Ten Miles Square


August 02, 2012 10:39 AM Romney’s Zero Tolerance Approach to the Unsuccessful

By Michael Kinsley

Why does a typical bus driver in the U.S. earn a monthly income (after taxes) of $1,594, while a typical bus driver in Peru earns $325?

Why does an American airline pilot bring home $4,206 a month, while a Lithuanian doing what we hope is pretty much the same job with the same training has an average salary of only $1,674?

Well, the explanation is obvious, isn’t it? These foreigners just aren’t as smart as we Americans are, and they don’t work as hard. Because if they did — as Mitt Romney was just explaining in Israel — they would be as successful as we are. And that’s pretty darned successful. And they aren’t.

Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, worries that Americans are losing their appreciation of success, as evidenced by President Barack Obama’s desire to reduce the rewards of success by raising taxes on high incomes. Romney sees in this not just a bigger tax bill for successful people but an insult as well. An alternative perspective is that any successful person who feels personally insulted by a request from the president to share a bit of it is, in the immortal words of Liberace, “crying all the way to the bank” (or, to quote someone else, a “master of the fancied slight”).

Dueling Insults

You might also ask yourself: If Obama is insulting successful people by suggesting that their success doesn’t necessarily result entirely from their own hard work and brainpower, doesn’t that mean that Romney is insulting the vast majority of folks who are unsuccessful (by Romney’s exalted standard) by implying that they are lazy and stupid? If your success is entirely your own achievement, then your lack of success is entirely your own fault.

How would Romney explain the fact that the average monthly salary of a baker in the U.S. is $1,461, whereas in Romania it’s $276. Is the bread in this country so much better than bread elsewhere? Not in my experience. (These figures, from worldsalaries.org, use 2005 dollars, adjusted for the actual purchasing power of various currencies.) Furthermore, consider those countries where many occupations are paid better than in the U.S. A baker in Australia has an average income of $1,865 a month. A German airline pilot earns $8,448. How can this be? Can there be countries where people are smarter and harder-working than in the United States of America? The Romney theory of success allows for no other explanation.

In recent days, Republicans have been beating Obama about the head over his “you didn’t build that” remark, with which he suggested that successful people didn’t get where they got on their own. Many of my colleagues in the commentariat, and some Democratic politicians on the stump (most notably the U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts) have pointed to all the ways in which any citizen’s personal success is aided by government. Highways, education, medical research, etc. It’s all true.

The argument makes me a bit nervous, though, because it is often invoked to justify government spending that ought to either stand on its own feet or be eliminated. Sample argument: We ought to subsidize passenger trains because we subsidize buses through maintaining the Interstate Highway System and airlines in various ways. Or, farm price supports, which started with the New Deal, must be maintained because sometime around 1952 they stopped being a notorious boondoggle and blossomed into an honorable tradition. And so on.

Prosperous Countries

However, as the international comparisons demonstrate, you don’t have to favor any particular form of government spending in order to reject the notion that a person’s success is, and in a capitalist system should be, built entirely on his or her own efforts. The main societal subsidy to your neighborhood success story — the reason an American hotel chambermaid (of either sex) supports a family on a median salary of $1,251 a month, but a Brazilian must do it for $332 — is the privilege of working in a prosperous country.

That prosperity is the compounded result of previous prosperity. Somewhere back there, it may be credited to somebody’s hard work and special talent. But it’s not anybody alive today. (And why talent, as opposed to work, deserves special reward is a good question for another time.)

The only way the most brilliant and/or hard-working butcher or baker or candlestick maker in most of the rest of the world can enjoy an income like that of his or her U.S. counterpart is to move here. And we know how much that idea excites Romney and the Republicans.

And what about the inventor or the entrepreneur? The candlestick maker who discovers a better way to make candles — or a way to dispense with candles completely? Perhaps by inventing the electric light bulb? Even in proposing to raise their taxes a bit, Obama loses no opportunity to praise these godlike creatures. Romney, as one himself, can barely contain his enthusiasm for the very successful, whatever the basis for their success. They’re not all entrepreneurs, and even the entrepreneurs owe some large chunk of their success to those who have gone before, like Thomas Edison. They don’t need more tax breaks. If anything is its own reward, it’s success.

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  • Rich on August 03, 2012 10:27 AM:

    As is often the case, Kinsley misses an obvious point. The Pervian's standard of living may or may not be better than the American's. Housing costs more here, so does food, etc. Comparing absolutes in wages or salary is kindof irrelevant. The real problem is the suprlus meaning that's being attached to a single standard (wages) which like most things in a market economy are subject to distortions of the market, as opposed to individual initiative or worth.

