“Investment Baining”: Bitter Politics of Envy?
You’re just jealous. At least that’s how Mitt Romney sees it. The millionaire who posed for a picture with the boys at Bain Capital with the long green clinched between their teeth and poking out of their collars and jackets now says that people who question what he did there, and what rich people do now, are just green with envy.
In his New Hampshire victory speech on Tuesday, Romney lambasted his Republican opponents (who have raised real issues about his role at the private equity firm Bain Capital) for following the lead of President Obama, whom he described as a leader who divides us “with the bitter politics of envy.”
The next day on “Today” on NBC, Romney defended the statement, rejecting the notion that there were questions about Wall Street behavior, saying the whole discussion was about class warfare. He even went so far as to suggest that such talk shouldn’t even be openly entertained. When the interviewer asked, “Are there no fair questions about the distribution of wealth without it being seen as envy, though?” Romney responded, “I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like.”
In quiet rooms? That’s the problem. Too many have been too quiet for too long. And, on this point, we must applaud the efforts of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It took income inequality and corporate responsibility out of the shadows and into the streets.
A report released on Wednesday by the Pew Research Center found that about two-thirds of Americans now perceive a strong conflict between the rich and poor in this country. That was up 19 percentage points from 2009.
As The New York Times pointed out in regard to the report, “conflict between rich and poor now eclipses racial strain and friction between immigrants and the native-born as the greatest source of tension in American society.”
And this has nothing to do with envy and everything to do with fairness.
Elizabeth Warren, who is now running for the Senate seat that Romney ran for in 1994 and didn’t get, probably rebuts this myth of class warfare best by reframing the discussion in terms of a “social contract” between the rich and the rest of society. At one of her campaign events, she explained:
“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there, good for you. But, I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory and hire someone to protect against this because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
That is the corporate Contract With America: societal symbiosis. We create a society in which smart, hard-working people can be safe and prosper, and they in turn reinvest a fair share of that prosperity back into society for posterity.
But somewhere along the way this got lost. Greed got good. The rich wanted all of the societal benefits and none of the societal responsibilities. They got addicted to seeing profits go up and taxes go down, by any means necessary, no matter the damage to the individual or the collective. Those Maseratis weren’t going to pay for themselves.
And the resulting income inequality helped to stall economic mobility.
As The New York Times reported last week, “many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe.” The Times report speculated that: “One reason for the mobility gap may be the depth of American poverty, which leaves poor children starting especially far behind. Another may be the unusually large premiums that American employers pay for college degrees. Since children generally follow their parents’ educational trajectory, that premium increases the importance of family background and stymies people with less schooling.”
Indeed, a November report by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project pointed out, “In the United States, there is a stronger link between parental education and children’s economic, educational, and socio-emotional outcomes than in any other country investigated.”
Pew has found that most children raised at the top of the income spectrum stay there and most raised at the bottom stay at the bottom.
An equal opportunity to success is central to this country’s optimistic ethos, but income inequality and corporate greed are making a lie of that most basic American truism. The rich and their handmaidens on the political right have consolidated America’s wealth on the ever-narrowing peak of a steep hill and greased the slope. And they want to cast everyone at the bottom as lazy or jealous, without acknowledging the accident of birth and collusion of policies that helped grant them their perch.
Income inequality is a threat to this country and the middle class that made her great. If Romney wants to be president, he needs to understand that.
As Alan Krueger, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said on Thursday, “I think it is clear that we can’t go back to the type of policies that exacerbated the rise in inequality and threatened economic mobility in the first place if we want an economy that builds the middle class.”
Not envy Mr. Romney. Opportunity.
By: Charles Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, January 13, 2012
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