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Charlie Vignola: You built that, but not alone

Posted: February 12, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: February 12, 2013 2:00 a.m.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republicans got a lot of mileage from President Obama’s famously — and deliberately — misquoted line, "You didn’t build that."

According to conservatives, this was proof positive of Obama’s socialist mindset and a direct insult to the hardworking business owners of America.

Of course, if you look at the original context of President Obama’s "You didn’t built that" speech, it’s clear he wasn’t referring to the business you built from your own original idea.

Rather, he was referring to the vast American infrastructure of bridges and roads and educated workers and police and the Internet that all businesses rely on and take for granted, but which they didn’t build themselves and which wouldn’t exist save for the collective efforts of the U.S. government.

America is an historic success story that relies on both individual and collective efforts. Yes, Jeff Bezos came up with the idea of Amazon and Mark Zuckerberg helped dream up Facebook, but neither could have existed without the Internet, and no private company could or would have come up with the idea of the Internet.

The Internet came about because the U.S. government wanted a way to share packets of critical information between various government installations in the event of a nuclear war. What began as the limited-access, government-sponsored "ARPAnet" gradually evolved over several decades into the present-day Internet.

However, there were no clear profitability or commercial applications to this network early on, so no private company would’ve ever plowed the resources needed to develop such a theoretical system on the off chance that it might eventually become a source of wealth.

No, that kind of funding and patience only comes from one place: the government.

And it’s not just the Internet. No private company would’ve developed the atomic bomb and all of the related technological breakthroughs that sprang from it.

No private company would’ve constructed the interstate highway system, which allowed businesses to expand and get their goods to markets in ways never before possible.

No private company would’ve created the space program, put a man on the moon and given us all of the developments that have flowed from that cutting-edge research and development.

Human progress has always been a dance between the individual and the collective. Even looking back thousands of years, an architect could design a pyramid, but it took the sweat of thousands of laborers over many decades to turn those lines on papyrus into a physical reality.

I have a conservative friend who founded a thriving local business and does quite well for himself. Recently, he was complaining about how Obamacare was preventing him from growing his business.

If he hired more people to expand, then he’d be obligated under Obamacare to provide them with health insurance, and that would cut into his profitability.

When I asked him what one of his average full-time workers earned annually, he told me they made poverty wages. So what my friend basically admitted was that he didn’t want to expand because then he’d have to provide his workers with health care — but given the low wages he paid his workers, they wouldn’t be able to afford health care on their own.

I asked my friend how he reconciled this dilemma. If he can’t run his business at an acceptable profit unless he deprives his workers of health care, but they can’t buy their own health insurance on such meager pay, then their only option if they get sick or injured is to go to an emergency room, where all taxpayers will wind up paying for their medical expenses.

My friend didn’t grasp the irony. He would rather have society pay for his workers’ medical expenses than for him to be on the hook for it, meaning his business is built on a flawed model that can’t work unless we have taxpayer-funded health care for the poor.

And yet, here he was complaining about how Obamacare was preventing him from expanding his business.

My friend’s business is a microcosm of how Wal-Mart operates. Wal-Mart keeps its prices low and profits high by paying workers low wages, keeping them part-time so it doesn’t have to provide benefits, then instructing its underpaid workers how to apply for federal assistance like food stamps and Medicaid to stay afloat.

The company games the system so cleverly that taxpayers have no idea the low prices they’re paying at Wal-Mart are subsidized by their own tax dollars.

The truth is, no matter what business you start, chances are you can’t do it all by yourself: You must rely on smart, skilled, hardworking people to keep your business running and profitable.

The only question is one of relative fairness: How much profit do you think you’re entitled to and how much should you share with the people who work for you and keep your business viable?

After all, "you built that" — but you sure didn’t do it alone.

Charlie Vignola is a former college Republican turned liberal Democrat. He lives in Fair Oaks Ranch, works in the motion-picture industry and loves his wife and kids.


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