You’ve certainly heard about this by now:
During a private fundraiser earlier this year, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told a small group of wealthy contributors what he truly thinks of all the voters who support President Barack Obama. He dismissed these Americans as freeloaders who pay no taxes, who don’t assume responsibility for their lives, and who think government should take care of them. Fielding a question from a donor about how he could triumph in November, Romney replied:
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.
Romney went on: “[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.”
(MJ released part two of the video where Mitt says a two-state solution is unworkable in Israel because of the Palestinian commitment to violence. I don’t know if this is embarrassing as much as it is true.)
Naturally, the Left is proclaiming that this is the end of the election. Meh. I thought about this a lot last night while sitting on my roof, clinging to my gun and my Torah. And really, gaffes don’t make elections. This may rally the Democrats a little bit. But I seriously doubt there is anyone in America right now who is saying, “You know, I was going to vote for Mitt Romney, but then he said something I didn’t like on a secret video while meeting the fund-raisers. So to heck with that guy.”
More germaine, I think, is just how wrong Mitt Romney’s comment was. He’s been tripped up by a Republican talking point. 47% of Americans pay no income taxes. But that’s not the entire picture. Ezra Klein:
For what it’s worth, this division of “makers” and “takers” isn’t true. Among the Americans who paid no federal income taxes in 2011, 61 percent paid payroll taxes — which means they have jobs and, when you account for both sides of the payroll tax, they paid 15.3 percent of their income in taxes, which is higher than the 13.9 percent that Romney paid. Another 22 percent were elderly.
When you break it down, only about 7% of the American public is poor, young and pays no income or payroll tax (although they still pay sales tax). Granted, the payroll tax is supposed to pay for people’s own retirement and healthcare. But we all know both are pay-as-you-go. And contra the received wisdom, the poor vote at lower rates than the middle class and wealthy.
Moreover, if you want someone to blame for 47% of Americans not paying income tax, you can blame … wait for it … President Bush. His tax cuts basically eliminated income taxes for millions of Americans — he boasted about it! Klein again:
Part of the reason so many Americans don’t pay federal income taxes is that Republicans have passed a series of very large tax cuts that wiped out the income-tax liability for many Americans. That’s why, when you look at graphs of the percent of Americans who don’t pay income taxes, you see huge jumps after Ronald Reagan’s 1986 tax reform and George W. Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. So whenever you hear that half of Americans don’t pay federal income taxes, remember: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush helped build that.
Here’s where I think Klein and the Democrats are missing a critical point. This creation of an income-tax-free class is why any tax reform has to broad-based. Raising taxes on the rich may satisfy the class warriors out there, but it won’t close the deficit enough. If you want revenue, you’re going to have to expand to tax burden to a larger swath of the American public.
Leaving out the blame and the details, however, is Romney’s general point true? Are we dividing between “moochers” and workers in this country? After all, more than half of Americans get money from the government, right?
Well, yeah, but. If you’re going to defined that as the “moocher” class, you’re throwing in tens of millions of seniors who paid into Medicare/Social Security and are now, quite reasonably, taking benefits out. You’re throwing in the military who are earning their keep (and then some). If we’re talking purely about any anti-poverty public assistance, we’re looking at about 4.4 million on welfare, 40 million on food stamps, 50 million on Medicaid. Those are not separate groups, however, as many draw from more than one program and many of those receiving food stamps/Medicaid are, in fact working. I suspect the number of truly dependent people — excluding military, retirees and working poor — is closer to Ezra Klein’s 7% than to Mitt Romney’s 47%.
Now, it is true that welfare rolls and food stamps have soared in recent years. That tends to happen in a recession and a jobless recovery. But while Obama deserves a lot blame, you can also thank Republicans for that, too. The big expansion in foodstamp eligibility happened in 2002, under Bush and the GOP Congress. The biggest expansion of Medicaid, so far, came under George W. Bush (Obamacare will expand it more, but not until 2014).
But there’s something deeper than that. As Matt Welch points out, the idea of a dependency class is contra everything the Republicans have been saying for the last five decades:
This is economic determinism at its worst, going against the very message the Republican Party was trying to sell to the world during its quadrennial national convention last month. Over and over again, we heard speakers there talk about how their immigrant grandparents came to this country, worked hard, built “that,” never asked for a handout, and as a result their descendants have enjoyed the American Dream of ever-upward mobility. What the 53/47 dividing line says, to the direct contrary, is that income status is a permanent political condition, defrocking all Americans of agency and independent thought.
Most people at some point will be part of the 47 percent (indeed, nearly most already are). When my friends and I were comparatively poor, as people often are in their 20s and early 30s, we (for the most part) didn’t “believe” that we were “victims,” didn’t “believe the government has a responsibility” to care for us, and didn’t vote for Democratic political candidates “no matter what.” We mostly took personal responsibility and care for our lives, and acted according to our idiosyncratic individual values and whims.
I should theoretically be the target audience for this stuff. I never took out a federally guaranteed student loan, never enjoyed the mortgage-interest deduction; I worry all the time about government spending and entitlements, and I am not unfamiliar with the looter/moocher formulation. But this kind of reductionism does not reflect individualism (as David Brooks charges), it rejects individualism, by insisting that income tax is destiny. It judges U.S. residents not as humans but as productive (or unproductive) units. (Though as long as people are thinking that way, is there any category of resident less taker-y than illegal immigrants with fake Social Security cards who file income taxes?) And it prematurely valorizes one class of government-gobbling Americans while prematurely writing off another.
Most of us on this blog have, at some point, been part of that 47%. Most of us went to college and had little income, or did internships or worked or way up through the ranks or were in the military. That 47%, as I have said over and over and over again when Democrats babble about income inequality, is not a static population. People move in and out all the time. The United States has very strong class mobility. I was in that 47% when I was in grad school, even though I was working 60 hours a week and taking home an income. Now I’m in the 53%. I’ve probably put away too much for retirement to go back into the 47% when I get older (assuming I retire), but I could move back there at some point. Probably everyone who reads this blog has gone through similar transitions.
And that’s really the bizarre thing about this tape business: by jumping up and down with squeals of joy about this gaffe, the Left is missing the forest for the trees. They are so eager to label the GOP as uncaring Monty Burns types, they’ve forgotten — AGAIN! — the massive expansion in welfare eligibility, massive increases in spending and massive tax cuts for people who don’t pay taxes that happened under the Republicans. They are — again — criticizing Republicans for the exact opposite of what Republicans actually did. The are — again — missing the point about class mobility.
Final word to Nick Gillespie:
Let’s not mince words: President Barack Obama is one lucky bastard.
Exactly. I know people will bleat about the media, but Romney’s press conference after the remarks came out was hardly any better. There were reports, from Republican sources, of infighting in the campaign last week. The Romney campaign seemingly can’t go for 24 hours without stepping on a rake and smacking themselves in the face.
But, no, MSM, it’s not going to decide the election. You can make all the secret videos you want — this is still going to come down to who people think will get the economy moving (and yes, Part V of my voting post is coming up).