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By Tom Demerly.

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Contrary to popular belief, rich people don’t cause other people to be poor. That’s a feeble excuse for our national condition.

There is a sentiment that the distribution of wealth in the United States, as inequitable as it is, comes from the wealthy “keeping the little man down”.  To horde disproportionate amounts of wealth- taking it from the backs of Walmart workers.

That’s wrong.  We’re not victims, we’re Americans. “The Man” isn’t keeping us down. That’s just an excuse. It’s us who let us down, and I am a perfect example.

I started and owned a successful business for over 16 years. Then lost everything. I lost my savings, my house, my car, my belongings, my income, my employees, my business, even my health… everything. There were circumstances that contributed to my loss. But ultimately I am the one responsible. Part of the proof is that two friends of mine in the same area and the same industry survived the recession. They survived because they made better decisions than me. They are better businessmen than me.

I am a reason why America failed during this last decade. There are a lot of “me” out there.

There is a reason to own this. Until we own the recession, the mortgage crisis, the banking collapse- unless we own these disasters, on an individual basis, we cannot correct them. We won’t truly recover.

The first step to correcting any problem is owning it. Taking responsibility for it. We need to take a painful and specific look at where we made bad decisions individually that led to our financial hardship. Once we understand how we got here, on an individual basis, we can get out, on an individual basis. America is built on the backs of individuals, and it fell on the backs of individuals who let it down. Guys like me.

Dearborn, Michigan, 2009 on Michigan Ave.

Abandoned businesses, downtown Dearborn, Michigan in 2009 on Michigan Ave.

What did I do wrong? Too much credit, not enough saving. Poor planning. Relying on the fact that money was easy to make and would always be easy to make. Becoming complacent, assuming business would always be good. Trusting the wrong institutions and people. Not saving enough for a rainy day. Beginning to think that earning a living was easy and success was common. Ignoring the basics. Never planning for a downturn in business. Those are some of the general mistakes I made. When you apply those mistakes to a huge company like General Motors before their bankruptcy, the banks before their collapse and the real estate market you see how these behaviors rippled from the individual through our entire culture. It was a house of cards. When the wind finally blew it didn’t need to blow very hard for it to topple.

So what now?

First, we need to own the problem on an individual basis. Look at how we failed. Individually, collectively. Then, with that knowledge, return to the basics of saving and building, working and taking risk, thinking and innovating. Our economic system, as chaotic as it seems, rewards risk and hard work with opulent success and penalizes failure with ruthless disregard and gut-wrenching impunity. It also rewards us with a second chance. It isn’t easy, in fact it is extremely difficult. My life these past few years has been more difficult than I care to share. It’s humiliating. Our system does work though. It provides a level of opportunity, however abrasive and difficult to achieve, that is nearly unmatched in the world. This is the greatest country, the land of opportunity, but it is also a ruthless arbiter.

It demands we own our past before we can earn our future. But our system also forgives.

In my case that meant a lot of tough years. Now I am certain I’ll never make these mistakes again. I’m thankful for a country that allows me to start again with what I’ve learned, no matter how difficult it is. That is the American way.