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September 19, 2012 10:00 AM What Mitt Romney Doesn’t Get About Responsibility

By Ezra Klein

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Mitt Romney told a room full of donors.

“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.”

All this can be written off as just a bit of self-flattery. Imagine you’re Romney, the Republican presidential nominee: For the past year you’ve been unable to grab a clear lead in the polls against an incompetent who has been unable to get unemployment below 8 percent or reach a reasonable debt- reduction deal with Congress. Which would you prefer to believe? That you’re not good enough, not smart enough and doggone it, people just don’t like you? Or that the incumbent Democrat has effectively bought off half the country with food stamps and free health care?

What Romney said next is harder to explain.

“These are people who pay no income tax,” he continued, “47 percent of Americans pay no income tax.”

Let’s do away with the ridiculous myth that 47 percent of Americans are tax-evading moochers. Of the 46 percent of Americans who were expected to pay no federal income tax in 2011, more than 60 percent of them were working and contributing payroll taxes — which means they paid a higher effective tax rate on their income than Romney does — and an additional 20 percent were elderly. So more than 80 percent were either working or past retirement age.

Even Worse

Still, for my money, the worst of Romney’s comments were
these: “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never
convince them that they should take personal responsibility and
care for their lives.”


When he said this, Romney didn’t just write off half the
country behind closed doors. He also confirmed the worst
suspicions about who he is: an entitled rich guy with no
understanding of how people who aren’t rich actually live.


The thing about not having much money is you have to take
much more responsibility for your life. You can’t pay people to
watch your kids or clean your house or fix your meals. You can’t
necessarily afford a car or a washing machine or a home in a
good school district. That’s what money buys you: goods and
services that make your life easier.


That’s what money has bought Romney, too. He’s a guy who
sold his dad’s stock to pay for college, who built an elevator
to ensure easier access to his multiple cars and who was able to
support his wife’s decision to be a stay-at-home mom. That’s
great! That’s the dream.


The problem is that he doesn’t seem to realize how
difficult it is to focus on college when you’re also working
full time, how much planning it takes to reliably commute to
work without a car, or the agonizing choices faced by families
in which both parents work and a child falls ill. The working
poor haven’t abdicated responsibility for their lives. They’re
drowning in it.


In their book “Poor Economics,” the poverty researchers
Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo try to explain why the poor
around the world so often make decisions that befuddle the rich.


Getting By

Their answer, in part, is this: The poor use up an enormous
amount of their mental energy just getting by. They’re not
dumber or lazier or more interested in being dependent on the
government. They’re just cognitively exhausted:


“Our real advantage comes from the many things that we take
as given. We live in houses where clean water gets piped in —
we do not need to remember to add Chlorin to the water supply
every morning. The sewage goes away on its own — we do not
actually know how. We can (mostly) trust our doctors to do the
best they can and can trust the public health system to figure
out what we should and should not do. … And perhaps most
important, most of us do not have to worry where our next meal
will come from. In other words, we rarely need to draw upon our
limited endowment of self-control and decisiveness, while the
poor are constantly being required to do so.”


Banerjee and Duflo’s argument has been increasingly
confirmed by the nascent science of “decision fatigue.” Study
after study
shows that the more we need to worry about in a day,
the harder we have to work to make good decisions.


As economist Jed Friedman wrote in an online post for the
World Bank, “The repeated trade-offs confronting the poor in
daily decision making — i.e. ‘should I purchase a bit more food
or a bit more fertilizer?’ — occupy cognitive resources that
would instead lay fallow for the wealthy when confronted with
the same decision. The rich can afford both a bit more food and
a bit more fertilizer, no decision is necessary.”


The point here isn’t that Romney is unfamiliar with
cutting-edge work in cognitive psychology. It’s that he misses
even the intuitive message of this work, the part most of us
know without reading any studies: It’s really, really hard to be
poor. That’s because the poorer you are, the more personal
responsibility you have to take.


Romney, apparently, thinks it’s folks like him who’ve
really had it hard. “I have inherited nothing,” the son of a
former auto executive and governor told the room of donors.
“Everything Ann and I have, we earned the old-fashioned way.”
This is a man blind to his own privilege.


Which is his right. But that sentiment informs his policy
platform
— which calls for sharply cutting social services for
the poor to pay for huge tax cuts for the rich — and it
suggests he’s trying to make policy with a worldview that’s
completely backward.

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Ezra Klein is a columnist for Bloomberg View.

Comments

  • LaFollette Progressive on September 20, 2012 11:55 AM:

    "'I have inherited nothing,' the son of a
    former auto executive and governor told the room of donors.
    'Everything Ann and I have, we earned the old-fashioned way.' This is a man blind to his own privilege."

    This is the most important point.

    Mitt Romney is either unable, or unwilling, to concede the difference between a scion of wealth and political power who voluntarily gives away his inheritance because he's already grown fabulously wealthy by capitalizing on his privileged prep-school upbringing... and someone who actually worked his way up from nothing.

    That right there tells you everything you need to know about his capacity to govern this country.

  • Lance on September 20, 2012 1:33 PM:

    Ezra, you're missing the big picture here.

    Romney didn't insult a minority of the American Public.