  • KTinOhio on August 03, 2012 11:08 AM:

    Not so ... see parenthetical note in sixth paragraph.

    (These figures, from worldsalaries.org, use 2005 dollars, adjusted for the actual purchasing power of various currencies.)

  • Greg in FL on August 03, 2012 11:55 AM:

    Kinsley's point, as I see it, is that the idealized notion of monetary reward being solely due to an individual's abilities quickly leads to absurd conclusions when applied broadly. And therefore the whole foundation of Romney's economic arguments and policy proposals is called into question.

  • moderate on August 03, 2012 3:45 PM:

    i don't get the impression that Romney is intolerant or so out of touch. No more than any other washington politician.

    Romney was a good business man who made even bigger assets than he inherited from his rich dad with Harvard dual degrees which you can't get without intelligence and hard work.
    He was a decent governor who balanced budgets working with democrats, passed universal health care, respected women's rights working with planned parenthood and sensible gun control.
    i support his ideas to reduce government spending to be cut to 20% of GDP (clinton era average), free trades, charter schools, regulatory reform.

    I just don't think Romney is ready/fit for presidency.
    He seems to be too timid to be a tough leader of the free world.
    Bush and Palin were decent, popular governors, too.

    I want a republican leader who can stand up to tea partiers and racists while being respectable in the world stage. that is not Romney. But i don't dislike him.

    i will vote for Obama, though. I don't think Romney is bad. I just think Obama is better on balance.

  • Steve on August 03, 2012 9:04 PM:

    There is only one reason to vote for Obama, who is really just George W Bush Lite.

    Two words: Supreme Court.

    Beyond that, in the words of the late George C Wallace, there's not a dime's worth of difference.

  • tsts on August 03, 2012 9:48 PM:

    "How would Romney explain the fact that the average monthly salary of a baker in the U.S. is $1,461, whereas in Romania itís $276?"

    That is easy, at least if you takes Romney's perspective: the bakers in the US are not more productive, but they are earning more that their Romanian counterparts because the really productive people in the US (the true leaders, the Galts, the Romneys) are so much more productive than those in other countries. The bakers and busdrivers in the US are just mooching off these productive people via evil redistribution, and Romney will do everything to change that and push them down to the fair, the correct, the Romanian level.

    Don't get me wrong, I abhor this. But the issue here is not inconsistency in his views, it is the views themselves.

  • T-Rex on August 04, 2012 9:40 AM:

    It all makes perfect sense to Ayn Randians. Why did so many people suddenly become unemployed in the summer and fall of 2008? Why did so many tax-paying homeowners suddenly find themselves homeless? Simple -- as Charles Murray and Ben Stein have helpfully explained, those people are too lazy to work. They lack family values, don't go to church often enough, and generally come fromt the shallow end of the gene pool, or in Murray's world-view, the pointy end at the left side of the bell curve.

    In the words of Captcha, "ramestch JUSTICE!" Let there be yargle bargle honk blat to reward the job creators and bargle "romingre bloody," to punish and incentivize the moochers and looters.

  • T-Rex on August 04, 2012 10:56 AM:

    moderate: In the Clinton years, it was a lot easier to keep spending to 20% of GDP because the GDP was a lot higher. We were in a boom then. We're in a depression now, and the only thing that will get us out of it is government spending, not tax breaks for people who will promptly put the money into Cayman Islands accounts. As for a Republican who can stand up to the tea party, there is no such creature. They've been purged from the party, labeled RINO's and primaried from the right. Your Republican party no longer exists.

  • Anonymous on August 13, 2012 5:18 PM:

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  • Rockerbabe on August 15, 2012 3:09 PM:

    Most successful business persons get a lot of assistance on the journey to being successful. Small Business Adm loans, venture capital loans, money and free assistance
    from family and friends and tax breaks galore.

    No one and I mean no one is an island unto themselves and we all need others for our success to become evident. Romney and Ryan really have never had to do the dirty work of actually working a job that didn't pay a 6+ figure salary. They have gotten by on their white boy connections. So when they protest about President Obama, I just yawn and I don't vote republican any more. Can't trust them with anything.

  • akindependent on August 25, 2012 12:07 AM:

    I don't know why this isn't a big part of Romney's Bain story: when Bain extracted big bucks from the companies it bankrupted, it shifted the cost of the workers' pensions onto taxpayers through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. Yep, Mr. Small Government took the profits and saddled the federal government--you and me--with the cost of paying for the pensions those people had worked for. We subsidized Mitt's fortune, he sure didn't build it himself.