August 3, 2012
The controversy surrounding President Barack Obama’s admonishment that “if you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen” has defied the usual election-year pattern.
Normally a political faux pas lasts little more than a news cycle. People hear the story, decide what they think, and quickly move on to the next brouhaha, following what the journalist Mickey Kaus calls the Feiler Faster Thesis. A gaffe that might have ruined a candidate 20 years ago is now forgotten within days.
Three weeks later, Obama’s comment is still a big deal.
Although his supporters pooh-pooh the controversy, claiming the statement has been taken out of context and that he was referring only to public infrastructure, the full video isn’t reassuring. Whatever the meaning of “that” was, the president on the whole was clearly trying to take business owners down a peg. He was dissing their accomplishments. As my Bloomberg View colleague Josh Barro has written, “You don’t have to make over $250,000 a year to be annoyed when the president mocks people for taking credit for their achievements.”
The president’s sermon struck a nerve in part because it marked a sharp departure from the traditional Democratic criticism of financiers and big corporations, instead hectoring the people who own dry cleaners and nail salons, car repair shops and restaurants -- Main Street, not Wall Street. (Obama did work in a swipe at Internet businesses.) The president didn’t simply argue for higher taxes as a measure of fiscal responsibility or egalitarian fairness. He went after bourgeois dignity.
Bourgeois Dignity is both the title of a recent book by the economic historian Deirdre N. McCloskey and, she argues, the attitude that accounts for the biggest story in economic history: the explosion of growth that took northern Europeans and eventually the world from living on about $3 a day, give or take a dollar or two (in today’s buying power), to the current global average of $30 -- and much higher in developed nations. (McCloskey’s touchstone is Norway’s $137 a day, second only to tiny Luxembourg’s.)
That change, she argues, is way too big to be explained by normal economic behavior, however rational, disciplined or efficient. Hence the book’s subtitle: “Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World.”