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Who built what?

By Julianne Malveaux
NNPA

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 a $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 isn’t the same “we” the Republicans are talking about.

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.”

Republicans held their convention last week at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. This is a convention center that was partly built with government money, to the tune of $86 million. As the arena was renovated to accommodate Republican attendees to the convention, no doubt government funds were also used for some of this. This is one of the tax subsidies that Republicans often decry. And how does government justify this? The infusion of all those big spenders might bring money to local venders and tax dollars to the community. I’d like to see the accounting.

President Obama is right to talk about the way all enterprise is interconnected and the many ways the government’s role stimulates business. Federal, state and local government engage in practices that subsidize businesses because they hope for a return or because they believe there are benefits to the community that may come because of government investment. Most sports arenas and fine arts concert halls have some government investment and hopefully no one is running around shouting “we built it.” Still, the Republican stance seems to be a purposeful amnesia, an attempt to ignore the many ways government facilitates the building they claim they do.

Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, peppered his RNC speech with slams on President Obama. In his speech, he said, “None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers — a dull, adventure-less journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life.”

What entitlements is he talking about? Subsidies to Head Start, proven to make a difference in early childhood education? Unemployment benefits, which many in his Janesville, Wisc., hometown community used when a General Motors plant closed under President George Bush not, as he suggested, President Obama? Would he remove Pell grant subsidies to college students? Would he eliminate Social Security? Does he visit national parks? Government subsidies built that. Does he ride on any of our nation’s government-subsidized roads and highways? Ryan has told us what he feels about Medicare, but his slam on government entitlements ignores the work government has done. Who built the roads? “We” didn’t. Government did, with the help of well-paid contractors.

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 Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is president emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

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