The Bad History Behind Obama's "You Didn't Build That"
The president’s sermon struck a nerve in part because it marked a sharp departure from the traditional Democratic criticism of financiers and big corporations, instead hectoring the people who own dry cleaners and nail salons, car repair shops and restaurants -- Main Street, not Wall Street. (Obama did work in a swipe at Internet businesses.) The president didn’t simply argue for higher taxes as a measure of fiscal responsibility or egalitarian fairness. He went after bourgeois dignity.
“Bourgeois Dignity” is both the title of a recent book by the economic historian Deirdre N. McCloskey and, she argues, the attitude that accounts for the biggest story in economic history: the explosion of growth that took northern Europeans and eventually the world from living on about $3 a day, give or take a dollar or two (in today’s buying power), to the current global average of $30 -- and much higher in developed nations. (McCloskey’s touchstone is Norway’s $137 a day, second only to tiny Luxembourg’s.)
That change, she argues, is way too big to be explained by normal economic behavior, however rational, disciplined or efficient. Hence the book’s subtitle: “Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World.”
“Economics of a material sort can surely explain why Americans burned wood and charcoal many decades longer than did the forest-poor and coal-rich people of inner northwestern Europe. It can explain why education was a bad investment for a British parlor maid in 1840, or why the United States rather than Egypt supplied most of the raw cotton to Manchester, England,” writes McCloskey, a professor of economics, history, English and communication at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and of economic history at Gothenburg University in Sweden. But the usual stories of utility maximization and optimal pricing “can’t explain the rise in the whole world’s (absolute) advantage from $3 to $30 a day, not to speak of $137 a day.”
Something bigger was at work. McCloskey’s explanation is that people changed the way they thought, wrote and spoke about economic activity. “In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” she writes, “a great shift occurred in what Alexis de Tocqueville called ‘habits of the mind’ -- or more exactly, habits of the lip. People stopped sneering at market innovativeness and other bourgeois virtues.” As attitudes changed, so did behavior, leading to more than two centuries of constant innovation and rising living standards.