To their credit, Miller and Lapham don’t ask us to take this point on faith. Right out of the gate, they regale us with three tales of famous “self-made” men — Donald Trump, Ross Perot and the Koch brothers, whose own stories put the lie to the myth. (This section alone is worth the price of admission — these guys so did not make it on their own!) Once those treasured right-wing exemplars are thoroughly discredited, the middle of the book offers a welcome corrective: interviews with 14 wealthy Americans — including well-known names like Warren Buffett, Ben Cohen, Abigail Disney, and Amy Domini, who are very explicit about the ways in which government action laid the groundwork for their success. Over and over, these people credit their wealth to:
* An excellent education received in public schools and universities. Jerry Fiddler of Wind River Software (you’re probably running his stuff in your cellphone or car) went to the University of Chicago, and started his computer career at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Bookseller Thelma Kidd got her start at Texas Tech and the University of Michigan. Warren Buffett went to the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Nebraska as an undergrad. And beyond that: several interviewees paid for their education with federal Pell Grants and Stafford loans.
Over and over, the point gets made: Public universities — and the good public schools that feed them, and the funding programs that put them within financial reach — have hatched millions of American entrepreneurs who might not have been fledged without that opportunity to get an education.
* The support of the Small Business Administration and other government agencies. Ben Cohen notes that almost all the business training he and Jerry Greenfield had came from the extension courses at the University of Vermont and Penn State, and small brochures produced by the SBA. And as they spun up, they also got an Urban Development Action Grant from the federal government. Other interviewees started their businesses in incubators or other quarters provided or arranged by their local city governments.
* A strong regulatory environment that protected their businesses from being undercut by competitors willing to cut corners, and ensure that their manufacturing inputs are of consistently high quality. Glynn Lloyd of Boston’s City Fresh Foods points out that nobody in the food business can get by without reliable sources of clean water, and that the USDA inspection process is an important piece of his quality control.
* Enforceable copyright and intellectual property laws that enabled them to protect good ideas. Abigail Disney recalls that her father, Roy Disney, and her Uncle Walt made and lost one great cartoon character — Oswald the Rabbit — because they didn’t have copyright protection. They didn’t repeat that mistake when Mickey Mouse was born three years later, launching the Disney empire.
* A robust system of roads, ports, airports and mass transit that enabled them to reliably move their goods both within the U.S. and around the world. Kim Jordan of New Belgium Brewing (the makers of Fat Tire beer) points out, “Beer is heavy, and it needs to be transported in vehicles. Certainly, the highway system has been important to New Belgium Brewing.” Lloyd also points out that Boston’s excellent public transit system enables him to draw on a far wider employee base.
* The government’s role in creating the Internet, without which almost no modern company can function. Anirvan Chatterjee built Bookfinder.com (now a subsidiary of Amazon.com), the world’s biggest online used-book marketplace, an achievement that wouldn’t have been remotely imaginable without DARPA, the establishment and enforcement of common protocols, and significant congressional investment in the 1980s to take the Internet commercial.
* The ability to issue public stock in a fair, reliable regulated marketplace — a benefit that raised the value of several interviewees’ companies by about 30 percent overnight. Peter Barnes, founder of Working Assets, spoke with concern about the loss of trust in this system over the past decade. “The corporate scandals [Enron and WorldCom] caused people to stop trusting the numbers that companies were reporting. Imagine how much value is created by trust and the whole system that assures that trust?”
Besides the government, most of those interviewed also locate their companies in the context of a large community of customers they utterly depend on for their success. “It takes a village to raise a business,” says Nikhil Arora of Back to the Roots, a sustainable-products company that came about through partnerships and grants from UC Berkeley, Peet’s Coffee and other interested parties.