“You Didn’t Build That” Ethics

“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”

With those words, President Barack Obama handed the Romney campaign a rich and evocative phrase more ripe for political exploitation than even his Republican opponent’s juiciest gaffes, like…

  • “I like being able to fire people “
  • “I’m not concerned about the very poor “
  • “Corporations are people”

Since every one of these quotes were misrepresented by both pundits and Democrats, taken out of context and unfairly characterized, it’s hard to blame Republicans for jumping on President Obama’s provocative rhetoric, and using it for all it’s worth…which, I suspect, if you want to paint the President as a socialist who wants to punish success and give the fruits of  risk-taking and hard work to the slack and unsuccessful, is a lot.

Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto:

“The president’s remark was a direct attack on the principle of individual responsibility, the foundation of American freedom. If “you didn’t build that,” then you have no moral claim to it, and those with political power are morally justified in taking it away and using it to buy more political power. “I think that when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” Obama said in another candid moment, in 2008.”

And here’s Mitt, making the most of it:

“The idea to say that Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple, that Henry Ford didn’t build Ford Motor, that Papa John didn’t build Papa John Pizza, that Ray Kroc didn’t build McDonald’s, that Bill Gates didn’t build Microsoft, you go on the list, that Joe and his colleagues didn’t build this enterprise, to say something like that is not just foolishness, it is insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America, and it’s wrong.

“And by the way, the president’s logic doesn’t just extend to the entrepreneurs that start a barber shop or a taxi operation or an oil field service business like this and a gas service business like this, it also extends to everybody in America that wants to lift themself [sic] up a little further, that goes back to school to get a degree and see if they can get a little better job, to somebody who wants to get some new skills and get a little higher income, to somebody who have, may have dropped out that decides to get back in school and go for it. . . . The president would say, well you didn’t do that. You couldn’t have gotten to school without the roads that government built for you. You couldn’t have gone to school without teachers. So you didn’t, you are not responsible for that success. President Obama attacks success and therefore under President Obama we have less success and I will change that.”

I admit that when I first read Obama’s quote, it annoyed me greatly. Don’t tell my wife and me that we didn’t build our business. We went in debt to start it; we took out a second mortgage at an obscene rate; we wrecked our credit. We work seven days a week, and we haven’t had a family vacation in seven years.

Then I read the context of the statement, from a speech in Roanoke, Virginia:

“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 point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

Obama is making the argument that individual achievement cannot be partitioned from community collaboration. No one truly goes it alone, no matter how significant their achievement or how unique their talents. Every successful individual and business indebted to the community, the nation and the American system. It’s not a remarkable concept, and shouldn’t be a controversial one. If it was articulately and unambiguously described, the only reasonable answer would be, “Well, of course.”

It wasn’t articulate, unfortunately. Obama often isn’t articulate when he gets off of a script,and then is victimized by his media- inflated reputation for being a verbal whiz and an intellectual giant. Taranto argues that we must presume that Obama means what he appears to say, since everyone insists that he’s brilliant. Well, brilliant people say dumb things on bad days, and brilliant or not, this is hardly the first time the President has chosen his words poorly.

It’s hard to blame Republicans and conservatives for treating Obama’s gaffe the dishonest way Democrats have used Romney’s words against him, but I’m equal to the task. I am sure that confirmation bias is working its dark magic in pundits like Taranto, who already believes that Obama is a wealth-redistributing crypto-socialist, and perhaps he is—but the Roanoke speech doesn’t prove it.

As usual, the spin-masters at the White House make me want to side with the critics. They argued that when the President said, “Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen,” he “clearly” intended “that” to refer to the roads and bridges. Here I side with Taranto: Obama can be rhetorically awkward, but not that awkward. “That” refers to “business.” Or does he mean to say that if you don’t have a business, you did build the roads and bridges? The problem with the speech is the verb “build,” and the absence of the necessary adverb “alone” or the phrase “without help.” But even while mangling the language, the President’s meaning is clear, and it’s not the kick in the teeth to business owners and innovators that Romney says it is.

The tough issue in all this, I think, is how much to temper ethics with reality. Is it fair to expect Mitt Romney to take a higher road in trying to defeat an incumbent President than the President and his supporters are willing to take themselves? They have battered Romney for months with “corporations are people,” for example—this is a favorite source of ignorant indignation from the Occupy Wall Street crowd—when his statement is true. Corporations are made up entirely of people, and are the mechanism through which people make a living, support their families, and provide good and services. His observation is as obvious as Obama’s point about how everyone’s success depends on the contributions of others. So no, it’s not fair to expect Romney to take a higher road than the President, and not to exploit his verbal missteps as vigorously as his own are exploited.

The ethical approach, however, would be to respond to the point the President was really making, and avoid the easy cheap shot. I know that would win at least one vote: mine.



Graphics: Didn’t Build That

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

20 thoughts on ““You Didn’t Build That” Ethics

  1. How many times have you messed up an antecedent when responding to me? More than a few. One time, it changed your meaning from attacking my argument to attacking me directly. It took a considerable amount of back and forth and explaining until you even realized your misuse.

    Messing up an antecdent is incredibly common, and from the overall passage, it makes more sense for the “roads and bridges” to be the antecedent than for “a business” to be such.

    • I agree–antecedents are tricky, especially in speech. I still don’t think the passage was about bridges. It was about how all sorts of another factors are part of building a business. I admit that there is a part of me that likes Taranto’s attitude of “Ok, if he’s so brilliant and such a great orator, he should be held to a higher standard of speech. If Bush said this, he could have meant anything.

