Bryant aims to create economic hope

RUBY WALLAU | Staff Photographer
Operation Hope CEO John Hope Bryant speaks about improving financial literacy in under-served communities Thursday morning in the Amphitheater.

There’s a saying “success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” If there’s one person who knows about success and enthusiasm, it’s a guy named Hope.

John Hope Bryant returned to Chautauqua Institution for the second time on Thursday to give the morning lecture in the Amphitheater, bringing his message of self-reliance and financial literacy to the stage.

Bryant likened financial illiteracy to not being given the “memo” on the language of finance and commerce.

“From the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep, we are engaged in commerce,” he said. “And there are 5 billion-plus people who didn’t get the memo. It’s not about black or white. It’s not about East or West. It’s about human nature.”

The lecture began with a video that set up Bryant’s style of hard truth and belief in self-determination. He highlighted the difference between being broke, an economic condition, and being poor, which he defined as a lack of spirit.

Self-determination was at the core of Bryant’s lecture. While he said life is 10 percent what the world does to people and 90 percent how they choose to respond to it, he also said the economic shackles that are both incentivized and misdiagnosed in America.

For example, in his view, entitlement isn’t as nearly the issue with the poor as it is with the rich. He noted his wealthy friends’ children look at BMWs as a right to be given — not a privilege to be earned.

“The only way to social justice in capitalism is through economic independence,” he said.

The poor and their mobility are the bedrock of capitalism. Approximately 70 percent of America’s gross domestic product comes from consumer spending, he said, smashing the idea that big business and corporations are the best source of America’s jobs or revenue.

“The poor are not a liability; they are assets,” he said.

He asked the audience how many workers nail salons, barbershops or dentistries employed. The number was routinely a median of between five and 10.

“How many people work at the each of the restaurants in this wonderful institution? Ten? Twenty?” he asked. “It is hiding in plain sight. Small businesses are the root of our economy.”

Bryant interspersed his lecture with history lessons on how today’s economic stratification was created.

In 1865, Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Freedmen’s Bureau, more commonly known as the Freedman’s Savings Bank, with the goal of giving newly emancipated slaves access to the capital they’d need to finance land they were given in the South. In this way, former slaves could learn banking and bolster themselves economically.

According to Bryant, Lincoln felt it was so important that he positioned the bank across from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., where, currently, Bank of America and other financial institutions run businesses.

But in April of that year, Lincoln was assassinated. His new vice president, Southern segregationist Andrew Johnson, rose to the presidency. Bryant noted the irony of one of America’s best presidents being followed by one of its worst.

“[Johnson] said, and I quote, ‘As long as I am president, this country will be run by free white men.’ He couldn’t change Lincoln’s actions, but he could ignore them,” Bryant said. “And he told Southern governors: ‘Do as you like,’ and they ran them off the land. It was the effectively the end of Reconstruction.”

Fast forward more than  100 years to 1968, and Martin Luther King Jr. began the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to gain economic justice. In the wake of King’s assassination and the riots that ensued, the effort was carried on by his fellow minister and close friend Ralph Abernathy.

“Riots don’t occur in upper-class communities — white or black. They occur in poor communities. Dr. King said, ‘Riots are the language of the unheard,’ ” Bryant said. “The most dangerous person in the world is someone without hope.”

He emphasized a current initiative of Operation Hope to plan entrepreneurial classes for public schools, to host contests for business ideas from young, aspiring entrepreneurs, and to open $500 bank accounts for those who are chosen. 

He called his model for economic and holistic well-being the Hope Doctrine of Poverty. The primary factors affecting financial success in the model are self-esteem, confidence, opportunity, environment and role models — something poor communities are sorely lacked, Bryant said. 

“In my neighborhood, no one wore a suit. No one had a business card,” he said. “If you were wearing a suit, you were a detective, and it was a bad suit.”

When the poor youths’ role models are confined to rap stars, athletes and drug dealers, Bryant said it makes sense that those are the only options that seem available to them.

“If you hang around nine broke people, you’ll be the 10th,” he said.

Money is going to the wrong places and the wrong things are incentivized. When walking through a poor area, Bryant said it’s common to see a payday loan store next to a liquor store.

“That’s not about race,” he said. “It is targeted marketing.”

Bryant thinks slavery survived the Civil War in the form of economic slavery. Too many are trapped in circumstances of birth, location and education. The middle class, he said, is the lifeblood of American capitalism, as is the class mobility it enables.

“When so few have so much, it is bad for everyone,” he said. “The kids with A-pluses will be fine. I’m focused on the kids with Cs, Ds, and Fs.”


