Thursday, July 19, 2012

Obama's "You Didn't Build That": Issues of Community and Individualism in the American Mythos

I typically blog around the edges of political debate because I've found the center too contentious for  productive discussion. However, the controversy surrounding Obama's recent "you didn't build that" remark fits into a topic that I'm very interested in: the way we handle individuality and community in the American mythos.

See, the narrative surrounding American identity puts us in a hard place.

We're told to pull ourselves up from our bootstraps. With the right combination of ingenuity and hard work, everyone has an equal chance at success.

Go ahead. Start pulling. 
We believe in this narrative because it capitalizes on the very values at the heart of American-ness. And it's just so simple. Work hard and you'll succeed. If you're not succeeding, you must not be working hard. If you are succeeding, you must have worked for it. 

But it's not that simple, and--deep down--I think we all know it's not that simple. 

See, the bootstraps message appears to be centered entirely on individuality. If you want to succeed, you are the one with the tools to do it. Dig in and get to work. The only obstacle between you and success is you. It's empowering. It's motivating. It gives people a reason to work hard. 

But somewhere along the line, we have to stop to recognize that there are two sides to "Work hard and you'll succeed." That first part--"work hard"--is certainly individually controlled. We have the power to determine how hard we will work. But we tend to gloss over the fact that the second part--"you'll succeed"--is not really determined by you. "Success" is not determined by individuals (at least not in the way it's traditionally framed in the American Dream mythos, which is almost entirely economic).

Success is a social construct, and in order to have a social construct, you have to have a collective of people. 

Individuals Define "Work Hard," but Communities Define "Success"

So, with that as a backdrop, let's take a look at the context of the quote that's getting Obama so much criticism. 

Today, Romey's campaign unveiled a new ad attacking Obama's words in a recent speech:

The ad starts with a voiceover from Obama:
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 cause 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 . . . If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.
The ad then moves to Jack Gilchrist, who owns a metal fabricating company. He incredulously asks whose hands did all the work if not his father's, his own, and his sons. He asks who took out the loan to finance the endeavor. As others have explained, the part that's really hurting Obama is the "you didn't build that" line, which has been taken out of context. 

The ad takes out a big chunk of important details from between those two statements. Here's a more complete version:
 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. 
The highlighted parts are omitted from the ad. And I know attack ads are meant to oversimplify and boil things down to drive home a point quickly and effectively. Obama did say the words that are in the ad. 

But is Obama implying that Gilchrist's hands didn't build his company? Of course not. We know that creating a business takes hard work. We know that every business owner who moves forward with a dream is taking a risk, and we know that those risks can come with some very real impacts for the business owner's family and livelihood. 

Romney's Response: Holding Up Tokens of the American Dream ("Results Not Typical")

The real key to unwrapping what's going on in this line of attack comes from Romney's response. The video ends with a clip of Romney speaking at an Ohio town hall meeting, where he said this:
To say that Steve Jobs didn't build Apple, that Henry Ford didn't build Ford Motor, to say something like that is not just foolishness, it's insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America, and it's wrong. 
In another version of the same statement, Romney also included Bill Gates building Microsoft, Ray Kroc building McDonald's, and Papa John building Papa John's Pizza. 

His choices here are important. The people that he's holding up have something in common (in addition to all being white and male), and that's that they are tokens of the American Dream. They are the embodiment of "work hard, and you will succeed." They are the stories that we tell ourselves to keep that dream alive. 

Just as weight loss advertisements are required by law to put that "Results not typical" statement at the bottom, we should probably have something of a reality check in place when it comes to these stories as well. 

Yes, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Henry Ford are amazing testaments to a success that is possible, but certainly not a success that is probable. And, if all it takes is hard work, why not? Why shouldn't every person willing to work as hard as Henry Ford be able to have Henry Ford's success? Because success is defined not by an individual, but by a community.

