Mitt Romney and a Nation of Sin

As I’ve unofficially declared open-season on Mitt Romney posts, it should come as no surprise that today includes a post about…you guessed it, Mitt Romney. Much has already been said concerning his segment on the Today show, interviewed by Matt Lauer, where he describes criticism of Wall Street and protestations against inequality as being primarily rooted in “envy:”

For those who don’t (or can’t) watch the video, here is the relevant part from the transcript (my emphasis in bold):

MATT LAUER: When you said that we already have a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy, I’m curious about the word envy. Did you suggest that anyone who questions the policies and practices of Wall Street and financial institutions, anyone who has questions about the distribution of wealth and power in this country, is envious? Is it about jealousy, or fairness?

ROMNEY: You know, I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare.  When you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on 99 percent versus one percent, and those people who have been most successful will be in the one percent, you have opened up a wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God. The American people, I believe in the final analysis, will reject it.

LAUER: Are there no fair questions about the distribution of wealth without it being seen as envy, though?

ROMNEY: I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like. But the president has made it part of his campaign rally. Everywhere he goes we hear him talking about millionaires and billionaires and executives and Wall Street. It’s a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach and I think it will fail.

This exchange is remarkable for several reasons, but the first thing I thought when hearing Romney say these words was “This sounds like an honest moment.” Similar to one of his remarks an earlier GOP debate – “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake!  I can’t have illegals working for me!” – this strikes me as, well, what he honestly believes.

My next thought was “Really, man, why would you provide another soundbite for oppo SuperPac ads?” But Alec MacGillis probably makes the most acute observation about Romney’s gaffe-ridden soundbites so far (my emphasis in bold):

[..] here’s what many are missing in trying to make sense of why Romney says these sorts of things. It’s all about the context.

No, not just the context of what he meant to say when he said them (the “I like being able to fire people” line was said in regards to health insurance choice.) I mean the context in which he says things — that is, the place and audience he is speaking to. After observing Romney on the trail, it’s become clear to me that he is someone who is acutely aware of the sort of people he is speaking to, and that he often tries too hard in trying to reach what he imagines is the id of that group.

The problem with this strategy is that when you’re speaking to a nationally televised audience (ala debates and interviews) it is difficult to organize your rhetoric for a specific audience. This may be why he has had limited engagements via one-on-one (remember that terrible interview with Brett Baier?) and why his messages get mixed up. If such an analysis is correct – and it’s not really that far off from what others have said – then this explains why he said that discussions of wealth distribution should take place in “quiet rooms.” It is for him a slip of the tongue – a sliver of the raw, unfiltered truth.

What’s troubling me is that sliver. I’m trying to imagine a scenario of worldview where such a sentiment seems appropriate. The only thing I can come up with right now is this: The individual views the subject of wealth distribution not as a discussion of the societal aggregation of economic outcomes, but as a discussion on the distribution of success. Given Romney’s predilections he is nothing if not polite, and in polite company – especially wealthy, polite company – it is quite rude to discuss individual economic failure in public. It is a subject best left to “quite rooms,” something not unlike gossip.

Now of course I believe it to be generally impolite to discuss individual economic failure regardless of wealth or success. However, this particular sub-phenomenon pertains to Romney’s interview because for this worldview to admit to the legitimacy of inequality as a public subject, one would have to admit to a disbelief that everyone is solely responsible for their economic performance in life.

Which in a way is a type of denial of reality – that any external factor is unsurmountable as long as you work hard enough. This is a subtle, yet strikingly important, distinction from an individual’s work-ethic that largely assigns responsibility for outcomes to the individual. That is an admirable ethic to be sure, but the key difference is that such an ethic acknowledges forces beyond one’s own control:

“Where I have control I only have myself to blame for failure, where I have no control I can only be responsible for my reactions.”

In this way we generally acknowledge that sometimes things just don’t work out, and the decisions that other people make can have consequences for those where even the strongest work-ethic still results in inadequate and unsuccessful reactions. And when such occurrences happen en masse over a moderate period of time in a large and complex landscape of individual choices you could end up with this picture:

We have a nation where fewer people capture a slice of the American pie, and at least 61% of Americans believe our economic system is unfair. I’m not sure what to think of a presidential candidate who believes that any one person’s position on the Lorenz Curve has no one to blame but themselves – and to feel differently is to commit one of the seven deadly sins.

*Updated a little for clarity.


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