“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.
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.
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