Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Romney and His Gaffe about Entitlements

     The political analysts say that if things keep going the way they've been going, in just a few years more than half of American families will be paying no federal income taxes.  This information was not invented by Romney.  One in seven Americans currently receives food stamps.  One in a hundred Americans is incarcerated or on parole.  This situation is very expensive.
     The Tax Policy Center reports that in 2011 46% of American households paid no federal income tax, and in 2010 it was 47%.  This is the Romney figure bootlegged by someone and reported in Mother Jones, and now it's being used to advantage by Obama supporters.
     Romney's detractors are outraged, saying this is proof that he doesn't care about them, he's just another rich guy who doesn't understand the problems of the poor.  The tax breaks and handouts, however, are the product of exemptions passed by lawmakers on both sides of the fence.  Most tax credits are for lower-income families (less than $50,000 per year), some are for the elderly, and .002% are for multimillionaires (one thousand are billionaires paid no federal income tax in 2011).  There are tax credits for work, kids and education--and most of us would agree that these are a good way to invest our excess wealth, but not they hobble the economy in the long run.
     We are all familiar with the attitude of entitlement--it's a style of thinking that seems to characterize many privileged kids in this country--as well as the phenomenon of codependency.  Entitlement is a belief in one's social and moral "right" to have access to certain benefits.  We all feel entitled in certain ways--to have access to air and water, for instance.  But most Americans believe other kinds of entitlements are part of our national philosophy:  the right to bear arms, the right to pursue prosperity, the right to a basic education, the right to speak our minds.
     I am in favor of entitlement programs as they currently exist for underprivileged people in this country.  But the programs need fine-tuning, and our budget for such programs can't be unlimited.  Once legislation is enacted for putting such programs into place, it seems that it never undergoes alteration--legislation is difficult to reverse.
     Those of us who are parents understand that giving our kids, for instance, unlimited money for their lives without requiring something in return is a recipe for failure.  It is difficult, when we see them suffering, not to "help"--but sometimes emergency help simply perpetuates their difficulties, and that's the beginning of codependency.  It's the old "give a man to fish, or teach him to fish" dilemma.  In my own case, I told my sons early in their lives that I would pay for their college educations if they met two conditions:  they could not use illicit drugs, and they had to maintain A's and B's.  A college education was an entitlement, in this scheme, but not a right--and it required something of them.  Given that I was still repaying my own college loans more than fifteen years after graduation, I thought the chance to get a college degree without the prospect of burdensome debt would inspire my children.  But the psychology of the human personality is a strange thing.  Not everyone is inspired by gifts or entitlements--some people just want to keep getting more.  Instead of acknowledging the gift of a college education, my sons sometimes raised objections to the conditions:  "Why should we have to get A's and B's?  Who are you to tell us whether we can 'party' or not?"
     Legislated entitlements, then, must be very carefully monitored.  Are they working to inspire people?  Is the economy such that it allows for individual success?  Are the objections raised by recipients of national benefits valid, or are they evidence of a dangerous narcissism that is the basis for the term, "a sense of entitlement" when it is used in the pejorative way that Romney used it?
     Entitlements are based on our assumption that there should be social equality--but people are not equal, not at birth, and not throughout life.  Nevertheless, having some national provisions for every citizen to be given an opportunity for a life lived creatively and successfully--as defined by that person-- paradigm of freedom that most of us would support.  Self-reliance is an Emersonian ideal that forms the backbone of America's ideology.  Assisting others as they move toward self-reliance, then, should be the goal of entitlement programs, not making them dependent on handouts.
     Here is the link to the bootlegged tape of Romney talking about his political strategy:
     In this tape I don't hear a lot of terrible judgment about Americans who don't pay taxes, so much as a plan for targeting potential voters.  Romney simply stated that he can't count on votes from people who want to continue to receive benefits like extended unemployment payments, or welfare, or a free college education--those people's votes will have to be conceded to Obama.  Maybe he's right.   I don't know, because I'm not a campaign analyst.
       Political candidates are always in an awful position:  they have to do what's necessary to win elections, but that isn't the same as outlining a plan for improving the country.  The first job requires a lot of bluff and bravado, the second is shrewd and intellectual, and requires a degree of thoughtfulness that never seems to help win elections.
     Romney expressed frustration at the number of Americans needing or receiving entitlements--I agree with him that this is a huge problem.  Our budget can't continue to support both an enormous military and the cost of social entitlements--including the administrative expenses our bureaucracy is so good at wasting in the execution of government programs.  It's too bad Romney couldn't have expressed more sensitivity about the problem of people needing aid, and receiving aid.  What's the matter with our economy, that so many Americans aren't working and paying taxes?  What's the matter with our national psychology, that many of us prefer to let our benefits run out before exercising resourcefulness with regard to our futures?  Where is the inspiration that once drove our great-great-grandparents out west in search of gold, land, prosperity, fresh ideas, the possibility for a brand new life?
     Why are my children, and yours, not always inspired by the entitlements they've been offered?  Why is it that some people want more, and begin to believe that they deserve more, even when their coffers are full--while others seize the few chances they've been given, and head with all their valor and might for the victory-line?  A real political strategy for changing this country would take into account the human psychology behind the phenomena of inspiration and endeavor--not just economics, or ideology, or politics, or the moral superiority which has gotten Romney into so much hot water.

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