Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, July 20, 2012

So Who Did Build That?

Every so often a politician makes a statement which so well represents the partisan divide that the political chattering class settles down to mocking or defending the statement for a week or two. Such a case, it seems, is Obama's "you didn't build that" speech last Friday. Speaking to supporters in Virginia, Obama said:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

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.
My primary reaction to this is literary and intellectual snobbery. The pass to which political rhetoric has come in this really pretty sad. Compare Obama's whimpers of populism with the master, William Jennings Bryan:
Mr. Carlisle said in 1878 that this was a struggle between "the idle holders of idle capital" and "the struggling masses, who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country;" and, my friends, the question we are to decide is: Upon which side will the Democratic party fight; upon the side of "the idle holders of idle capital" or upon the side of "the struggling masses?" That is the question which the party must answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic party. There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.

You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.
Bryan may have been wrong on a lot of things, but dang could he speak.

But aside from its poor prose, the surprising thing about Obama's speech is its poor thinking. Yes, it's certainly true that no one does anything "on his own" in that we are all live within society. And of course, successful businesses exist within the context of a civil society in which laws exist and are enforced, infrastructure is maintained, etc. It is entirely just, for that reason, that we pay taxes to maintain that law enforcement and that infrastructure, and that we charge taxes proportionally to people's earnings, so that those who make the most pay the most. Contrary to Obama's implication, no one is disputing this. Even the most radical of "flat tax" proposals would still result in the rich paying far more than the poor. The only truly regressive tax we pay in the US is the social security tax, to which Obama, Mitt Romney, Bill Gates and I all pay exactly the same tax bill every year.

However the claim "If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen." doesn't merely suggest the obvious and inane point that "hey, we all exist in society", but rather that there's nothing particularly special about those who build huge businesses or otherwise become huge successes. "Let me tell you something," Obama offers, with his typical, hectoring, I'm-much-smarter-than-you tone, "There are a lot of smart people out there.... [T]here are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there."

But here's the thing: We all have roads and laws and the internet and teachers available to us. Bill Gates and Michael Dell aren't billionaires because they had roads and teachers and I didn't. They're billionaires because through some combination of vision, hard work, drive and luck they built companies that provide millions of people with things they want enough to pay for. I grew up with the same legal system, the same public infrastructure, and the same educational opportunities as them, and I didn't build a huge, successful company. I work a good job and earn a nice paycheck by providing services that my employer is willing to pay for, and as a result I pay my mortgage and buy things that we want. And I pay taxes -- though far less taxes then billionaire entrepreneurs (as is just, since they make more money.) However, despite having the same government provided services and infrastructure available to me as billionaire entrepreneurs (and smaller entrepreneurs), I haven't built a successful company that provides other people with jobs and many more with valuable goods or services. As such, the difference between my fortune and that of Michael Dell or Bill Gates is not due to the government providing them with infrastructure, it's due to them and their actions. They really did build it.

This doesn't mean that taxation is theft or that those who are highly successful shouldn't pay an equitable share of the cost of maintaining the civil infrastructure and services we all benefit from, but it does mean that the "you didn't build that" line of argument that the president is attempting isn't just bad rhetoric, it's just plain wrong.


Leo said...

This is first time I've actually seen the full context of Obama's quote, and it's nowhere near as daft as it first seemed.

It looks like his "You didn't build that" line is referring back to the roads and bridges in the previous sentence. So, if we re-write it like this: "Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business - you didn't build those roads and bridges. Somebody else made that happen".

This sentiment lines up with his next 2 sentences about the development of the internet and the businesses that now make money from it.

Darwin said...

Yeah, if you take into account Obama's rhetorical habit of interjections and switches of subject, I think it's moderately clear what he's trying to say: that you didn't build everything, you only built your business.

For the reasons I stated, though, I'm not clear why he thinks that thought does the work he wants it to do.

Jenny said...

I agree that it is moderately clear what he meant, but in looking at Leo's rewording the subject verb agreement jumps out at me.

Obama refers to roads and bridges (plural) and then to a business (singular) and then utters the famous phrase, "You didn't build that." That is singular. A business is singular. If he was referring to the roads and bridges, wouldn't he have said those and not that? "You didn't build those."

Now is he just a poor speaker off the cuff (yes) or did he really mean "you didn't build that business"? He is opaque enough in his policies for me to be unsure.

Smoochagator said...

