Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Speaking of social vs. individual action...

...Obama understands economics a lot better than a bunch of my facebook friends (which is saying something, since he's a politician):

"[L]ook, 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.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together.  That's how we funded the GI Bill.  That's how we created the middle class.  That's how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam.  That's how we invented the Internet.  That's how we sent a man to the moon.  We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that's the reason I'm running for President -- because I still believe in that idea.  You're not on your own, we're in this together."

It's incredible that this obvious point is twisted into some kind of anti-business screed. Man is not an island, and we benefit all the time from the achievements of others, the knowledge of others, and positive externalities. The market itself is a positive externality because of the benefits conferred by liquid markets and diversity. That's called a network effect. The benefits derived from one more node in a network are much broader than just the benefits enjoyed by a single person making a decision to enter that network.

It all reminds me of something another smart guy once wrote: "All men are interdependent. Every nation is an heir of a vast treasure of ideas and labor to which both the living and the dead of all nations have contributed. Whether we realize it or not, each of us lives eternally "in the red." We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women." (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1968).


  1. ...and this presents the rosy, positive side of the situation (which is not to say it's untrue for the Obamas, Einsteins, and Bill Gates's of the world). Conversely, one might say that there are laborers who work incredibly hard, teachers and social workers who put in countless hours to sustain our youngest and most vulnerable, etc., and these people don't "get anywhere" for their troubles - not only do they propel our businesses toward success, they are also the first ones that are let go and receive lower bonuses/raises than their superiors.

    That's not to disagree with your point, but to make it even more strongly. We're all interdependent and dependent on others for our success... but for some of us this dependency translates into six figure incomes, while for others it translates into spotty health coverage and salaries that don't track inflation while the boss gets a 16% raise.

  2. Boy, no offense, but you've had quite a litany of posts the last couple of days that have had me shaking my head a bit. You know how you, fairly often, take something (like this Obama quote) and say that you can't even imagine how it's seen as so controversial. Well, a lot of us read your criticisms of those criticisms, and think the same thing. This is one of those times (at least for me).

    I don't expect everyone who picks up quotes/memes like this and runs with it to understand the full(er) implication of their criticisms. I'm sure that there are plenty of people (if not most of them) who do not look at the content in any serious way, and use whatever they can as a ploy to further their own political views. But it's not very difficult for me to imagine the way in which people could be reading this and finding it controversial. And when a very intelligent guy likes you seems "bewildered" by it, I'm (apologetically) inclined to think you're being too clever by half.

    Of course man is not an island. And anyone who supports free markets (a number of whom share criticisms of this quote) knows that. Hell, if I had a dime for every time someone proffered that, as a libertarian, I must believe in some kind of atomistic individualism, maybe I'd have more time to respond to posts like this.

    The context of his comments are narrower than that. He's talking (pretty specifically in light of the extended quote provided) of public/political goods within that network. By coupling that with the eschewing of atomistic thinking he's (not so subtly) creating a false dichotomy. People might be wrong to fight against the provision and securing of political "goods", but that doesn't make their views atomistic. You can be very aware and supportive of the concept of working with others and not support the types of things he seems to think are justified by such a sentiment. The ideas aren't mutually inclusive.

    Put more concisely, if he's just axiomatically stating that we benefit from each other, then there's no point in bringing it up (in a political context). If he's using it to lend support to an array of political initiatives, then his argument is contentious at best - and I would think anyone would expect heavy criticism at the very least.

    1. He is making a case for public goods on the grounds that production is social - that we are not atomistic.

      You apparently agree with him on that last part at least. Good.

      Maybe you're drawing from a different facebook sample than I am, but most people I see complaining about this have interpreted this as Obama saying that small businesses don't work for what they get.

      That's really dumb. I am genuinely bewildered by that, unless the answer is simply that they're not very critical thinkers.

      If you want to make an argument against public goods, we can by all means have that discussion - but that's not the discussion going on in response to this speech.

    2. The context of the speech is obviously that Obama wants to increase taxes on people who make over $250,000/year (or is it $100,000 now?) or who save and invest money. Therefore, the purpose of this speech is to justify that viewpoint. The vector Obama used to do so was to point out that we all rely on each other for our existence. As has been said before, this is obvious. It also doesn't justify taxing people who make $x at a higher rate than we tax people who make $x-y.

      What I find "bewildering" is the misinterpretation by almost everyone of Obama's quote. Granted, he used somewhat ambiguous language, but these two sentences cannot be separated while maintaining the integrity of their meaning:

      "Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that."

      I'm fairly certain that Obama was not saying that business owners didn't build their businesses, but that they didn't build the roads and other public infrastructure. Again, this is an obvious point (made using dangerously ambiguous language) which still doesn't justify different tax rates. People have been getting upset about it, I think, because they are interpreting Obama as saying that business owners didn't build their own businesses. That, had it been what Obama actually meant, would be obviously controversial.

      Obama's speech says nothing about people benefiting unequally from public investment. If I'm given wood and I use it to make a fire, I should not be forced to share my fire with someone else who did something else with his wood. Different utilization of the same resources (in this case public goods) does nothing to further Obama's argument as far as I'm concerned. He would/should have made points about how public goods are provided unequally to people. In other words, my suburban public schools in VA were much better than inner-city public schools in DC. Of course, that would not win Obama any fans among some of his biggest backers, and it would somewhat undermine his goal of extracting more from the more wealthy to supposedly benefit the less wealthy.

