David R. Henderson  

Mitt Romney's Passion

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I don't think of Mitt Romney as a passionate man. But there is one area in which I think he shows some passion: defending businesses and corporations from hostile attacks. I saw this when he argued that "corporations are people." He made a simple point clearly and eloquently. Imagine George W. Bush in the same situation. I doubt he would do it either clearly or passionately. Think about how he stepped on his own toes when he tried to say, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me."

I saw Romney's passion on a related issue again today when he took on Obama's statement about what successful business people have achieved. Obama said:

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.

I don't know whether in saying "If you've got a business, you didn't build that," Obama meant "that" to refer to "a business" or to refer to "roads and bridges." "That" is singular, suggesting that he meant "a business," not "roads and bridges." But people make grammatical slips during speeches.

In any case, Romney certainly took Obama to mean "a business," and here's how he replied today. I think Obama accidentally played to one of Romney's few strengths.


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COMMENTS (36 to date)
Joe Cushing writes:

There is a picture already flying around Facebook with Obama saying, you didn't build that and him laughing with the right brother's plane in the background. It's put out by the GOP. I like the picture minus the GOP logo. I did a google image search for the photo to share with you and I found there is another one with Thomas Edison, his light bulb, and Obama. What a great gaff on Obama's part. I don't have any trust for the other side though.

Now I'm looking and there are a whole mess of these photos, there is the Empire state building, the model T, and Steve Jobs with his ipod. Here is a link to a site that has several of these...or you could just google image search "you didn't build that." http://whbl.com/blogs/post/jbader/2012/jul/17/trip-down-memory-lane-mr-you-didnt-build/

Greg G writes:

If Mitt gets any more passionate he is liable to start taking responsibility for what happened at Bain when he was CEO, Chairman of the Board and sole owner.

AngryKrugman writes:

Come on, David? You really "don't know" which of those two Obama meant? You should at least insert the rest of that paragraph into the post for context. I think most discerning readers would draw the conclusion he clearly did not mean "business", but I suppose you're free to believe otherwise (or that is was that the very least ambiguous). At least give readers a chance to fully judge the quote, though, without having to click the link. The callback to the Internet after what you quoted certainly makes it clear to me he was referring to the roads and bridges.

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.

AngryKrugman writes:

And the reference to firefighters in the next paragraph makes this even more clear, I think. Note the reference "some things":

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.

And if you watch the video, you can see he had an awkward time phrasing it to refer to bridges and roads:

http://www.washingtontimes.com/blog/watercooler/2012/jul/15/picketvideo-obama-if-youve-got-business-you-didnt-/

AngryKrugman writes:

Finally, citing Romney's interpretation as any sort of evidence as to what Obama actually meant seems disingenuous since he clearly has an incentive to frame it in the least possible way. Not to cast aspersions on Mr. Romney given his great history of honesty--much like all other politicians--but do we really think he wouldn't have made this speech if he thought Obama meant roads and bridges. I don't think Romney giving his speech is evidence of how he "certainly" took Obama's comments.

Apologize for the triple post--it's late and I didn't think it out ahead of time.

Thomas writes:

Obama's statement might be ambiguous. I'm having a hard time understanding AngryKrugman's interpretation. What does having a business have to do with building roads? And who is the somebody else who is supposedly doing the road building? Is it only non-business-owners that are responsible for there being roads?

AngryKrugman writes:

@Thomas: My interpretation, which I think is the obvious one without spin--"that"=roads and bridges, not business.

To answer the rest of your question, I'm sure we could have a much broader philosophical or economics debate on all of this, but it was a political speech at a rally. Obama sought only to make a simply point: businesses use resources they did not create all by themselves--the government provided these resources through funding from a large group of people. Businesses use roads and bridges. Business people--other than through the payment of taxes--usually do not build roads and bridges, much like they didn't create the Internet, nor do they pay for private firefighting. The point is not that only non-business owners pay for roads, but that for any given business A, they only pay a share of it, along with everyone else.

Gian writes:

As the Left gets more and more desperate, one can expect to see more attacks on business and free enterprise, including questioning of longstanding business practices.
These would include questioning the complex cross-holding patterns, tax avoidance strategies etc.

The answer business needs to give has to be better than just "it is good for us". Eight years of Compassionate Conservativism has led to semi-socialist present and the conservative paeans to the self-made man are just going to deliver the nation to the waiting arms of socialists.

Greg G writes:

Here is a rule of thumb so reliable that I have never known it to fail:

When there are two possible ways to understand the use of a pronoun,

and one of these makes perfect sense

and the other makes no sense at all

assume the speaker intends the reference that actually makes sense.

andy writes:

"Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet."

Just wondering how much nonsense one can stuff into just one sentence...

David R. Henderson writes:

@Greg G,
Good rule of thumb. Doesn’t help us here. Both ways make sense.

Shayne Cook writes:

Obama's statements (and meaning) are remarkable for two reasons:

1.) They are misleading to the point of being totally false. The Government didn't invent or build any of this - not roads, the Internet, not F-15's or B-52s. Private Contractors invented and built it all - with taxpayer funding. In most instances, the Government provided only a 'Product Performance Specification' and in many cases, not even that - especially in the case of the Internet.