Hello... this is not my first time visiting this blog but I think it's my first time commenting. I feel fairly strongly on this issue so I do want to share my thoughts.

I can't speak for the President and clarify exactly what he meant. I can say that what I think he was driving at is there's no way anyone becomes successful in a vaccuum - on their own, completely and truly. When you take the example of Bill Gates, yes, we have to acknowledge that he was innovative and hard-working. However, I hope that Gates himself would admit that along the path to his success there were people who helped him, privileges he received, advice that spurred him on, and likely tangible assistance (anywhere from a grant or scholarship to someone loaning him their care) from friends and family.

And, as you mention, there's a certain amount of luck involved in developing a product that people want enough to pay that much money for. Sometimes success has very little to do with be hardworking and smart and innovative; rather, it can have a great deal to do with who you know and being in the right place at the right time.

Luck and privilege do NOT discount intelligence and a good work ethic. But what I think we need to guard against is the idea that seems all too prevalent in some circles: that if someone is not successful, if they are poor or have failed in business or what have you, they must not WANT to be successful. Because all it takes is hard work and perseverance and pulling oneself up by one's boot straps, right?

THAT attitude - that success is something we can seize by our own volition, and that the have-nots have not because they are unwilling to work for it - is what I believe President Obama was speaking to.

Kate said...

I agree with Smoochgator - that what the President is trying to get at here (whether successfully or not) is a rebuke both of the American ideal of 'self-reliance' which is, of course, either unattainable or a lie, and a rebuke of the attitude on one side of the class wars that those who are not financially successful must not have the drive/work ethic that the truly successful do.

The Ubiquitous said...

To be smart enough to get all that money you must be dull enough to want it.

- G.K. Chesterton

Paul Zummo said...

Even if we grant the more generous interpretation of Obama's remarks, what his speech amounts to is an extended strawmen attack against these Randian villains who exist mainly in his fevered imagination. No one outside of perhaps extreme Paulites take the position that we are all absolutely isolated individuals in need of no assistance.

Furthermore, as for the idea that the rich and successful didn't build the infrastructure - well who exactly paid the taxes for that infrastructure? If not the rich directly, they're paying the salaries of those who pay the rest of the taxes.

You see, no matter how much people want to throw the magic word "context" out there, Obama's speech still reflects a pernicious worldview where we only obtain what we obtain thanks to the generosity of the government, when it is in fact the other way around.

Lastly, the tone of his comments were, as usual, condescending and smarmy. For a man who is supposed to be a "uniter," he sure treats his political opponents with nothing short of contempt.

Darwin said...


Thanks for commenting!

I can say that what I think he was driving at is there's no way anyone becomes successful in a vaccuum - on their own, completely and truly. When you take the example of Bill Gates, yes, we have to acknowledge that he was innovative and hard-working. However, I hope that Gates himself would admit that along the path to his success there were people who helped him, privileges he received, advice that spurred him on, and likely tangible assistance (anywhere from a grant or scholarship to someone loaning him their care) from friends and family.

While this may be a valuable point, I'm not clear how the context suggests that it's the one Obama was trying to make. The overall context of his speech seems pretty clearly to suggest that most of the fruits of someone's success (say, the profits of a business owner) should go to society rather than to the owner, because that owner didn't "build that" himself, but rather society was primarily responsible for the business owner's success.

This, I think, is pretty clearly untrue. Lot's of people have good teachers, well connected friends, scholarships, etc. as well as access to standard civil infrastructure. Relatively few found successful businesses, and only a truly tiny number found wildly successful businesses like Dell, Microsoft or Apple. That doesn't make the rest of us worse, but it does mean that these successes are primarily the result of that person's actions, not society's. The reason why I don't run Microsoft is not just that society gave Bill Gates a better education and more opportunities than me, it's that Bill Gates actually did a lot of stuff (some good, some bad) which resulted in him ending up where he is today.

Now, I don't necessarily think this implies a converse: that if someone is poor then he deserves it because he's not smart or not hard working. Some people work very hard at things which are not highly valued (rightly or wrongly) and as a result don't make much. Some people have abominably bad luck in life. So I'm not saying that there's a reason to scorn those who aren't doing well. But I do think that claiming, as Obama seems to be doing, that people who own businesses didn't do the work themselves is both incorrect and socially pernicious.

Rich Holm said...

Read Malcom Gladwell's "Outliers" for some insight on success. Certainly there is a component of self directed effort an intelligence, but he shows how luck, connections, and initial conditions play a huge role.