David R. Henderson  

"You Didn't Build That"

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I just read the best thing I've read so far on Obama's now-famous line, "You didn't build that." It's by Rachael Larimore, the managing editor of Slate. I recommend that you read the whole thing. I think she's put her finger on what people heard and I would go further and say that, although the most-extreme negative interpretations of Obama's statement are wrong, what Ms. Larimore says they heard is pretty much what Obama meant. An excerpt:

In the case of Obama's Roanoke speech, conservatives [and most libertarians, I would add] everywhere heard, "You don't get credit for your hard work." I agree with the Washington Post for giving the Romney campaign four Pinocchios for repeating the truncated quote ad nauseam. I wish Romney's team would use the full version. Because even in its full glory, it would inspire largely the same reaction. The sentiment resonates with small-business owners--and it's small-business owners who have been most vocal in their response to Obama's comments, from the co-owner of an Iowa deli who good-naturedly catered an Obama campaign stop in a T-shirt saying, "Government didn't build my business" to the hardware store owner who was a bit less gracious.

Conservatives suspect that President Obama sees government as the solution to everything. [DRH: You think?] Only someone who thinks government is the answer would describe a stimulus program that cost at least $185,000 per job as successful. I can't think of a starker difference between the liberal and conservative worldviews than the Life of Julia slide show. Liberals look at that video and see a woman aided by a social safety net. Conservatives look at it and are creeped out by the fact that liberals think the very-capable-seeming Julia can't do anything without government help.

That same sentiment comes through in the "You Didn't Build That" speech. Obama's words contain an undertone that business owners are selfish, that they are ungrateful toward those teachers who helped them along the way. And that is where Obama's misunderstanding of small business, real or perceived, shines through.


And:
Do politicians not understand when they are patting themselves on the back for raising [the] minimum wage that somewhere, some shop owner is reaching for the ulcer medication while he weighs whether to raise prices, cut back employee hours, or rethink his hours of operation?

Ms. Larimore closes with:
By Friday morning, crews will be tearing down the GOP convention stage and those crazy screens and banners that hung throughout the Tampa Bay Times Forum. We'll have forgotten "We Can Change That" and "We Believe in America." But every day for the next two months, business owners will pull on T-shirts and hang signs on their stores that say "I Built This." Go ahead, try telling them what their president "meant."

UPDATE:
Commenter John Donnelly recommends that we look at this site. I did so and commented below. What I want to add here, though, is that I found this paragraph in the piece he recommends shocking. The author writes:
Now, if you've got a basic understanding of the English language, you can see that the word "that" there doesn't refer to "business"-it refers to "roads and bridges" in the previous sentence. If you can't see that, you really shouldn't be in the word business.

This is after quoting a sentence in which one would naturally think "that" refers to "business." With a basic understanding of the English language one would expect, if Obama meant to refer to "roads and bridges," he would have used "those," not "that." As I said in my original post in July, I cut Obama some slack. I often make such grammatical mistakes when I'm speaking, especially when I'm passionate, as he was. So it's not a slam-dunk to say that "that" refers to "business." What is shocking, however, is for the author to say that someone with "a basic understanding of the English language" who is "in the word business" would know that "that" refers to "roads and bridges." It's precisely an understanding of the English language by those "in the word business" that would lead one to the opposite conclusion: that "that" refers to "business."



COMMENTS (62 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

re: "Only someone who thinks government is the answer would describe a stimulus program that cost at least $185,000 per job as successful."

Ouch. Not very good. Sorry David, the snippet so far is not encouraging me to click through.

This I think gets the intention completely wrong: "Obama's words contain an undertone that business owners are selfish, that they are ungrateful toward those teachers who helped them along the way. And that is where Obama's misunderstanding of small business, real or perceived, shines through."

Obama and liberals in general aren't scolding small businesses!! I think if you'd ask Obama he would assume that small business owners agree with him about teachers and roads and everything else and that they are NOT selfish. He's criticizing politicians and partisans who present a different view.

The fact that Larimore confuses the two and assumes Obama is scolding small businesses is extremely revealing.

I don't think it was meant to be a lecture to small businesses. I think it was a justification of policy referencing things that small business owners and the average person would find to be reasonable.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

This reminds me of theories of regime uncertainty that is predicated on all business owners being good libertarian economists.

If you want to argue against Obama's point, fine. But don't just assume (A.) small business owners think like me, (B.) Obama agrees small business owners think like me, ergo (C.) when Obama disagrees with me he's lecturing small business owners.

It doesn't work like that.

Noone writes:

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sieben writes:

It's sad that "small businesses" are the last socially acceptable way to be pro-market.

RPLong writes:

Daniel, it's a real shame you didn't actually read the whole piece, because you're engaging in precisely the kind of ignorance driving the idea behind Larimore's article.

