Last week, I watched the entire 68-minute video of Mitt Romney speaking at a Republican fundraiser — the event where he talked about his perceptions of those Americans who pay no federal income tax.
The fundraiser was a small, intimate gathering of about 35 people seated around joined tables grouped into a large square — but open in the middle — with Romney located at the head. While the guests ate dinner, Romney stood and spoke conversationally about many issues. Guests periodically asked questions or good-naturedly added wry or helpful comments to his presentation.
Throughout the event, Romney was relaxed, human, witty and humorous. He spoke about his father, who was born in Mexico, and made a joke about wishing he were Latino — to help him with electoral demographics — that contained just the right blend of self-consciousness and irony, and the sort of black humor, laugh-at-ourselves relief that is sometimes necessary to counter the sometimes tyrannical absurdities of life.
The joke was aimed at himself, not Latinos. The guests laughed at the thought of the mild, reserved, Mormon Romney having the warmth, soul and ease of the best Latin culture. I mention this joke because some Romney detractors are picking at it. That’s like relentless Obama critics who insist every move the president makes is a threat to the Constitution, or an attempt to impose socialism. Both sides need to give the hysteria a rest, and focus on the actual policy differences of the two candidates.
The real controversy that came out of the fundraiser video — one that we can learn from — stems from Romney’s description and characterizations of Americans who pay no federal income taxes. Here, I think he looked misinformed and limited in both real-world experience and in imagination.
He said, referring to 47 percent of the American people, “There are 47 percent who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that 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’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.
“These are people who pay no income tax. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Romney delivered these statements in a very evenhanded and professorial manner, not an angry one, and his matter-of-factness suggested that his beliefs in this area are a settled matter — that these perceptions form a part of his worldview.
And that’s the problem. For the reality around this issue (who pays taxes) is far more complicated than Romney describes.
It’s just dead wrong to generalize about people who need help or government assistance. It’s certainly true that deadbeats and lazy people exist, and some of them receive welfare checks. It’s also true that public assistance programs must be designed as carefully as possible so as not to undermine individual motivation and initiative.
But Romney’s worldview that only losers are not successful, that people who are barely scraping by (and thus not paying income tax) are not trying hard enough, and that personal irresponsibility is widespread is inaccurate.
Most of the 47 percent of Americans paying no income tax are relatively poor, earning less than $30,000 a year (that’s 60 million households). And most of them work and pay local, state, sales, property and payroll taxes.
Many of the 47 percent receive marriage, children, education, military or earned-income tax credits, all of which act to reduce an individual’s tax exposure. And 16 million are seniors whose income is too low to be taxable.
Furthermore, public assistance during this recession has expanded. Unemployment benefits and food stamps especially have been extended to millions of new recipients — an obvious consequence of millions of layoffs.
Romney’s comments are very careless, and incomplete. He seems like a man whose worldview has been shaped overly exclusively by his own experiences.
Perhaps he cannot see the lives of others clearly because he may not see his own life clearly. He says that everything he has came from hard work after starting with nothing. He may not recognize as advantages the advantages he had. So it is quite possible that he cannot credit as difficult obstacles the disadvantages that others — with far worse beginnings than his — have to overcome.
Working hard and having personal responsibility are absolute requirements for every citizen, regardless of station. But if Romney were to accompany most members of the 47 percent through their typical workweeks, he might be impressed by their labors, endurance, reliability, stoicism and self-reliance.
This country has major problems. We’ve got to create millions of jobs, stimulate the economy, reduce private and public debt, and address energy and environmental issues. Although neither Romney nor Obama will admit it one month before the election, the future is likely to be very tough, and taxes on every income class are likely to rise — if we intend to pursue economic and environmental sustainability both domestically and globally.
It is important to know who pays what taxes (and who doesn’t), and why. Payment participation rates reflect both the health of the economy (bad today) and the objectives of long-standing, bipartisan tax policy. Change either one of those factors, and we’ll change participation rates. But for Romney to say that there exists a big, mooching, irresponsible segment of Americans that is exploiting the rest of us is just wrong and, ironically, intellectually lazy.
Brian T. Watson is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.