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Thursday, July 19, 2012
Economics/Business ... Politics ...

President Obama did the country a favor the other day by making the following statement:

“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.”

Of course, the Republican and conservative voices have jumped all over Mr. Obama for this, painting him as a communist. Well, that’s what they get paid to do. The important point is that the average citizen is [finally] being asked to do some serious thinking. As an aging “eternal student”, I’m all in favor of serious thinking. I definitely need to give Obama credit here.

In his pre-political life, Mr. Obama was a community organizer and a teacher. He’s obviously trying to teach the overall “community” that is the American nation, teach them an interesting and important lesson. And even if his curriculum is not entirely correct (but not as incorrect as his opponents claim), he is stimulating thinking on the part of people who actually need to think, but don’t think that they do. That’s what a really good teacher does; he or she does NOT indoctrinate, but causes her or his student to get interested and think it through on their own.

(Well, perhaps Mr. Obama IS trying to indoctrinate, given the political inspiration for his statement. Maybe he is NOT trying to stimulate a thoughtful debate regarding the future direction of the American political economy, i.e. towards more government involvement, investment and direction of the economy with safety-nets and wealth distribution mechanisms, versus minimal government, low taxes, and entirely free markets where the rich get richer and the unlucky get buried, e.g. for lack of affordable health care. Nonetheless, the unintended side-effect here is a good one, i.e. stimulating the public to pay attention to a huge choice that needs to be made on the part of the body politic).

As to Mr. Obama’s statement itself: if you read the whole thing, it makes lots of sense. Sure, Bill Gates built Microsoft and Larry Page built Google and Jeff Bezos built Amazon and Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook, not Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi. But as Mr. Obama said, the schools and teachers that prepared Mr. Gates, Page, Bezos and Zuckerberg all received government support; in many cases, their teachers were government employees.

All four of these modern entrepreneurs needed the technology and infrastructure that government employees and agencies started or developed, i.e. electronics, computer stuff and communications systems that got a big push from the federal government during WW2 and the Cold War. Just as the canals and railroads that powered the economic growth of the late 1800s and early 1900s required government land grants and financial aid, just as the highways and airports that revved up the American economy in the 50’s and 60’s wouldn’t have happened without government involvement, so the Internet and “wireless” airwaves required government support and coordination that goes back to the 1960s and even before.

Unfortunately, Mr. Obama overstated his punch line, and gave his opposition a vulnerable spot to sink their teeth into. I.e., “you didn’t build that; someone else made that happen”. (Sometimes Mr. Obama is NOT the skilled politician that he otherwise seems to be; he’s good, but Bill Clinton probably would not have made this error.) If only Obama had used his lawyerly skills and equivocated just a bit, e.g. “you didn’t build that alone; someone else laid the foundation for your success”.

But nonetheless, the punch line made the national headlines, and stimulated a lot of TV show discussion and pundit columns. I can only hope that Mr. Obama seizes the initiate and continues to make the case for an economy with somewhat more government involvement than has been the case since the election of Ronald Reagan. The nation is now at a “teachable moment”. The bubble of prosperity that started expanding in 1980 finally burst in 2008, and a lot of people are still hurting (and will continue hurting for several years to come, if present forecasts for slow economic growth hold).

The Reagan tax-cut economic philosophy has finally shown its ugly side. The Republicans are deploying very skilled arguments to convince the public that the only cure for a laissez-faire melt-down is more laissez-faire, and that government remains the enemy of the people. Mr. Obama is the nation’s last, best hope to keep the public from unthinkingly swallowing this assumption. Polls show that people still like him and listen to him; he has the opportunity to argue that government is not the enemy of the people. He can make the case that government IS the people. (And if it is NOT, he had better tell us how he intends to return it to the control of the people).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:01 pm      

  1. Jim, Speaking of Obama’s latest statements, I heard Obama say something recently that I tho’t astonishing, miraculous really, and unheard of, never said before by any president that I ever remember: He said in one of his recent speeches, “I made a mistake”! When has anyone ever heard a president say those 4 words? If one has said them, I can’t remember when, where, or who he was; and my memory of presidents goes back to at least mid-1940s when FDR was still in office.

    He then went on to say that his mistake (I paraphrase here) was to think that there might actually be some sort of real sense of both the Democrats and the Republicans cooperating and compromising regarding what was good for the country; instead, he said, the only thing that seems to matter is politics and who can win what argument.

    And I think Obama was right. He did come into office thinking that with a good sense of cooperation and compromise both parties could work together for the country.

    Instead, though, the GOP started the business of polarization with the formation of the Tea Party; and now we have the situation that pertains.

    But I have to say that when it comes to what presidents have said and not said, Obama is one of the few at the top of my list for his saying he “made a mistake”. How refreshing to have someone in political power admit to something it actually is. Not even those politicians caught (sometimes literally) with their pants down admit to “mistakes”.

    The only other politician I remember who was so straightforward and honest was Robert F. Kennedy. I remember reporters would ask him a question. Instead of launching into a long, rambling answer that really had nothing to do with the question (as most answers by politicians are), RFK would often answer a simple “yes” or “no” and that was it. Reporters, who were used to long rambling answers to any simple question would scramble to figure out what their next question was. It was almost funny to watch it.

    And now we have a president who actually admitted his mistake. Likely he has not admitted all his mistakes, but at least he has admitted one of them, which is more than anybody else has ever done that I remember. So, I say good for Obama. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — July 20, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

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