Monday, September 17, 2012

The 47 Percent

A newly-released video captures Mitt Romney speaking to a group of wealthy campaign donors earlier this year. Romney explains to this audience that his campaign may as well write off about 47% of the population as hard-core Obama supporters.
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.
This cynical and divisive message is wrong on a number of levels. For one reason, to equate everyone whose income is below the threshold for federal taxation with Obama supporters, is not even factually accurate. Even if we could accept the repulsive suggestion that the country can be divided into the dependent have-nots hoping for more government handouts, and the independent producers of the country’s wealth who are only hoping that the government will not continue to sap more of that wealth away, we would still not be able to explain why so many of the 47% still support Romney. Lots of people who live on nothing but Social Security benefits support Romney. Lots of military families who live on nothing but government paychecks support Romney. Lots of people who depend on Medicare support Romney. Some have argued that Republican candidates obtain the support of people who might economically benefit more from Democratic programs because of Republican Party stands on social issues like abortion, gay marriage, gun rights, government support for religion, etc. To the extent that is true, it still undermines Romney’s simplistic message. But there are also plenty of people who don’t pay much in income taxes, but nevertheless support the Republican economic program because they believe in its economic principles.

Conversely, there are also plenty of people with high incomes who don’t need much in the way of unemployment insurance or Medicaid or housing allowances or even public schools, but nevertheless support President Obama. I’m sure Romney thinks these misguided well-off liberals are voting against their economic interests. Nevertheless, they exist in large numbers. And even though these people might never need food stamps themselves, they still strongly support the program because it accords with their own values or interests. Romney’s view that voters only consider their own selfish interests instead of the good of the entire society demeans both his own not so well-off supporters who might need unemployment insurance or college loans or Medicare, but still think the government spends and taxes too much, as well as his opponent’s well-off supporters who support generous social programs, and want the government to tax their own incomes at a higher rate. This view demeans his own candidacy most of all, because it proves that Romney only intends to represent the half of the country that he identifies as not having to depend on the government.

Romney’s division of the country into the dependents and the independents is wrong for an even more fundamental reason. You simply can’t divide the country that way. Like it or not, we are all dependent on the government. In many ways, the well-off might even be more dependent on government services than the less well-off. People who buy luxury cars still need to drive them on the public roads. Moreover, without a strong transportation network of roads and bridges and ports, built and maintained by government, companies would not be able to move their goods to market, or their workers to their jobs. Without public education, companies would not be able to obtain an educated work force, essential to their success. Who else is dependent on government? Let's talk about defense and other government contractors; and also subsidies to agricultural businesses and oil companies. And as long as Mr. Romney has brought up the Americans who pay no income taxes, we should not forget the favorable tax treatment for capital gains that allows multi-millionaires like Mitt Romney himself to pay a lower rate than many members of the 47%, who might not pay much in income tax, but do pay a hefty amount of payroll taxes, thus mostly paying for the entitlements that Romney decries.

Then there is the judicial system, where I have spent my whole career. Law enforcement benefits everyone. But who uses that public court system, and benefits from it, the most? In my experience, those with the most property to protect have the most need for courts that exist largely to protect property interests. We all rely on the enforceability of contracts, but that enforcement is more valuable as the stakes in contracts become larger. Take intellectual property as another example. Who benefits most from our country’s strong protection of patent, trademark and copyright? It’s not assembly line workers or low-paid service workers. It’s not even inventors and artists, who do benefit a lot, but not as much as pharmaceutical companies and computer and other advanced technology companies and agribusiness and media companies who obtain vast profits from these legal protections, furnished to them as a public benefit by the government.

Romney’s pitch to his wealthy donors would be more honest if he admitted that he is not really against government at all. Rather, he wants to maintain and strengthen those aspects of government that benefit the wealthy and those that benefit business. He wants to reduce the scope of programs that benefit the poor and middle class. But if Romney admitted his true program, he might find out that it’s not just the 47% to whom his program will lack appeal. It’s more like the 99%.

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