I thought Mitt Romney was smarter than that.
Not in the sense of having been caught on video in a surfeit of candor. That can happen to anyone in his position (although, candidate Obama’s similar experience in 2008 should have taught him a lesson). No, I thought Romney was smart enough to recognize the 47-percent-don’t-pay-taxes trope for the imperious canard that it is.
There are obvious mitigating factors: such as that those with no federal income tax liability pay other taxes, including FICA and state and local income taxes, or, in the case of seniors, have simply retired from the workforce. And set aside, too, the fact that the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Depression is not the optimal time to look at data on unemployment insurance and food stamps. As Ramesh Ponnuru and Mike Konczal have written, the 47-percent figure shifts with economic circumstances, and most individuals who are captured by it will pay federal income taxes within two years.
Mitt Romney is smart enough to know these things.
The more general misimpression that Romney propagated in Boca Raton, Fla., is that nearly half of the “47 percent” are nonproductive parasites who take no “personal responsibility or care for their lives.” This just isn’t true. A majority of government spending benefits the middle class. The progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the bottom fifth of households received 32 cents of every dollar of federal benefits in 2010. What’s more, both whites and blacks benefit from government in proportion to their share of the overall population.
It would be great, as David Brooks writes, to have an argument about whether the distribution of these benefits is overly generous to the elderly and too stingy toward the young. (I’m assuming that when Romney promises to repeal Obama’s “raid” on Medicare, he believes today’s seniors are “entitled” to healthcare.) And it would be great, as economist Scott Sumner writes, if we could distinguish between “big government” and inefficient and behavior-distorting government.
But Mitt Romney, at least when he’s in front of a well-heeled audience from whom he’s trying to extract donations, doesn’t talk like that.
Mitt Romney — vaunted data junkie, technocrat, erstwhile “moderate progressive”! — sounds exactly like all the other half-informed blowhards who traffic in this stuff.