Brad Hirschfield: Is Obama's "self-made" business philosophy right?

Jul 18, 2012

Is President Obama correct about there being no such thing as self-made businesses? Are there self-made people? Is that story central to what makes America great?

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President Obama declared, "If you've got a business, you didn't build that".  Is he right, or was that simply a foolish swipe taken at those who have gone out and made themselves successful?


What about the story of the the self-made person?  Isn't that narrative part of what makes America great?  But does anyone really make themselves?  What do you think?


Let's go!

I've met people who consider that themselves "self-made" business men. They are, for the most part, egotistical and hard to work for. Powerful people that recognize the influence others have made on their lives, e.g. teachers, are more humble and admirable. If powerful people do not need infrastructure why are they willing to spend lots of money to lobby to get it done to favor themselves?

You raise some interesting points, though I would caution you not to quickly conflate your personal experience with all of reality.  Surely you know that there are many people who steadfastly believe in the theory/mythology of the self-made person, who are decent, admirable people.  You DO know that, right?  In fact, although this will annoy many readers I am sure, one could argue that Mitt Romney is one such person, regardless of what one thinks of his politics.


I should also add that the term "mythology" is not a euphemism for falehood.  A myth is a story line which speaks to, and helps people to deal with, some larger question, and may or may not be historically accurate.


To your original point though, I think that anyone who thinks that they and they alone are responsible for their achievments, should think carefully about their conclusion.  I just don't know how that could ever be possible.  Nobody and nothing exists in a vaccum. 


Of course, that I doesn't mean I think the President was right about what he said, but you didn't ask about that.

Why are pundits and their followers so willing to glom on to quotes taken out of context and what does this habit do to our quest for doing what's best for our nation?

Context is always crucial, but since it can also always be widened indefinitely, we all make decisions about how to narrow our frames of conversational reference.  I think what you are really asking about is why some pundits (not this one, I hope!) and their followers narrow the frame so that whatever is being discussed proves that which they already believe.  THAT is never smart.


To be fair, I sure that those who are guilty as you charge, would argue that they ARE doing what is best for the nation.  The real question is when that is defined such that you never need to learn from those with whom you disagree, how do we ever get smarter than we are at this moment?  And not getting smarter, can NEVER be good for the nation.

The president's comments strike me as overly simplistic. While it is true that no one becomes who they are without influences from those with whom we come in contact, the idea that success is only due to the efforts of others is deeply flawed. There are too many small operations that overwhelmingly depend on the efforts and drive of a single founder to claim "you didn't make that," solely on the basis of whether a business is successful.

I am with 100%  The President made a terribly simplistic claim about a very complex issue.  It's actually the opposite of how he normally behaves and speaks, which signals the rising ugliness of the campaign for the Presidency, but that is a topic for another day.


People do create their own successes -- at least they can, and telling them otherwise is simply wrong.  To be sure, nobody creates anything from nothing (let's leave God out of this for now, okay theologians?), but that does not mean that all creations are partnerships which demand pay back to all those who contribute, however indirectly, to what whatever we achieve.  That is what the President suggested, and it was a mistake to do so.

Deliberately mischaracterizing Obama is deplorable but when Glenn Beck, Congresswoman Michele Bachman and Frank Gaffney claim that the US government promoted the election of the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate for president and subsequently our Secretary of State is pelted with tomatoes, shouldn't these pundits be called out for the dangerous fools that they are?

You just did.  Feel better?


In point of fact, one could make a reasonable case that the US government did in fact support Morsi for the presidency in Egypt.  Whether that was wise or not, whether or not that was simply the best available option or not, etc. are all questions that can be debated, but someone is not necessarily a dangerous fool for making that claim about US policy.

As long as you actually read what he said as opposed to the snippet that was used to bash him. What the President said was that successful business people have themselves been helped by someone along the way and that everyone benefits by things provided by the public sector. Without a doubt, businesses have been helped by having a workforce educated in public schools, having safe roads and transportation networks funded and regulated by the government, and a rule of law and judicial system to protect business owners. Government regulations such as minimum wage and safety regulations as well as programs such as the GI Bill helped grow the middle class and create more opportunities for businesses to sell their goods and services. How successful would businesses be if they had to educate their own workforces and build their own transportation network, or people who start their own businesses and put in sweat equity if they never had the opportunity to get an education?

Your over-atomized analysis is as absurd as those who claim that they are entirely self-made.  Of course businesses succeed best when situated in larger successful cultures and can focus on their business, not upon being little worlds unto themselves, responsible for feeding, educating, etc all those who work in the business.  Nobody intelligent claims otherwise, so you are setting up a straw man argument.


The issue here is that while we all depend upon the larger culture in which we find ourselves, including the government, that does not mean that government is necessarily a parnter in our success such that they automatically deserve a specific cut of the profits, especially as they sure do not share in a proportional cut of the losses when that happens.


If the President meant to widen people's understanding of the web of institutions upon which all commercial success is built, he could have done that, at it would have been a very good thing.  Unfortunately, he confused an important and all too little heard lesson on success, with an all to often heard lecture on economic obligation and class'ism which accomplishes nothing more than rallying his base.  Perhaps that is good politics, but its poor leadership.

