Who built what?

Filed under OPINION

The Republican National Convention’s theme was, “We Built This.”  One of the speakers was Sher Valenzuela, a Delaware businesswoman who happens to be Latina. She touted the success of her upholstery business and implied it thrived because of her hard work.

That’s only partly true. She also thrived because she started out with $2 million loan from the Small Business Administration, and got another $15 million in non-competitive government contracts.  Would her company, First State Manufacturing, have made it without government help?  Your guess is as good as mine.

But the notion that “we built this” is extremely shortsighted. What exactly did these Republicans build without government help?  They don’t even go to work every day in our nation’s Capitol without the help of unpaid enslaved people who toted rock and worked in hot sun to build our nation’s Capitol.  It took until 2010 for our nation’s leaders to erect a plaque commemorating this effort. We built the Capitol?  And it’s isn’t the same “we” the Republicans are talking about.

Remembering enslaved
It reminds me of a book written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annette Gordon Reed, “The Hemmings of Monticello’’ (2008).  As she reprises some of former President Thomas Jefferson’s diaries, he writes about all the cotton and tobacco “we” planted. I had an amazing visual of Jefferson with a hoe picking and planting.  He didn’t.  He appropriated the effort of other people’s work, initiative, and infrastructure.  He didn’t plant a thing.  Enslaved people did the work.  Based on his diaries, though, the man who died nearly bankrupt, expropriates the work of others in his use of the term  “we.”

Enterprise interconnected
President Obama is right to talk about the way all enterprise is interconnected and the many ways that the government role stimulates business.  Federal, state, and local government engage in practices that subsidize businesses because they hope for a return, or because they believe that there are benefits to the community that may come because of government investment.

If Republicans want to know what “we” built, they need to look back to the record of former President George W. Bush.  That president built a banking crisis, and gave banks nearly $800 billion to bail themselves out.  Bush built an unemployment rate that continued to soar under the leadership of his successor,  President Barack Obama.  President Bush built a couple of wars, leaving the splash back to President Obama.  Romney and Ryan; Do you own the house your party built, the house President Obama is trying to repair?  Will you claim the “we” on this?

Republicans need to be reminded of who built what when they walk into our nation’s Capitol.  Some folks eagerly claim credit for their quasi-accomplishments.  Others toil, and it takes more than 200 years for our nation to grudgingly acknowledge them.  As a descendent of enslaved people, that “we built it” rhetoric repels me.

Julianne Malveaux is a D.C.-based economist and author.

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