Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mitt Romney, the 47%, and a "Culture of Dependence"

While a graduate student working to support a growing family back in the 1980s, I observed quite clearly that wages were not keeping up with the steadily increasing financial demands of living what I had always taken for granted, namely, the American middle class way of life.  For many, the slack was taken up by ever-increasing number of wives into the workforce.  In the short term, this resulted in an increase in many families' way of life, with expectations of continuing and ever-greater prosperity following in short order.  But it was not to last, as any clear thinking person could have predicted at the time.  All those years ago, I suggested that within a generation America would find itself in a situation where, in many families, both spouses would have to work to support a way of life that in the past had been made possible by the labor of only one  and that trouble would ensue when many working couples would find themselves falling behind despite both of their hard work.

That, to be frank, is the situation America now finds itself in.  And nothing brings out what people are really like more than situations in which they, rightly or wrongly, feel threatened. Today, millions of Americans feel threatened.  They see the country they love floundering in debt, waging an unwinnable and seemingly interminable war, and stagnating with un- and underemployment.  And how they have responded does not speak well of them.  In contrast to the 1930s, when a large majority of Americans banded together in support of Franklin Roosevelt's broadside against the "forces of selfishness and of lust for power," today many have apparently accepted the argument of those once-vanquished forces that it is the losers in today's economy (and their abettors in the "Democrat" party) who have, by virtue of their slothfulness and indulgence at the public trough, led the nation to the precipice of ruin.

Enter Willard Mitt Romney.  Romney is not a man of ideas.  His early forays into the realm of foreign policy have been embarrassing: his offensive and baseless criticism of America's foremost ally, the UK, on the eve of the London Olympics, his ultra-hawkish stance toward Iran, and his inexcusable, precipitant, and fact-challenged criticism of President Obama in response to last week's tragic attack on the American consulate in Benghazi.  With regard to economic and social issues, Romney's apparent lack of firm convictions was compared back by one of his own spokesmen, Eric Fehrnstrom, back in March as akin to the old children's standby, the Etch-a-Sketch: "You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

Methinks, however, that Mr. Romney inadvertently drew a sketch of the real Mitt Romney, at least with regard to the one conviction he apparently holds firmly, last May at an exclusive fundraiser in the Florida home of private equity mogul Mark Leder.  Romney's speech that night was recorded surreptitiously, and this week found its way onto the Mother Jones website (for the original, inflammatory snippet, see here; for the complete speech, see here).  It awaits to be seen whether the explosions set off by this revelatory bombshell will continue to have reverberations come November, but if I were a betting man, I would wager that the controversy will end later rather than sooner.  Telling is the fact that, not only liberal pundits like E. J. Dionne, Jr., but moderate conservatives like David Brooks (in a brilliant article entitled "Thurston Howell Romney"), have offered devastating, withering critiques which, to the certain dismay of candidate Romney, will have been read by many of the highly-educated swing voters he will need to unseat the incumbent Obama.

For those who have not as yet watched the videos, the controversy centers on the following quotation:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax…. “[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Some have called this comment a "gaffe."  Well, this is not your garden-variety, Joe Biden-style gaffe, an inelegantly-stated chestnut that sounds worse than the author's intent.  It is what is called a "Kinsley gaffe," after journalist Michael Kinsley, who famously stated, " A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth   some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say."  In this case, Romney was speaking to some of "his" people, the ultra wealthy who form his real base.  In such a crowd he let slip what he believed he could say safely, with the full agreement of his listeners, but would be political dynamite in wider circles.  The only shock for me, however, is that many people in these wider circles apparently were surprised that Mr. Romney could actually believe, let alone utter, such sentiments.  Of course this is what he believes.  It is exactly the same belief I read and/or hear every day at work, in newspapers, news magazines, cable news networks, and  saddest of all  on Facebook from the mouths and keyboards of confessing Christians.  I am not shocked.  But I am saddened, both because of what it reveals about Romney's heart and his willingness to misrepresent facts in the interests of advancing policies that would have the primary consequence of lining his pockets with surplus wealth he, and others like him, certainly don't need.

