A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 21, 2012
speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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%.

My Amazon author page.

Enhanced by Zemanta

11 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. ripple said, on September 21, 2012 at 9:02 am

    Obama: If you want free stuff, vote for me.

    Romney: If you want free stuff, vote for the other guy.

    Obama: How *dare* you accuse my supporters of wanting free stuff.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 21, 2012 at 9:24 am

      But is that what Obama is really doing? After all, the affordable health care act requires people to pay for their medical coverage. As I argued in detail in an earlier post, the individual mandate is the exact opposite of free stuff. It was actually a conservative idea and the basic argument for it is that our current system hands out “free stuff” in the sense that everyone who has insurance pays for those who do not and who use the emergency room (and cannot or will not pay).

      While Obama does support social programs, he does not seem intent on just handing out free stuff. Also, some of that “free stuff” is a good investment. As I have argued in other posts, support for education is a good investment. In my own case, I have repaid my Pell Grant and other state support many times over with the taxes I have paid.

      Also, Obama’s philosophy seems to be “we are in this together” and that entails that we do not abandon each other. There are, of course, problems with the way benefits are handled, corruption and so on. But as he said in that 1998 speech, we can address those problems.

      I am not sure what Romney’s actual philosophy is-after all, he seems to change his views to match the needs of the moment, making him a man for all seasons and all audiences. This point has been made by conservative critics as well-they rightly want a person of principle.

      I do know Ryan’s principles-he has embraced ethical egoism as his guiding moral philosophy. This is what underlies his budget and is one reason the Catholic Church has condemned it as contrary to Catholicism. Naturally, the Church also has had issues with Obama on birth control, but the Catholic Church and Obama seem to agree that we are in this together and we have obligations to each other.

      I do, of course, have issues with Obama. I have moral and legal concerns about the use of drones in assassination and I have the usual concerns that I have about all politicians (namely the undue influence of special interests). However, I support Obama because I think that what happens to the rest of us actually matters to him. Romney’s view was made fairly evident in his remarks. Like Rand’s John Galt, he seems to see America as split between parasites and producers and he rather easily labels 47% of Americans as parasites.

      Now, it might be said that he does not really mean that-that he was just saying what the rich donors wanted to hear. This, of course, would match the assessment that Mitt actually has little in the way of principles beyond saying what people want to hear. While politicians do need to appeal to the crowd, I am not sure which would be worse: believing that 47% of Americans are parasites or believing nothing at all and just speaking for the crowd.

      • ripple said, on September 21, 2012 at 8:13 pm


        The Obama administration clearly doesn’t believe that enough Americans are receiving welfare.

        Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius last week issued an order giving the Obama administration greater authority to waive work requirements included in the 1998 welfare reform law. This comes on top of a new ad campaign, using Spanish-language soap operas, to encourage more Latinos to sign up for food stamps.

        The administration even gave a special award to an Agriculture Department worker who found ways to combat the “mountain pride” discouraging Appalachian residents from taking full advantage of food stamps and other welfare programs.

        One message was loud and clear: More Americans should be getting welfare.


        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 22, 2012 at 5:16 pm

          I’m reasonable sure that Obama would prefer that there was no need for welfare. I am, however, willing to consider the “bread & circus” hypothesis, but I’d need more evidence than an opinion piece at Politico.

          I am not an apologist for Obama or the Democrats-so I am not under an obligation to defend them. If there is objective, relevant and unbiased evidence of an intent to use the bread & circus strategy, then I would be rather concerned. After all, one can look at the extensive history of the Roman Empire to see how that has worked out historically.

          I do favor the state assisting citizens in need when they need food. I’ll share my own food with people who are hungry and have no objections to my tax dollars going to help out hungry people. Naturally, I have no desire to support freeloaders (people who could support themselves but elect not to). However, those folks seem relatively uncommon in the United States. Most people want to work and support themselves. While it is easy to find anecdotes of people who are content to be parasites, looking at the statistics regarding people applying for jobs, looking for work and so on would indicate that most people do want to earn their way in life.

          Unfortunately, the economy was crashed by financial machinations at the top and times are hard. Also, the system itself is rather unjust and even people who work hard still have a hard time just getting by.

          I do agree with the Republican idea that we should create opportunity. However, I do not think this will be done by the Romney-Ryan plan. While we do have Ryan’s budget (which was condemned by the Catholic Church), we do not have the details of their actual plan for success. What is available seems to be the usual “cut taxes and reduce regulations” which is what got us into the pit in the first place. If we are going to get out of the pit, we need a new plan.

      • ripple said, on September 21, 2012 at 8:23 pm

        “easily labels 47% of Americans as parasites”

        Can you point to where Romney has ever called anyone a parasite? Use the same standard that you applied when you argued that Obama did not apologize to the Islamic world.