But we don't want to be reminded of that. We don't want to have to think about the fact that working hard is, in fact, no guarantee of success at all. We could very well spend our whole lives working as hard as we possibly can and end up broke and unappreciated.

If you point out that there's more to the equation than hard work, you pull back the veil on an American ethos that almost all of us--at some level or another--want to believe in.

How Community Factors in: Opportunity and Appreciation

But whether we like it or not, even if it reveals that the Emperor is in fact naked, the fact remains that individualism will not take us all the way to success.

The community impacts success in at least two important ways: opportunity and appreciation.

It is as a member of a collective community that our individual access to opportunities are determined. This is in everything from how major socioeconomic factors like our perceived race and class status impact the way others interact with us to the details of what tools we get our hands on.

Let's take one of Romney's examples: Bill Gates. Bill Gates is, undoubtedly, both a brilliant and hard working man. But that, as Malcolm Gladwell delved into in Outliers, was not the only thing he had going for him to reach his success. He looks at some factors of great luck and opportunity that came together to give Bill Gates a chance to amass hours of computer practice at a time when very, very few people had that access:

Commodore  64
Yes, I know this isn't what it looked like. But I was born in 1985, and this is the oldest computer my mind can imagine. 

(1)Gates was sent to one of the very few high schools in the world that had access to a time-sharing computer terminal (in 1968).
(2)The mothers of the community joined together to raise money to buy time on the terminal for the school students to use.
(3)A classmate's parent worked at C-Cubed and arranged for students to volunteer to check code on the weekend in exchange for time.
(4)Gates just happened to find out about another company (ISI) just as they needed someone to work on their software.
(5)He lived within walking distance of a university that would allow free computer use between three and six in the morning.
(6)Then he got connected with someone who happened to be asked about finding an employee for yet another company (TWR), and his high school allowed him to use one of his spring terms to go work for that company.
That's a lot of factors that had to come together in just the right way in order to grant Gates the opportunity to get more experience in coding than virtually anyone else in his peer group could access.

Does that mean (as Gilchrist accuses Obama of saying) that Gates didn't do that work with his own hands? No! He was an incredibly hard worker. He gave up nights and weekends to sit in front of those computers. He made that walk at three in the morning. He spent hours upon hours doing mentally taxing tasks that make me exhausted just to consider. He worked very, very hard.

But it wouldn't have been enough without the opportunities afforded to him by being part of a community.

And look at how many different ways community impacted those opportunities.

Mothers of schools students pulled together to raise money to buy computer time. There are plenty of communities where--even if a few individual mothers care very, very deeply about such opportunities--there simply aren't enough committed parents to make that happen.

He was trusted enough to be allowed around very expensive equipment in the middle of the night. There are plenty of teenagers who--through no fault of their own--might not be considered trustworthy enough to have that privilege--like, say, if they were from the wrong part of town.

He also made some individual social connections with important people, and those important people helped him get into a position to reach his full potential.

No matter how hard you work (and you do have to work hard) you don't do it alone. You are a part of a collective, and that collective impacts the opportunities you can access.

And the flip side of that is that you still live in a collective community once you put all that hard work in. Specifically, you're only going to become a success (at least economically) if that community sees value in the work that you do.

All of those people that Romney held up as successes benefited from the combination of foresight and luck that allowed them to hone their skills in areas that were in demand. If Bill Gates had spent every night and weekend perfecting his stamp collection, he would have been just as hard of a worker, but the skills that he acquired would be much less valued by the community at large.

Consider this: the average NBA player makes $3 million a year. Elite players can make $10-15 million. The lowest paid rookie made $473,604 in 2011. Kobe Bryant, the highest paid player, made $24,806,250.


But what about WNBA players? The minimum salary is $35,880. The average is $69,690. The highest paid player makes $103,500/year. 

To put it another way, the highest paid player in the WNBA makes less than a quarter of the lowest paid player in the NBA

That success isn't determined by hard work. That success is determined by the appreciation of the collective community. 

