That fateful July day in Roanoke, Virginia when Obama said “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.” It was a poor choice of words. It seems clear that he did not mean people did not build their business but that they did not build the infrastructure that makes their success possible, the context makes that much clear.
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.
Yet, context hasn’t stopped the Republicans and the Romney campaign from constantly repeating the line. It goes something like this, “President Obama says that if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Well, I’m here to tell you today, Mr. President, that we did build it!” They even devoted an entire day to this “theme” at last week’s Republican National Convention. A lot of questions come to mind when I see the Republicans so blatantly taking the phrase out of context – such as how desperate must they be to devote an entire day at the RNC to an out-of-context Obama quote – but the one the puzzles me the most is who exactly they think “built that”?
President Obama’s message seems to have been that as a country we help each other out. He praised individual ingenuity in the same speech, but was making the particular point that government spending and government programs have made it possible for your hard work and risk-taking to actually pay off and allow you to be successful. It’s really a rather benign message and it’s one that Mitt Romney agrees with.
ROMNEY: I know that you recognize a lot of people help you in a business. Perhaps the bank, the investors. There is no question your mom and dad, your school teachers. The people who provide roads, the fire, the police. A lot of people help. But let me ask you this. Did you build your business? If you did, raise your hand. Take that Mr. President! This is what’s happening in this country. These people are entrepreneurs.
In case Mitt Romney forgot, teachers, schools, roads, firefighters, and police officers are all instances of government spending. To be fair, I do understand the idea of rugged American individualism and I wholly support and celebrate entrepreneurs who take risks and provide services that we as consumers want. But the idea that anyone person did it all on their own is not just wrong, it’s laughably wrong.
In a few years when I graduate with my PhD and am honored by being called Dr. Whitley I would never think of saying, “I did this all on my own and have no one to thank but myself.” Did I have to make a lot of tough choices and sacrifices? Absolutely. I’ve lived for years making very little money as a student. I picked up am moved to a state I had only visited a handful of times to live in a city I have never set foot in to follow my dream. I passed up opportunities to get out of academia and make decent money. Yet, at the end my thoughts will not be on how great I am because I took the risks and I did the reading and I wrote the papers and I passed the exams. No, I will think of my wife who sacrificed living close to her family, friends, and a great job to move to Florida with me. I’ll think of my parents who supported me emotionally and financially for so long. I’ll think of my professors who gave so freely of their knowledge and their time. And I’ll also think of another group – taxpayers, because when I finish at FSU, 2 of my 4 degrees will have come from state universities that are funded by taxpayer money and I want to provide a good return on investment by giving back what I can to the society that has given me so much.
So, while I’ve not started a business, I know what it’s like to take risks, to make sacrifices, and to work ridiculously hard in pursuit of a dream, but I also know that I never would have made it by myself. On this Labor Day, I want to take a moment to thank those who work and those who provide work. We do live in a great country and we’ve done some amazing things, but we didn’t get here on our own.