        Romney was explaining to a bunch of rich donors how he can win the election. He (rightly) argued that people who pay no taxes will not be swayed by the promise of a tax cut. He did make the mistake of equating the 47% that comprises Obama’s base with the 47% who pay no taxes. There is a lot of overlap, but these are not exactly the same groups.

        I’m beginning to think that the U.S. is so far gone we need to re-elect Obama to fully experience how bad things can get.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 22, 2012 at 5:23 pm

          First, we’ll need a rough definition of “parasite.” In general, this would be someone (or something) that takes from the host and does not give in return. This taking is generally characterized as inimical, unwanted and unjustified. Parasites also are such that they cannot survive on their own.

          Now, consider Romney’s description

          The 47% “are dependent upon government.” The host is the state and they are cast as parasites because they “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.” That is, they have the view that they should be supported without giving anything in return. That seems like classic parasitism.

          He seems to regard this as a permanent state for them or at least a state he is powerless to change: “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

          So, it does seem fair to claim that Romney cast the 47% as parasites in that speech.

          Oh, things can get much, much worse than what Obama would do-even if he was as the Republican narrative claimed. We could, for example, see the distribution of wealth get to the point that actual class warfare occurs (that is blood in the street). We could also see an education system effectively strip mined to allow individuals and corporations to profit at the expense of the students and thus see this foundation of the economy and the democracy collapse. Things can always be worse than one can imagine.

      • ripple said, on September 21, 2012 at 8:43 pm

        Seems like a number of people got the “free stuff” message:

      • ripple said, on September 22, 2012 at 5:51 pm

        There is a very serious untruth being repeated that the “Ryan Budget” has been condemned as immoral, etc. by the Catholic Bishops aka the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), or even the Catholic Church itself. It was not.

        Where did this supposed condemnation come from? It came from a USCCB committee that has no authority (see why below) to carry out authentic acts in the Catholic Church and has been exaggerated by entities outside of the USCCB. This USCCB committee is called the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

        Why does this committee have no authority? Because the Catholic Church purposefully denies it authority as stated in the Catholic Code of Canon Law’s chapter on Bishops’ Conferences and especially poignant in Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter issued “motu propio” known as Apostolos Suos (On the Theological and Juridical Nature of Bishops’ Conferences) which clarified and adjusted that law.


        Why is this false condemnation being repeated? It is being repeated by entities outside of the USCCB (like those listed above) who want to influence Catholics to vote for Barack Obama for president. If you can make Catholics believe falsely that their Church and their Bishops believe something is immoral, you can fool Catholics into voting contrary to a true Catholic conscience. That’s why this repeated untruth is so egregious on the part of these entities.


        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 22, 2012 at 7:19 pm

          That is an interesting point regarding the command structure of the church. However, consider another Catholic organization, Catholics United. They note the condemnation of Ryan’s budget by Catholic bishops.

          It does seem that the budget was condemned by Catholic bishops and other religious leaders. However, as you note, it was not officially condemned by the Pope or by the Catholic Church as a whole.

          However, it is still a point of legitimate concern that Catholic bishops and nuns have condemned the budget. Of course, an argument from authority is a weak argument. As such, it would be wise to compare the Ryan budget against the moral tenets of the Catholic Church (and more generally against the moral principles presented by Jesus).

          As has been pointed out, Ryan seems to have based his budget on the philosophical views of Ayn Rand. Rand is, of course, an ethical egoist. She explicitly rejected religion and also attacked the “love they neighbor as thyself” altruism that she regarded as a fatally flawed moral system.

          An examination of the budget certainly suggests that there is more Rand than Jesus in the philosophical underpinnings.

          Ryan has, of course, claimed that he rejects Rand’s view of religion. However, her views are actually essential to her moral philosophy. For ethical egoism to be the correct moral theory, the altruistic ethics she attacked would need to be incorrect. Not surprisingly, the classic ethical egoist Thomas Hobbes was also accused of being an atheist. He certainly did present the claim that God (if He exists) would be a material being and God had no role in his moral theory.

          Ryan seems to want the impossible: Catholicism and ethical egoism. That is on par with trying to be a Catholic Marxist. While a person might make that claim, they either are lying or ignorant of what those views entail.

          I do give Ryan points for knowing about epistemology and giving a shout out for St. Aquinas. I’m very fond of Aquinas and include him in my intro and ethics classes.

          There are also practical concerns with the budget, but those go beyond the scope of my reply.

  2. ripple said, on September 21, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    Biden. You can’t make this stuff up.

    “Guess what, the cheerleaders in college are the best athletes in college,” Biden said. “You think, I’m joking, they’re almost all gymnasts, the stuff they do on hard wood, it blows my mind.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: