Dear Tech CEO, You are Not the Problem With America, But Your Attitude Is

The American Dream = work hard and no matter where you come from (or don’t come from) you too can become anything/anyone you want to be! I love America. I love being an American. There are a lot of countries in the world where this isn’t possible. There are a lot of times in the history of forever, even in America, where this wasn’t possible (see: black slavery, women’s suffrage, et al.) Today, theoretically at least, we all have the opportunity to be anything we want to be.

Part of that American Dream and a fundamental value of being an American is that we (as in “us” and our “family”) deserve anything we are able to obtain if we work really hard to get ahead. We all acknowledge, to some level, that the system is rigged. CEO Rob May acknowledges it maybe more that most. He worked his ass off and after a lot of failure built a successful business, and he’s pissed that people want to go all Robinhood on him and tax him heavily as a reward for all that hard work and suffering. His Fortune article published this week in response to the Bernie Sanders and Talia Janes of the world explains just that:

Despite the strain that entrepreneurship put on my finances, my health, and my personal relationships, I kept at it because I wanted to be successful. And eventually, yes, I became a millionaire. It only took 15 years.

May goes on to explain why he’s so offended by the thought that he should be expected to pay more in taxes on his earnings now because he worked very hard to get to this point…

Along the way, I learned a lot. I created over 100 jobs. And in the end I helped build something useful for thousands of companies around the world. But when I hear Bernie speak, I feel like I’m the problem with America. I’m one of those millionaires he mentions who should pay more taxes. I’m the bad guy. I’m the white male who is only successful because everything was handed to me. I don’t deserve the money I made. All the things I sacrificed don’t matter. The additional stress I was under doesn’t matter. The risks I took don’t matter. According to Bernie, the world needs fewer people like me, and more people like the smart Yale student who majors in something useless, travels the world, and then graduates with $100,000 in debt that people like me should pay off via higher taxes.

Ok, now we’re getting somewhere. Mr. Tech CEO is pissed because he doesn’t want to pay for people to major in degrees like philosophy, art and education. He worked two jobs through college to graduate without any debt and earned an engineering degree and even had a series of failed businesses where he worked hard and sacrificed and eventually figured it out and built a business that is successful enough to afford him a .01% income. He IS the American Dream. Bravo, Mr. May. Seriously, it’s amazing what you’ve accomplished, and you and people like you are NOT the problem with America.

But just because you aren’t the “problem” with America, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t want to make it better. What I don’t understand from your letter is what we as a collective whole should do, other than accept that our country is rigged and work hard and maybe get to where you are if we happen to be as smart as you are (and if we’re not, then tough luck on us, life isn’t fair, right?) Do you propose:

  • Everyone should be an entrepreneur because the only way to get ahead in the world is to start your own business? Slash / if you don’t, it’s on you and you made that choice to be poor/struggle/not be able to afford to put food on the table because life is rigged and that’s on you?
  • The arts and anything outside of technology are useless and our society would be better if people only went to college for practical skills like engineering? Nevermind that engineers build robots and A.I. to eventually remove the need to engineer because our A.I. will be more intelligent then we are, so in the distant future the actual human value will be in what we can create as humans as much of our engineering contributions will pail in that which our artificial intelligence can create or the time in which they can solve hard problems?
  • That because life is rigged, if you were born to drug-addicted parents or a single mother who had to work three jobs in order to afford to put a roof over your head, or you have a learning disability and struggled in school, you just have to deal with it and figure it out — work hard and you’ll get ahead if you’re lucky or don’t, but that’s your decision and no one else should help you out.
  • We should let capitalism work the way it wants to and have people paid less than livable wage because that’s on them and they ought to stop doing anything enjoyable that costs money because it’s their fault they didn’t try to build a successful business from the ground up, and that they graduated college with any debt at all?
  • Colleges should be allowed to raise tuition to whatever they want per year, despite cutting the number of tenured faculty, and more Americans should need to take out massive private loans to afford an education because the definition of middle class is federal despite it really being very specific to regional cost of living? In fact, it’s complely ok and acceptable that in 1978 a student who worked a minimum summer job could afford to pay a year’s full tuition at the 4 year public university of their choice, whereas now a student would have to work a full-time minimum wage job for almost the entire calendar year to afford the average, $14,000 per year tuition — which means it’s nearly impossible for any college student to attend a 4-year school without taking out student loans…

Etc, etc…

I understand why you’re upset, Mr. May. I understand that you’ve worked hard and you’ve suffered a lot and you had to sit through some pretty horrific board meetings where VCs tore you a new one and you had to walk out with a big smile on your face to tell your employees that everything is hunky dorey and you didn’t take time to enjoy your life because you were constantly working hard to maybe, just maybe, have a successful business and get to a point where you were earning a sizable income and now you’re angry that someone like Bernie Sanders and all these socialist millennials want to increase tax rates to take what you’ve earned and hand it over to people who just aren’t making smart decisions or working as hard or making sure they play the game right. You were told the world was this rigged game and you figured out how to play your cards right and you won. You’re clearly highly intelligent and a hard worker and you ARE the American Dream. Now we want to take your money to help others who aren’t working as hard as you did? How dare “we” —

I agree with May and people like May that this world of ours is rigged and we have to work hard to get ahead. I also think that doesn’t reduce the importance of evaluating how we do things and seeing ourselves as a collective of Americans whose happiness and success can be not only defined by our material wealth and net worth, but also by the health and stability of those around us. No one should expect life to be handed to them on a silver platter monogrammed with Bernie Sanders’ initials.

I agree with you Mr. May. No one should say that a CEO’s job is easy either, or that a CEO (especially founding CEOs) do not deserve to be making what they’re earning — most of us have no idea how hard a CEO works or doesn’t sleep or what they have to do in order to keep their business afloat behind closed doors. Anyone complaining about CEO pay, especially at a startup, has no idea how hard it was and still is to get there.

The two thoughts (CEOs deserve their salary and life should be affordable for people who aren’t CEOs) aren’t mutually exclusive. We shouldn’t have a culture of entitlement — it’s amazing how in just a few generations we went from a nation of immigrants without college degrees to a bunch of whiney millennials. But we also shouldn’t say that just because we were able to get where we are by the choices we made, everyone else should do that/figure it out on their own terms, or deal with the consequences. It’s every man/family in it for themselves, and who cares if the top .01% of Americans have almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%? After all, anyone from the 90% can make it to the top .01% if they just avoid doing anything entertaining or enlightening in their 20s like “watch TV” or “travel the world.”

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