The Spectacular Silliness of the 'You Didn't Build That' Debate


The president brashly declared that entrepreneurs don't build their own roads! Or bridges! Or municipal water treatment centers! Only in July of an election year could this become a controversy.

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Somehow, the remarkably fake "you didn't build that" controversy rages on, bravely, against the forces of listening comprehension and common sense.

Some background. In a speech last week, the president told supporters that entrepreneurs are supported by teachers, friends, and government-backed infrastructure, saying "somebody invested in roads and bridges, if you've got a business, you didn't build that." This is so obvious it hardly merits comment. The fact that, say, Google didn't build the Caltrain that connects San Francisco to the Valley wouldn't be controversial to anybody -- certainly not to Google, which knows it didn't build the train, nor to Southern Pacific and the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which did.

Except, it's July, and Mitt Romney and right-wing news outlets are equally thirsty for ginned-up controversies. So Fox News and the GOP presidential hopeful launched dual campaigns pretending that Obama said that no business has ever built itself. "To say what he said is to say that Steve Jobs didn't build Apple Computer or that Bill Gates didn't build Microsoft," Romney said in prepared remarks. That is a hilariously creative interpretation of the idea that start-ups don't build roads, but somehow it's sparked a larger debate about whether government can play a helpful role in business.

But that debate is so over. I read Romney's comments over the Internet (which the government helped to build), on my personal computer (a technology which the government helped develop), and later on my smart phone (made affordable partly because government demand for microchips helped to pull down the cost of consumer electronics). I don't know how Mitt Romney himself arrived at the event, but odds are that he either flew on an airplane (which federal research contracts helped to establish) or rode on his bus across America's interstate highway system (which federal laws helped construct).

I could go on, but what's the point? Romney understands the role of government as well as anybody. "Where we invest as a nation, both from a government standpoint but also from a private standpoint, those are the areas we've been most successful," Romney once said. "In technology, we as a country already invest an enormous amount -- for instance, in defense technology, space technology, health -- but we also need to invest in some of the emerging technologies that are important at a basic science level such as fuel cell technology, power generation, materials science, automotive technology."

Yes! Totally! Well said, Mitt Romney!

The American private sector is the most fantastically successful job and innovation engine in the history of the planet, and it doesn't need our vapid lies about the incompetence of government to feel good about itself. It needs more of what has always helped to make it strong: More government spending on technology and infrastructure, and less nonsense about lonely entrepreneurs building their own roads, bridges, trains, and municipal water sources.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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