Now that we have finished with the breathless minute-by-minute coverage of the Facebook IPO, perhaps it’s time to step back and think about its implications for politicians and policy-makers.
It is still true that here in America anyone can become a millionaire or even a billionaire. And lots of people want to. I’m not just talking about the inventors or the investors or the employees. I’m also talking about all those everyday Americans who lined up to get a piece of Facebook, or participated in the stock market for the first time, or watched and cheered as the stock opened. All of these people are excited by the opportunity to make money and achieve success. All of them are intrigued and inspired by the story of a boy who had a dream in a dorm room and became a billionaire before he was 30.
We learned a lot about the people who bet right on Facebook long ago. We’ve also learned the story of a few people who bet wrong because they thought the idea seemed too far-fetched and too risky. It was an entirely reasonable concern. Success requires taking risks and making choices. Those choices and risks can’t possibly turn out well every time for everyone. While not every risk turns into success, there has never been a success without some risk.
So what’s the political lesson in all this? Bashing rich people is short sighted — you just never know who is going to get rich or wants to be rich. Engaging in political invective that attacks success is also counterproductive. Lots of people are ambitious. So why would we create a climate in which people aren’t sure whether their ambition will be rewarded or criticized?
Why would we attack those who have been successful as callous and cold-hearted, simply because they made the choices and took the risks and not everyone benefited every time? Why does our President want to use the tax code to try and punish success (as in, if you make over $250,000 per year — certainly one measure of success — you will be taxed at a different and higher rate)?
We know that in the 21st century, ideas and money can go anywhere. If risk-taking is discouraged and success is criticized, the dreamers will go where they are appreciated or their dreams will become smaller. Class warfare has no place in American politics because here we still believe that no matter how you start, anyone can achieve success.
We were reminded of something else last week. You never know where innovation will come from or where it will lead.
Five years ago, no one predicted the amazing impact of Facebook on everything from politics to culture to Wall Street. Unpredictability is the fundamental nature of all innovation — whether it’s going on in a lab or a garage or a dorm room. That is why it is risky and requires a great deal of nurture.
Politicians should be humble in the face of innovation. They should realize that perhaps they don’t know enough to regulate it, contain it or control it. Maybe they should nurture it instead.