An Open Letter to Rob May
(Since Fortune doesn’t accept unsolicited responses to their op-ed articles. Funny, that.)
First off, let me say that I don’t think you are the problem with America. And for that matter, I wanted to congratulate you on your millions. You’ve put in the time, you’ve put in the effort, you’ve made the choices, and they have paid off as you deserve. You have every right to be proud of your success. People like you are part of what make America great: with good ideas and a lot of tenacity, they can improve their lot in life and make the world a better place. That’s the American Dream, pure and simple.
And it’s why some of us support Bernie Sanders. Many of us feel, in short, that the American Dream has become the sole domain of a specific sub-class of people, and we’d kind of like to change that.
You present your path to CEO millionairedom as if to prove that, if you did it, so can the rest of us. That may be true, but even if it is, it doesn’t follow that everyone should follow it. If every person in America is a CEO, who is going to work for us? Who is going to implement our decisions and policies? Who is going to generate revenue for us? The world needs leaders… but the world also needs followers, and frankly it needs more of them than it does leaders. As such, your advice, which basically consists of, “You should choose to be a leader,” is not especially helpful. Additionally, it ignores the fact that someone needs to choose to be a follower if the nation is to function. Where would Starbucks be without people willing to be paid $10 an hour? For that matter, where would America’s economy be without Starbucks to wake us up in the morning? (I think there’s a really funny satire waiting to be written about the day the entire barista corps gets fed up and quits.)
Additionally, how are your millions working out for you? I’m not asking to be scathing. I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most notoriously expensive places on Earth. If I want to continue living and working here, I practically have to be a millionaire to afford anything. Moving away only lessens the problem: a bunch of tech workers already had that idea, and took their money and salaries with them, with the result that almost anywhere with any sort of tech scene is becoming gentrified too. All of this makes your path seem even less appealing, since it won’t really guarantee financial security anymore.
So where does that leave us? I don’t know. But at least Bernie is talking about it.
He’s said a lot of things, but it all boils down to, “I think the 99% should have more money.” (Well, that and, “Which we’ll need to take from the 1%, because that’s where all of it is right now.” Which statement is the chicken and which the egg is a debate we should have elsewhere.) And for those of us who are in the 99%, that’s something we like to hear. Not because we’re lazy and don’t want to lift a finger; not because we’re unwilling to bear hardship. (I mean, God knows that we’ve got our share of such people. But, no offense, you CEOs have your share too. So let’s not point fingers and just move on.) No, it doesn’t please us because we’re lazy. It pleases us because we aren’t lazy. It pleases us because we’re doing the best with what we’ve got, and we’re terrified that it might not be enough.
I work at a tech start-up that makes a smartphone video game, one of the most lucrative there is. It’s not on the level of Google or Apple, but being at a company with a steady and impressive revenue stream probably means I can look forward to financial stability in the future. …Or do I? I know people who do work at Google and Apple, and are still having problems with their mortgage. They own modest places — the Google friend bought a house of less than 2,000 square feet, about the same size as two apartments. The Apple friend lives in a condo! To be fair, the Bay Area has some of the most exaggerated differences in income disparity — the rich are richer here, and the poverty line is higher. But everywhere you go in the nation you’ll still see the same problem, just with smaller numbers associated with it. And it’s starting to afflict more and more people. Working at a stable company isn’t the same as having a sufficient salary anymore. Heck, working at some of the most valuable companies in the world doesn’t guarantee that!
And keep in mind: what they have is all I’m asking for. A roof over my fiancée’s head, and maybe enough money that she can be a stay-at-home mom if that’s what she wants (which it is). I’ll probably never be a CEO; I’ll probably be a cog in the machine for the rest of my life. And you know what? I’m happy with that. I’m good at being the guy who stays at your elbow, reminds you of what’s going on, keeps the big picture in mind so that you can focus on the minutiae (or vice versa). I’m not good at being in charge; I know this from experience, from having started my own business ventures and seen them fail. No, I’ve found my place, and I think I’ll do well there. But I’m not sure anyone’s going to appreciate me for it. At least, not well enough to put a roof over my head, much less all that other stuff. I mean, my friends at Google and Apple are having the same problem, and they make a lot more than me.
Should achievement come easy? No. Absolutely not. Nobody values what they didn’t work for, and we don’t live in a world where things come free. Should achievement be rewarded? I think we can agree that it should. But the question that divides you and I, Mr. May, is this: which achievements should be rewarded? I think we can agree that yours should. Again, you have every right to be proud of what you’ve accomplished, and to have been rewarded with financial success as you have. But here’s the other question: what about other goals? What about the people who want to keep the wheels turning on someone else’s software (like me), or provide childcare to others (like my Apple friend’s wife), or — God forbid — go into the thankless hell my fiancée chose and be a teacher. What about our less-lofty, middle-class aspirations? Should we receive our less-lofty, middle-class reward for them? And to be clear, I’m not asking if we should be rewarded as much as you are; I’m asking if we should be rewarded too.
Because your article is very clear: it says that you can make it in America “if you are willing to make the right sacrifices.” To you, there are choices that are wrong and deserve to be punished. Specifically, those of us who chose not to walk the path of the CEO have made mistakes and therefore have not earned reward. We don’t deserve the money we make. All the things we sacrifice don’t matter. The additional stress we are under doesn’t matter. The risks we took don’t matter. Never mind that the system doesn’t work without us; never mind that you and every other CEO built your dreams out of our sweat and labor; never mind that teachers like my fiancée are more single-handedly responsible for our future than are anyone else except individual parents. We didn’t choose your path. We didn’t make “the right sacrifices.” We don’t deserve success.
With that in mind, I actually need to rescind my previous statement. You may not be the problem with America, Mr. May, but you support a worldview that very much is. You support the value system that only appreciates certain kinds of success. You support the hyper-capitalist mindset that insists we should be willing to sacrifice our health, our happiness and our life savings in pursuit of the almighty dollar — not just once but several times, in your case. You support the culture of CEO-worship that results in people with those titles making about as much per day as their workers do per year. You support neoliberalism, in short — an ideology that has ruled America since the 1980s and is directly responsible for the housing-bubble crisis, the subprime-mortgage fiasco and the Great Recession. You support a system that, by your own admission, is broken.
And you’re right: we do need less of you. Not fewer of you, but less of you. You are right to celebrate the role of entrepreneurs and job creators, but they don’t have to be the be-all and end-all of American existence. We can still have time for families and friends. We can have maternity leave and vacation days and free health care and not work 47-hour weeks on average. It is possible for this to happen, as basically every other nation on the planet demonstrates. We need you, Mr. May; we need your drive and ambition. But we also need you to tone it down. Right now that drive and ambition have taken over our nation, and almost everyone is suffering under its rule.
By your own admission, this system is broken. Many of us suffer under it; you don’t, anymore, but that’s only because you managed to work it in your favor. Your advice is to play by its rules, rigged though they are. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, says, “What you didn’t have to suffer through that? Sure, you won’t be a millionaire, but you’ll still be able to be comfortable. What if we… un-broke the system?”
Sorry, man, but I stand with Bernie.