Saturday, July 28, 2012

On “You Didn’t Build That”

I have to comment, at least briefly, on Obama’s "you didn't build that" remark, and on the Romney campaign’s use of it, and on the economics contained in it, and on the nature of politics.   Given the huge blogospheric response to this insignificant blip of a side comment, peer pressure alone would probably drive me to comment, and to come down in favor of one side or the other.   But instead, what I want to say is that the whole mess had been nothing more than mess, with no content whatever.

This is a perfect example of an entirely manufactured political controversy, because there is no real disagreement on the basics of this.  Period.  Not between Romney and Obama, and not between liberals and conservatives.

Paul Krugman, in his blog on this, pointed out that the small businessman in Romney’s first campaign spot on this pseudo-issue, the man who indignantly demanded recognition that he built his business without any help from government or anyone else, had in fact received direct help from the government in tax exempt revenue bonds, government contracts, and so on.  His response to that fact was that he was just taking advantage of what was available,   which is true, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with building your business using every reasonable avenue to success: that’s what those loans were there for, after all, to help small businesses.  Any small businessman, liberal or conservative, would do that.  There is something wrong with taking that direct help from government and failing to recognize that it is, in fact, help.  

But really that’s all just a distraction, because Obama was not talking about loan guarantees, or any of the myriad of other things the government does to help small businesses.  Obama was talking about the long creation of infrastructure that makes all of our lives better, the infrastructure that we all use to communicate, to transport ourselves or our products, to meet, to conduct every part of our lives.  Obama, in the speech that quote comes from, specifically mentioned roads, bridges and the internet.    Here’s the quote from his speech:

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

     The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.  There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own.  I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service.  That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires. 

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together.  That’s how we funded the GI Bill.  That’s how we created the middle class.  That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam.  That’s how we invented the Internet.  That’s how we sent a man to the moon.  We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people”

  It would have been better if Obama had used the phrase “you didn’t build that alone”, but that, in context, is clearly what he meant.  If you have created a successful small business, you had the vision, you took the risks, you worked your butt off, but you also used public roads that all of us together built through our government, used the internet that we all helped to invent by funding government labs, and by funding, through government programs, research in universities public and private.  Together, through our government, we have invented satellites, GPS, jet engines, nuclear power, microchips, synthetic fuels and alternative energy; through land grants and other assistance we helped create railroads.  We created the interstate highway system, we provide the justice system that enforces private contracts, the police that protect property, the teachers that educate workers that small businesses hire.  And it’s not just small businesses that benefit from all of that: we all do.  I make a fair income, enough to own a house out in the Washington DC exurbs, and own two (aging) cars.  I make that income because I worked hard, because I spent many long, late hours getting a lot of education, because I’m at least moderately intelligent and not completely devoid of ambition.  But there are thousands, probably millions, of people in this world who are just as smart as I am, who have worked just as hard and long as I have, but who make a tenth of my income or less, because I was smart and hard working here in this country, surrounded by massive infrastructure and other smart, hard-working, well educated people, and born and raised in a middle class American family with all the advantages that implies, while they were smart and hard working but poor in Burundi or Burkina Faso or Mali or Haiti.  The GDP per capita in Somalia in 2010 was about 200 U.S. dollars, according to the CIA World Factbook, as reported in Wikipedia.

And no one, really, disputes any of that.  Conservatives these days try to ignore it for political reasons, but I think that under all of that they still agree with the older conservative stand, which was always that infrastructure does matter, and does help all of us, and that either through directly building it or hiring private companies to build it, government effort is the primary means of creating it.

So there really is no dispute.  Obama clearly, not only from this speech but from speeches and actions thoughout the last few years, has great respect for people who build small businesses.  And even in this speech he recognizes that they do build those businesses “because of…individual intiative”.  Both sides of the political divide recognize that small businesses are built by people who work, risk, invent, organize and lead, and also that they are built using the opportunities that those business people see around them, including all the infrastructure, and the justice system, and the educated population, and the protection provided by police and firefighters and our national defense, that we as a nation have built over the last two centuries.  

This is a dispute that we are having in our political discourse simply for the sake of fighting with each other, a vehemently and bitterly embellished distinction without a hair’s worth of real difference.

No comments:

Post a Comment