speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

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In September of 2012 Mother Jones brought a video of Mitt Romney to the attention of the public. This video, filmed at a $50,000 a plate fundraiser in May, showed Romney making what many regard as inflammatory remarks about the 47% of Americans who do not pay federal income tax. In Romney’s own words:

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. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Romney’s basic claim is correct: 46.4% of Americans paid no federal income tax in 2011. However, it is well worth examining the nature of the 47%.

One point well worth noting is that 2/3 of the 47% do pay payroll taxes. In fact, they pay 15.3% of their income as taxes, which is a larger percentage than Romney’s 13.9%. Naturally, most of the 47% also pay other taxes, such as sales taxes. As such, while they do not pay income tax, they do contribute.

In terms of the income breakdown, over half of the 47% are people who make less than $16,812 per year. 33% of them make between $16,812 and $33,532. 12.8% make between $33,542 and $59, 486. Interestingly, while Romney casts the 47% as being dependent on the state, 78,000 of the 47% had incomes from $211,000 to $533,000. There were also 24,000 households in the $533,000 to $2.2 million income range. Interestingly, there were even 3,000 in the $2.2 million and above range. As such, the narrative of the nature of the 47% does not quite match the facts. There is also the interesting possibility that Romney himself paid no taxes some years—after all, he did not release certain tax forms. This would not prove his claims wrong, but would certainly be a nice piece of irony.

While Romney casts the 47% as irresponsible people who do not have care for their lives, it is well worth considering why they do not pay federal income taxes. The simple answer is that they do the same thing Romney does: they pay taxes based on the tax laws and endeavor to not pay more than they legally owe. As such, his harsh words for them seem to show an inconsistency in his professed views of taxes.

In terms of more specific reasons, 44% of the 47% are seniors who are exempted by tax benefits for senior citizens. Interestingly, the majority of seniors claim to favor Romney over Obama (at least in polls taken before the video was released). 30% of the 47% do not pay because of credits for children and the working poor.  Of the 18.1% of Americans who did not pay federal or payroll taxes, 10.3% were senior citizens and 6.9% were households making less than $20,000 a year (such as low-income families and students).

In response to the release of the video, Romney went into damage control mode. One defense was an ad hominen attack on Mother Jones and Jimmy Carter’s grandson (who acquired the video). While these sources could be seen as biased against Romney, the video is what it is and the attacks on the sources have no logical weight. Naturally, if there was a mere allegation of a damaging video from Mother Jones, then the possibility of bias would be relevant in assessing credibility. However, the video stands on its own.

A second defense has been that while Romney holds to what he said, he did admit he said it inelegantly. A third defense used by some of Romney’s supporters is to launch accusations of class warfare and divisiveness against those who take issue with Romney’s remarks. These are, of course, mere ad hominem attacks and can also be seen as red herrings. Interestingly, it is Romney’s remarks about the 47% that sound like class warfare talk and they were certainly divisive. After all, dismissing 47% of Americans as irresponsible wards of the state is hardly uniting.

A fourth defense is that Romney made mention of a 1998 tape of Obama in which he speaks of redistribution. A snippet from the tape has been making the rounds to support the narrative that Obama supports redistribution of wealth, but in context his words are as follows: “And my suggestion, I guess, would be that the trick — and this is one of the few areas where I think there are technical issues that have to be dealt with as opposed to just political issues — I think the trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure everybody’s got a shot.”

Interestingly what motivated Obama’s remarks was what he claimed was a propaganda campaign “against the possibility of government action and its efficacy” and his goal was to “try to resuscitate this notion that we’re all in this thing together, leave nobody behind, we do have to be innovative in thinking what are the delivery systems that are effective and meet people where they live.”

While Romney’s narrative is that Obama is aiming at redistributing wealth in general, the best evidence apparently available for this claim is a quote carefully plucked from its surrounding context. This is, of course, a classic rhetorical tactic employed by politicians of all stripes.  In this case, Romney seems to be sticking to the narrative script, which leads to the fourth defense.

Romney’s fifth defense is to present the core narrative of his campaign, namely that Obama aims to create “a society based upon a government-centered nation where government plays a larger and larger role” and “redistributes money.” In contrast, Romney claims that he is for free enterprise and success. In this public narrative, Obama is cast as the villain. In the private narrative at the $50,000 per plate event (coincidentally $50,000 is the median family income in the United States), Obama has a starring role as the villain but has a large supporting cast.

