Poverty and Policy Matters

The tools to succeed

We use tools to fix things. Just like you’d use literal tools to improve your house, we all use metaphorical tools to improve our lives.

Money is a tool. You would expect a fabulously wealthy technology executive turned venture capitalist to understand this. You might not expect said one-percenter to shout it from a media platform. That’s just what Chamath Palihapitiya has done, though, in this fascinating story about his journey from welfare to wealth.

Two pieces of this story fascinate me. First, Palihapitiya is explicit about the role that affordable health care and subsidized university tuition played in his ability to succeed. Without these tools, his family would have been worried about basic survival, not figuring out how to contribute to the technologies of the future.

The second piece is related: without these vital public investments, how would brilliant but disadvantaged individuals like Palihapitiya find their way to success? With the odds already stacked against them, how would today’s poor but bright future entrepreneurs make it happen?

“I’m acutely aware that there are many other people who grew up like me who are frankly, 1,000 times more talented then I am,” he said. “We should ask ourselves, ‘Can somebody like me grow up with the exact same problems and disadvantages and yet get to the equivalent place as me 20 years from now?'”

It’s in everyone’s best interests to get kids growing up today — many of whom with the same potential — access to economic security and a high quality education. Personally, I think that’s a human rights issue.

If you don’t, perhaps you will consider the issue of human capital: to have brilliant children with unlimited potential struggling even to survive, with limited access to any upward mobility, is a tragic waste of human capital.

As Steven Jay Gould once put it: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

Right now the next Einstein or the next Chamath Palihapitiya may be working in, to name one example, North Carolina’s tobacco fields. I would like to believe that we, as a community, will find a way to give that person some tools and a chance.

Because, really, that’s all that person would need.

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