Q: So, practically — You mentioned backstage that you had opened an office in Ferguson. So what does that look like? What do you do day two, three, four on the ground? How do you get young people involved so that they flip sides of the screen?

A: So we’re opening in Regions Banks, SunTrust Banks, Bank of America, Bank of the West, Union Bank, U.S. Bank, Popular Community Bank, Mutual of Omaha Bank — so it’s about 20 banks so far. Texas health systems ordered two. Hyatt’s ordered one. So what we do, every office is the same, it’s like a McDonalds franchise. One-hundred-proof mortgage counseling, mortgage restructuring — we’ve restructured about $1 billion of mortgages today, already. SBA [Small Business Administration] office authorized for enterprise and small business training. FDIC authorized for financial literacy counseling. Treasury authorized for earned income tax credit and my IRA qualification. Certified consumer credit counseling. Small business and entrepreneurship counseling, and counseling leading to 700 credit scores, with an average move of 120 points in 24 months and 80 points in 10 months. So, we are literally creating bankable, sustainable customers, and with that, taxpayers because you don’t vote unless you have a stake in the system, and when you have a stake in the system, you want to protect your assets, which is why you participate in democracy.

Q: Your book wouldn’t be titled as it is if you didn’t believe this, but the question is: Is capitalism really worth saving? Is it the right model?

A: It’s a great question. Capitalism is a horrible system — except for every other system. Just like democracy, it’s messy. When I was in Jordan, I met with Shimon Peres, and he said, “John, no different than Dr. King’s movement, or Gandhi’s movement, or Nelson Mandela’s movement in South Africa, and the other hero’s and she-ro’s who had new ideas, you’re going to be sliced and diced at, and criticized. You need to tell your critics this: ‘Even if you want to distribute money like a socialist, you’ve got to first collect money like a capitalist.’ ” Even China, a communist country, has picked capitalism. Even Russia, a communist country, has picked capitalism. Socialism works in very small countries with, by the way, natural resources mostly, and the luxury of having more money than people. America has 350 million people, and not only can we not afford to take care of everybody for their life, we shouldn’t. I think people want the dignity of doing for themselves.

Q: To try and get to as many as possible: I’m going to try and combine [questions] — can you speak to the role of government policy? Is what you’re doing enough? Don’t we need in terms of early childhood education, tax policy and a number of others that are mentioned here?

A: Yes. This drives me crazy. A great deal of wealth has come from government contracting, a lot of it during war. A great deal of our free enterprise system relies on government infrastructure. Let’s take New York. My very conservative friends say, “I don’t need government. I hate government.” Slow down, Turbo. How did you get into work today?

“I took the subway.” Someone didn’t break into your house tonight, why was that?

“The police.” I took a walk with my wife tonight on the public sidewalks that had streetlights. You know, you cannot finance the New York Subway on anyone’s balance sheet. There is a role for all of us in this system. Government does not create jobs — 92 percent of all jobs come the free enterprise system. But the free enterprise needs the government to create an enabling environment for the creation of jobs, to protect you when you happen to fall short of the grace of God, when you happen to need somebody. I mean, I don’t see my farmer friends — my wealthy farmer friends — trying to give back their farm subsidies. I mean, we’ve got to understand, we’ve got to stop demonizing people because they are different. We need a partnership between community, government and the private sector. And we need to understand, like an orchestra, who plays what role.

Q: You gave a number of examples — Goldman Sachs, FedEx. How can you consciously and genuinely include women role models in your speeches?

A: This is going to become the decade of the woman. Period. And it’s already started: The head of the IMF — the International Monetary Fund — a women. The head of the largest economy in Europe — Germany — a woman. The head of the Federal Reserve, first time in U.S. history, a woman. Possibly my friend, to become the next president, a woman. By the way, microfinance works because of women. Your household works because of your woman. Behind every successful man is an exhausted woman. I asked an investment banker in New York, I asked his wife: “You’ve been married 45 years. How did you survive?” She said, “It’s very simple. We’re both in love with the same man.” When I go to the Middle East, I don’t give them lectures on morality. Here’s what I say to them. If you go the internet, you’ll see me talking to groups in the Middle East, very interesting photographs. I say to them this, some of the most powerful people in the country. “Let me ask you a question. You want to be a first class nation?”

“Yes we do.”

“You have licensed the Louver, and you’ve licensed Ferrari, so obviously you’re concerned about your reputation.”

“Yes we are.”

“You have less than a trillion dollars in GDP, about 700 billion. We’re 17 trillion. You want to be part of the big dog?”

“Yes we do.”

