I don’t ordinarily read the Chicago Tribune, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of John Kass before, but this is one heckuva good column.
I’m tempted to quote the whole thing, but I’ll just suggest you read it. In it, Kass takes on Obama for his speech the other day in which the president said to business owners:
“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.
Kass contrasts this with his own father’s experience as an immigrant owning a small grocery store and working his fingers to the bone. The column is a tribute to a hard-working man who tried to rise above the rest and build a business through the sweat of his own brow and that of other family members working with him in the store. It ends with this thought:
When I was grown and gone from home, my parents finally managed to save a little money. After all those years of hard work and denying themselves things, they had enough to buy a place in Florida and a fishing boat in retirement. Dad died only a few years later. You wouldn’t call them rich. But Obama might…
And he offers an American dream much different from my father’s. Open your eyes and you can see it too. He stands there at the front of the mob, in his shirt sleeves, swinging that government hammer, exhorting the crowd to use its votes and take what it wants.
As I mulled over Obama’s speech (a fuller excerpt can be found here), I found it to be an excellent example of the different approaches of left and right. Obama is not just pointing out an obvious fact—one that even Republicans and small business owners do not deny—which is that people do not exist in isolation, and there are countless factors, little and big, that go to influence a person’s life. He is saying that economic success is not a meritocracy, and capitalism itself is not a meritocracy. Furthermore, it seems to me that he implies, without exactly saying it, that businesses succeed on the backs of other people who deserve success as much as those who do succeed.
In his address, Obama later added the obligatory disclaimer sentence, “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together,” but the earlier (and longer) part of his speech belied that statement.
He then went on to give a version of his old “uniter” speech (“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.”) Is there anyone—anyone—who still believes this claptrap that Obama wants to unite rather than divide us? If so, I doubt that there are many of them left. But there are a lot of people who believe the rest of his speech: the politics of envy, and the logical consequence of a self-esteem movement in which high self-regard has become uncoupled from a realistic appraisal of a person’s actions in the real world.
Obama is using this argument to justify “ask[ing] for the wealthy to pay a little bit more,” to “want to give something back.” Now, when last I looked, most of the wealthy paid a lot of taxes, although they (much like everyone else) try to legally reduce their tax load as much as possible. They also are pretty prominant on the rolls of voluntary giving, otherwise known as philanthropy. The latter is a way that people, rich and poor, express their gratitude for what they have and their compassion for those who have less—that is, to voluntarily “give something back.” But Obama thinks that government should be asking them to “give something back”—more and more back, because what they give is not enough. They are a cash cow ripe for being milked, all in the name of togetherness.
No one is ignoring the interrelationship of human beings with one another, nor the need to work together. But more and more government compulsion is hardly a great way to do that, and it doesn’t even foster that warm fuzzy “we” feeling. Ask those who lived under Communism.
And no one is saying that capitalism is a perfect meritocracy, or that those who succeed in business are inherently superior people to those who don’t. But to say, as Obama did, that “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that,” is a slap in the face to people like Kass’s father. One wonders what Obama knows of businesses, or those who run them, whether small or large. One wonders how much Obama’s own history, in which he was the (self-admitted; see the next-to-last paragraph of this letter) beneficiary of affirmative action, has affected his view of how and why people succeed.
The American Dream says that hard work pays off—and that yes, people who have a business actually built that business. That last fact co-exists with another obvious one—that no man is an island. Republicans and conservatives don’t need Obama to tell them that, either. We’ll let John Donne do it:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
[NOTE: The life of Donne, oddly enough, contains the following somewhat-relevant facts:
Donne was elected as Member of Parliament for the constituency of Brackley in 1602, but this was not a paid position. The fashion for coterie poetry of the period gave him a means to seek patronage and many of his poems were written for wealthy friends or patrons, especially Sir Robert Drury, who came to be Donne's chief patron in 1610.
So, voluntary philanthropy and love of literature on the part of the rich seem to have helped Donne produce his poetry.]
[ADDENDUM: Zombie offers a discussion of Obama's "summary of core progressive fiscal dogma" that includes a lot more detail, plus charts and figures.
And Richard Fernandez has something to say worth reading, as well.
Stuart Schneiderman at Had Enough Therapy adds some observations.
Funny stuff here.
They are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. That is their argument, and this argument of the Judge [i.e., Stephen Douglas] is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it. Turn in whatever way you will—whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent …
They sure don’t make eloquence like they used to, do they?]