Here, I'll supply you with the missing link:

“It doesn’t matter what you meant. What matters is what you conveyed.
Daniel Kuehn writes:

RPLong - perhaps I'll give it another look.

But my point is that's not what was conveyed except in the minds of people who already thought Obama was lecturing or dismissive of small businesses.

A great exercise is to listen to C-Span in the morning because they get a wide cross-section of callers. They've talked about this. You get (alleged) business owners calling in that are incredulous people are interpreting this the way that Larimore is. And then you get (alleged) business owners) that interpret it EXACTLY the way Larimore interprets it.

Obama did not convey what Larimore is suggesting he conveyed. That's what Larimore already thought Obama believes.

This is the problem. Larimore is projecting her own view of things on everyone else in the country.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

It really strains credulity if you think about it (just like A LOT of Democratic claims).

Do you really think a guy that has been around and is as intelligent as Obama thinks:

1. Government is the only solution.
2. Business owners are selfish.
3. Punishing success to pay for hand-outs is a good idea.

The claims aren't even in the ballpark of serious, reasoned positions.

And yet Larimore expects people to believe that this is generally what was conveyed.

Now - just because these aren't even in the ballpark of sensible assertions doesn't mean there aren't people out there that think them. Of course there are. But those are people that would have thought that about Obama whether he said anything or not.

Greg G writes:

As someone who did own, operate and "build" a small business for 33 years I can assure you that many small business people (and most conservatives and libertarians) have been bitching about government and blaming it for their failures the entire time. In all my years of being part of the business community I never once heard a businessman blame himself for the failure of his business.

Of course it is true that people tend to hear confirmation of what they already believe. This is a vivid example of that.

As for what I already believed, I always thought that being a business owner was a much better deal than being an employee. If I had thought otherwise I would have sold my business and become an employee.

I always thought this was the best place in the world to do business. If I had thought otherwise I would have gone to where I thought it was best and done business there.

One more thing. I never thought of myself as a "job creator." I thought of myself as someone hiring people to take advantage of a marketing opportunity that would go to someone else if I didn't get there first.

RPLong writes:
But my point is that's not what was conveyed except in the minds of people who already thought Obama was lecturing or dismissive of small businesses.
I really don't understand why you think you're in a position to make a judgment call on that. But anywayzzz...
rpl writes:
I think she's put her finger on what people heard and I would go further and say that, although the most-extreme negative interpretations of Obama's statement are wrong, what Ms. Larimore says they heard is pretty much what Obama meant.
David, I think you've inadvertently hit upon the reason why we can't have a grown-up conversation about politics in this country. There is nothing more infuriating than for someone else to tell you that he knows what you "really" think better than you yourself do, and that is essentially what you are doing here. Can you honestly say that you wouldn't be thoroughly incensed if someone took a caricature of your actual opinions and insisted, over your protests to the contrary, that that caricature is what you "really" think?

Moreover, if Obama "really" meant that "you don't deserve credit for your hard work," then why backtrack on it? You're asking us to believe that he (1) believes this absurd thing, (2) is sufficiently ashamed of it that he doesn't want the public to know about it, but (3) let it slip out in an inadvertent moment of honesty. I suppose that's possible, but isn't it more likely that he really means what he says he means, and that his political opponents are deliberately misconstruing his statements for their own political gain? What are your reasons for thinking otherwise? Why are you so certain?

Finally, back when I took freshman philosophy, we learned about something called the "principle of charity". The idea is that when an opponent's argument is ambiguous, you should pick the interpretation that yields the strongest argument for the opponent's position. I suppose it's too much to expect cable news pundits to engage in such gentlemanly debate, but it really depresses me that even we intellectuals can't muster that minimal level of courtesy and respect for their ideological opponents.

Silas Barta writes:

Wow, you encouraged me to look up that Life of Julia slideshow (probably triggering the spam filter now).

Something in the video jumped out at me as being completely ridiculous:

Because of steps like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Julia is one of millions of women across the country who knows she'll always be able to stand up for her right to equal pay. She starts her career as a web designer.

Web design is a career that is fast-paced, extremely different from traditional employment, and very contract/freelance oriented. Not to mention extremely meritocratic and easy to make judgments about a potential designer before hiring.

If you think pay discrimination for women in web design is significant, or that a fair pay law will help you there, you're nuts.

Anyone want to step up and defend that?

Lowrie Glasgow writes:

Lets go back to GW for the way to make jobs and a good off the budget stimulus.He got soldiers in Iraq for $1m a year and some of them were killed and others lost body parts. They certainly had nothing to do with our financial success back home , we did it ourselves . Neil Armstrong did it all on his own." Sure went around taking all the credit!".

[extraneous code symbols deleted--Econlib Ed.]