“OK, we’re playing sports. I’ve got 100 players on the field, suited and ready for battle. You have 50. Because you leave half of your players on the sidelines. There is no way you can win that battle. There is no way you can compete with me, when I have everybody on the field, suited up, and playing to win. You’ve got to bring everybody into the game and let them find their place in this thing called your prosperity.” They’ll get it, because they have no choice. Women will rise. Women will define the next decade.

Q: In poor communities, how do we help parents serve their children better?

A: Out of love, we pass down bad habits from generation to generation. So, we’ve got to basically deal with our mess. What I’ve been trying to talk to you today is our nation’s mess. I hope you didn’t feel me attacking anybody. It’s not necessary. It’s a distraction. What we’ve got to say is, “A saint is a sinner that got up.” We are all falling short of the grace of God. We are all highly imperfect. We all screw up on regular basis. But life is 10 percent what life does to you and 90 percent how you choose to respond to it. So we’ve got to say to our children, “I love you baby, but you’ve got to get a job. I love you, but if you do the crime, you’re going to do the time. I love you, but if you are going to have that child you have to take care of them.” And then we have to give them the memo. We have to sit them down and say, “The lights don’t come on by themselves. The mortgage don’t get paid by itself. Our kids actually believe all that stuff just works. You know, you go to a third world country, and they pay for their food that day, that day. There’s no refrigerators. The best thing you can do for your child is send them somewhere else, and let them know how blessed they are. We are all suffering from an entitlement mentality, and I don’t mean poor kids. Some of my biggest concerns are our wealthy friends children, who think that a BMW is a birthright. We’ve got to hustle, because China wants our stuff.

Q: Please talk about the issues around incarceration and our justice system and how that’s affecting so many young black men, in particular, as they are coming back into their communities.

A: We don’t have time for this — this is a two-hour deal. Let me try to condense this: All of our incentives are basically backwards. A fifth of all GDP in America is healthcare and medical care — a fifth. But 70 percent of all healthcare is in the last quartile of your life. So basically, you show up to the hospital — now, I’m going to say something as delicately as I can, but you don’t know how long you’re going to live, but you are absolutely sure you will die. So let’s just deal with the fact that, at some point, you will transition. You will get promoted. So let’s deal with that. Now, it should offend you slightly that they wait until you are 82 years old, throw everything at you but the kitchen sink — my dad just passed, he was 89. They had a million dollars worth of stuff hooked up to him, trying to save him. I said, “It’s obvious he wants to go. Either he wants to go, or his body wants to go, or God is calling him or he’s done his deal. But he’s not living on his own steam, but someone’s paying for all this stuff. We should let God’s will and his will be done. And I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about the decision I had to make with my father. And I asked the doctor, “Am I playing God?” And the doctor said, “You’re not playing God. We are.” So I sort of resent that all of this was saved until he was 89. Here’s what I don’t think he’d mind: If we flipped that, and doctors and medical professionals were able to prosper and even become rich by letting you live a healthier, longer life early. So helping you with wellness at an early age, at midlife, to deal with growing old in a dignified way. If they did that, I think you’d be throwing money at them. This is the same question as the criminal justice issues. It’s a lazy answer. So we take all of these, I call them job creators. Because, if you’re a gang leader, you’re a frustrated union organizer. You’ve got people running from the police that could be Mario Andretti. I mean, they are good at it. But in mainstream society, those were moonshiners who became NASCAR drivers. That’s where NASCAR came from —  moonshiners running from the police. I’m serious! That’s where NASCAR came from. So we just say, “You’re a bum, we’re going to put you in jail. You’ve been selling marijuana. Oh-oh-oh ho! You’ve been selling marijuana three time, we’re going to put you in jail — hold on — 30 years.” It costs more to send a kid to Harvard than to put him in jail. What did I say? It costs more to send a kid to jail than to send them to Harvard. At least I know you’re listening. So what I’m saying is: That we have got to understand that these are talented young people who had crappy role models, a crappy environment, yes, made bad decisions, but what can we do to help revitalize and rehabilitate them and let them earn their way back into a dignified place in society? No give away program, let them earn their way back in. Because if we don’t, there is not enough police to save you. If you have a population that has given up and feels there is no place for them, there is not enough police to keep us safe from someone who has no hope. And here’s what we’ve done. We’ve created, now, private prisons. So 22 governors will tell you by third grade reading and math scores, how many prisons to build. So 70 percent of black men are dropping out of high school in the richest country in the world. Seventy percent of those in prison have no high school diploma. Seventy percent of the children of those in prison end up in prison. And 22 governors will tell you by reading and math scores how many prisons to build. And now they’ve got private prisons, that get paid to house you. Our incentives are in the wrong place. I’m going to end this with a Bill Clinton quote: “It’s hard to get someone to agree to the truth when a lie is paying their paycheck.”

Transcribed by Abe Kenmore