We are right now in the middle of a debate that was triggered by a speech by President Obama in Roanoke. Call it the "You didn't build that" speech.
There has been much parsing over what "that" referred to. The Obama campaign says that he was referring to highways and bridges and eduction and other public works and services that make it possible for businesses to do, well, business.
The Republicans have chosen to interpret the speech to mean that President Obama was saying that hard-working entrepreneurs shouldn't take credit for building up their own businesses.
Here is what the president said:
“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.”
The Republicans have been accused to taking the president's comments out of context. Let us stipulate that they did. Even so, the president's remarks were puzzling. I understand the point that the president was trying to make, but I'm not sure he should lean too heavily on it.
It is true that government paved the highways in the Triangle, state and federal. So, in theory everyone had the opportunity to start up a construction business and build homes in the acreage opened up by the highway system. But only a few people launched those businesses, people who had the know-how and the tenacity to do so. And bank credit.
It is true that government research helped start up the Internet. Anyone, I suppose, could have started up Google. But only two guys did, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. In fact, they probably were smarter than everyone else and worked harder than everyone else.
It is true that the government created N.C. State University, and I suppose anyone could have learned what they needed at State to launch a company like SAS in Cary. But they didn't. A couple of State alums, Jim Goodnight and John Sall, did. And became billionaires.
I guess what the president is missing is that yes, there are a lot of smart people out there, and there are also a lot of hard-working people out there. But there aren't a lot of smart and hard-working people out there who also have entrepreneurial skills and can talk a bank or group of investors into putting up money. That is a very small set of people. You don't just pave a road, hire some teachers, and presto, you have an economy.
The president was paraphrasing in Roanoke a speech that had been given by Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts.
What is concerning about this approach is the sense that entrepreneurs who get wealthy should get only grudging credit, and they shouldn't pat themselves overmuch for having created jobs and great products. Mostly, they should just be modest for having done well and thank the rest of us for keeping cops on the beat so thugs don't break into their factories and offices and make off with their wealth. That just panders to people who think they didn't get rich because they didn't catch a lucky break that someone else caught.
Having said this, it is naive and disingenuous for those who say all the time that government is the problem, and if government would just get out of the way, all would be fine. The U.S. is keeping two aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, near Iran, to keep the Strait of Hormuz open in case of war. About 20 percent of the world's oil flows through this narrow passage. If Iran closed it, the price of oil would soar. That would be very bad for consumers and very bad for business. That's why the government paid billions of dollars for these carriers and pays for thousands of crew members and pilots, so a gallon of gas doesn't shoot up to $12 if the Iranians start shooting at ships in the strait.