Evolution of a sound bite

A while back, Barack Obama made a speech in which he said the following:

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… 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.

Here a link to the video for anyone who wants to watch it again (Fox News ran it hundreds of times, and spent literally hours discussing its import). The quote became kind of famous, because the word “that” in the penultimate sentence is ambiguous. If you want to make sense of what Obama said, then the natural reading is that “that” refers to the “roads and bridges” of the previous sentence, making it a truism. But the Republicans decided that it must refer to the “business” mentioned in the same sentence, and so tried to make a lot of hay out of it, including staging Mitt Romney’s entire nomination convention on the slogan “We built this!” A thin reed, and one that didn’t really hold up, since the whole thing was built on an obviously ambiguous referring expression.

Anyhow, many people pointed out that Obama’s speech was clearly adapted from some remarks made by Elizabeth Warren. She states the argument somewhat more clearly:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Here is a video of Warren making the speech. The folksy stuff makes my skin crawl (“god bless!” “pay it forward”, etc.), but one has to admit that she fleshes out the argument a bit more.

Anyhow, this summer I was doing some remedial reading, of classics that I missed over the course of my general education. The stand-out text in the pile was L.T. Hobhouse’s book Liberalism, which I thought was extremely good on many levels. Most astonishing was how contemporary it all sounded, especially given that it was published in 1911. As far as reading political liberalism is concerned, I had always just skipped from John Stuart Mill to Bernard Crick, without paying much attention to the early 20th century (save for Schumpeter and Keynes, but I think of them as economists). So prior to reading Hobhouse, I hadn’t realized how much of the basic ideological framework and agenda of modern liberalism was already in place so early in the century.

As I was reading along, I came across this passage that struck me as extremely familiar:

The prosperous businessman who thinks that he has made his fortune entirely by self help does not pause to consider what single step he could have taken on the road to his success but for the ordered tranquillity which has made commercial development possible, the security by road, and rail, and sea, the masses of skilled labour, and the sum of intelligence which civilization has placed at his disposal, the very demand for the goods which he produces which the general progress of the world has created, the inventions which he uses as a matter of course and which have been built up by the collective effort of generations of men of science and organizers of industry. If he dug to the foundations of his fortune he would recognize that, as it is society that maintains and guarantees his possessions, so also it is society which is an indispensable partner in its original creation (99).

What is there to say, other than “nicely put”!


Evolution of a sound bite — 1 Comment

  1. The last quote (which is very nice, by the way), basically seems to paint a picture that is complementary to what Hobbes says right before his “nasty, brutish, and short”-phrase …

    Anyway, the points Obama and Warren are making seems to be about tax justice — dou you think their’s is the right way to think about this issue? I’m inclined to think that it is (more or less), but what do you think?