February 17, 2012

Equal opportunity offender

Mitt Romney misunderstands the relationship between hard work and success.

In preparation for Super Tuesday, perhaps the most important day of the presidential primaries (which, in case you were wondering, is on March 6, and is no less super than it is a Tuesday), I propose that we take a look back at one of the most fascinating candidates in GOP history. Not Rick Perry (though he was a Democrat until 1989) or Newt Gingrich (though he helped impeach President Clinton for his nefarious recreations while engaging in his own).

No, I’m talking about the candidate who’s bound to win. The candidate who looks like he should play the president in The West Wing. The candidate whose inconsistencies make him my favorite anyone-but-Romney pick.

That’s right: Mitt Romney. Sure, he’s peculiarly presidential, but the man wears so many hats that, well, you just never know.

Most of us first became familiar with Romney as governor of Massachusetts. We remember Governor Romney for signing into law the most progressive and efficient statewide health insurance plan to date, a piece of legislation that would go on to provide the template for so-called “Obamacare.” His signatory precedent notwithstanding, Candidate Romney would go on to criticize Obamacare, only to once more argue in its favor.

If you’ve read anything by New York Times columnist Gail Collins within the past two years, you might also remember Romney as the man notorious for driving to Canada with his dog strapped to the roof of his car. The dog defecated in fear—but then again, wouldn’t you?

Nowadays, Romney is gaining a bit of a different reputation that may be alienating key voting demographics that stuck by their man despite his dithering and animal cruelty. First, there are his notorious statements about the nature of personhood and poverty in these United States. Statements like: “Corporations are people, my friend. Of course they are, everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people! Where do you think it goes? Yes, pockets. People’s pockets!” (To some extent, he’s right—though the past four decades have seen more and more money go to fewer, better-tailored pockets.)

Or: “I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich; they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of the America, the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”

Though it’s nice to know that Romney isn’t concerned with the “very rich,” his suggestion that over 90 percent of Americans are in the middle class is a gross overstatement. At least 15.1 percent of Americans live below the poverty line as of 2010—and, as Romney himself knows, that figure is up from 14.3 percent in 2009, marking the third consecutive annual increase in the national poverty rate.

Then there’s this gem: “I like being able to fire people.” Not to mention that one great joke of his: “I’m unemployed.” Romney sounds like someone who can understand what those 90–95 percent of Americans (at 8.3 percent unemployment—but he can relate!) are going through.

But then…then, there were his tax returns.

Plugging 2010’s median household income into Slate magazine’s “Mitt Romney Calculator,” we’re told that, in 2010, “Mitt Romney made $50,599 in 20 hours 27 minutes and 45 seconds.” It would take someone at the median level of income 428 years, 1 month, 5 days, 10 hours, 46 minutes, and 56 seconds to make what Romney made in one year.

But, even then, Romney still pays lower taxes—just 13.9 percent in 2010 and 15.4 percent in 2012. Romney could have used his tax returns as an opportunity to advocate lower taxes for everyone, making for the “equality of opportunity” that the United States has been playing up since its birth. Like his socio-economic colleague Warren Buffett, Romney could have argued for the simplification of the tax code, for the elimination of the loopholes and pitfalls that allow multi-millionaires to pay a lower percentage than does the “very heart of America” whose support is so very valuable to him.

Nope. Instead, Romney opted to criticize the media for downplaying the fruits of his hard work. Despite being in one of the lowest tax brackets in the country, he went on to point out that, in real terms, he pays a lot: “I’m proud of the fact that I pay a lot of taxes,” he said.

But the problem, as Romney cannot seem to grasp, is not the public’s attitude toward success. It’s his.

No one is criticizing Romney for working hard in school or in his past career. From his joint J.D./M.B.A. from Harvard University to his work as the founding CEO of Bain Capital, it’s impossible to call Romney a slacker. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone willing to criticize Romney—or anyone, for that matter—for reasons of wealth alone. We certainly don’t criticize Bill Gates or Warren Buffett just for being rich.

But it’s equally impossible to argue that Romney didn’t have the cards stacked in his favor. He was born into wealth, love, and political importance. He has great genes.

The problem—the major reason for criticism—is that Mitt has let his success go to his head. He seems to assume that everyone who works hard succeeds and that everyone who hasn’t succeeded must not be working hard enough. If the United States had true equality of opportunity, that might be true.

But, from the well-reported education gap to the Occupy movement’s all-too-relatable distinction between the “99” and “1 percent,” it’s clear that we do not have equality of opportunity in this country. In fact, the United States has the highest level of income inequality—and, on top of that, the highest growth rate of income inequality—in all of the developed world.

Yes, those who work hard deserve to succeed. But many of those who work hard don’t succeed. It’s important for those who do succeed to recognize this and treat their peers and colleagues accordingly. This doesn’t apply to Romney alone—his campaign may well flounder if he keeps it up—but to everyone, and especially to high-achieving students at top universities like our own.

Anastasia Golovashkina is a first-year in the College majoring in economics.