    He insulted the majority.

    First, in 2011 46.4% of American HOUSEHOLDS didn't pay Federal Income Taxes. Many of them don't because they have spouses and minor dependent children. That takes the number of Americans in those non-Federal Income Tax paying households to nearly 50%.

    Second, Romney conflated these non-Federal Income Tax paying households with Americans dependent on Federal Government Aid. The Heritage Foundation figures that maybe 41% of Americans are obtaining some sort of Aid. But that group can include Americans in households pay Federal Income Taxes. Thus the combined total of the two overlapping groups is already above 50%.

    Third, Romney conflate those dependent on the Federal Government and those non-Federal Income Tax paying households with the base of the Democratic party, reliable Democratic voters and Democratic leaning Independents who won't be sold Romney's bill of goods. But you and I KNOW there are lots Federal Income Tax paying non-dependent Democrats.

    You, Me, Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, etc.,

    We are now WAY OVER 50% of Americans whom Romney has insulted.

  • Mitch on September 20, 2012 1:41 PM:

    "The thing about not having much money is you have to take much more responsibility for your life."

    Thank you, Ezra.

    This reminds me of my grandmother. Abandoned by her husband while pregnant with their fifth child, she was a poor country mama living in a holler in Appalachia (literally) and never managed to get any child support out of my "grandfather" (I don't claim the bastard). She had no choice but to work long hours while struggling to raise five young children alone (one of whom has severe health issues to this day).

    She worked at a Mom & Pop grocery store owned by a family friend, who was the only person who would hire her. Who wants to hire a single mother of 5 kids, with no real education? She never made more than minimum wage, because her boss was also struggling to get by. She never had any opportunities to advance herself. It was all she could do just to remain afloat. And, yes, she relied on government assistance to get by.

    Without it, what kind of life would she and her children have ever had?

    Was my grandmother irresponsible? Was she lazy? Did she EVER fail to take responsibility for her life, and the lives of her children?

    Hell no. And I will gladly step outside with anyone who suggests otherwise.

    So it breaks my heart to hear her two sons parrot these disgusting Republican talking points (good sons of the south, that they are).

    "Where would YOU be," I ask them, "Without help from Uncle Sam? Without food stamps? Where would your sister be without help to pay for her medical care? We can't afford it, even now, even all of us men together."

    The answer is usually, "Well, we aren't like those lazy, inner-city people* who take advantage of the system."

    And that's about what it boils down to. The GOP loves to play it's "Us vs. Them" games. And far too many people fall for it.

    So, thank you, Ezra, for reminding people that being poor is a constant struggle, a tightrope walk with no safety net. I wish that more people would listen and understand.

    *I'm being polite here. You KNOW what they actually say to me.

  • Jerry Elsea on September 20, 2012 3:36 PM:

    Exactly right, Ezra. Another thing about not having much money (this is implicit in your essay) is how expensive it is. It can mean needing a loan for an essential item costing just several hundred dollars (like a clothes washer), or paying a late fee on the heating bill, or betting that with minimal maintenance your heap of a car will last a little longer, only to lose that bet.

    Those are just a few examples of the extra responsibilities and costs routinely burdening low-income households. Other contributors to this forum can cite more.

    No serious candidate for U.S. president should enter the fray without first spending at least a week at a food bank, listening to the clients' stories and hearing their requests: "Double bag my order, please. I gotta carry these groceries home on the bus." "Can you step on it? I got a job interview in just half an hour."

    Rubbing elbows with the poor would have given Mitt Romney a wealth of useful information, widening his world view in the bargain.

    President Obama's experience along those lines? Community organizing, scorned by his foes, provides a clear view of the poor and their travails. It evokes more admiration than pity.


  • j12345 on September 20, 2012 6:40 PM:

    It is strange to see people who have so much be so very angry at people who have so little. It suggests a deep emptiness in their souls.

  • lb 07 on September 20, 2012 11:37 PM:

    Time and time again you hear Republicans blanket smearing anyone who thinks the social safety net is a good thing of wanting to be completely dependent and have someone else feed and clothe them and their children. It completely ignores how much the safety net improves life for everyone, even those who are certain they will never need it. Isn't it worth slightly more in taxes so you can line up for a movie without having starving five-year-olds accosting you for your half-finished popcorn?

  • Anonymous on September 21, 2012 12:01 AM:

    "My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them..."

    That's why government shouldn't be "run like a business" and being a CEO is not good preparation for being President.

    In business, it makes perfect sense to focus on your target market and to ignore groups unlikely to buy your product. It makes perfect sense for Mitt Romney the businessman to think this way. But the President has to be presicent of all market segements.

  • Ed Thibodeau on September 21, 2012 12:03 AM:

    "My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them..."

    That's why government shouldn't be "run like a business" and being a CEO is not good preparation for being President.

    In business, it makes perfect sense to focus on your target market and to ignore groups unlikely to buy your product. It makes perfect sense for Mitt Romney the businessman to think this way. But the President has to be presicent of all market segements.

  • mozez on October 05, 2012 5:15 AM:

    was there a homeless girl that worked her way through collage? no home ,no childen,no mom or dad, nothing. and still made her way throught it all.sounds like she made up her mind and did it.