    • Jack, I have to agree “TGT”. Additionally, if you heard the delivery of the words, the cadence and emphasis, it was clear that he was referring to the “roads and bridges” and not a business. It only remotely seems like a gaffe when read. Had it truly been a reference to business owners not building what we all know they did, the outrage would have been immediate, as opposed to after staffers found a way to spin it. As a result, I view the attack as unethical, but hardly unfair. It’s an easy argument to refute, and given the way the two of them have been going after each other, unfortunately to be expected. I don’t think it will ultimately harm the President. But then again, who knows???

      • You and tgt could well be right. I think it could harm the President, because like the Romney attacks, it fits a narrative that many voters believe or are near believing. Personally, I doubt that anything that happens before the conventions will have much impact.

        Unethical but not unfair seems like an oxymoron to me.

        • Oxymoronic only in the real world. The political one appears to be one with a different set of rules, where lines are routinely blurred. Given the context of what’s shaping up to be a nasty campaign season, not much appears to be out of bounds.

          • Huh? Nothing is ever out of bounds if you say “anything goes.” But anything doesn’t go, and shouldn’t go. It goes if we let it. We shouldn’t tolerate deception, cheating and lies. The “real world” bit is pure rationalization. Is the Mafia “the real world”? Are Tony Soprano’s ethics OK because he’s a mobster? Come on.

            • Come on Jack. What i wrote was that “not much appears to be out of bounds”. I think it’s clear from my posts that I don’t personally agree with such behavior by either side. And you’re right- we shouldn’t tolerate deception cheating or lies. The real world is an unfortunate reality, and one that I’ve learned of the hard way. My mother taught me the dangers of believing in, or seeking absolute justice. It’s a lesson that I still struggle with. Unfortunately, the older I get, the less I struggle, and the more I dislike it. The “real world” comment was meant to draw a comparison to the political world, where there are a different set of rules, like it or not….

              • So your position is: “it’s unethical and unfair in reality, but it is considered normal in the realm of politics, so therefore it is not unfair in politics” ?

                • Sort of. The political realm seems to be a moving target. I don’t personally agree with this, and think that both sides are routinely out of bounds. However, in a week where Romney is basically told, “put your big boy pants on”, I’m not at all surprised at the spin put on this Obama quote. I’d love it, and it would be a lot easier on all of us, if politicians lived by a uniform code of conduct as it relates to campaigning. But this is as likely as the two candidates switching parties. We should force politicians to a higher standard. I feel confident that most of Jack’s readers would share this opinion. But how do we do it? I’m all ears. (eye’s)

  2. It’s true that we don’t do things alone during our lifetime, but to succeed in business somebody has to take a risk. If you lose, you alone are responsible and accept the loss. Now we are being told by the POTUS that if we take a risk and succeed, we shouldn’t take the credit for our success, because we didn’t do that, other people made it possible. How dumb does the POTUS think we are? What kind of drinks are they serving in the White House these days?

    • … but to succeed in business somebody has to take a risk.

      Not necessarily. Romney was able to succeed at spinning off a business without ever taking a risk.

      Now we are being told by the POTUS that if we take a risk and succeed, we shouldn’t take the credit for our success, because we didn’t do that, other people made it possible.

      Not at all. He’s claiming that you shouldn’t think that it was ALL about you. It’s a common bias to think that your success reflects on yourself while your failures are mostly luck. When people do that too much, it’s easy to become selfish and not contribute to the infrastructure. When people don’t contribute, it becomes harder and harder for individuals to be successful.

      This isn’t crazy by any means.

        • I don’t think Obama made a gaffe, so I don’t think Romney and the “rightwingosphere” ought to be trying to make the hay out of it that they seem intent on making. What troubles me about what the President said is how it could be so easily and quickly (and unfairly) turned around by someone who faces hardship or “failure,” by blaming the government for NOT helping out enough. We’ve already got too many people “going postal” or about to, who are thinking exactly like that. I’ll say it again, in warning: if Obama does not get re-elected, watch Chicago burn.

    • Wikipedia tells me that’s a more general term and that “Self-serving bias” is what I was talking about. Whatever the case, it’s a real thing, and it can cause us to make bad judgments.

  3. Once we left the hunter-gatherer stage in our evolution, we’ve developed an interdependency that is illustrated in the “Nobody knows how to make a computer mouse (or a pencil)” lecture at TED:

    No one person knows everything that is required to produce a computer mouse. It’s only through the exchange of ideas and things that it is possible for one to exist. I think this is along the lines of what Obama was saying.

    The difference between Obama and Romney is the extent to which they believe a can attempt to control that exchange. Neither believes in either no control or total control, but land somewhere on a continuum.

    As to the ethics of each side pouncing on the other’s gaffes, I think they are always looking for some way to illustrate that difference in a simple, stark manner, (because when you think about how dumb the average person is, remember that half are dumber –George Carlin).

  4. Well, if I have a business, and I did not build it, tghen if it fails, someone else gets to pay for it.

    Every successful individual and business indebted to the community, the nation and the American system.

    Then when businesses fail, “the community, the nation, and the American system” ought to pick up the tab.

    Look at all those banks that were on the verge of collapse during the financial crisis. If those banks owe their existence to “the community, the nation, and the American system”, should not the “the community, the nation, and the American system” bailed them out?

    • Well, if I have a business, and I did not build it, [then] if it fails, someone else gets to pay for it.

      Nobodies claiming you didn’t build your business, just that you were dependent on community available structures.

      You’re smarter than that.

    • Yes, everyone is cropping Obama’s remarks here, and it stinks. You’ll recall that the “I like firing people” and “corporations are people” are also routinely cropped, both in at least two DNC hit ads.I hate it…it’s pure deceit.

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