Daniel Kuehn writes:

re: " I really don't understand why you think you're in a position to make a judgment call on that. But anywayzzz... "

Cause I know lots of people that contradict the claim. My judgement is much less sweeping than Larimore's, but you seem just fine assuming she's in a position to make her judgement call.

David N writes:

I don't think this article quoted enough of the Roanoke speech. Even if the President was referring to roads and bridges when he says, "you didn't build that," It's really the statements he made just prior that are irksome:

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.)

President Obama (and Elizabeth Warren before him) is arguing that being smart or working hard cannot even partially explain your success. What remains is taxpayer-funded infrastructure and services, and pure luck.

But the country's infrastructure is available to all, including all the smart and hardworking failures out there. So what he's really saying is: If you're successful, you're just lucky. You don't deserve any credit.

The President's supporters can complain until November about being taken out of context, but when you do look at the full context of the Roanoke speech, what the Presdent conveyed closely resembles the misquotation.

Floccina writes:

May take on the Obama speech:

I think that what Obama was trying to say, was that because without others' efforts channeled through government you would not be as wealthy as you are. Much of it was not earned by you though you own efforts, therefore Government has a claim on more of your earnings should the majority decide that they want more to fund programs and you have no right to complain or withhold any of your earnings from Government.

So if that is that case how much of the winnings of a lottery winner does Obama think he has a claim to? The lottery winner did not earn any of through his winnings through effort (save the price of the ticket and in fact was stupid to buy the ticket). So does Obama think that Government has the right to all of a lottery winners winnings? If not what was the point of what he said?

As far as I am concerned if the lottery winner did not cheat, and even though he was stupid to buy the ticket, owns the winnings and he has as much right to keep his money as any of us who earn money through the sweat of our brow.

BTW they love to talk about the roads. Got to fund the roads, you used Government roads etc. BUT total transportation spending is only 2% of the federal government spending and that includes more than roads and most of the funding for roads comes from the gasoline tax, a form of a user fee!

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Once again:

Politics is about perceptions; creating, maintaining and changing them.

Perceptions are formed or changed in particular surroundings and circumstances, which affect the perceiver.

This is not about political or social philosophies.

If so, the punditry would be about collectivism vs individualism as reflected in the total rhetoric of Roanoke. "You are only part of a whole!"

But, the electorate does not care about the philosophies; only what they can perceive.
That's why all campaign with sleeves rolled up; for perception.

kebko writes:

Daniel, I have pasted a section of the speech here. You can suggest that we make charitable interpretations, but you can't just pretend that he made a different speech. Here is the quote. Sure doesn't sound like he's talking about politicians to me:
"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.)"

And, you're right. It wouldn't even be in the ballpark of reasonable to expect him to put it like that. You wouldn't expect a guy as smart as Obama to throw out strawmen as applause fodder. Hmmm.

Greg G writes:

rpl nailed it.

Anytime you find yourself arguing against "pretty much" what someone else "meant" as opposed to what they actually say they meant, you are fighting a strawman.

Hunter writes:

The problem is that President Obama wasn't saying that no man is an island. He was acting like an[ethnic] mother laying a guilt trip to get us to give him all we have and more.
The tax dollars taken from productive people did build that. Even in context it was a bad argument.

Ken B writes:

Daniel Kuehn
I think a complaint isObama hasnt "been around" except in echo chambers. BUt ihear such claims with regularity. So will you if you visit kos or other suchsites.

JRE writes:

The section of the speech started by mocking and sarcastically strawmaning successful people for populist union crowd applause and the overarching point was "because we have roads and Mrs. Smith in third grade was a really nice teacher you need to stop bawwing and taking all the credit for your success, that wasn't all you". He had the poor fortune of making a grammatical flub that fit and flowed near perfectly with the already offensive content of everything else being said.

Peter writes:

David N gets it right.

Looking at the whole speech, it is clear that the president believes that all successful people owe some credit to the government, and no one gets where they are without government help.

I wish I could find it again, but I saw a political cartoon depicting Orville Wright flying over Obama and the president saying: "You didn't build that." The list can go on and on (communication devices, computers, autos, appliances, medicines, building materials, etc.) of things that the government did not directly support or have any direct involvement in. Sure everyone benefits from national defense and roads, but most great ideas and product development comes from private enterprise.

The larger point the president does not seem to grasp is that government does not exist without people willing to support it. Government income comes from taxes. Income taxes come from people with goals of building businesses - plain and simple. When people stop creating or expanding businesses, the economy stops growing. If many more people stop paying taxes (by either by not working or through the underground cash economy) and tax revenues decline, this country and government will be in a lot of hurt.

Obama seems to believe that rich people got that way unfairly, and have to share their wealth. That is the message he conveyed (deliberately or unwillingly) in Roanoke.

Chris Koresko writes:

I think Floccina has it right: In this speech, Obama was laying the intellectual foundation for a moral case to support redistribution.

