Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn
Excerpted from my forthcoming book, Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn.
In May of 2013, I stood beside a podium on a wooden stage in the center of the Georgia Dome, an indoor stadium in Atlanta. I listened to the President of Georgia State University introduce me to a crowd of 20,000 students and families attending that year’s commencement ceremony. “Chris began his career as an entrepreneur in 2004, when he co-founded Facebook with his Harvard roommates,” he said. “In 2007, he became director of online organizing for Barack Obama’s campaign.” He continued through a few more accolades, and the audience applauded thunderously. I stepped up to the podium to speak to the largest crowd I had ever appeared in front of. For a moment, I felt like a rock star.
That moment was brief. In 2012, I bought The New Republic, a nearly 100-year- old print magazine, with the intent of stewarding the historic institution and finding a new business model for print media in a digital age. After a string of starry successes, this time my failure was deep, clear, and fast. I overinvested early, set unrealistic goals, and found that I lacked the grit to manage such a difficult transition. By the next year, all of the digital savvy and esteem I had earned was worth nothing to detractors who called me “a phony” in the pages of The Washington Post and Vanity Fair.
That was a turning point for me, in more ways than one. Unsurprisingly, it made me question why I bought The New Republic in the first place. But more importantly, it revealed the thinness and superficiality of the praise that I had received for years. People believed me to be a genius because “Co-Founder of Facebook” followed my name. Fast Company once put me on its cover with the headline “The Kid Who Made Obama President,” as if I single-handedly was responsible. As soon as the house of cards collapsed, people zeroed in on the power of chance in my story and discounted everything else. I went overnight from wunderkind to the hapless, lucky roommate of Mark Zuckerberg.
The truth is somewhere in between. For the early part of my life, my story played like a movie reel for the American Dream. I grew up in a middle-class family in a small town in North Carolina. I studied hard, got financial aid to go to a fancy prep school, and then went to Harvard. My roommates and I started Facebook our sophomore year, and my early success there and at the Obama campaign garnered me acclaim and notoriety. Eventually, Facebook’s IPO made me a lot of money. I worked my way up, and I took every chance offered to me. I also got very lucky.
That luck wasn’t just because I was Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate — much larger forces were at work. A collection of economic and political decisions over the past four decades has given rise to unprecedented wealth for a small number of lucky people, collectively called the one percent. America has created and supported powerful economic forces — specifically globalization, the rapid advances in technology, and the growth of finance — that have made the rise of Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, and people like me possible. The companies we built went from dorm-room ideas to assets worth hundreds of billions of dollars because America provided them with a fertile environment for explosive growth. These are extreme examples, but they aren’t as uncommon as you might think. Over the past few decades, a small group of people like me has gotten very wealthy, very fast.
Inequality has now reached levels not seen since 1929, the year the Great Depression began, and stands to get even worse. The same forces that have given rise to massive companies and concentrated wealth have made it more difficult for working people to benefit from the economic opportunity they expect and deserve. By the numbers, Americans are working just as hard as ever but are still struggling to get by. Most Americans cannot find $400 in the case of an emergency like a car accident or a hospitalization, yet I was able to make half a billion dollars for three years of work. Something is profoundly wrong with our economy and in our country, and we have to fix it.
I believe we live at the beginning of a tumultuous era, similar to the turn of the last century when so much wealth collected in the hands of railroad and shipping tycoons. We need to be as open to creative, new ideas as the most forward-thinking leaders of the Progressive Era were then. They created an income tax, enacted direct elections for senators, banned corporate contributions to political campaigns, enfranchised women, and laid the groundwork for labor protections like the minimum wage and old-age pensions. We need to be equally bold today.
And we should base our solutions on what works. I have come to believe that, dollar for dollar, the most effective intervention in the fight for economic justice is the simplest: cash, put in the hands of the people who need it most. The guaranteed income is as radical an idea as it is simple. An income floor of $500 per month for every working adult whose family makes less than $50,000 would improve the lives of 90 million Americans. Wage laborers and informal workers alike — — parents with young kids, adults taking care of aging parents, and students — should earn the benefit. It should be paid for by the one percent.
I hope this book starts a broader conversation about why we need a guaranteed income in the United States and how it might work. We can be the generation that ends poverty in America and provides financial stability and economic opportunity to the middle class.
This book traces my journey from a little town in North Carolina to Harvard, through Facebook’s blockbuster success, and to my life afterward. It tells the story of how I grappled with the responsibility of such early “success” and how I came to embrace a guaranteed income. That journey began with poking around blog posts and online forums. It took me to Africa and back three times and to communities in Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Alaska, all in the pursuit of figuring out what is working and not working in our economy today.
We have to start having brutally honest conversations about fairness and economic opportunity– even if they are awkward or painful–if we are ever going to fix our country’s problems. I hope this book can be a starting point for a frank discussion about the fraying connection between work and wealth, and specifically, how a guaranteed income can restore stability and opportunity to the lives of working Americans.
The American Dream, the idea that we can all do a bit better than the generation that came before us, is an optimistic idea that we should cultivate and reinforce. It has long been more myth than reality, but it is up to all of us, particularly those of us who are benefiting most from the status quo, to work to build a country where everyone has a fair shot to pursue their dreams.
Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn
This book will start a frank conversation about how we earn in modern America, how we can combat income inequality, and ultimately, how we can give everyone a fair shot.