There are usually connections with the Chamber of Commerce, the SBA for startups, one or more government agencies, NGOs, and/or industry associations. In the Defense Industry when contracts require outsourcing to small firms, such firms may be started to satisfy those contract requirements by people who are linked to the larger firms' management. As a side, even the faith based initiative programs are generating massive business startups.

Interestingly, your observation points us away from government -- where the the President was pointing, and toward voluntary and more locally based organizations.  There is a world of difference between the two!


To be sure, the government, even if indirectly, IS a necessary part of virtually all success in business.  and I only mentioned "virtually" to cover myself!  :)  That said, people experiece that contribution differently than they do the direct help they get at the local level,  And even if the two are not so different in actuality,  the jump from there, to a talking point in arguing for tax policy, is a long one which simply doesn't work.

The "that that Obama referred to was infrastructure. The business or the self made man did not build "that".

While I appreciate your effort, it just isn't clear that is so.  I have gone over the quote so many times and even if I wished you were right, one can't tell to what the President was referring. 


And even if you are correct about the "that" to which the President was referring, it doesn't help his case because no "self-made" person whose is even a little sane, claims otherwise.  Some do claim, and not without justification, that they pay what is act of them, take pride in their success, congtribute to society by virtue there of, and do not want to be told that they either lack appreciation because of their rightful pride, or necessarily owe more because of what they have achieved.

Thank God big government built those runways and airports so the Wright Brothers could invent the airplane.

Point well-made, but it's only half a point.  The other half is: thank God big government created those runways and airports so that a "neat invention" could grow into a huge industry.  It's a partnership -- entrepenuers need government and government needs entrepenuers.  Recognizing that, should not become a pawn between big tax'ers and small tax'ers.  We should simply debate how much each side wants, how they plan to spend it, and ask people which plan best creates the country in which they want to live.

Here's the Obama quote in context: “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." Taking the word "that" to mean social or physical infrastructure, Obama is right. Or adding the missing word "alone" to the end of the short quote, Obama is right. Taking nine words without the surrounding context, the quote could mean anything. Perhaps the punditocracy, including yourself, are making a mountain out of a clumsy ad lib.

Or, and that assumes your analysis is correct -- itself a large assumption -- the President made a clumsy gaffe which he could walk back but has chosen not to, thus indicating that at the very least, he want his base to enjoy what you call his misunderstood ad lib.  Of course, as a supporter of the President, I appreciate that you probably don't see it that way. 


Again, I want to be clear, if the President had spoken about the context which creates success and the need not only to recognize it, but support and pay for it, it would have been a great speach.  Of course, that would have demanded confronting that the money which he believes should be paid into increased taxes should necessarilygo for only those things, which it clearly will not.  That's actually a shame because it might be a really useful way to deal with the need for increased revenue on the one hand, and to build trust among some of those who have little trust in the federal government's ability to use money wisely and efficiently.

"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help...." I could almost turn this around and use it to make a totally opposite point. Why don't we have more self-made businesses? If the system was in place for people like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates to be successful, why are their stories in the minority. We need more great teachers, roads, bridges, and support so anyone and everyone can be just as successful. Very few startup businesses turn into a long term successful business. There must be something unique about those who succeed.

There almost certainly is something unique about those people, but "unique" does not mean "in a vacuum". 


Unfortunately, too many people who celebrate the uniqueness, refuse to see that to be fully realized, that uniqueness has to find a context, an infrastructure, a society, etc.  One can be "self-made", but never entirely so.


Equally unfortunate is the fact that those who appreciate that we don't exist in vaccuums, too often deny the role of individual uniqueness, individual accomplishment, and the fact that not all people are equally able when it come to achieving material success.

This isn't exactly a parallel situation, but I think some of the issues have to do with something my husband told me about his dad's success. His dad worked from the age of 14 to support himself (he had to leave a bad home) and eventually went through college. He rose through the ranks in academia and eventually ended up a high-ranking federal official. He has many accomplishments of which he can be proud. However, he is a bit blind to the fact that privilege played in his life. There were lots of folks out there - people of color, and women, especially - that he didn't have to compete with because they were shut out or unfairly rated. I think all of us have things we are proud of accomplishing but we must always be open to the fact that sometimes privilege and even luck plays into it.

Having gone to work at 14 and doing so because he left what you descirbe as "a bad home" (and one can only imagine how bad it was to compel a 14 year old to go out on his own), I wonder what you would call an unpriveleged life?  Maybe you left something out, but I don't see the privelege that he had.


You are certainly correct that for many people, they get more than they realize, and certainly too often confuse good luck with their own intelligence.  One can and should take pride in their achievments, and admitting that luck and privelege often play some role in attaining those achievments is not only appropriate, it actually can lead to great achievement because it keeps you aware, self-aware, and always working to do better.

Once again, the hour is at hand, and my hands are tired!


Thanks, as always for interesting comments and wonderful questions.  Don't forget that we can continue this conversation if you find me on facebook or follow me on twitter @bradhirschfield.


'Till next week.


In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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