2.) Obama made these misleading statements absent the assistance of a TelePrompter. That's very telling. I think we've heard what our President actually believes.

AngryKrugman writes:

@ David: You truly believe one does not make more sense here? I also have to ask again why you didn't include the language after the quote and a direct link to the video to provide more context. A few weeks ago, you posted about trust. Your omission-or failure to address it, at least--will lead me to lower my level trust levels in your future writing.

@ Shayne: Re: 2, Isn't much more likely that speaking without a teleprompter simply caused him to make a gramatical mistakes? Which the video backs up because he clearly stumbles with the awkward phrasing.

David R. Henderson writes:

@AngryKrugman,
You truly believe one does not make more sense here?
Correct.
I also have to ask again why you didn't include the language after the quote and a direct link to the video to provide more context.
Because I thought the quote I gave gave enough context.
A few weeks ago, you posted about trust.
No, I didn’t.

AngryKrugman writes:

@ David:

This is what I was referring to:
http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/06/merit_ethics_an.html

David R. Henderson writes:

@AngryKrugman,
Thanks. I had done a search on “trust” and this didn’t show up.

Phoenix Musings writes:

Perhaps you are all missing an important point. What is it Obama didn't say? Using AngryKrugman's paragraph above there was not one mention of the individual effort and sacrifice needed to create a business. Obama talked about the government's assistance. He also mentioned teachers and such, but those are common factors everyone shares. Just like the roads and the internet. Obama elevated those above the other factors. He made them the only factor. This is in perfect alignment with his socialist view that the government is all. Does anyone think that if the government didn't build roads they wouldn't exist or that business didn't exist before the internet? Government is a product of business not the other way around.

Thomas writes:

Angry, I think obviously he meant to say that the business owners didn't build the businesses *on their own*, they had help, but he mangled it, as people sometimes do when speaking. I don't see how the statement makes sense at all as referring to roads and bridges, which have nothing to do with owning a business. What he ended up saying is then either uninteresting as simply a mistake, or revealing as a mistake, and I don't see any reason to prefer one to the other.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Phoenix Musings,
Well put.

Curt writes:

Seems clear enough to me that Obama was referring to "that (infrastructure)".

But to David's actual point, yes Romney jumped on it with passion (regardless of his actual interpretation, which is fine, this is politics). The question is what can this passionate businessman actually accomplish in the role of President? Obviously he will try to lower taxes, though it seems that just about any Republican would do that. What other special MBA magic does he bring to the table?

Ken B writes:
I don't know whether in saying "If you've got a business, you didn't build that," Obama meant "that" to refer to "a business" or to refer to "roads and bridges." "That" is singular, suggesting that he meant "a business," not "roads and bridges." But people make grammatical slips during speeches.

You have missed a possibility, as it happens, the right one.

People do slip up with pronouns, and often it is tone or emphasis which clarifies the referent in speech. In the right intonation that passage would suggest to me 'that' refers to 'this unbelievable American system'. The roads and bridges are subsidiary examples attendant to that system. If the question is, does the singular 'that' refer to the singular 'American system' or the singular 'business' then I'm with Greg G here. 'That' means the system.

AngryKrugman writes:

@ Phoenix Musings,

And now perhaps I should have added more context. Obama talked about hard work and smarts, too. The preceding paragraphs specifically were in reference to taxes, pointing out things like hard work, smarts and sacrifice were necessary, but not sufficient conditions to success. @ David or anyone else, how different is what Obama says here from what Romney says at 0:50? Does this sound like Obama "attacking success" or suggesting people shouldn't work hard to elevate themselves in life?

"And then I'd talk to some working folks, and I'd think about Michelle's family -- her dad who was a blue-collar worker, worked at a water filtration plant in Chicago, and her mom was a secretary. And yet, despite never having a lot, there was so much love and so much passion -- and her dad had MS, so he had to wake up an hour earlier than everybody else just to get to work because it took him that long to get dressed, and he could barely walk. But he never missed a day’s work -- because he took pride in the idea that, you know what, I’m going to earn my way and look after my family. (Applause.) And I’d see that same pride in the people I was talking to.

And what this reminded me of was that, at the heart of this country, its central idea is the idea that in this country, if you’re willing to work hard, if you’re willing to take responsibility, you can make it if you try. (Applause.) That you can find a job that supports a family and find a home you can make your own; that you won’t go bankrupt when you get sick. That maybe you can take a little vacation with your family once in a while -- nothing fancy, but just time to spend with those you love. Maybe see the country a little bit, maybe come down to Roanoke. (Applause.) That your kids can get a great education, and if they’re willing to work hard, then they can achieve things that you wouldn’t have even imagined achieving. And then you can maybe retire with some dignity and some respect, and be part of a community and give something back. (Applause.) "

But no matter where they worked, no matter how times were tough, they always had faith that there was something different about this country; that in this country, you have some God-given rights: a life in liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and a belief that all of us are equal -- (applause) -- and that we're not guaranteed success, but we're guaranteed the right to work hard for success. (Applause.)