  3. I'll try to help out Wills because he provided an insightful post that's gone right over your head.

    re:He is making a case for public goods on the grounds that production is social - that we are not atomistic.

    "People might be wrong to fight against the provision and securing of political "goods", but that doesn't make their views atomistic. You can be very aware and supportive of the concept of working with others and not support the types of things he seems to think are justified by such a sentiment. The ideas aren't mutually inclusive."

    To re-iterate. You can reject public goods while maintaining that production is social (or that we are not atomistic). I do not know any reasonable libertarian who believes otherwise.

    The whole point of Wills post is that Obama is cleverly creating a false dichotomy: production is social -> public goods are vital.

    This is obvious to anyone who can read between the lines.

    1. edarniw - that did not go right over my head.

      The point Wills makes isn't insightful so much as obvious. Of course people of lots of different persuasions recognize this without being atomistic.

      Nowhere in Obama's statement did say any version of "and if you disagree with me you must think production is atomistic".

      Wills is worrying over nothing. I didn't respond much to that point because I didn't think it was a very insightful point.

      Now, if Wills actually wants to generate an argument against this argument for public goods, that's fine. It's just a campaign speech - you probably could put together several successful counter-arguments. But don't put words in Obama's mouth about what the thinks of libertarians, and don't say he's creating a false dichotomy. A false dichotomy is saying "either you think people are atomistic or you think we should have lots and lots of public goods". Obama never said that.

      There are few things more condescending than "let me explain this to you because it went over your head...". Make sure it actually went over the person's head before you invoke that.

    2. Why do I feel like I've been sucked into a black hole and came out the other side as Bob Murphy?

      "A false dichotomy is saying 'either you think people are atomistic or you think we should have lots and lots of public goods'. Obama never said that."

      Alright, Daniel, Obama certainly never explicitly says that. But I do believe this statement approximates what is implicit therein. And somehow I get the feeling that you'd disagree (probably quite vociferously). So let's take a Socratic approach and see if we can broach the core issue more easily:

      In the context of Obama talking about taxes, government expenditures, and various public goods & services, what exactly do you believe to be the rhetorical relevance of his foray into the "there are some things we do better together" rant? Is all of this talk actually decoupled from his policy prescriptions? Unless that's the case, then I stand by my previous point(s).

      Either he understands opponents of his prescriptions are, in fact, generally not atomistic - in which case, what's the point of his rant? Or he believes those who disagree with his policy prescriptions are somehow eschewing the benefits of social interaction - in which case we have a large non sequitur on our hands.

    3. By the way, Daniel, I don't mean to say that every persons' criticism of these excerpts is sound. I don't think reasonable people believe that he thinks an individual has nothing to do with his own success (although the "you didn't do that" line is pretty rhetorically explosive). But I believe the contention(s) I'm bringing up play into the sentiments that many of these reactions portray...the larger conversation being what we "owe" to others and why.

  4. "We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people..."

    This is the problem. There is no morally-meaningful sense in which "we", "together", "one nation", and "one people" can be applied to the currently-existing political institutions collectively named "the United States of America". A look at the history of the colonies, the Confederation, the Constitutional framing, is a history of morally-arbitrary and more often than not morally pernicious boundary creation (this is the fundamental and fatal flaw in your thin theory of democracy that I have in the past pressed upon: as noted by Dahl, "[i]f the democratic process is a means by which some collection of persons may rightfully govern itself, what constitutes an appropriate collection of persons for employing the democratic process? Is any collection of persons entitled to the democratic process? In short, if democracy means government by the people, what constitutes "a people"?] The United States does not recon well with any plausible theory of a morally-meaningful conception of political community.

    1. I agree with what you're saying here, but shouldn't there be some attention to genre? I think there's obviously an intention of idealistic rhetoric... he's not trying to tell us how things actually are simply because he's speaking in the indicative. Now, whether you think this ideal is a fool's errand is a different story and could be discussed... but on the face of it I don't see why something like this can't politically meaningfully be said to a U.S. public.

  5. Evan, I certainly agree that the rhetoric of political actors can be "politically meaningul" in that it makes sense to speak of a U.S. public, and that it makes sense for specific political actors to speak of a U.S. public. The problem, however, is that this is usually simple nationalistic propaganda. One recurrent theme in the work of contemporary liberal theories of community, theories that seek to ground political legitimacy and political obligation in a concept of associative obligations, is that the feelings of sentiment or feelings of individual identification with the group cannot be the result of acts aimed by officers of said group to generate such feelings of attachment/sentiment/identification. In other words, political actors/institutions cannot gain legitimacy by manipulating their subjects: if feelings of attachment/identification are to ground political legitimacy, such feelings cannot themselves be the outcome of the directed efforts of such political actors in the first place. [see also Tamir, Liberal Nationalism (1993); Miller, On Nationality 33, 41 (1995); Cindy Holder, Democratic Authority From the Outside Looking In: States, Common Worlds and Wrongful Connections, 5 J. Ethics & Soc. Phil. [__], [3] (2011); see aslo Christopher Heath Wellman, Associative Allegiances and Political Obligations, 23 SOCIAL THEORY AND PRACTICE 181, 198-99 (1997)].

  6. I think it's pretty clear that Obama does not just mean that people work together to achieve things. He specifically is advocating for one particular "tool" for cooperation: government. That's what is controversial here. There is a real debate going on about how we want to work together. Here, Obama is playing a dirty rhetorical trick by pretending that there is no difference between working together and governmental action. Some of us are simply not ready to let him frame the debate in this manner.


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