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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

July 26, 2012 at 9:20 AM

You didn’t build that (alone)

I have a long-running and civil email exchange with a reader who is on the right. His latest message dealt with the faux controversy over the claim that President Obama is anti-business because he said, “You didn’t build that…”

What the president actually said was, “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 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.”

My reader wrote, “I think that my experience is fairly common: I grew up in north King County, and I went through grade school, junior high, and high school with several people all the way through. I could name names. Point: We all had very similar economic and educational backgrounds. From their own statements, I learned that there is a wide discrepancy in terms of ultimate educational achievement, career, HDL/LDL, total cholesteral, BMI, current income, and wealth. Conclusion: The government had very little to do with success of twenty or so different individuals in my limited experience.”

This was my response:

My limited experience is different. I’m from Phoenix, which wouldn’t even exist without the federal government: U.S. Cavalry to force peace with the Apaches; land-grant railroads; lots of federal money for the reclamation water-and-power projects; infrastructure to subsidize sprawl, etc. I went to good public schools. I lived in neighborhoods where fire, police, trash, water, streets, etc. were provided by government. I learned to love books at the public library. I was able to eat safe food thanks to federal law and inspections, and didn’t go through Depression-like bank failures because of government regulation. The tourism economy in Arizona is heavily dependent on the public lands conserved for all of us by the government.

Growing up, many of my friends’ parents worked at Motorola, which benefited from federal money for defense and peacetime projects. I couldn’t have gone to college as an undergraduate without federal grants and loans. My father and uncle fought in World War II and received the GI Bill and VA healthcare. My grandmother received Social Security and my grandfather’s Railroad Retirement benefits; otherwise, she would have been in poverty, and without Medicare would have died much sooner.

I’ve worked since I was 17. I was a paramedic, a teacher, worked in the theater, and have worked for newspaper companies. I paid my own way through grad school. None of my modest success would have been possible without the delicate balance between government and the private sector in this country, between the “we” and the “me.” I’m sending this to you via the Internet, which was developed with government money, allowing a platform for a vibrant private enterprise.

We have many pointless arguments in America today. The federal government grew under Reagan and both Bushes. It will grow under a President Romney. That happens because of the increasing needs of a complex, urbanized society of more than 300 million with global responsibilities — and now confronting a long quasi-depression. It happens because of the appetites of special interests and misbegotten military adventures. We have certainly gone off the rails with a corporate oligarchy controlling politics — but it is merely gaming the market to its advantage through public policy, Main Street businesses be damned.

Government must do certain things very well for America to be competitive and a land of opportunity. Private enterprise and government are intertwined, and they always have been. This is the 150th anniversary of the act that started the transcontinental railroad, a government push that then became a boon to the private sector (and not a few robber barons). Indeed, without the prosperous society that was built by workers, businesspeople, government and unions, we wouldn’t even have the luxury of having this debate. We’d either be forging ahead with Chinese-style state capitalism or living in a Hobbesian society with the law of the jungle.

And Don’t Miss: Can financial regulation be fixed? || Baseline Scenario

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Where young talent goes

The future lies in cities

It’s right on Target

Comments | More in Politics and the economy

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