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Who's Responsible When A Business Succeeds?


A recurring debate in the American presidential contest is who is responsible when a business succeeds. Campaigning in Virginia this weekend, Mitt Romney repeated his assertion that it's individual entrepreneurs.

MITT ROMNEY: I've been impressed by the American spirit of people who are can-do and take-charge, want to start and build things. And by the way, they do build it themselves.



Mitt Romney is riffing on President Obama's line, quote, "you didn't build that." Republicans have said the president was suggesting business owners aren't responsible for their own success. The Obama camp has said the president was taken out of context, that he was really talking about roads and bridges - infrastructure that supports a business. But aside from the rhetorical debate, there is a difference of opinion. The president is arguing that Americans help each other to succeed.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We also know that this country is built on the idea of citizenship; the idea that we have some obligations to each other.

MONTAGNE: The candidates' arguments have stirred a debate within the business community itself. NPR's Scott Horsley has this story on one.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Norman Lizt and James Roumell are both financial professionals on opposite sides of the country, and opposite sides of the political divide. Lizt, who runs an investment company in California, took out a full page ad in The New York Times last month, threatening to close his business and lay off his half-dozen employees, if President Obama is re-elected. He's worried that if that happens, his marginal tax rate including California state taxes would top 50 percent, and that's a deal-breaker for him.

NORMAN LIZT: If my partner is getting more than I am, that does not work for me. Over 50 percent, I'm a minority partner and it is I who built and is running the business.

HORSLEY: Lizt admits when he entered the business in the 1960s, federal taxes were even higher, as much as 70 percent. But in those days he says there were loopholes big enough to drive a Hummer through. What's more, he thinks the president's plan to raise taxes only on the wealthy, is pure politics.

LIZT: There's an enormous amount of class warfare that's going on. It's coming from a man, our president, who said he would do exactly the opposite. And, frankly, it's very frightening.

HORSLEY: James Roumell, who runs an asset management company in Maryland, sees the world differently.

JAMES ROUMELL: It wasn't Obama, it was Jesus who said it'll be much more difficult for a rich person to get into the kingdom of heaven. Was that class warfare? The point is, if you have a lot, you ought to be thinking about people around you that don't have a lot.

HORSLEY: Roumell says his views are shaped by his Catholic faith and by his experience as a working-class kid from Detroit, who was only able to go to college because of government loans and grants. He also remembers the role that government played in stabilizing the financial markets during the worst of the crisis four years ago. The same week that Lizt's ad ran in The New York Times, Roumell published an op-ed in The Washington Post. The headline was: What I built With Government Help.

ROUMELL: You know, where I come from you say thank you. I just think Uncle Sam has done a far better job of serving us and serving the country than he gets credit for.

HORSLEY: If Lizt and Roumell were to sit down together, they might find some common ground. Lizt acknowledges an important role for government - in national defense and the social safety net. And Roumell agrees that some government dollars could be spent more wisely. But as symbols of the polarizing national argument, both men appear to have hit a nerve. Roumell's column in The Washington Post prompted nearly 4,000 comments on the newspaper's Web site. He thinks about 70 percent agreed with him.

Lizt, in turn, got more than 100 emails after his ad appeared in The New York Times, about 60 percent in favor of his position. He's confident that if the ad had run in the Wall Street Journal, the feedback would have been 95 percent positive.

LIZT: I don't believe in preaching to the choir. That's why I ran it in The Times. I'd rather look into the mouth of the lion.

HORSLEY: Judging by the comments on the campaign trail this weekend, this is an argument that will keep roaring right through the November election.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.