As for the specific lines discussed in this post, here is the build-up:

Well, first of all, like I said, the only way you can pay for that -- if you’re actually saying you’re bringing down the deficit -- is to cut transportation, cut education, cut basic research, voucherize Medicare, and you’re still going to end up having to raise taxes on middle-class families to pay for this $5 trillion tax cut. That’s not a deficit reduction plan. That’s a deficit expansion plan. I’ve got a different idea. I do believe we can cut -- we’ve already made a trillion dollars’ worth of cuts. We can make some more cuts in programs that don’t work, and make government work more efficiently. (Applause.) Not every government program works the way it’s supposed to. And frankly, government can’t solve every problem. If somebody doesn’t want to be helped, government can’t always help them. Parents -- we can put more money into schools, but if your kids don’t want to learn it’s hard to teach them. (Applause.)

But you know what, I’m not going to see us gut the investments that grow our economy to give tax breaks to me or Mr. Romney or folks who don’t need them. So I’m going to reduce the deficit in a balanced way. We’ve already made a trillion dollars’ worth of cuts. We can make another trillion or trillion-two, and what we then do is ask for the wealthy to pay a little bit more. (Applause.) And, by the way, we’ve tried that before -- a guy named Bill Clinton did it. We created 23 million new jobs, turned a deficit into a surplus, and rich people did just fine. We created a lot of millionaires.

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. (Applause.)

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.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
Thanks. I do think that’s a plausible interpretation.
@AngryKrugman,
Thanks for adding that context. That does change my interpretation substantially. I think Obama is wrong about the importance of government but he’s not wrong in the way I thought he was.
As Curt points out, though, we are getting far away from discussing the point I made in this post. And just so Curt knows, I think Romney would be a horrible president just as I think Obama and Bush were horrible. My gut feel is that Romney would be less bad on domestic policy but when I look at his foreign policy, I think he’s worse than Obama.

AngryKrugman writes:

Thanks, David. And sorry for getting snippy. I do usually find you fair--see, e.g., Nixon/Carter price controls the other day--so I was a bit surprised by this.

Ken B writes:
My gut feel is that Romney would be less bad on domestic policy but when I look at his foreign policy, I think he’s worse than Obama.
I hope you won't be offended when I say, knowing your views, two reasons to vote for Romney!

:)

aaron writes:

Can't wait for t-shirt.

"If you have a business...

Thank a bureaucrat."

David R. Henderson writes:

@AngryKrugman,
No problem. Thanks.
@Ken B,
I hope you won't be offended when I say, knowing your views, two reasons to vote for Romney!
No offense taken.

aaron writes:

On the quote, either way it doesn't matter.

Think of how insignficant infrastructure and education are in the budget.

Also think of how we spend more and more and get less and less for those dollars.

Randy writes:

I think Obama is clearly referring to the idea that we all owe a default debt to society. More precisely, a default debt to the political organization that claims to represent society. And even more precisely, that those with higher earnings have a greater debt than anyone else to the political organization that claims to represent society.

The basic idea may be true, but it is essentially meaningless. Perhaps we all owe a "debt", but payable to who exactly? The more precise ideas are pure political propaganda.

Phoenix Musings writes:

Ok AngryKrugma, he comes off better with the added context. I still don't like it that if you work hard you can be a success-up until $250,000. Then it becomes like a game of Whack-a-Mole.

Chris Koresko writes:

An interesting aspect of this Obama quote not mentioned here so far is that he's essentially parroting comments made by Elizabeth Warren in her Senate campaign a few months back. Warren's meaning was pretty clear, and when I heard Obama it seemed obvious to me that he meant the same thing she did: That every business can exist only because it receives support from government in the form of public education (of the workers it hires), infrastructure (roads, etc.) and protection (police, fire, etc.). So it doesn't make sense for an entrepreneur to claim credit for creating his business.

So in a sense, both interpretations of the Obama quote above amount to almost the same thing: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." means that a large part of the the credit for creating a business should go to government.

Obama went further than (I think) Warren did, though: He claimed that successful entrepreneurs are successful not because of their effort or ability, since there are a lot of other people who are hard-working and able. I think the implication is that success is mostly luck or having the right friends.

aaron writes:

Chris Koresko,

Good point, but it's not exactly a point president Obama would want to make. He is epitome of cronyism.

Ken B writes:

What strikes me about Obama's point is how irrelevant it is. It's like saying to Ernest Hemingway, did you invent moveable type? did you invent the English language? We are all faced with the same system, but the successful entrepeneur worked to create wealth and value from which we all benefit. We want that, especially from the small number of supremely productive people, be he Alexander Graham Bell or Steve Jobs. Overtaxation still destroys incentives.

Ken B writes:

[Comment removed for irrelevance.--Econlib Ed.]

Chris Koresko writes:

Ken B: We are all faced with the same system, but the successful entrepreneur worked to create wealth and value from which we all benefit.

Nice post. I wish more of us thought that clearly.

Ken B writes:

Can't we turn Obama's remark upside down? Say to an advocate of government, "Sure you invested in roads and bridges but you didn't do that alone. Someone created jobs and wealth. Someone earned the money you taxed to do it. You didn't create that."

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