When Obama says that anyone with a successful business relied on support he received in the past, and then gained success not because of his own merits (hard work and intelligence are the two he listed), it makes it a lot easier to go on and claim that whatever wealth he's got was undeserved.

It's also very close to the meaning of the shortened "You didn't build that!" quote.

Brandon Berg writes:

The basic problem with Obama's speech, as with Warren's tirade before it, is that he's trying to write himself a blank check.

Yes, businesses use basic infrastructure to make their money. And yes, many business owners received public educations. This much is uncontroversial.

But do the employees of those businesses not benefit from the existence of infrastructure as well? And the customers? Didn't everyone else get to go to public school, too?

So how much is the business owners' fair share? Obama's answer, predictably, is "more." But how do we know that? Vigorous hand-waving is no substitute for a proper reckoning, but Obama expects us to accept it as such.

If government provided nothing but public goods, that would arguably justify a flat consumption tax. But you can't justify even that, much less a graduated income tax, on these grounds when a wide majority of government funds go towards the provision of private benefits to the lower and middle classes.

The real explanation—that we tax the rich because that's where the money is, and because concentrating the burden of taxation among a small number of voters and distributing the spoils widely is how you win elections—is much less morally satisfying.

Alexandre Padilla writes:

So I read the full quote again just to be sure I didn't misinterpret things. Obama's quote is: "“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."

Obama doesn't say small, middle, or big businesses, he says business period but because he says "if you've got a business" one must assume that it's mostly small businesses that are being owned by one or a few individuals.

Obama is not really dismissive of businesses, he just saying that because you were helped along the way you must give back to the society and preferably in form of higher taxes. That's the implication. In other words, he doesn't really understand that businesses (at least not the crony businesses) are already giving back to the society by providing goods and services that consumers want. More importantly, he clearly doesn't understand entrepreneurship and business, being hard working is not enough to be successful business person. Anybody who has read Austrian theory of entrepreneurship knows that.

So she's correct in her interpretation of whether Obama understands business or not, and he doesn't. He doesn't understand how markets and businesses operate. If he did, he wouldn't have said what he said.

And yes RP Long is right, ultimately, he doesn't matter what you actually meant, it is what you convey that matters and clearly he conveyed a complete ignorance of how markets work. This is what Larimore is trying to say. Nothing more, nothing less.

It does make me laugh when Obama says "a lot of wealthy people who agree with me, they want to give something back" - aka Warren Buffet - but when you ask them to actually do so by making a donation to the IRS (which you can do, they refuse): http://youtu.be/cH7EQs4kzpA

To use a famous quote: "Scratch an `altruist' and watch a `hypocrite' bleed""

Larry writes:

The problem with YDBT/IBT is that it appeals to owners and there are a lot more non-owners than owners. That's why I prefer:

Time for a turnaround

or just

Turnaround!

Daniel Kuehn writes:

David N -

re: "President Obama (and Elizabeth Warren before him) is arguing that being smart or working hard cannot even partially explain your success."

Where in the world does he argue that???

What he argues is that it doesn't completely explain your success. Good economics and basic common sense is driving you people up the wall. This is incredible.

Show me where he's saying that it cannot even partially explain their success - he certainly never said it in what you quoted.

You all have these extraordinary interpretations of his point. Show me where he said it.

re: "The President's supporters can complain until November about being taken out of context, but when you do look at the full context of the Roanoke speech, what the Presdent conveyed closely resembles the misquotation."

Taken out of context?? David N you aren't taking it out of context you are just completely making things up.

Everything we achieve is a result of our own initiative (something he explicitly said in the speech) and the contributions of society including the contributions of government. That's what he said. It's pretty incontrovertible stuff. No one could interpret that as being a slight to business owners unless you are (1.) trying to spin it to elect another candidate, (2.) predisposed to make things up about Obama, or (3.) taken in by someone characterized by (1.) or (2.).

You guys are like mirror images of the Daily Kos types that think Romney killed that woman with cancer - the amazing thing is I doubt many of you are even Republicans!

Thomas writes:

I confess, I can't make any sense of the statement if "that" is supposed to refer to "roads and bridges." Who is it that made the "roads and bridges" happen, if not business owners? All of together do infrastructure, except for business owners? What sense does that make? "Somebody else made that happen" means that business owners have no role in producing our social infrastructure, which is a bizarre claim. If that's what the statement meant, someone should ask who he thinks pays taxes in the US.

Someone should also ask him why it is he gets to make decisions, rather than someone else. Democracy doesn't get you there. Is he as entitled to make presidential decisions as the average business owner is to make decisions with respect to that business?

Lord writes:

Show me the business that has built the roads and bridges.

MikeDC writes:

RPL,

Even if I charitably assume that "You didn't build that" means "you didn't build that alone", it's still a non-starter for me.