If You Are Successful, You Didn't Get There On Your Own

So, you know what? If you are successful, you didn't get there on your own. 

That doesn't mean you didn't work hard. That doesn't mean that you didn't take risks. That doesn't mean that you don't deserve credit for your ingenuity, your intelligence, your work ethic, and your skill.

It just means that part of being a citizen is recognizing that you are part of a collective. The things you do impact other people, and the things they do impact you. Your success is not determined alone.  

But it does mean that Obama is right: "you didn't build that [alone]."


  1. Even if I were to grant the premise that "you didn't build that alone" What's your point? That rich people should pay more taxes? They already pay more taxes. That they should give more to charity? They already give more to charity. You want to say that Romney has taken Obama's comments out of context, ok fine. What's the context? The rich ARE helping the poor. The rich ARE paying for firefighters and police and roads and basically everything mentioned in his speech. Is the point that they need to pay more? What gives you the right to reach into someone else's pocket to take money you didn't earn? It would have been EASY for Bill Gates NOT to go to the university at 3 am to use the computer, opportunities ALWAYS exist. The question is, are you willing to sacrifice to take them?
    You make the point that WNBA players are't compensated at the same level as NBA players,that's because they don't have the same audience. They aren't the same product. It's possible there are better female basketball players out there that quit basketball to become doctors because they could see they wouldn't be compensated at the level they would demand in the WNBA.
    It DOES take a community to support a business, however businesses succeed because they have correctly identified a NEED. Very few people would patronize a business of something they have no use for.
    I completely DISAGREE with your premise that work hard and you'll succeed is that premise of the american dream. I think we all know it's work hard and you COULD succeed, I don't believe we've naive enough to believe just because you work hard means you WILL succeed. And "work hard" is a very qualitative statement. Maybe I believe working hard is 40 hours a week, and the small business owner thinks working hard is 80 hours a week. Would he agree I'm working hard?
    There always exists the caveat that someone has to WANT what you're working hard to produce or you've found yourself a hobby not a business.

    1. I'm not exactly sure what you're wanting from me here by asking "What's your point?" since you pretty much repeated the points that I made in your comment. Namely:
      1) WNBA and NBA salary discrepancies are a matter of audience (which is what I said in my original post as well)
      2) "businesses succeed because they have correctly identified a NEED." I said that almost word-for-word in the post: "All of those people that Romney held up as successes benefited from the combination of foresight and luck that allowed them to hone their skills in areas that were in demand."
      You seem to be getting my main point just fine: success does not happen in isolation.

      Romney's attack ad that suggests Obama was saying those business owners didn't build their business with their own hands is a distortion that ignores the interplay between individual and community. THAT is my point.

      To your other criticisms:
      "It would have been EASY for Bill Gates NOT to go to the university at 3 am to use the computer, opportunities ALWAYS exist."

      I completely agree with the first half of this, but I completely disagree with the last. It would have been incredibly easy for Bill Gates not to go to the university at 3 am. And many people would have made that easier choice. This proves that hard work and determination do make a difference.

      But to say that "opportunities ALWAYS exist" completely ignores the socioeconomic realities of many people's lives. Sure SOME opportunity exists, but is it going to be an opportunity of that magnitude for most people? No. And are there going to be some people who get very limited opportunities that ensure reaching even modest levels of economic success is nearly impossible? Yes. Ignoring that disparity to continue perpetuating a myth of equality where it has not been met is socially irresponsible.

      Which brings me to your disagreeing about the message of the American Dream. That mythos has long been used to perpetuate the idea that social inequalities can be erased through hard work. It's the message we use to say that complaints about racial and gender discrimination are unfounded. It's the message we use to ignore the impact of poverty. We tell ourselves and each other that the answer is simply to work hard(er) and things will get better. For some people, that is simply not going to be the case. And for A LOT of people, "better" is never going to reach anything close to the level of success Romney is holding up as an example (and the level of economic comfort he himself enjoys).

