‘You Didn’t Build That’

A few weeks ago, President Obama made a speech in which he remarked:

     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.

Well, I’ve got a business, and I most definitely did build that.  I’ll freely admit that I stand on the shoulders of giants: I did not build the Internet, or the power grid, or the roads or bridges myself.  But many other people grew up with those same things.  Most of them haven’t built a business.  So yes: my business, my little piece of the world, yes, I did build that.  (Also, many of the things that Obama cites did not come from the government.  That great teacher you knew as a child may have been in the public school, but it was his characteristics as an individual–and not as a member of the school system–that made him great.  And the Internet was originally developed by the government as a communication system for the military, and not as an engine of private profit.  It was private enterprise that built it out into the Internet we all know and love.)

All of this would be water under the bridge, except that yesterday, I went with my wife to participate in the Labor Day Parade.  She’s a member of the Screen Actors Guild, which merged earlier this year with the union representing television and radio performers to become SAG-AFTRA.  We had to report on 44th Street, in an area with other theatrical unions: Actors’ Equity, the Musicians, the Stagehands.  The Steamfitters’ motorcycle club roared up the street to take their positions in the parade.

Many of the unions in this country were founded about a century ago, in the 1890s and 1900s.  And it’s useful to remember how they came to be.  It was time of vast productive energy: many of the things that we take for granted were built during that time.  And many of the company owners and bosses were, well, rotten.

And so the workers banded together to say, in effect, ‘you didn’t build that.’  And, unlike the bluster from our President, it was actually true: while finance and management are necessary ingredients for a successful enterprise, at the time, things didn’t get built unless you had the manpower to build them.

It was a rainy morning, and shortly after we stepped onto Fifth Avenue, the clouds let loose with a drenching downpour.  My wife and I had brought umbrellas, and a sixtyish woman latched onto my arm to get a little dry space.

“This seems like some kind of a punishment,” she remarked.

“No,” I answered.  “We’re standing with the union.  There was a time in our history when standing with the union was a little bit dangerous.  We need to remember that.”

We need to remember that, because it may happen again.

8 thoughts on “‘You Didn’t Build That’”

  1. I have become strongly anti union because I don’t feel today most serve their purpose. Instead I see unqualified people keeping jobs and making more than they deserve. When I was 9 my dad lost his job as a garbage collector from the Teamsters because his boss wanted to bring in his son. Garbage collectors make a lot of money and he was making more than many of the doctors and lawyers who lived in my neighborhood. My dad tried to appeal to the Teamsters to no avail.He later found out they were paid off by his former boss. My grandpa was in management at Ford and one of his duties was to deal with union bosses, who incidentally were mafia too. They always wanted more than they were worth. Then at my last job the union jobs paid more than the management jobs though most were not college skilled jobs and the management jobs were. It’s a disgrace that the managers were paid less than their subordinates. They also had better benefits and were hard to fire, including an alcoholic guy who started fights. Compare that to my boss who was an alcoholic and got fired because he went to rehab.

    We needed them years ago but they do more harm than good now. Many companies are going overseas because way too many expect more money than they should.

  2. The internet wasn’t built for them. The ARAPNET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was built for government use. Friends of mine were chastised by government agents in the late 1970s for trying to access it.

    Perhaps Obama’s point was that it’s hard to give anyone credit for doing anything in an age of crony capitalism. If that’s the case, we’re really screwed because if you lack the right people to fix things for you, you’ll be lucky to make minimum wage.

  3. NWP: I’ve encountered good unions and evil unions. I often work with union electricians who are, as a rule, diligent and hard-working. I agree with FDR who said that public-sector unions are a bad idea: it changes the dynamic when the union can influence the management through the electoral process (not just the union members’ votes themselves, but the lobbying and campaign support undertaken by the unions).

    Madness: Perhaps, but I don’t think Obama is that deep of a thinker. Taking his remarks in further context, it was clear that he was referring to the government as the invisible supporter of all those people who thought they had built their own businesses. In any case, we live in an era crony capitalism, whether Obama cares to acknowledge it or not. And as we don’t have the right cronies, we’re probably screwed anyway.

  4. One of the misconceptions about public sector unions at the federal level is that they have actual power. In my experience, this is incorrect. Federal employee unions were gutted by Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers, and PATCO was the only relatively strong union. If I wanted to join one of the federal employee “unions”, I could, and it would cost me about $25 a year. It’s not like there are shop stewards or any real representation in management/employee disputes. that is handled by the personnel office. Federal employee “unions” are lobbying groups. One tactic that worked for a long time was to argue that civilian federal employees should get no less of a pay increase than their military counterparts. Federal employees are price takers, not price makers.

    If public sector unions have so much power, what aren’t there more strikes as pay and benefits are at best frozen and at worst cut? Were this Italy or France, we’d be having strikes every week.

    Okay, I can accept the idea that I have received benefits from public services. Everyone does. The point that isn’t made is that the benefits have been paid for largely by accumulating debt. If Democrats like to “tax and spend”, Republicans prefer to “borrow and spend”. If you’re really a Keynesian, you should believe in paying off the debt that was run up in bad times and building a reserve that can be used for stimulus the next time. Government spending from the deficit is 20% of GDP. Try withdrawing that amount of spending quickly.

  5. On the state/local level, it’s a different ballgame, especially here in NY. (I suspect that NWP has similar stories about Illinois.) About half the state legislature is in the pocket of the civil service unions. When push comes to shove, somehow the politicians find the money to meet the union more than halfway in many cases. At worst, wages are frozen, but benefits hardly ever get cut. Or the issue goes to arbitration, which is almost the same thing.

    Once upon the time, the government built things, and the associated debt was manageable. Back then, we were a productive nation. We built things and had taxpaying enterprises. We’re not anymore. And you’re dead right about Keynes: the flip side of Keynesian theory is that the government should stop spending and raise taxes when things are going well. (Everyone seems to forget that part.)

  6. Admin, exactly. In Illinois the government is dirty and that includes the unions. The job I worked was a government railroad in Chicago and as most know the politicians in Illinois are dirty. I saw so many unqualified people get jobs they had no business doing.

  7. It isn’t so much that taxes need to be raised once the economy recovers as the stimulus is withdrawn at some reasonable rate, and then the money that is no longer spent on those things is saved for the next cycle. Good luck with that.

    I got a good laugh at Obama’s speech where he spoke of investing in infrastructure once the wars end. That would be fine if we had a budget that was balanced currently, or was much closer to being balanced than the one that we have. The money will still have to be borrowed once we leave that graveyard of nations, Afghanistan. We’re rebuilding a lot of infrastructure, It’s just not located in the United States.

    Listening to the announcement from the Fed today that they will be keeping interest rates low through 2014 and buying $40 billion a month in mortgages was pretty scary. If it’s cheap to borrow, it is difficult to form capital, because artificially low interest rates do not compensate lenders for the risk of default, reducing the incentive to save. What capital there is tends to be misallocated, particularly if people are borrowing. Sometimes return OF principal is more important than return ON principal.

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