"You didn't build that alone. You had teachers, and people building roads and bridges, and employees, and people buying your products, and so on and so forth."

The proper economic response is, "Sure. And I've paid taxes to various governments, donated time to various projects and charities, rewarded my employees with salaries and provided products that people valued more than the money in their pockets."

"That is, I've engaged in many, many mutually beneficial exchanges, for which I am thankful. And everyone else should be thankful for what I've provided that they've willingly chosen to take."

Obama's statement apes this fundamental truth of voluntary exchange with the language of obligation and patronage. "Hey, you're very lucky we've done you a favor by making you rich. But you need to return the favor, and you ought to be happy about it".

But that's a fundamentally non-economic (and even counterproductive) way of thinking about economic activity. The world isn't a zero sum set of quid pro quo transactions. The name of the game is adding value, and successful people and successful businesses are doing that by definition.

David N writes:

Daniel Kuehn:

You're right about one thing; I'm no Republican.

You are not justified to say that I made anything up. I quoted the President completely, and in full context.

If you ask me, "what is the reason for your success?" And I reply, "I had a good idea, and I worked really hard." And then you say, "So what? Lots of people are smart, and lots of people work hard." I can only presume that you are completely rejecting my reasoning. If I admit that I went to the same public schools as everyone else and used the same roads and bridges as everyone else, you have not trapped me in some imaginary obligation.

I think I understood the President's statement clearly and gave it a fair interpretation. I don't agree with the logic or the sentiment. I didn't agree when he told Joe the Plumber that we "had to spread the wealth around," but I voted for Obama anyway. And I may vote for him again, but certainly not for what he said at Roanoke.


Tom writes:

Lord writes, "Show me the business that has built the roads and bridges."

It is the private sector that actually builds the roads and bridges. You may say, "But it is the government that pays for it". And where does the government obtain the funds to pay for roads and bridges? The private sector, of course.

This is what Obama said, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen."

Clearly, the "you didn't build that" refers to business. You didn't build your business, somebody else built your business. Obama and his Democrat supporters are clearly trying to dissemble by saying that he was not referring to business but to roads and bridges. Right.... But even this attempt at covering up his true feelings doesn't hold water, because without private business, there wouldn't be the tax revenue to build roads and bridges.

It may seem like government is building roads and bridges, or supplying public teachers but the financial burden falls on the private sector. When the government becomes self-financing and not relying on taxes for its revenues, then it may be plausible to say that you didn't build that the government did (referring to roads and bridges, right…).

Dent writes:

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Daniel Kuehn writes:

David N -
You're taking a single line, and I agree - if that specific line you picked from the speech was what he said in response to your imaginary query he would sound like a jerk. But you can't just pick stuff out of a speech like that and pretend its a response to your imaginary question. Let's say instead we picked this line from the speech. If he had responded: "The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together."

If that line would get you bent out of shape, I don't know what to tell you.

Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama are taking I, Pencil - a classic - and expanding the logic to the public sphere. It's good economics and its no more denigrating to businessmen than I, Pencil is, which also highlighted the fact that genius and success is a result of a wide network of social action.

Joe Cushing writes:

$185,000 per job is using the government accountants too. It would be a nonsensical negative number if could count the jobs that were destroyed in creating that $185,000 job. The government always destroys more jobs than it creates--with the rare exception when it produces something productive; like roads in the right place at the right time, at a reasonable cost. This means the denominator would be a negative number. The government takes $185,000 out of the economy by force and hires or contracts out to hire somebody. Meanwhile 4 (That's a guess based on how many people it would take to earn that sum) people in the private sector lose or can't find a job. So in my guess, the denominator is -3. This gives us a number that has no meaning.

RPLong writes:

Hunter - Great point about the maternal guilt trip. That's exactly what it was. Well said.

Daniel - Have you considered what it would mean if you were wrong?

Daniel Kuehn writes:

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Hugh writes:

The whole Warren/Obama discussion has its place: in Junior High this could be quite a good debating point.

For the President of the United States in the year 2012 this is just feeble beyond comprehension, and unfortunately reflects the fact that this man has made next to no effort to get the economy back on its feet.

Greg G writes:

In all of human history the United States is the shining example of where, in a large economy, private business has had the most success.

I am always amazed at how many people conclude from that business owners are horribly oppressed here.

Compared to what?

David N writes:

Daniel - It is not my imaginary query. It is the President's. He was "struck by people" who explain their success in such a way. In his speech he presented his imaginary answer to his imaginary query and gave his response. He made himself look like a jerk. You pointing out that other sentences in the speech are less stupid is not an argument.

Lord writes:

Tom, clearly it did not, and it was selective Faux News editing that propagandized this. The entire point was it takes public and private working together to create the economy. Now if you believe private good, public bad, I can see how that is disconcerting but as libertarians always like to say, it has never been tried. It never will be either because it doesn't work.