      The fact is that we operate as a collective, and some of us get the benefits of that collective much, much more easily than others. Pretending that it's a simple equation of hard work (and maybe even luck--as your changing "WOULD" to "COULD" might add) does nothing to account for those very real inequalities.

    2. "Even if I were to grant the premise that "you didn't build that alone" What's your point? That rich people should pay more taxes? They already pay more taxes. That they should give more to charity? They already give more to charity. You want to say that Romney has taken Obama's comments out of context, ok fine. What's the context? The rich ARE helping the poor. The rich ARE paying for firefighters and police and roads and basically everything mentioned in his speech. Is the point that they need to pay more? What gives you the right to reach into someone else's pocket to take money you didn't earn?" <---- OK I'm not sure we both read the same blog post because she didn't mention any of these things at all. Nowhere. Not even once. Taxes? Charity? Rich vs. Poor? Reaching into people's pockets? It's not in her blog at all, so I'm not sure why you even feel the need to ask if any of these things are her "point".

    3. No one ever promised equality of outcome. Only equality of opportunity. Was there someone preventing minorities or women from using the computer Bill Gates was using at 3am? Heck, I'm sure there were even other white guys who went and used it. Does that mean that they will get the same results as Mr. Gates? No. We don't guarentee outcomes. I agree with your point that it requires an interaction with the community, if everyone in the community had decided Windows sucked then obviously Bill Gates doesn't succeed. But that doesn't remove the responsibility of the businessman of determining what the community wants and attempting to provide it, and if there isn't a positive response from the community then go back to the drawing board. I guess you and I agree, it takes a community. We just disagree on how that matters.

    4. Okay, but when the message is that everyone has equal opportunities and we tie access of opportunity to "hard work" while ignoring inequalities, it amounts to the same thing. And there isn't "equal access to opportunity." There are millions and millions of people who did not and could not get the opportunity to be on that computer at 3am. That's the point! Gates benefited from his own intelligence and willingness to put in the work, but he also benifited from a very, very limited chance to bring that to fruition. You ask if someone was keeping minorities out of that computer room at three in the morning. The answer is yes! Only a handful of people had that access and it was tied to their standing (and their parents' standing) in the community.

    5. "Was there someone preventing minorities and women from using the computer?" Sorry. I've been thinking about this comment and just had to come back to ask: do you know what was happening in America in 1968? People were rioting over school desegregation! African-Americans were being assassinated for talking about race and civil rights! Do you honestly think that minority students had equal access to the school and neighborhood that Gates lived in, let alone a privately owned computer lab that a connected parent had to pull strings to get some of the kids from that high school into? That's not a very realistic perspective on American history.

  2. THANK YOU for this piece. If I hadn't vowed to avoid posting anything about the election I'd share it a thousand times on Facebook.

    As a Christian, I'm struck by how few fellow believers seem to recognize that the spirit of Obama's full quote has downright biblical relevance. I've listened to dozens of sermons in which various ministers have preached on the concept that what you have in this world (from your beauty, to your talents, to your wealth) is not yours at all, that it's all on loan, that you did nothing to deserve it, that no matter how hard you work you can't be your own savior. In other words "you didn't get there on your own." This is often the basis of sermons about everything from grace to tithing.

    And yet so few people see how the same very anti-individualistic concept applies in real socio-economic terms. Insert "community" for "god" and it's the same idea--that work as you might, your success is really not your own.

    1. That's a really great point. I think that the ideas underlying those Christian principles and the ones underlying the way that success is a joint endeavor all stem out of the simple fact that when you exist in a community, you are a part of it. I mean, these are the same ideas that underly our very basic understanding of ecosystems and the "circle of life." We make individual choices and actions, but we cannot make them without the influence of the world around us, and we cannot make them without impact.

  3. This is well-articulated. I love Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and I think it's a fascinating concept. And your analysis helps place the quote in the context it came from. Well said!

    1. Thanks! I taught Outliers in an honors class on the American Dream once, and we had some really, really interesting discussions.