By Christopher B. Daly
One of the most popular “memes” of this week in politics has been the idea that Barack Obama hates business. The supposed evidence for this is something that the president said in a recent appearance in a fire station in Roanoke,Va. Here’s part of what he said:
“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, that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”
Now, let’s examine that statement, shall we? At the risk of sounding like a university professor (oh, wait!), I feel compelled to point out that the problem in that passage arises, as so often happens, from a pronoun whose antecedent is not clear. The president was saying that before anyone can start a new business, the public has already invested tax dollars in an array of public goods that make that private enterprise possible. Public schools probably educated most of the workforce and customers. Police and fire departments provide a safe, orderly environment. Public roads bring supply trucks and customers to the new business. And so on. That is what Obama meant when he said, “If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.” (Think, for a minute, about the chances of starting a business like Staples on a desert island, or in the tribal areas of NW Pakistan. Not gonna happen.)
The president went on to say, “Somebody invested in roads and bridges.” In other words, taxpayers funded the infrastructure.
In the very next sentence, the president said: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”
Question is: in that last sentence, what does that refer to?
Does that refer to the noun that immediately precedes it? In that case, the president is saying: If you have a business, you didn’t build it.
Or, does that refer to the previous concept of “roads and bridges” (in which case, grammatically speaking, the pronoun should be them not that) or the broader point of infrastructure?
Personally, I think the president’s meaning was plain: If you run a successful business today, your success is based on the earlier investment in infrastructure.
But that’s my personal conclusion. Fox News and Mitt Romney have come to a different conclusion (surprise!) and have chosen to lift one sentence out of context as “proof” that the president is hostile to business. People who use the English language in their professional lives should know how to parse it.