Seth writes:

DK - What did Obama convey? How do you know?

RickC writes:

First, I just can't get over how often I come across Daniel Kuehn correcting everyone else's interpetation of something someone, usually a left-leaning pundit like Krugman, has written or said. Glad you're here to keep us straight Dan.

Second, rather than offer my own take on Obama's "You didn't build that speech," I present this transcript of a portion of a speech he gave a short time later.

"Once upon a time there was a grasshopper jumping around in the summer sun in a field, somewhere or other.Probably Kansas. They have fields in Kansas, right? Or maybe it was Iowa. One of those states in the Midwest, anyway. So this grasshopper, he’s just jumping and chirping and singing to his heart’s content when this ant comes along, sweating and huffing and puffing and carrying an ear of corn. 
So the grasshopper says, “Hey, Mr. Ant – what are you doing with that ear of corn?” And the ant says: “I’m going to take it home and store it for the winter, and I suggest you do the same.” But the grasshopper doesn’t pay any attention, and when winter comes the grasshopper doesn’t have anything to eat, so he dies. 
Now there are those who say – and my opponent is one of them – there are those who say this story shows the need to be fiscally conservative. And you can believe that if you want to. But I’m always struck by those insects who think they are so smart, who think they work harder than everybody else. Well, let me tell you something: There are a whole lot of hardworking bugs out there. 
Where do you think that ear of corn came from that that ant was carrying? Somebody else planted that ear of corn. Somebody else tilled the field and laid the irrigation pipes and planted the seeds and put up scarecrows and all of that. And they probably did it with some help from the local extension agent and maybe a start-up grant from the Department of Agriculture. So if you’ve got an ear of corn, just remember you didn’t grow that – somebody else did. So what I think what we need to do is, we need to sort of spread the corn around. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do these past four years: spread the corn around. 
-- Obama Campaign speech, Dothan, Ala.

Does anyone here find anything positive about Obama's stated position as outlined in this twisting of a classic fable? And does this not clarify exactly what he meant in the "You didn't build that" speech?

RickC writes:

Okay, if this double posts sorry. The following is from a campaign speech Obama gave in Dothan, AL a short time after the "You didn't build that speech." Does anyone here see anything positive in this twisted version of the classic fable? And does it not shed some light on his actual thinking?

"Once upon a time there was a grasshopper jumping around in the summer sun in a field, somewhere or other.Probably Kansas. They have fields in Kansas, right? Or maybe it was Iowa. One of those states in the Midwest, anyway. So this grasshopper, he’s just jumping and chirping and singing to his heart’s content when this ant comes along, sweating and huffing and puffing and carrying an ear of corn. 
So the grasshopper says, “Hey, Mr. Ant – what are you doing with that ear of corn?” And the ant says: “I’m going to take it home and store it for the winter, and I suggest you do the same.” But the grasshopper doesn’t pay any attention, and when winter comes the grasshopper doesn’t have anything to eat, so he dies. 
Now there are those who say – and my opponent is one of them – there are those who say this story shows the need to be fiscally conservative. And you can believe that if you want to. But I’m always struck by those insects who think they are so smart, who think they work harder than everybody else. Well, let me tell you something: There are a whole lot of hardworking bugs out there. 
Where do you think that ear of corn came from that that ant was carrying? Somebody else planted that ear of corn. Somebody else tilled the field and laid the irrigation pipes and planted the seeds and put up scarecrows and all of that. And they probably did it with some help from the local extension agent and maybe a start-up grant from the Department of Agriculture. So if you’ve got an ear of corn, just remember you didn’t grow that – somebody else did. So what I think what we need to do is, we need to sort of spread the corn around. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do these past four years: spread the corn around." 

MikeDC writes:

RickC,
I was all ready to lambaste you for making that up, but then I went and, well.... I'd like to stop hearing about how intelligent the President is for a while.

Silas Barta writes:

Agreed with MikeDC -- I can't believe that:

a) Obama actually made that speech,
b) his opponents aren't making a big deal about that one as well, or that
c) Obama actually resorted to the "spread the ___ around" after he already got flak for saying it before.

David N writes:

RickC -- I'm afraid you've been taken in by a joke column written by A. Barton Hinkle. Obama didn't really say those words.

Greg G writes:

As with Clint Eastwood debating the empty chair, many people are no longer even pretending to be arguing against what Obama actually says. It is so much easier to just argue against stuff you make up.

Greg G writes:

Of course a hyperbolic political season provides many opportunities for the ideological Turing Test in addition to the Hinckle piece. Consider this one:

The New York Times reports that Romney pollster Neil Newhouse responded to complaints about factual errors by the Romney campaign by saying that "we're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers."

