I'm late to the party on the whole "you didn't build that" controversy. Obama's statement at first struck me as just very poor phrasing. I dislike the whole "gotcha" sound-bite culture that our political campaigns have become. Obama has an actual record of policy at this point--not exactly a glowing one--but any substantive criticism of his record is going to disappear under a wave of phrases stripped from their full context. The flip will be true of Romney as well. The hours devoted to actual laws he's proposing will be swamped by the hours dedicated to playing the sound bite of him saying he likes to fire people.
But, there's something that I want to address in the larger context of Obama's remark. As I understand the spin of what he meant to say, his argument is that no one builds a successful business of their own. Successful businesses exist in the context of good infrastructure. Obama mentioned roads and the internet, but I would add to this list an impartial legal system, good public education, and a peaceful, safe, and inclusive society.
Assuming that Obama was talking about this sort of infrastructure, I think it makes his comment even worse. Because, yes, we did build it together, using our taxes and our civic participation. And when you are driving on a public highway and get pulled over, no one ever checks your tax returns to find out if you've paid your fair share. They reality is, the roads are mostly neutral; a man who earns minimum wage gets to drive on the same interstates as the wealthiest people in our nation. The only one who really gets to drive alone on the highway, as near as I can tell, is the president himself.
So, we did build the infrastructure, and we all have equal access to it. The poorest child in America can get a library card. I certainly did, and my parents were definitely on the low, low end of the economic scale.
Honestly, despite all my libertarian leanings, I'm a big fan of good government. I want good roads, I want clean water and air, I want the trash picked up on time and the streets to be safe to walk on. I want every child to learn to read and write and have opportunities to pursue their education as far as they want to take it.
The problem is that, once you admit that government can do some good, some people would then argue that even more government creates even greater good. But, there's a point of diminishing returns. For instance, I think government has done a good job of making college more accessible. The down side is, a lot of colleges have dumbed down their requirements to pull in more students. And, a lot of people graduate from college with degrees that aren't worth a heck of a lot. And, as government has intervened to see that more and more people are given grants and access to loans to go to college, most colleges have responded simply by increasing their tuition.
I suspect the same is true of medical expenses. The more government puts money into the system, the more expensive the system gets.
I personally don't despise paying taxes. I recognize that things like schools, prisons, and parks cost money and improve the quality of my life. But, I do dislike throwing money down a well. It bugs me that so many of my tax dollars go to paying interest on debts we shouldn't have incurred. It bugs me that my tax dollars fund wars at costs disproportionate to the threats we are avoiding.
And yet, the truth of all this waste is that we built that too. We keep electing people willing to run up deficits and line the pockets of their closest donors. The most conservative politician in America will vow to vote against expanding Medicare, but ask them to close an outdated military base or stop building a plane that the air force no longer wants and suddenly money is no object.
Our government isn't going to change until we as a people change. Step one will be to stop obsessing over soundbites and stop treating government like a team sport. It's time for us a nation to say, yeah, I helped build this... and now it's time to help fix it.