July 18, 2012
"You Didn't Build That": Ambiguous Pronoun or Ideological Divide?
Posted by Christine Hurt

Yes, we try to stay away from hot political topics here at the Glom, but the "You Didn't Build That" meme jumps into our territory.  President Obama is being quoted as saying, "If you've got a business -- you didn't build that" as part of a speech on how even the most successful of us achieve that success with the help of other individuals and government institutions that provide infrastructure, an educated work force, etc.  This speech is similar to ones he has given before, and to Elizabeth Warren's speech, but it's a slow news cycle and that sentence has gone viral.  Here is the whole section from which the quote is taken:

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.

So, the "that" may refer not to "business," but to "roads and bridges" or "this unbelievable American system." But, if my Facebook friends are any indication, small business owners are not giving Obama the benefit of the grammar doubt.  Commentators are arguing that Obama's slipup reveals his hatred of capitalism and disdain for entrepreneurship.  Here at the Glom, we tend to be proponents of both of those things, but I'm not jumping on that bandwagon.  Here are two responses, theoretical and practical.

Theoretical.  The knee-jerk response to Obama's poor sentence structure exposes the fact that travelers along this journey of life can be sorted along a 2 X 2 grid. (Bear with me).  Along life's defeats and successes, one may greet them with an attitude of gratitude, recognizing the hand of fortune, good or bad, or one may greet them with an attitude of desert, ascribing the outcome to one's own contributions.  However, few of us greet both bad and good results the same -- mostly we greet good outcomes with feelings of desert, and bad outcomes with feelings of anti-gratitude (result as caused by bad fortune).  And the truly human among us ascribe our own good results to our own actions, or own bad results to bad fortune, others' good results to fortune and others' bad results to their own poor choices.  A more humanitarian response would be to be grateful for our own successes, take responsibility for our poor choices for our own actions, give others respect for their successes, and sympathize with others' poor outcomes by recognizing the hand of fortune.  Cultivating gratitude does not take away from our successes, and I think we can still honor individualism while also recognizing the role of other forces.

Practical.  Like many others (including Obama and Romney), I've spent time in a country where there is no "unbelievable American system."  We tend to believe that good roads, a postal delivery system, telephone lines, free schools, police officers, and firefighters are a floor.  A government isn't helping you by providing these things; one needn't be thankful for these things.  My daughter also believes that I'm not a good mom even though I do a million things a day for her.  Because she has known no other mom, she thinks that's what all moms do as a starting point.  The American system isn't a baseline; it's a wonder.  I now realize that even if you are an amazing entrepreneur with the best intellect and work ethic, it is very hard to succeed in a country with no free public schools (or very poor ones with no materials), no roads to get your goods to market, no system of delivering parts for your goods, no educated workforce for your business, etc.  No easy way to communicate.  No way to protect your business from vandals. 

Commentators have pointed out that all Americans enjoy good roads, public schools, etc., yet not everyone is a successful entrepreneurs.  Therefore, the successful got that way by virtue of their own hard work alone.  The climate is the constant, their industriousness the deciding and only factor.  I think this is odd logic.  If I built a ten-foot platform from which individuals could to try to jump to catch a prize twelve feet in the air, not all will obtain the prize.  The ones who do can jump higher than the others; however, they did not obtain the prize all on their own.

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