This leaked video (via Political Wire) from a Mitt Romney fundraiser is being sold as "Romney talks about Bain profiting from Chinese slave labor." That's wrong. There's no evidence that any of the labor at the factory Romney is discussing was slave labor. There's no evidence it's even mildly coerced labor. In fact, the entire point of the story is that the jobs from that factory, despite the seemingly awful conditions, are in tremendous demand.
But after recounting his visit to the factory, Romney ends with a lesson. "The Bain partner I was with turned to me and said, 'You know, 95 percent of life is settled if you are born in America."
To Romney, this is a patriotic thought. "This is an amazing land and what we have is unique, and fortunately it is so special we are sharing it with the world." I'm not exactly sure what that means, or how it relates to a Chinese factory where the workers make little and 12 of them share a single, dormitory-style bathroom. But it's a nice sentiment.
The more straightforward interpretation of his story is that, if you were born in America, you didn't build that. Success in life is determined by more than pluck and intelligence and effort. It's influenced by the quality of political institutions and the level of economic advancement. It's influenced by whether you're in a developed economy or a developing one, and whether you can find jobs that make use of your unique talents, and whether the labor market is tight or loose.
This is not a controversial claim. It's the subject of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson's "Why Nations Fail." It's a common theme in Warren Buffett's speeches, where he asks audiences to imagine a pre-birth lottery for where you're born, and to consider how much they would sacrifice to get a ticket labeled "America." It's what every politician means when they speak about how blessed they are to inhabit this great land.
Over the past few months, however, a lot of Republicans have pretended that this actually is a controversial claim — that they don't, in fact, believe that small-business owners and wealthy investors are anything less than 100 percent responsible for their success in life. But that's just politics. As you can see in this video, when the doors are closed and they're just talking with one another, they know they only built part of that.
So let's just stipulate it: Democrats and Republicans agree that individuals are not solely responsible for their success in life. But let's also stipulate that that agreement doesn't really help us answer the policy question at the heart of the "you didn't build that" furor, which is whether we should raise taxes on Americans making more than $250,000 by about $1.5 trillion over the next decade.