As Romney’s quote indicates, he regards the 47% as loyal Obama’s supporters (although, as noted above, a significant percentage of them are actually Romney supporters). Of course, their loyalty is allegedly based on their belief that the state is responsible for them because they are victims and that they are thus entitled to health care, food, housing and other entitlements. These supporting villains are also cast as being unwilling to take responsibility.

Given the analysis of the 47% given above, this narrative does not seem to be accurate. After all, the majority of the 47% do pay payroll taxes (as noted above, they pay a larger percentage of their income than Romney). There is also a lack of evidence that they regard themselves as victims or entitled to take without contributing. After all, the majority of the seniors in the 47% no doubt worked and earned their retirement. True, there are no doubt some people who regard themselves as victims and see themselves as entitled to state support—however, this seems to be a rather small percentage of Americans. Certainly less than 47%.

Not surprisingly, this clash nicely shows the distinction between two political philosophies. Romney has presented the view endorsed by Ayn Rand’s fictional John Galt, namely that the world is divided between parasites and producers.  Obama, on the other hand, has stuck closer to the traditional liberal view that the state has a significant role to play in securing the common good. While a matter of considerable philosophical interest, this is also a rather personal matter—especially to those in the 47%.

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  1. I will vote for Romney in November, not because I believe in the manipulative use of statistics like the “47%”, but because I am strongly opposed to the notion that the concept of “we” should be permitted to crystallize under the aegis of a centralized command authority of any kind.

    That aside, I agree with the folly of political use of a focus on what is really an imaginary distinction- the separateness of the “Income Tax” from other payroll taxes that also are placed in the budget’s General Fund. If one is truly committed to market principles the goal of government policy will be transparency of economic information. The current goal of governmental tax policy is the clouding of information on the cost of government. That is the only conceivable excuse for hiding such costs in the prices of goods and services and in the abuse over many decades of the fungibility of funds such as the supposed Social Security Trust Fund.

    Ultimately, the foundation of our political discussion today is not who is good and who is bad. It is how will the personality of the nation be managed and expressed. Will Government decide what our national character is in a system of Intelligent Design, or will we maintain a more diffuse system that allows the personal input of a vast number of individuals in a more evolutionary and adaptive process.

    Personally, I favor the evolutionary process and deeply fear corporatist designs of the societal good, whether they are designed by government or designed by industrialists.

  2. Many years ago I learned that words are meaningful more as to their intention than their phraseology… my reading of Romney’s 47% reference was that nearly most of Americans are laggards and my experience, which has been spent as one of the 47% quite a bit of the time is that they (we) are anything but. I don’t know enough of the super rich to have a sense of how hard they have to work to make it, but I do know what it’s like to have two jobs to make ends meet.

    For me Romney represents the worst of the financially successful. I’, sure there are many who would be worse than he… several were in the Republican Primary skirmish, but Obama is not one of them. Hw could have done a better job–I know I could have as well in my career–but I think he realizes that and is the better of the two to move on from where we are. 🙂

  3. Maybe that 47% will pass like:

    And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations

    It’s nice when people have catch-all explanations that are self-serving.

    I thought that the 47% were the number of senators that were millionaires. It’s a great country where even millionaires can aspire to high office. A cradle of democracy.

  4. Mitt Romney is technically accurate. A politician only needs 51% of the vote to get elected. The rest do not matter. Politics and taxes are historically doomed to corruption. The best part of an election is not who is elected in, but who is voted out.

  5. Dennis, mathematically, one needs less than 40% of the popular vote (distributed properly in the Electoral College) to win the presidency in a two-way race.

  6. Nah… C’mon you’ve pulled the wrong issue out of the Wreck of the Romney. The really big issue is ‘Do Americans want their country to be run by a guy who has problems running an election campaign?’

    Maybe you do? Who’s more nutso? A minority of Muslims who go berserk when Allah is slighted or a majority of Americans who spend billion$ and billion$ buying drugs from Mexican murderers?

  7. Lee,
    Thank you for mentioning the Electoral College. There have been a number of historic problems with that. If I am not mistaken, there are 538 electoral seats and a Presidential candidate is required to have at least 270 seats for election.

    You are correct in mentioning that the number of seats was not representative of the popular vote, although it is not clear where the 40% figure comes from. Most states have joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact to resolve some of the popular vote issues:

    “Today, all but two states award all of their electoral votes to the candidate with the most popular votes statewide.”


