth or by marriage. Add in tax loopholes and shelters and preferences for investment income, and watch the riches grow.
"Born on Third Base" fleshes out another factor -- social capital -- that plays a crucial role in the success of the elite. You may not inherit much money, or any at all, but still get a serious hand up based on who your daddy knows, what the family business is, how introductions are made to the right people, access to financial and political patrons, and other difficult-to-quantify resources.
Social capital is a bit like good health. If you possess it, it's easy to dismiss its value. If you don't, life can seem like a struggle to survive. It is not necessarily something to be ashamed of; after all, some measure of privilege is inevitable in any society.
However, social capital and other sorts of privilege become noxious when those who are blessed with them are incapable of recognizing their unearned advantage. An attitude of entitlement without honest reflection is especially dangerous in a leader. Mitt Romney, whose feelings toward the less fortunate are now well known, is the poster boy.
He concluded his infamous fundraising dinner remarks with this observation: "Everything that Ann and I have, we earned the old-fashioned way, and that's by hard work." As if boarding school, paid-for college education, growing up the son of an auto executive and governor in America meant nothing. As if gaming the American tax code added nothing to his considerable fortune.
We Americans like to think of our country as a place where hard work and ambition are rewarded with prosperity, where the disadvantages of birth can be overcome. We may dream of wealth, but what most of us work for is security -- to get to a better, more certain place. Unfortunately, tens of millions of us have lost that. And more and more of us are abandoning our faith in upward mobility.
The 2012 presidential race, perhaps more than any other in recent history, needs to be about why some people in this country are doing far better than others. It's not all about hard work and perseverance. It's about whether our political system is structured to spread opportunity or to preserve it for the few.
(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at email@example.com.)