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Saturday, March 18, 2017

What Does It Take to Crack Open a Heart?

Some people, it seems, grow older without much change. With an unchanging personality, there is no epiphany along the way. Others change by hardening up and growing a shell. Chuck Collins belongs in neither group. His heart has been cracked open more than once, and new growth results every time. Born on Third Base is much more than his personal life story—we don’t even get his whole life story, but that’s all right. Chuck’s raison d’ĂȘtre has become working to reduce wealth inequality in America, and he makes his case in this book.

The great-grandson of Oscar Meyer was born into what we have begun to call the “one percent,” the wealthiest Americans. Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, calls a society governed by huge inherited wealth and power “patrimonial capitalism,” and Collins openly acknowledges that he had to do nothing personally to be wealthy. He quotes Edgar Bronfman, Seagrams heir, who said, “To turn $100 into $110 is work. To turn $100 million into $110 million is inevitable.”

At age 26, Collins made the decision to give away his inheritance but acknowledges that he still had the advantages of American citizenship, education, freedom from debt, white privilege, and a supportive family.

Touring the country in 2003 with billionaire Bill Gates to clarify the federal estate tax and why the wealthy should pay it gratefully, Collins and Gates told their audiences that even first-generation American entrepreneurs are not “self-made” because they had the benefits of our economic system, laws, roads, other transportation and communication systems, education systems, public libraries, and public investment in new technology. Collins gives the key moment of one talk to Gates, who spins a tale in which God’s heavenly treasury is running low, and She [this is the way Gates told the story; I am not editorializing] came up with a plan: the next two spirits to be born could bid on the country in which they would be born. The winner of the auction would be born in the United States, the loser “in an impoverished nation in the global south.” Gates then asked the audience what is had been worth, to them, to be born in the United States—and, so, how much of their net worth they were willing to pledge to leave behind for the common good.

Paying the estate tax (which applies only to households with wealth of $10.8 million and so has little or nothing to do with small family farms, though lobbyists and advertising against the tax would have the public believe otherwise), Collins and Gates proposed to their audiences, is a way of showing gratitude for social benefits received. It is a way to pass benefits they received along to future generations.

Booksellers, authors, and others are often asked, from one administration to the next, “If you could have the president read just one book, which one would it be?” Born on Third Base is my answer to the question today. Hmmm. I wonder if I could get our new U.S. Representative to Congress to read it? That would be a start....

But this is a book for every American, rich or poor, influential or left behind, for a couple of important reasons.

Why should you read this book?

First, one change of heart Collins had involved the language of class warfare, the “bottom-up antagonism expressed in rhetorical attacks against the rich....” He had used it himself in his early campaigns for social justice, but no one, Collins realized, likes to be hated,  and hating the wealthy will never turn them into allies. So it’s a losing game. He goes further in the other direction. In the same way he invites the rich to get to know their financially less fortunate fellow citizens, Collins invites members of the “99 percent” to reach out to the wealthy—not with a hand out but with the empathy and respect every individual deserves. A lot of rich people, he says, are very isolated socially, and they, too, whether they should or not, have financial fears. Empathy is a theme that runs through every chapter of the book.

Second, this is not just another book telling you what’s wrong in our country and the world and how it got to be wrong, because another important theme is change. Collins tells stories, gives examples, and offers concrete, specific suggestions. If you’ve been downhearted lately about the unleashing, once again, of predatory, extractive capitalism, this is the book you need to read. You’ll find in it steps you can take, beyond protest, to help bring about the changes you want to see.

Empathy and change. Change begins with empathy. We’re all in this together. Yes, we can!!!

Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good
by Chuck Collins
Chelsea Green, softcover, 267pp w/ index

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