Opinion and Forefront

WOUDENBERG: Protests undermine the American Dream

November 12, 2011

Anita Y. Woudenberg“Bail out the people!” The Occupy Wall Street phenomenon became local when a group of sign-bearing protesters marched past my Terre Haute firm’s offices the other day. While I certainly envy the chance to be outside rather than working on such a beautiful fall afternoon, the ramifications of their protest offer a much more clouded forecast of the future of our country.

America is built on the premise that it is the land of opportunity, that each of us, if we work hard, can strive for a goal and attain it, with the rags-to-riches notion being a common American theme.

Hoosier history offers numerous great examples of this. Richard Gatling, of Indianapolis, invented the Gatling gun and became a wealthy man. Orville Redenbacher, of Valparaiso, made his fortune selling popcorn. Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical chemist and colonel in the Civil War, made lucrative advances in drug manufacturing. And the Wright brothers, whose family immigrated to Millville in the late 1800s, found financial success in their invention of the airplane.

But never mind the history. The message of the Occupy Wall Street protesters—and their Hoosier counterparts in places like Terre Haute, Indianapolis, Evansville and Fort Wayne—is that we don’t believe in this dream anymore. Or at least we believe in it … until someone realizes the dream. Then, we deem them or their companies greedy and corrupt, and demand, in the interest of fairness, that this 1 percent of America give the rest of us part of their success.

Now, do these Americans deserve their millions? I don’t know. I haven’t seen their job descriptions. Nor do I know what a good idea is precisely worth.

But then I could argue the same is true of football players with their million-dollar salaries. Peyton Manning certainly has made some impressive plays, but is he actually worth his salary? Regardless, as long as someone will pay a million dollars to another person to buy that person’s product(s) or service, people will demand it. And if everyone wants an iPod or a Post It note, the company that makes it is going to profit.

What is overlooked by these protesters is that the companies that result from these lucrative success stories typically employ a lot of people. Eli Lilly and Co., for example, employs nearly 40,000. And often the great Americans behind these companies are generous and philanthropic. Eli Lilly’s grandson—who grew the company to a global reach—gave his $165.8 million estate away upon his death.

But ultimately, it’s the solution offered by the protesters that I find particularly problematic. “Bail out the people?” Since when are we socialists, taking from the haves (who are, in fact, people) and giving to the have-nots? And why are we acting like 99 percent of America has nothing?

There is integrity and gratification in working hard and receiving my paycheck, whether from my newspaper route as a kid or from my current boss, knowing I earned it. Not only is the bailout solution not fair—getting something for nothing—it undermines the dignity and worth of all of us. And things that are free are treated with less care than those we have worked for.

What this country needs to focus on is exactly what our leaders here in Indiana have been working hard on globally for our state: job growth, not job envy. Protesting others’ successes in the interest of pursuing a misconstrued notion of fairness is misguided.

Let’s instead continue to foster an environment of creativity and opportunity, to be ready to participate in the next revolutionary idea, the next iPod or Post-It note inventor, who will certainly need employees as his or her idea grows.

There’s always a market for good ideas. And it is in creativity and ingenuity that real, personal success is found.•

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Woudenberg practices constitutional law at Bopp Coleson & Bostrom in Terre Haute. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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