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Rags, Meet Riches: Celebrating the growing gap’s real unsung heroes

February 13, 2012

4-minute read

I have to admit that lately I’ve been thinking maybe some of us in the 99% have been just a teensy bit unfair.

And it hurts—really hurts—to say this, but I’m wondering if the CCPA also bears some responsibility for inflaming that whole “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful—sorry, I mean incredibly wealthy,” class-warfare-y thing that in January had the National Post (not to mention several other media outlets) setting its hair on fire.

Take the CEO salaries report, which spawned weeks of heated media coverage and debate about wealth hoarding and the ever-growing gap between the rich and the rest of. But I’m also beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, in the midst of the outrage (“they make how much?”) on the one hand, and the, well, outrage (“you’re just jealous! Get a job!”) on the other, we’ve forgotten about the little people.

You know. Those salt-of-the-earth folks who could teach us all a thing or two about struggle and hard work and sacrifice.

An epiphany (well, actually this reality check from MSN) helped me realize that I too had forgotten the very human faces of the under-appreciated and the taken-for-granted—the CEOs, whose modest beginnings should give all those self-focused people working night shifts a reason to sympathize. Maybe even find common ground.

Like Mike Lazaridis (worth $800 million, according to the Globe and Mail). Or Kevin O’Leary, who sold his educational software company to Mattel for a cool $3.8 billion in 1999 (and has made a name for himself on CBC telling the less “hardworking” to suck it). Or George Cope, “the rare Canadian executive who has held the position of CEO at not one but two of the country's largest companies” (readers, take note of his impressive 6’8” frame!).

But don’t make the mistake of thinking luck or circumstance had anything to do with these “rags to riches” stories; what separates these role models from everyone else who works hard and sacrifices and has aspirations and creativity, is how they were willing to “scratch and claw their way from nothing to get where they are today.”

It’s an inspirational read, and did much to help me put myself into the Brogues of our real unsung heroes. But for those too exhausted after yet another double shift to read the complete tribute, or in a bit of rush dropping off the kids at daycare and then racing to get to work on time, here’s the abridged version.

With some slight variations, this is the “nothing” they started from: son is born to middle-class family (or emigrates to Canada with middle class parents), goes to university in the 70s or 80s, gets a job upon graduation and/or borrows seed funding from parents to start up a business, hooks up with a couple of other guys with nothing in common but their university degrees, no student debt, money from parents, a salaried job, and a kooky dream. Rags, meet riches.

Now I have to admit, the 99-percenter in me had a hard time stifling my running commentary that provided….what’s it called?.....critical context to these success stories. Maybe it was the glass of entitlement (or was it envy?) I’d had first thing that morning along with my cereal, but at times I found myself thinking about our (male) CEO’s “humble” middle/working class roots that once actually ensured a decent standard of living for families raising kids—unlike today. Or the incredibly low tuition fees in the 70s and 80s that allowed graduates to start their careers debt-free. Or the fact that, when our CEOs were coming of age, good jobs with decent salaries were quite plentiful for those with a degree—or even for those who dropped out of university (none of this having to work in a coffee shop to pay off student loans). Or that perhaps the reason their parents had a bit of extra cash lying around to help these CEOs-in-training achieve their dreams is because household debt to income ratios weren’t at 150% like they are today.

But in the interests of the greater good, I did my utmost to rise above such divisive thoughts.

And then it hit me.

Instead of pointing out the yawning chasm between those uber-rich and the rest of us; instead of documenting how over the past 20 years wages for the majority of us have remained stagnant while household debt levels have soared; instead of examining how skyrocketing tuition fees have only added to the burden of so many families trying to make a better life for their kids while paying the mortgage and working harder than ever before and trying to save for retirement; instead of proposing strategies and policies to restore the socioeconomic balance, we could have been doing so much more to unite the 100%.

All we needed to do was stop talking about poverty and inequality and job market stagnation. If we had truly wanted to bridge the divide that the CCPA (and others of that ilk) have apparently exacerbated with documentation, we would have stopped going on about the ways in which Canadians experience socioeconomic insecurity on a daily basis, and the devastating toll it takes on individuals, families, communities and the country.

If we had really wanted to right these socioeconomic wrongs and work for a solution to this untenable situation we would have taken the first step: put a human face on those seven figure (or more!) salaries and capital gains. After all, if we on the left really believed in compassion and empathy wouldn’t we stop to think, just for a moment, about how very tough it is to be a multimillionaire?

At the very least we could suggest one of those team-building exercises at work like when you compare favourite foods. Which will inevitably lead to spontaneous exchanges along the lines of: “you like mango? No way! I love mango! We should totally hang out!” And the next thing you know, the irritant of inequality (or at least the problem of how pointing it out has offended those who seem to have made it their life's work to defend our platinum-plated brethren) would be well on its way to being solved.

Now, I’m just speaking for myself, of course. But after MSN’s intervention, I found myself going back to the Globe and Mail’s story on Mike Lazaridis’s home/compound and feeling a kind of….dare I say it...solidarity with my previously unacknowledged comrade.

After all, who needs a non-stagnant income when you can bask in the warm knowledge that any one of those workers building “former RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis's multi-million dollar home on the banks of Lake Huron” puts their pants on one leg at a time, just like you and me?

See what I mean? Solidarity. Or, in CEO-friendlier terms, “since I work 1/189th as hard, the least I could do is get the door for you, Mr. O’Leary. You must be exhausted.”

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