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%.