Speaking to supporters and business owners, future President Barack Obama said while campaigning, “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.”
Oh, did the opposition run with this phrase, “You didn’t build that.” While the phrase was misquoted as a political baseball bat, Obama wasn’t taking anything away from private enterprise. Indeed, in context, Obama’s speech was about the need for investment in public infrastructure to help businesses grow and expand.
Almost all businesses existentially rely on public investments to make their businesses run. In nearly all cases, without public investment in infrastructure, education, and justice, law and order, and social well-being, most businesses would never get off the ground. They would just stay as idea inside entrepreneurs’ heads.
Let’s check out how Amazon would be doing without all the paved roads and highways and air traffic-controlled airspace and law and order that powers it all. Let’s cancel the public internet, which developed from government investment – and Amazon would just be another Sears catalogue, relying on the U.S. Postal Service and public roads to deliver their stuff.
And SpaceX. Or Tesla. Musk’s SpaceX owes its very start to generous government contracts and collaboration and NASA engineers. Musk’s Tesla owes its start to extremely generous public kickbacks and policy, encouraging the use of electric cars. And our roads…
What Obama was saying is that virtually all businesses owe a huge debt to our common investment in physical infrastructure and human development. Obama’s sound bite may have been abused for political points, but the truth remains: Sorry Mr. Businessperson. You didn’t build all this. Not by yourself. The American people paid for and built a hell of a lot of what makes your business run and be successful.
Now, with that ground laid, let’s get to the current issue of celebration or outrage: The Biden/Harris Student Loan Debt Relief Plan. As you’ve likely heard, the basics of the plan is that folks earning under $125,000 annually can receive a one-time, $10,000 to $20,000 loan forgiveness for their college debt.
Anyone with a brain or a kid in school knows that college has become cripplingly expensive for middle- and lower-income families. And, while the Biden plan misses some targets, it’s still a huge positive step to help launch our college kids into meaningful careers without economically crippling or killing them. Anyone with a moderate to large student loan faces a real struggle and far too many face defaults or inability to move forward.
We hear, “I had to pay, why don’t they?” Or, “Why should I pay for anyone’s private decisions?” There’s plusses and minuses to these notions. But here, bite down hard: The good outweighs the bad.
This act is expected to help up to 10 million American young adults, red, blue, purple, whatever – launch and keep their careers moving ahead. While every taxpayer will indeed end up paying for some of this, nearly every business and nearly every community will also benefit.
“You didn’t build this…”
Let’s consider the most successful businesses in America: Microsoft. Google. Apple. Oracle. Facebook. Amazon. Tesla. All the finance firms. Engineering and construction firms. Defense contractors. Airlines. On and on….
What drives these businesses? Is it just Jeff Bezos? Was it just Bill Gates? Was it any one person? One person or a group may have had the initial idea and the drive. But they built their giant businesses on the smarts and on the backs of the folks they hired to do that high-skill work. And almost all the engineers, designers, coders, lawyers, professionals they hire, all went to colleges, both public and private. And so much of the money behind these schools is public. Yes, beyond infrastructure, you and I have also funded these businesses’ workforce.
All our kids at COC? CSUN? UCLA? And primary schools. All our public money mixed with a lot of student debt – that’s what paid for the education that made the smarts that made the engineers and professionals that built all these businesses. We built these businesses. Tuition payers built these businesses.
Some folks don’t like to acknowledge this, as it goes against the “rugged, self-dependent American job creator” meme and fantasy – but truthfully, we’re all in this together, all mixed and blended in.
Our businesses need our infrastructure and our educated people. They also need folks who can afford to work within the system we’ve created. And the system we’ve created, created nearly 10 million middle-class graduates struggling to make ends meet. And we need our businesses, too. We’re in it together.
In truth, we all do better when we can participate in our system without going broke. Student debt has been on the table a long time and finally, someone stepped up to the plate and got something done.
It’s not perfect. The entire higher education finance thing needs reworking. But in the meantime, the Student Loan Debt Relief Plan is at least a good first step ahead.
There’s a ton of moving pieces and tons of credit all around that makes the American economic miracle work. No one individual or individuals build all this. We are fully, jointly mixed in, in building nearly everything around us and nearly everything we use.
In this Debt Relief Plan we’re providing a meaningful hand up to help our next generation of knowledge workers to get up to a stable start. It’s a decent thing to do – especially considering how much we all need them.
Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.