Dishonest politics

I really despise when politicians refuse to understand the point of the opponent. It isn’t merely an inability to respect a different perspective because it may be so foreign or opposed to some long-held point of view that gets me. No, it’s when someone expresses a point in clumsy language and the other side pounces, being an absolute bitch about actually listening to the real point. Take, for example, when Mitt Romney said he wasn’t concerned about poor people. Of course he cares about them. He just happens to believe that they currently have a relatively adequate safety net, a net which can be improved (and made unnecessary in many lives) via certain economic policies. (That isn’t to say he really understands them, nor that his policies would actually work, but I do not think he is quite as callous as his original comment might suggest.) Or, even worse, look at John Kerry’s treatment a few years ago. He tried to say that we’re stuck in Iraq because Bush is dumb. The way it came out, though, made it sound like he thinks soldiers are stupid. It was an absurd distraction that was dishonest to its core. I hated every second of it and I think it’s terrible that he had to apologize at all.

Fast forward to the present campaign season and we have the President saying this:

If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.

Whoa! Holy smokes, Batman! The President of the United States just said that small business owners – especially mom and pop shops that have been in the neighborhood for 43 years, giving out free meals to needy orphans and puppies every Thanksgiving – deserve zero credit. Zero. Rumor has it that once off camera, he even went so far as to grab the head of a struggling business owner, pull the guy’s face right up to his ass, and fart. I bet he laughed and laughed. Communist.

Oh…wait. I guess there’s more to the quote:

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.

Oh, snap. Shitty, amirite conservatives? I guess what the President meant was that everyone has had help from others at one point or another. He then gave teachers as one example. Then he says that somebody helped to create the system in which businesses thrive. Then he uses roads and bridges as an example of what has helped businesses thrive. Next we have the big doozie of the whole thing: He says that businesses – gasp! – didn’t build our roads and bridges. For the reading impaired, let me reword the President’s sentences in a way which conveys the exact same meaning with a little more clarity:

Somebody invested in roads and bridges, and if you have a business, you didn’t build that.

Or how about this?

Somebody invested in roads and bridges, and if you have a business, you didn’t build that stuff.

Or maybe this?

Somebody invested in roads and bridges, and if you have a business, you didn’t build those.

Okay, here we go:

Somebody invested in roads and bridges, and if you have a business, you didn’t build those roads and bridges I just mentioned. In fact, the transcript of my speech should be written with a semi-colon so as to show what I am saying about businesses not building roads and bridges. For example, “Somebody invested in roads and bridges; if you have a business, you didn’t build that.”

And despite all this context, there’s even more to the speech:

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 mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

Nothing the President has said is remotely remarkable here. He was simply making the point that everyone needs help in life, and a lot of that help comes from government-funded programs, works, etc. Most teachers are paid by the government. Most bridges are built by acts of Congress and state legislatures. That isn’t to say that businesses deserve zero credit. He outright says that one of the reasons businesses see success is individual initiative. That just isn’t the only reason they see success, is all. But hey, I know how to end this argument with one simple question:

Did Wal-Mart build the Interstate it uses to truck its goods around the country? No? Argument over.

3 Responses

  1. Jon Stewart had a field day with this one, especially because Romney can be found in several speeches and interviews saying the same kinds of things.

  2. The crazy thing is that this isn’t even an issue of merely “that” versus “those”. That entire section of the speech doesn’t even make sense if he was bashing businesses. What, was he saying, “We all work better together, except fuck businesses because I am obviously excluding them when I say ‘we'”?

  3. “Did Wal-Mart build the Interstate it uses to truck its goods around the country? No? Argument over.”

    This argument is fine as long as it goes.

    However I often see this argument used as a basis for other arguments it doesn’t support. for example:

    1. Government was involved in invention X, therefore we would not have had invention X either as soon or at all without government involvement.

    This generally goes a long the lines of “The government helped create the internet therefore government involvement is economically profitable because look how valuable the internet is”. Of course this is an ad hoc fallacy because we do not have a model of the world we can use to go back in time and see whether the internet would have been developed without government involvement if the resources the government had control of where left in the hands of private individuals.

    Given the vastly complex number of variables in an economic system, its impossible to say whether the internet would have come out sooner rather than later if it weren’t for military reserach, especially since we no longer have the ability to measure important economic factors from the past that we would need for modern calculations.

    If I saw this argument presented with an in depth multivariable analysis of costs/benefits I would take it more seriously. However ignoring or underestimating opportunity cost seems endemic in the support of most government involvement. If there is a measurable, comparable benefit it shouldn’t be too hard to put those numbers up instead of relying on vague “but the internet!”

    2. Private entity Y owes the government a debt because they get economic value from involvement X

    This basically says that indirect value gained from government intervention that does not require a direct transaction, incurs a debt proportional to the indirect value gained.

    There are two main problems with this: A) if government involvement is monopolistic in an area, like roads. Even Walmart didn’t want to and would be willing to build their own road system (which they have the money to), they would not have the ability to since the government owns the roads. This is the equivalent of driving a car up to someones house, leaving it there and then demand they pay you for the car.

    While government involvement in the roads may be necessary (I don’t believe I’ve seen the case proven with actual evidence and is mainly just just-so theorycrafting), to use the concept of “debt” when no choice is available to avoid the debt seems disingenuous.

    B) The debt is supposedly incurred because of the indirect benefit. However nearly every economic activity in our society has indirect benefits.

    I do web development work for a living. I need a computer to do that, and I spent maybe $500 for the one I have now. With that computer I can make many thousands of dollars a year. By the same principle the company that made the computer parts should be able to claim I owe them a similar debt that is owed to the government, given that without access to the computer (for analogy see roads) then I would not have made the money I did.

    Even companies I didn’t directly trade with could make such claims. Say for example a local ISP could claim that the internet helps bring down logistics costs for local businesses, therefore lowering the cost of local goods and services, so I now owe them a percentage of that benefit since without them there would be no such benefit.

    In the private sphere only direct voluntary trade is counted as binding. You pays your money you take your choice. Any indirect benefit you make from the transaction is yours to keep. I think the government simply directly charging for use of roads and such would avoid the need for this rather vague argument/debt.

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