The 47% and Other Romney Gaffes

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In my new Verdict column today I try to find a fresh angle on Mitt Romney's much-discussed sneering dismissal of "the 47%" -- the people who owe no federal income tax in a given year, and who (according to Romney) will thus never vote for him.  (Whatever else might be said about all of this, one must at least acknowledge that Romney is no longer being overshadowed by his running mate, though not by design.)

There is so much wrong with what Romney said that nearly every commentator in the country has had a field day picking it apart.  That very notoriety, however, made it daunting to imagine being able to say something different about Romney's inflammatory statements.  For what it is worth -- and to put it in academic terms -- my column points out the methodological inconsistency between two Republican talking points.

In Romney's comments, which are absolutely mainstream Republican views (that is, not some aberrant off-the-cuff remark), the focus is on a "snapshot," or a "static view," of the world: in Year X, 47% of the people have zero net federal income tax liability.  Setting aside all of the other problems with that statement (other taxes, inclusion of retirees, and on and on), the basic problem is that Romney acts as if there is a cohesive, unchanging group of nontaxpayers over time.  (That he also thinks of those people as perfectly overlapping with Obama's voting base betrays yet another defect in Romney's political skills.)

Of course, many commentators have offered a variation on this point, discussing in particular the lifetime earnings profiles of people who do not pay federal income taxes in a given year.  Not only does everyone actually pay some taxes (at the very least, sales taxes and excise taxes) in any given year, but over the space of several years (and certainly several decades), the number of people who will fall into the "never paid federal income taxes" category approaches zero.  The arbitrariness of using an annual accounting method completely drives this misleading statistical factoid.

My additional point was to discuss how this focus on annual accounting contradicts the insistence by Republican and conservative commentators on measuring income inequality over time, or with a "dynamic view" rather than a static one.  Sure, they say, there are a certain number of people who are poor in any given year.  But it is not the same people who are poor in each year.  The economy, we are told, acts as a "blender," agitating the income distribution so that those at the bottom have a chance to rise to the middle or top, and those in other positions on the income spectrum will move around, too.

Fair enough, but only as a methodological point.  It does make sense to look at both a static and dynamic view of inequality.  The problem is that the inequality story does not get any better in a dynamic analysis than in a static analysis.  U.S. income mobility is shockingly low.  Beginning with the Reagan years, we have not only seen a huge increase in inequality, but we have also seen a huge decrease in income mobility.  There are a lot more poor people, and their prospects of breaking out of poverty are increasingly slim.

If the taxpayer/nontaxpayer issue itself mattered in some fundamental way, which it does not, then it would also be important to look at it from both static and dynamic perspectives.  Because I do not think that the maker/taker thing is at all coherent, however, the whole inquiry is nonsense, no matter whether one looks at snapshots or moving pictures.

Even so, Romney's side loses the argument in all four quadrants: taxpayer/nontaxpayer analyzed dynamically, taxpayer/nontaxpayer analyzed statically, inequality measured dynamically, and inequality measured statically.  A clean sweep!

A further question is how this mega-gaffe measures up to Romney's other gaffes.  I will leave aside some of the more juicy ones (insulting the London Olympic oraganizers, for example) and compare the 47% comment to two other Romney moments: when he said that he "likes firing people," and when he said that "corporations are people."

The problem for Romney, of course, is that these gaffes are adding up, so that the merits of each comment individually are less important than how each one contributes to the big picture.  Moreover, it is not just that he is gaffe-prone.  Joe Biden says regrettable stuff, too, but his gaffes do not fit into a pattern.  Romney, by contrast, manages to say things that all contribute to his image as an out-of-touch superrich guy (offering to bet $10,000 with Rick Perry, mocking the crowd's raincoats at a NASCAR event, and so on).

The "I like firing people" comment seems to me to be the least objectionable of Romney's gaffes.  In context, what he was trying to say was that it is good to have choices, and if a person is dissatisfied with Vendor A, then it is good to have the option to take one's business to Vendor B.  That is such a fundamental aspect of market economics that it does not even rise to the level of "capitalism," because one could have multiple, profit-oriented vendors even without modern forms of capitalism.  Again, "I like to be able to take my business elsewhere" sounds a lot better than "I like firing people," but if Romney were writing on a clean slate, this would have been a forgettable slip.

"Corporations are people, my friend," an in-the-moment response to a heckler, is less forgivable.  One of the odd aspects of discussions about this comment is that many people (even some liberals) immediately defended Romney by saying, "Well, there's a way in which it's literally true."  Yes, but that is far different from looking at the comment in context, which is why the "I like firing people" comment is ultimately so inoffensive.  Even though corporations have legal status as persons in some limited situations, it is not true that corporations are people, especially not in the sense that was relevant to the context of Romney's reply.

The heckler's comment was, after all, not a statement that Romney was wrongly recognizing the legalities of corporate governance.  He was saying that what matters is people, and Romney's policies favored corporations.  To defend Romney's response with the observation that corporations do share certain legal rights with people really misses the point.  He could have said that policies favoring corporations end up helping real people, but that was not what he said.  (And frankly, that opens the whole issue of who controls corporations, which Romney would be wise to close tight.)  The out-of-context truth of corporate personhood, therefore, does not save Romney.

Even so, that gaffe is nothing compared to the awfulness of the comments about the 47%.  It is not even accurate to refer to those comments as a gaffe.  They are far worse than that.

One of my research assistants, trying to give Romney the maximum benefit of the doubt, suggested in conversation that Romney might not actually believe what he said, but that Romney knew what that particular audience would want to hear.  Under that view, he is not an elitist, just an especially craven panderer.

There is, however, just no way out of this for Romney.  Politicians who uncomfortably stand in front of groups that want to hear certain things can figure out ways to pander that are still minimalist.  A Republican moderate can give a speech to a Tea Party group, or a Democrat in the 1950's could give a speech to an all-white club, without pushing every button that the group wants to have pushed.  Romney's comments, by contrast, were "all in."  A reluctantly pandering Romney would not have said what he said.  His comments are based on the idea that it is not just that people are too poor to pay taxes, as I noted in my Verdict column, "it is that they are morally defective."

Moreover, as Maureen Dowd (if I recall correctly) commented, Romney's demeanor in delivering those comments suggested that he was physically and mentally exhausted.  We know that Romney does not drink alcohol, so this is the closest we will get to an in vino veritas moment.  He was too tired to measure his words, and he had an audience that would lap up his true views, so he let loose.

He was already losing the election, but the release of that tape might have made the trend irreversible.  And for good reason.  Again, part of this is a totality-of-circumstances inquiry.  Even without the rest of his track record, however, these comments -- dismissing people who refuse to "take personal responsibility and care for their lives," who feel entitled to food and housing -- are just devastating.  We now know how he really feels about millions upon millions of Americans, and it is not pretty.

As Romney said, however, 47% of the population is locked in to vote for Obama.  Similarly, 47% or so will definitely vote for Romney, even if he calls for martial law. Maybe these much-discussed comments can still be overcome with a good debate performance, or a big October Surprise of some sort.  For now, however, we area looking at a candidate who simply has to live with having revealed out loud some of the most deeply disturbing attitudes that most people can recall hearing from a major political candidate.