  8. On the Electoral College-
    The less than 40% figure is an off-the-top-of-my-head calculation. I recall someone posting an article on the theoretical minimum about five years ago and the figure at the time may have been as low as 30%, assuming All of the voters in the states on the losing side voted for the loser and only a majority of one in each winning state voted for the winner.

  9. Michael Reidy,

    True, candid comments have a way of fading (or being spun). Romney’s remark does hit a larger percentage of the population, but perhaps that will not make a difference in its impact.

    Romney does need to work harder on his damage control-even some of the conservative pundits are starting to get critical (although they might be getting to a safe distance in case he loses). Obama definitely has his likability in his favor-even many of his opponents say this about him. While the opponents often then go to say “he is likable, but…” one should not underestimate the power of personal charisma in elections.

  10. OldFuzz,

    Romney did seem to present the John Galt view that the many are essentially irresponsible parasites. But, as you note, while the 47% don’t pay federal income tax, they do not seem to be as he characterized them. While I left the 47% (though back then it was less since the tax cuts had not all been passed into law) when I got hired as a professor, I don’t recall not taking responsibility for myself or living off the state. My students do not seem to be that way nor do the other folks I know in that category. But, I could have a biased sample or one that is too small-perhaps Romney has access to better data than I.

    To be somewhat fair to Romney, he probably does not have much experience with the sort of people he attacked in the 47%. As such, perhaps he was speaking more from ignorance than from malice. That said, if he wants to be president, then he might want to learn a bit about the rest of America.

  11. Boreas,

    A fair point. He has taken some shots from conservatives on that point (and of course from Democrats).

    America certainly does have a drug problem and this certainly does a lot of damage in Mexico. While there are financial and political reasons to keep drugs illegal (for-profit prisons are largely stocked with drug law violators) this policy is doing terrible damage to those of us who do not profit from their illegality.

  12. Much like the democratic shipwreck of ancient Athens, the U.S.A. is purging its blood on trivialities: 47%, 40% even as low as 30%! Those counted beans won’t even make for a good fart.

  13. 3 Quick Reads « Episyllogism: Phil & Lit - pingback on September 22, 2012 at 9:22 am
  14. The 47% meme has always been a stupid idea. If you have a job in the U.S. you pay payroll taxes.

    Everyone bears the cost of government, but those empowered by government (including people in the private sector who benefit from contacts with government) seek to mask that burden.

    We should want the economic signaling systems to communicate that cost clearly so we can make wiser choices in what costs we really wish to bear. Who, among our political choices, promises to make the price signalling of taxes reflect the real cost of government?

    Does this discussion clarify that point?

  15. What was Mitt Romney thinking? « Cubik's Rube - pingback on September 22, 2012 at 3:11 pm
  16. I don’t have any idea what Harris is getting at. He rejects, without real argument, the notion that religion is just the means of channeling political anger.

    He takes the moral stand that America should take a zero-tolerance approach towards hostility to free speech. But how? What can we do to stop riots halfway around the world? And, if we take the opposite position, and decline to defend the right to make the film, is there any danger that such filmmakers will stop? I think not. And if the problem is Islam, should our goal be to wipe it out? If so, say it.

    And why should we take this absolutist moral position? Taking Harris’ supposed moral framework, which is sort of a vaguely utilitarian maximization of flourishing – what is the objection to sympathizing with the Muslims with the goal of reducing political tensions and moving them towards a secular society cooperatively? In understand this, the relationship between religion and politics in inciting the violence should not be dismissed, but carefully analyzed. On the other hand, what is gained by principled verbal confrontation that may in the short run incite more violence?

    Harris isn’t a Kantian. He doesn’t subscribe to any theory of the natural rights of man. The correct answer to the question of Muslim violence, in his worldview, MUST be at least partially rooted in the practical effects of each course, and yet he does not seriously address anything practical. He just rants self-righteously, without foundation or even an attempt at consistency.

  17. “While Romney’s narrative is that Obama is aiming at redistributing wealth in general, the best evidence apparently available for this claim is a quote carefully plucked from its surrounding context.”

    While the Romney game plan appears to be to pluck quotes from their surrounding contexts (“You didn’t build that”; “I actually believe in redistribution”; “private sector job growth is ‘fine'”; etc.), the fact is that the entire tape of Romney discussing the 47% is damning, even taken within the context. Of course, Dems aren’t above taking quotes out of context when convenient, but this strategy appears to be at the fore of the Romney game plan.

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