Thursday, July 26, 2012

You Didn't Build That, All By Yourself, Though You Built A Great Deal and Deserve Credit for That

A few months ago, the Obama campaign was giggling with delight over a Mitt Romney speech in which the GOP candidate said "I like being able to fire people" as this demonstrated a callous viciousness about this rotten corporate titan.  Never mind that the context of the quote was Romney's argument that consumers should be able to choose their insurance companies and "fire" them if they don't provide the service we want.  Then, the Obamists got their cackles when Romney said "I'm not concerned about the very poor", buttressing his complete disregard for society's most vulnerable, though again the context of the speech was that Romney's focus was on the middle class, as the "very rich" were not suffering and the "very poor" had adequate safety nets already in place (though those implications are debatable, that context is very different from "ha ha, screw the poor!  I'm not poor, so screw 'em!"). 

So it gets a bit tiresome to see the Obamites getting sore when their own ox is gored--such as the recent onslaught by Romneyites over the President's "you didn't build that!" speech.  Here's the relevant excerpt from the speech Obama gave a couple weeks ago:

"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."

Now, the thrust of this is absolutely true--no great or modest success in life is achieved without some help from society, including things provided or enabled by the government.  Infrastructure, widespread public schooling, courts, the police--all these things enable entrepreneurs and professionals to build fortunes and thrive so that Bill Gates and Henry Ford and J. Buford Texaco did not have to spend all their time gathering berries for sustenance and fighting off hordes of pirates and highwaymen. 

However, outside of the fringe sect of extreme Randian John Galt wannabes, I'm unaware of any serious conservative politician or pundit who actually suggests that we don't need any government, or that the successful have done it all on their own.  The only real debate going on is the degree and manner and extent to which government should be involved in business.  Saying we need functioning transportation networks in this country so that businesses can get products to market is one thing, but whether we need high speed rail connecting Las Vegas to Los Angeles or a highway interchange making sure you can cut travel time between Lebanon, PA and Morristown, NJ is another. 

So the tone of the speech--at a time when the economy is still struggling--can certainly strike businessfolks and small government types as a stick in their eye.  When you've struggled and sacrificed and taken major risks to get your business running in the black, and you spend a great deal of your company's time figuring out an ever-complicated tax code, and the weight of government regulations, all while facing weak demand in the market and worrying about whether your company will last another year, you're probably not going to be thrilled to hear the President make the point that you owe it to someone else--even if that's partly true.  Particularly when all the benefits of government (bridges and all) are funded by tax dollars that the businesses pay.

Perhaps instead Obama could have made the point differently--that helping businesses navigate the recession involves not a complete gutting of government spending and pulling government out of the economy completely, but instead accepting the good that government involvement can do.  That better infrastructure and regulation could help rather than hinder businesses--and the speech would have been a signal to the middle that this campaign is better than just a populist attack on the wealthy.  Maybe Obama should strangle the speechwriter who gave Romney an easy line of attack.

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