Is this:

A) True?

or

B) A case of the mainstream media believing that a Daily Show spoof was real news in their eagerness to undermine Romney?

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@Lord

The entire point was it takes public and private working together to create the economy.

Rubbish. The public sector and private sector DO NOT work together. The public sector exploits the private sector through compulsory taxation. It did so under the Pharaohs, the Caesars, and the all the various Kings, potentates and tyrants that despoil the history books. The State, always and forever, even those democratic, exploits.

The public sector allocates the money that it seizes through threats of violence and intimidation to simply maximize political return. Specifically, it spends only for ruling elites to retain political power. In a democracy, the State doles out other people's money with the sole view of keeping incumbent public officials in their office and so government workers and officials can continue to live at the expense of their host. It is not an act of charity, kindness or benevolence. It simply, ruthlessly and coldly serves those in power. The fact that this political patronage may incidentally be to the advantage of some of those subjects who pay taxes does not therefore mean that there is any need for gratitude by said subjects in any way whatsoever. If the government provided nothing it would be replaced or violently overthrown. So it steals from all, gives the loot to those it must, and helps itself to the rest.

The hostility and distrust that subjects have felt toward their oppressive governments, all of which have exploited their fellow man over the past 10,000 years, has been completely warranted.


It is the government that "didn't build that". The IRS never says "please" or "thank you" only "more!" and "now!" so don't expect me to say "thanks" to those grasping sods. Without a private sector to ruthlessly exploit and predate, there wouldn't be any money for the State to build pot-hole filled roads or bridges, pay under-performing clock-punching teachers, fight useless wars and pay wealth destroying armies, fund self-destructive anti-social welfare programs, build concentration camps and gas chambers, or construct elaborate palaces for the ruling elites.

Obama's simply parroting the view of the extreme left and of the all the rulers and tyrants of recorded history.

Greg G writes:

Mark,

The fact that there have been no governments "over the last 10,000 years" that are acceptable to you should be a clue that that your expectations for what should be acceptable are entirely unrealistic.

Of course, there have been some places where there was no government to speak of. That just never seemed to work for long.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ Greg G

The fact that there have been no governments "over the last 10,000 years" that are acceptable to you should be a clue that that your expectations for what should be acceptable are entirely unrealistic.

You're entitled to your opinion; just as I am entitled to absolutely reject your point of view.

My expectations are not "entirely unrealistic".

I do feel, however, that the majority of people have a "entirely unrealistic" Disney view of the world. Human society has always been hierarchical, violent and exploitative. There have always been individuals who have sought power and sought power with the expressed purpose of living at the expense of others. The vast majority of those in power are of that type.

This is independent of my "expectation" or yours. It's just a fact of life.

Greg G writes:

Mark,

We agree on more than you think. First of all, we both agree that everyone is entitled to their opinion.

Secondly, we agree that "human society has always been hierarchical, violent and exploitive."

It is precisely to limit the destructiveness of those parts of human nature that we establish constitutional democracies where government has a near monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Despite the many faults of this system, history shows it to be far better than anything else that has been tried as a solution to the human tendency toward the abuse of power.

Relying on private violence to enforce societal rules or having no rules at all have always gotten worse results. Almost all hunter gatherer societies that have been studied have far higher rates of violence than we have in today's constitutional democracies.

It is the idea of the noble savage living without government that is the real Disney fantasy.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ Greg G

Despite the many faults of this system, history shows it to be far better than anything else that has been tried as a solution to the human tendency toward the abuse of power

No disagreement there. However, my disagreement with the statists like Obama is they that posit that "far better" therefore implies good, noble and something to be praised.

It is "far better" to be force-fed a pound of crap than to be force-fed a pound of potassium cyanide, arsenic or sulfuric acid. The former may make you sick, but the later will instantly kill you. This, however, does not alter the fact that being forced to ingest feces is very unpleasant, unhealthy, and repellent.

Democracy does indeed have many,many irredeemable faults. While It may result in fewer abuses of power than more repellent systems, that is merely relative.


Relying on private violence to enforce societal rules or having no rules at all have always gotten worse results.

Agreed. Relying on private violence or having no rules at all will indeed fare worse. But having no rulers is not equivalent to having no rules. A human society can exist without rules, but it is not necessary to anoint a small group of people a monopoly of force, and to allow them to use that violent force to manipulate others at whim. Most governments throughout history claimed a right, usually from some god, to do just that. Today's Western democracies are more subtle, but they manufacture the "will of the majority" to justify the same exploitative behavior.

