Saturday, July 28, 2012

"There are a lot of smart people out there": Frum gets past Obama's loose pronoun

Kudos to David Frum for taking a dispassionate look at the subtext of Obama's "you didn't build that" riff. To contrast its emotional resonance with the Elizabeth Warren ur-text on which it's based is brilliant. Warren, Frum notes, offset her reminder to business owners that no one succeeds alone with all the usually-obligatory gestures of respect and thanks.  Obama, in an unscripted response to the reflexive deification of "job creators" in our political discourse, momentarily dispensed with those gestures.

In my own post about the speech, which focused on the Romney campaign's explicit embrace of the principle that no degree of distortion of an opponent's words is out of bounds, I drafted a paragraph suggesting that Obama's "you didn't build that" passage did constitute a pander to those of us who don't build businesses or wealth.  I cut that paragraph after I looked again at Obama's words:
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.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
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.  There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own.
I cut my "pander" paragraph because I decided that Obama was reacting to the obscenely over-the-top deification of an undifferentiated class of "job creators" -- a conceptual frame that enables and reflects the massive redistribution of wealth to the very top over the past thirty years. That frame lumps together the genuinely productive with rent-seekers and game-riggers (and those whose success stems from a combination of those sources) and supports the claim that any correction to the massive tax cuts the wealthiest have enjoyed over the last thirty years will kill the golden goose of economic growth. Obama's riff was more debunk than pander.

Frum is often a credible critic of Obama because he can hear both sides of an argument.  He picks up this debunk impulse:
In this particular election cycle, the argument that the successful are almost by definition deserving and that the unsuccessful are correspondingly undeserving has exploded into noisy public controversy. 
The president appears to have heard that argument, and it irks him. And when it came time to reprise Elizabeth Warren, he allowed pieces of his rebuttal to the claim to drift into a speech that was probably meant to adhere to the safer ground that she had previously staked out. 
Yet I think Frum reads his own inferences into Obama's meta-economics:
President Obama's stray sentences however point to a bolder conclusion. If it's not brains or work that account for success, what is it? The answer must be … luck. Not maybe entirely luck, but luck to a great degree. By definition, however, luck is amoral. Nobody can deserve luck, otherwise he wouldn't be lucky. To the extent success is due to luck, success is undeserved—and to the extend that success is undeserved, the successful have no very strong claim to the proceeds of their success. Whereas Warren suggests that the wealthy should be taxed to repay tangible benefits they have personally received, Obama is indicating a possibility that the wealthy should be taxed … because their wealth is to a great extent an accident of fate.

This argument is not developed by the president. Indeed, he quickly drops it. Nor does he build any very radical policy conclusions upon his argument: he's proposing only the restoration of the Clinton tax rates—the tax rates that prevailed during the greatest period of private fortune-building since the 1920s. Yet people who believe in the morality of the market are not wrong to hear in those few stray sentences of the president a more radical critique of their core belief than is usually heard from American politicians.
Who said that the answer to why some succeed and some don't "must be" luck?  Not Obama. It's true that he points out that a lot of smart and hardworking people don't build businesses, and so the question of what causes success is free-floating in this passage ("not developed," as Frum acknowledges). Can our body politic really not handle a brief allusion to the mysteries and complexities of causation in human affairs? Are we so wedded to the Horatio Alger myth that we can't complicate it a bit?

Perhaps Obama's subtext is even more unsettling to the sensitive super-rich than Frum allows. A keynote of Obama's stump speech is that for many millions the American dream is "slipping away." Conditions are ever less conducive to achieving economic security and increased opportunity for one's children. The benefits of economic growth are flowing to the very top.  The playing field is ever less level. Here's how he put it in the "you didn't build that" speech:
Now, the reason that I think so many of us came together in 2008 was because we saw that for a decade that dream was fraying, that it was slipping away; that there were too many people who were working hard but not seeing their incomes or wages go up; that we had taken a surplus and turned it into a deficit -- we were running two wars on a credit card; that job growth was the most sluggish it had been in 50 years.  There was a sense that those who were in charge didn’t feel responsible...
Our goal isn’t just to put people back to work -- although that’s priority number one -- it is to build an economy where that work pays off.  An economy where everyone, whether you are starting a business or punching a clock, can see your hard work and responsibility rewarded.  That’s what this campaign’s about, Roanoke.  And that’s why I’m running for a second term as President of the United States of America.
An economy in which "hard work and responsibility" don't pay off, at its extreme, is one in which luck and privilege and rapacity are the only determinates of success. Obama's talk of an American dream slipping away suggests that the trending that way.

But then, that's been his message since 2007 at the latest. Whether the country will again prove receptive to it is itself largely a matter of economic luck.

1 comment:

  1. I have met a fair amount of wealthy people in my life, many of whom just weren't very bright. They weren't heirs, so you had to wonder about how they possibly could have worked hard enough and been smart enough to have made that much money.
    I think in a country as rich as ours, luck can come a lot easier here than anywhere else.