The "argument" of this short quotation is built upon a major mischaracterization, and it proceeds to impugn the character of nearly half of the nation's populace.  First, the mischaracterization: 47% of the population "pay no income tax."  This is technically true at the federal level, not because (as implied) they are lazy moochers, but because they make too little in wages (despite full-time employment) to pay the federal income tax or are senior citizens dependent on Social Security payments they earned from a lifetime of work.  More sinister, however, is the typical conservative sleight of hand that gives this argument its particular power.  For too many people, "no federal income taxes" means "no taxes."  But this is not a valid equation.  For even those who end up paying no federal income tax pay state taxes, highly regressive sales taxes, and  most importantly  payroll (i.e., Social Security) taxes, the last of these at a far higher rate than people in Mr. Romney's tax bracket.  Not only this, but Romney seems blissfully unaware  though I cynically suspect he is too intelligent not to be aware  of how much people at the top of the pyramid benefit from government largess: lower tax rates for investment income than for earned labor wages, oil and gas company subsidies, not to mention the hugely profitable tax deduction for home mortgage interest.  Considering the fact that Romney himself only paid 13% of his vast income last year in federal income taxes, he also hides the fact that he himself has benefited from favorable tax policy.  I wonder, does he himself feel "entitled" to such preferential policies?

As a member of the 47% club, I take offense at his suggestion  so obviously heart-felt  that such people as I are remiss in "tak[ing] personal responsibility" and "car[ing] for our lives."  How many people have been laid off of good paying jobs  many because of the "work" of entities like Romney's old Bain Capital  and have had to try to make ends meet by taking lower-paying jobs for which they are ill-suited or overqualified?  How many people have been devastated financially by illness  how dare, suggests Romney, that any should consider health care, or even protection from bankruptcy due to illness, a right?  I know no one who considers him- or herself as a "victim" or who relishes being dependent overmuch on government.  To be sure, such people exist (and one of the measures of a society is how well they work to transform such people into contributing members of that society).  But I am willing to bet that Romney himself, like all decent people, didn't take the same tack with his own children in training them to be self-sufficient.  What parent withholds support from his or her children ("You're on your own, kid") instead of giving them every opportunity  socially, educationally, financially   to succeed in life?  (Romney tacitly acknowledges this in his bone-headed advice to college students to borrow money from their parents if they need help to get an education rather than borrowing from the government.)  More fundamentally, the tack of painting all the lesser-off people in the country as shiftless burdens on society is yet another example of the black-and-white thinking, devoid of nuance, that characterizes so much "conservative" rhetoric these days.  I agree that steps need to be taken to ween many people off the dole.  But what I want to hear  from both Republicans and Democrats   is what they propose to do about it.  Talk about "good jobs," and vacuous promises to provide them, just will not do.  Unfortunately, I hear very little, from either Romney or Obama, that has any credibility (hint: I want to hear a plan about rebuilding America's industrial base in the face of globalism and job-killing new technology. Walmart and service jobs simply will not do.  What are needed are real jobs that pay living wages. Only such will help the inner cities of this country that have been devastated the last 50 years by the double whammy of deindustrialization and the futile "war on drugs." If one really believes in "family values," that is the least they could do).

Ultimately, however, what bothers me the most about Mr. Romney's speech is its coherence with the regnant conservative talking point about the supposed "culture of dependence" that is fostered by the more "liberal" policies supported by President Obama and the democracies of Europe.  Such talk always has struck me as based on self-serving pride and reflective of an arrogant dismissal of, and lack of compassion, for the "other," particularly the poor.  A few weeks ago my brother stated my inchoate thoughts on the matter succinctly and spot-on: "What is a "culture of dependency" if not a description of Christianity?"  Simply put, Christianity gives the lie to the American myth of the "rugged individual."  I am often mindful of a marvelous little verse written by St. Paul against the arrogant triumphalism of certain members of the church at Corinth who were given to prideful boasting: 
For who makes you different from one another? What do you have that you did not receive?  If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? (1 Cor 4:7)

This text ultimately played a large role in St. Augustine's devastating argument against Pelagius, and for good reason.  All of us who claim the name of Christ owe everything to God. Boasting as if we have made ourselves to differ runs aground against the jagged rocks of Paul's theology of grace (cf. Romans 11:6), which cuts us down to size even as it exalts the God who establishes us in our status through his unmerited largess.  And those who understand this can never again view others with contempt and niggardly lack of compassion.

I close with a snippet from a speech by George W. Bush, which he gave back in 1999:
There is another destructive mindset: the idea that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved. An approach with no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than “Leave us alone.”
Yet this is not who we are as Americans. We have always found our better selves in sympathy and generosity, both in our lives and in our laws. Americans will never write the epitaph of idealism. It emerges from our nature as a people, with a vision of the common good beyond profit and loss. Our national character shines in our compassion.
I am my brother's keeper, indeed.


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