It is precisely to limit the destructiveness of those parts of human nature that we establish constitutional democracies where government has a near monopoly on the legitimate use of force

On this, we do not agree. I'm can't say for sure about you, but I didn't establish anything-- so "we" therefore couldn't. The West adopted constitutional democracies during the period of the late 18th century to the early 20th century. I was forced to "inherit" this system as a fait accompli. In my view, the transition from constitutional monarchy to constitutional democracy occurred since the ruling elite could no longer hope to justify their rule through the "divine right of kings". In order to preserve the old hierarchical order they adopted constitutional democracy. This concession occurred not to protect *us* from abuses of government power, but to preserve *their* privileged position. It was, is, and always has been a ruse. Instead of "serving the King", now we "serve our country". No real change.

It is the idea of the noble savage living without government that is the real Disney fantasy.

The noble savage was an historical fiction as told by Thomas Hobbes. Living without a government in human society is as likely as living in a society without murder, theft, rape, child abuse, war or mental illness. Not in my lifetime, that's for sure. As long as there are people with the psychological predisposition to control, exploit and manipulate others, the State will be with us. Probably always if you're an optimist; always,if you aren't.

That said, I think a world without self-appointed, exploitative rulers would be a better world, much the same way I feel that a world without murder, theft, rape, child abuse, war or mental illness would be a better world. On that, I'm sure we can all agree.

Daublin writes:

Here's the transcript:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/07/13/remarks-president-campaign-event-roanoke-virginia

If you read it, I think the short quote is as accurate as a short quote can be about Obama's intended meaning. He really is quite disdainful about the effect of individual business owners on their own businesses. He sounds like a mother scolding a child.

Here's a longer quote from the same speech:

"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."


John Donnelly writes:

I scanned your post and I would like to comment but only if we are talking about the same statement by the President. Please read this post by FAIR, Fairness And Accuracy in Reporting. These guys, Peter Hart and Jim Naureckas are awesome. http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=4593 This is a media watchdog group that I support and I think anyone who relies on the media for blogging material should subscribe to their email alerts and monthly newsletter (both in kind and financially). Otherwise I'll just back Daniel Kuehn.

[This comment was accidentally deleted and has been restored. (It was in the spam folder and I hit delete for a batch of items too hastily.) I apologize for the inconvenience. --Econlib Ed.]

David R. Henderson writes:

@John Donnelly,
Thanks. I went to the site you recommended. Here it is for those who want to check. It adds little or nothing that has not been covered in my post or the comments on a previous post I did on this. Notice that the writer covers only 2 interpretations. People here, and the Slate article that I referenced, cover others.
Also, I found the comment about the English language shocking. To see why, go to the top and see my Update.

Ken B writes:

I am never shocked by naked partisanship but the one certain rule of english pronouns is that they agree in number and gender.

Ken B writes:

I post often here and two other econblogs. As election nears i am sttruck by how many of those comments are just about mundane matters of reading or writing fairly and accurately. The desire to ill construe or misconstue or to seek tenuous pretexts seems to fit Arnold Klings fears.

As for this quote you needto hear andeven seethespeaker. You cannot just rely on transcripts. Ileft a detailed analysis of my reading on drh'Soriginal post. But that reading is an inference and a judgment.Not aslam dunk. Thereal questionis, is thegop use ofthequote UNFAIR or just theusual exaggeration epitomizing reasnably well the speech'S message.
Exaggeration only is my take. Ymmv.

Greg G writes:

It is revealing that all this pretense that there is some big mystery about whether "that" referred to businesses or infrastructure conveniently ignores the fact that Obama and his campaign have repeatedly clarified that the reference was to infrastructure.

I wonder how many commenters here would think it was OK for someone else to decide for them what they really "meant" by their own words?

Ken B writes:

@Greg G

It would dependon what I said and how self serving my explanation was. In any case the quote even as "meant" serves as an apt synecdoche of Obama'S stance.

David N writes:

Since reading the FAIR article I've done a complete 180 on this. My kid just built a cool spaceship "all by herself" but I said, "You didn't build that. Daddy bought you those Legos." She cried for a bit until I explained that I was pointing to the Legos and not the spaceship itself. I interrogated her for a while to find out who told her about spaceships so we can send a small gratuity.

My wife is making dinner tonight--with the help of millions of Americans and Democratic governance of course--and I told her grace will be a lot longer now that there's all these other institutions like the USDA to thank. If she burns the dinner I guess we can skip the whole thing. As another great President said, "success has many fathers but failure is an orphan." He never heard about TARP.

My wife got annoyed with me and said that we already paid a fair price for the food and paid all our taxes too, and were generally helpful to strangers and neighbors alike, so was all this extra gratitude strictly necessary? I don't know how she could be so stupid. It's like she can't even read.

NFL season is starting up and I for one am getting tired of seeing every running back with extra yardage point to the sky and thank Jesus, or point to the stands and thank the fans. What about the folks who made the roads that got the fans to the stadium? I'd like to see the players point towards the White House.

Obama is really on to something. It's fun to go around reminding everyone with money they owe a huge debt to unseen people who were presumably already compensated. The response so far has been amazing.

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