First things first: I don’t have a problem with wealthy people. I certainly don’t think being wealthy disqualifies a person from being a great leader; some of our most accomplished Presidents have come from money. The Kennedys were practically gilded, and yet they were compassionate leaders, concerned with the welfare of the whole nation. So why is Mitt Romney’s wealth so troubling? The problem is not that he is an enormously, astonishingly wealthy man – it’s the attitude he has towards his wealth, and the way it has shaped his world view. There are several different facets of this: entitlement, obliviousness, and a lack of empathy, bordering on scorn – aka, “I built it,” “Let them eat cake,” and “These are people who think they’re entitled to health care, to food, to housing!”
I Built It! Mine! Mine! All Mine! I Owe the World NOTHING!
I’ve been meaning to write about Romney’s overwhelming sense of entitlement for a while now, and his remarks in the video leaked last week presented the perfect opportunity, but there was so much else there to address… News marches on. Romney was on 60 Minutes last night, saying more ridiculous, unforgivable things. Still, I really need to say my last word on the fundraiser video – I have to address the line that upset me more than all the rest. It’s a nothing line, in some ways, part of his introduction before he takes questions. It certainly hasn’t gotten the press that his infamous “47 percent” remark did:
By the way, both my dad and Ann’s dad did quite well in their life, but when they came to the end of their lives, and, and passed along inheritances to Ann and to me, we both decided to give it all away. So, I had inherited nothing. Everything that Ann and I have we earned the old-fashioned way, and that’s by hard work.
Full transcript at Mother Jones.
I don’t doubt that Romney gave away his inheritance from his father, let’s be clear. (Though it is incredibly charitable of me to trust anything he says, given his habit of lying about anything and everything.) By the time his father passed away in 1995, Mitt was already a multi-millionaire. What boggles my mind is that Mitt doesn’t see the privilege that has shaped every moment of his life. He takes full credit for his own success. In most people, this would just be obnoxious and narcissistic, but given that he’s running for president it becomes more troubling. By being blind to his own privilege, Romney is oblivious to the realities that constrain and obstruct the lives of the other 99 percent of the American people. I’m not begrudging Mitt Romney his wealth, just his inability to acknowledge that he was dealt a very good hand.
So what if he didn’t inherit huge sums of money? He grew up here:
He went to private prep school before attending Brigham Young University and then Harvard, and then embarked on his illustrious career bleeding other people’s businesses dry for huge personal profits. (If you haven’t read Matt Taibbi’s excellent article in Rolling Stone about Romney’s career at Bain, stop, drop everything, and read it now. Then share it with everyone you know who thinks Romney would be good for America because he understands business.) Did he work his ass off, in school and in business? Absolutely. Did the fact that his father was George Romney – wealthy automobile executive, former Governor of Michigan, serious contender for the Presidency – open doors for him every step of the way? Of course. To say nothing of all the doors that simply are open to handsome, rich white men in our society and are locked or even invisible to the rest of us. To acknowledge only his own effort, and not the privilege he was born into, or luck along the way, is to pretend that everyone has the same opportunities.
This is important to understanding the Republican’s mentality this year. They designed their entire convention around intentionally misunderstanding Obama’s suggestion that they didn’t build their fortunes alone, as if existing in a society is an anathema to them. I suppose it is. Society requires sacrifice, shared goals, compromise, and a sense of responsibility for one another. The GOP prefers the radical Randian vision of extreme social Darwinism – the poor don’t deserve a hand up; they had the same chance as anyone. Look at Mitt Romney, after all. He didn’t have any help from his dad, but he worked hard, and now he’s a billionaire! Why can’t you do that, kids growing up in the projects? Why don’t you start an investment firm, single mother of three? Why aren’t you growing your stock portfolio, college graduate who pays a thousand dollars a month in student loan debt?
It’s slander. Slander against the millions of people who work day and night at crap jobs and still can’t cover their basic needs. Slander against immigrants – documented or undocumented – who work backbreaking days harvesting crops so that all of us can eat. Slander against their bright, articulate children who have no chance to go to college because they fear deportation for themselves or their parents. Slander against people who worked for forty years for a company just to see their 401K evaporate in a Wall Street shell game. Slander against every single person who didn’t have the keys to Wall Street handed to them as a birthright. But Mitt Romney really doesn’t see it that way.
“Oh, you were born with a silver spoon,” you know, “You never had to earn anything,” and so forth. And, and frankly, I was born with a silver spoon, which is the greatest gift you could have, which is to get born in America. I’ll tell ya, there is—95 percent of life is set up for you if you’re born in this country.
Yes – yes, it is, but it isn’t set up the same for everyone. I don’t think Mitt Romney can accept that, anymore than his super-wealthy donors can. They peevishly need to believe they are entitled to have so much more than the rest of us by virtue of their hard work – even if their wealth came at the cost of thousands of jobs lost for other Americans (seriously, go read that Rolling Stone article). The “ruling class” used to have some sense of responsibility toward their community, some sense of true citizenship, that they’ve lost. They don’t want legacies anymore, they simply want more for themselves. They can’t even acknowledge the unevenness of the playing field, because that would challenge their sense of entitlement. No, they insist, THEY built that, and don’t you dare suggest they don’t deserve every blessed penny of it.
Romney/Ryan 2012: All the Noblesse, None of the Oblige.