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'You Didn't Build That!' in Context

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Elizabeth Warren said it better than Barack Obama. And the president's presentation wasn't helped when supporters of Mitt Romney edited his words. Sadly, lost in a squabble over "you didn't build that" was the opportunity for a more serious conversation about social contracts.

Last August, while contemplating a run for the U.S. Senate against Scott Brown, Warren offered a fiery defense of liberal economic theory at an event in Andover, Mass. Two minutes' worth of what she said became a YouTube sensation that has now been viewed nearly a million times. That her remarks appeared extemporaneous and from the heart made the clip all the more watchable.

Warren was rebutting GOP charges of class warfare based on her argument that one's ability to become financially successful in America is contingent in part on an environment that has been created and supported by all. She said, "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody." And then she hit her stride:

"You built a factory out there? Good for you," she says. "But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did."

As for the tax implications, Warren said, "Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along." The crowd enthusiastically applauded.

Ten months ago, upon watching the clip, I said on the radio that, unlike President Obama, Warren had found her voice with a finely honed message for the middle class. While the size of the "hunk" that should be paid "forward for the next kid" is debatable, her underlying premise was solid.

Finally, two weeks ago, Obama attempted to take a page out of her campaign manual while speaking at a fire station in Roanoke, Va. But the president's presentation lacked Warren's clarity, and it was then taken out of context by Romney supporters.

Unfortunately, both sides have been quick to cut and paste, as evidenced by the unfair attention paid to Romney's "I like to fire people" remark, which was actually a statement about bad service.

In this case, from a discussion that spanned several paragraphs, Obama's remarks were reduced to this: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

That statement was then used to further a fictitious narrative of the president as a socialist, assaulting entrepreneurship. American Crossroads, a political organization connected to Karl Rove, quickly produced a commercial purporting to show small-business owners reacting to that one line on an iPad and noting their responses: "Unbelievable"; "What an insult"; "I am outraged"; "I can't believe he just said that"; "We risk everything every day"; "It came from my personal savings."

But the context of Obama's two sentences was a far cry from an assault on American entrepreneurship. He was arguing that, while he was willing to cut government waste, he would not gut investments that grow the economy or give tax breaks to the likes of himself or Romney. And then came this:

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

Obama then cited the funding of the G.I. Bill, the creation of the middle class, the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam, inventing the Internet, and landing on the moon as examples of what he was talking about.

The trouble with the president's remarks? They extended beyond the 20-second attention span of this campaign. And when the edited version made the rounds, a legitimate, substantive conversation about social contracts was instead reduced to silly charges of socialism.

This piece was originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer.