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NFL Star Takes Offense at YC Founder's 'Heartless' Views on Economic Inequality

Russell Okung calls the American Dream "one of the greatest lies ever told."

Otto Greule Jr / Getty Images

As a Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the Seattle Seahawks, Russell Okung is used to putting full-grown men on their backsides. He usually does it on the football field but on Friday he did so on the Internet, taking down Y Combinator founder Paul Graham for an essay he penned earlier this month on economic inequality.

In a piece Okung wrote for Seattle-based tech site GeekWire, he suggested Graham’s essay was “shrewd and a bit heartless.” Okung called Graham “one of the greatest men in Silicon Valley,” but added, “I believe because of Graham’s success, he may have lost his way.”

Okung apparently took issue with Graham’s assertion that anyone can make it big so long as they work hard enough to get there.

Graham said many things in his super-long essay, among them an argument that economic inequality is actually a positive thing when it comes to the startup scene. If there were no way to become uber rich, entrepreneurs wouldn’t be motivated to create startups and change the world, Graham argued. He added that virtually anyone who is driven can become the next Larry Page, Google’s billionaire co-founder.

“You don’t have to grow up rich or even upper middle class to get rich as a startup founder, but few successful founders grew up desperately poor,” he wrote. “It’s not economic inequality per se that’s blocking social mobility, but some specific combination of things that go wrong when kids grow up sufficiently poor.”

Okung whole-heartedly disagrees, calling the American Dream — the idea that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make it big — “one of the greatest lies ever told.” Here’s how he laid it out.

Some think working hard solves the problems of poverty and institutional oppression and the lack of social mobility. Some think that by sheer determination, one can overcome such issues.

But economic inequality isn’t the symptom; it’s the virus that attacks. You, Graham, like the rest of America, have been deceived. You are a victim of the American Dream, the belief that anyone who works hard can move up economically regardless of his or her social circumstances. American cultural optimism is one of the greatest lies ever told.

It does take determination, but that’s only part of the equation. People need breaks. I say this as a man from an at-risk background who “made it.” Was I determined? Yes. I’ve worked diligently at my craft to make it to the highest level of my profession. Not everyone was so fortunate, and there are a number of reasons for that, but I wouldn’t attribute their ability to “make it” to laziness or lack of ingenuity so much as I’d attribute it to a lack of exposure.

Okung and Graham do agree on some things, though. They agree that a wealth disparity doesn’t mean you can’t have a healthy, thriving society. And they obviously believe in investing in tech. Okung has put money behind the eSports startup Matcherino. The duo sounds like they have a lot to talk about. Even in their essays, it feels at times as though Okung and Graham are arguing two sides of the same coin.

Graham hasn’t officially responded to Okung, although he’s certainly read the piece and disagrees with the criticism. In a series of tweets he sent out Friday morning, he wrote: “As a kid, I would never have guessed how much actual debates consist of showing you didn’t actually say things people claim you did.” And then, “(I didn’t mean the GOP debates, though no doubt those are useless too. I was thinking about whether to reply to [Okung’s essay].)” We’ve reached out to Graham to ask for comment and will update if we hear anything.

Update: Graham sent us the following comment via email:

Although it makes a great linkbait headline to say that he called me heartless, I don’t think we actually disagree about much. He just doesn’t seem to have read what I wrote very carefully. He says I am “a victim of … the belief that anyone who works hard can move up economically regardless of his or her social circumstances.” But not only do I not believe that, I explicitly called out lack of social mobility as a problem in the essay:

“Closely related to poverty is lack of social mobility. I’ve seen this myself: you don’t have to grow up rich or even upper middle class to get rich as a startup founder, but few successful founders grew up desperately poor.

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