How to misunderstand privilege

Apparently Mitt Romney gave away his father’s inheritance. While on the face of it this is probably true (I trust PolitiFact’s judgement and reasoning), it completely misses the point about the kind of privilege that allowed him to get where he is.

barely relevant graffito to break up the textFirst of all, nothing I’ve read makes clear whether he took large amounts of money from his father before he died. Given that the younger Romney had already been running Bain Capital for over a decade by the time his father died, he could clearly do without the money by then, but was the father an early investor in the firm? Even assuming that he wasn’t, did the son use the father’s social networks and name recognition to find investors and/or partners? I’d be shocked if he hadn’t.

Then there’s his education. According to Wikipedia, he did go to public school for the first few years, but that was in one of the wealthy cities that has avoided becoming administratively a part of Detroit so that it can have its own separate, well-funded public services. And then he transferred into a private high school, and went to a very expensive private university. I think no less of him for having done so—if anything, I would think less of parents who had his parents’ fabulous wealth and didn’t invest some of it in their child’s education—but it still amounts to a massive leg up relative to people whose parents can’t afford these opportunities. And remember that this leg up is not just academic: privileged schools also help people start the kind of social network that makes fundraising for an investment firm far easier.

I bet he also got to graduate from Stanford without debt. I’m not sure that was as exceptional then as it is now, but it’s certainly an advantage to be able to. In my own life, I would never have been able to take some of the risks I’ve chosen to take if I had a mountain of student debt behind me.

Then, even assuming that he got no further financial help from his parents, he would have always known that they could provide him a safety net if things went terribly wrong. People from wealthy families tend to massively underestimate the value of that, but the world looks very different when you have one. In my own experience, I never took money from my parents to pay university fees, but one of my universities repeatedly screwed up the administration of the grant that was meant to pay for me, and if I hadn’t been able to borrow from my parents to bridge those gaps I would have been begging for food. Without that safety net, I probably wouldn’t have made it through the first semester. And if I had failed that quickly? Simply knowing that if everything goes wrong at once my parents would be able to buy me a plane ticket and give me a place to stay while I pick up the pieces made a huge difference.

I see this in the startup community, too. Sure there’s the odd founder who really is going out on a limb and risking ruin, but a far greater proportion of founders than of the general public have some kind of financial cushion to fall back on. Founders who are well-connected to other people with money also do far better, because it’s just easier to get an investor’s ear if you are a friend or acquaintance. Once again, this is not a criticism of the people involved—they still need some skill and a work ethic to succeed and why shouldn’t they take advantage of what luck has handed them?—but it’s important to remember that they have had some good fortune to help the talent and hard work along.

What I do want to criticise is this divorced-from-reality attitude that somehow if people didn’t directly take cash handouts they’re not privileged and they’re playing on a level playing field with everybody else. At best it’s enormously blinkered, and it’s often outright dishonest.

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