Romney's 47%: The distinction between factual and truthful

2012-09-23 00:09

You’ve probably seen it by now:

There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47% 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 they will vote for this president no matter what … These are people who pay no income tax … My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Now, there is some room for speculating that this is a misleading quote, but Romney has stated that he stands by it, and I have seen some conservatives insist that it’s good that someone finally came out and “told the truth”. (EDIT: Since I wrote this, Romney has declared that he was completely wrong. This increases my respect for him. Leaving the rest of this article alone, but be aware that it is in some ways no longer relevant.)

The canonical source is the Tax Policy Center, which everyone seems to agree is reasonably non-partisan.

Is it true that 47% of people pay no income tax?

Probably not, because at least some people who pay no federal income tax nonetheless pay state income tax. But that’s probably something we can reasonably overlook. What I’m less comfortable with overlooking is payroll taxes. These are taxes which are set to a percentage of your income (up through a certain point, around an income of $110k/year) and which are paid to the federal government. That sounds to me like it is reasonably considered “income tax”, and it’s not subject to all the same tax breaks. If you include payroll taxes, it’s about 18% of people who don’t pay those either.

But even among those 18%, about 10% are “elderly” (meaning on retirement funds/pensions, in practice), and about another 7% have under $20k/year in income. (About 1% fit into neither category and are special cases in some way.)

Now, on the one hand, it does seem a little silly to compare that people with no income don’t pay taxes, but it’s not entirely inappropriate or inconsistent in this context; he’s talking about why people might be viewed as dependent on the government and believing the government has a responsibility to care for them. So I would say that it’s that 17% or so, not the 47% (or that last 1%) who are meaningfully described this way.

So how do these people vote?

This gets a little more surprising. Of the ten states with the highest percentage of people who don’t pay federal income tax, only one was leaning to Obama when this story broke, and numbers were likely similar when this video was originally taken. Many of the people who are relying on government programs to get through rough spots are in fact habitual Republican voters; some even advocate that the very programs they’re relying on be cut.

Only I’m not sure this is all that surprising. Voters in the US have a long history of at least sometimes voting for what they think is best for the nation, which may not be in their own narrowly-defined or short-term best interest. And there’s nothing all that unusual about people who think a given social program should be cut using it while it exists anyway; people frequently make economic decisions to take advantage of things that they think probably shouldn’t be there, or aren’t sustainable. It is also possible that the correlation is at a broader level; people who live near a bunch of non-payers of federal income tax might be motivated by animosity, for instance. But reporters who have gone around asking have indeed turned up many people who paid no income tax, who received some sort of government social benefits, and who were Romney supporters.

Which is to say: It is not true that the 47% of the population who pay no income tax will necessarily vote for Obama, or that they view themselves as victims, or anything else.

What worries me is that it appears that one of two things must be true. Romney has since confirmed that he stands by these statements (though he says they were “inelegantly stated”). So either he’s lying, or he’s seriously misinformed about the political views of 47% of the populace — and a 47% that, given historical trends, might well have been reasonably expected to vote more towards him than against him. And inclined to dismiss them. And that’s worrisome.

It’s not his job to care about them.

So let’s drop the tax thing, and just go to “people who won’t vote for Romney”. Well, it’s arguably true that it’s not his job to care about those people, insofar as he’s a candidate for office. But there’s a bit of a worrisome trend here, which is that Romney frequently says he’s not concerned about people, or doesn’t care about them. He’s not concerned about the very poor, because there’s a social safety net. He also thinks that, since the safety net is expensive, it should be cut; should we assume that, were this to happen, he would start being concerned? Or is this speech the real explanation; he’s not concerned about them because they are unlikely to vote for him.

This leads to a problem, though. It isn’t necessarily the job of a candidate to care about people who wouldn’t vote for him. It is the job of a representative to care about all the people he represents, though. And if you only care about people when it’s your job to care about them, you don’t actually care about them.

Actually, most rich people don’t care.

Science to the rescue! This is not a problem somehow unique to Romney. People who view themselves as richer or of higher social class have less empathy. Now, you might assume this is because non-empathic behaviors are an advantage, but that’s not the whole story; you can improve empathic skills in people by inducing them to think of themselves as less rich and powerful, and you can worsen empathic skills in people by inducing them to think of themselves as richer and more powerful.

Now, this isn’t an all-or-nothing thing, and there’s nothing preventing people from working actively to overcome it. The thing is, it does take work, and there’s no evidence at all on the table that the Romneys are the slightest bit inclined to do that work.

The tendency to overestimate the influences of our own choices on positive outcomes, and underestimate the influences of our choices on negative outcomes, means that people who have been very successful are very likely to massively overestimate how much of that is their doing — so when they see unsuccessful people, they assume it is because those people didn’t have as much virtue of whatever sort. They’re not as smart, they didn’t work as hard… Anything but the possibility that maybe there’s a certain amount of coincidence and happenstance going on.

So, in conclusion…

The underlying claim that 47% of people pay no income tax is true, but the many attached claims about how these people vote, whether they view themselves as “victims”, and so on are all materially false. And the thing is, you can write off the caring thing and ask “but shouldn’t we have someone competent?” But the fact is, getting this kind of thing wrong strikes me as gross incompetence. There is no excuse for a politician to be this badly confused about what people believe or how they vote, least of all when talking about how to pursue votes in an election which looks fairly tight to begin with.

Not that I’m sure Obama cares about these people either, but he’s at least repeatedly stated that he cares, and his interactions with Congress have, on the whole, shown some interest in trying to do things which he appears to believe will benefit people — including categories of people that he can be pretty sure will predominantly vote against him.

It’s not as though I was going to vote for Romney anyway. I pay taxes (nearly as much, percentage-wise, as he does), my household doesn’t qualify for any interesting tax credits, we don’t qualify for any social programs I can think of, and I am all for personal responsibility for my life, and for that matter the lives of the people around me that our woefully incompetent social safety net isn’t catching. No, I just think that opposing gay marriage is pretty much equivalent to opposing interracial marriage, and I am sick of putting up with that crap from politicians. I wouldn’t vote for an overt racist, why should I vote for a guy who opposes civil rights for other people?

And that’s ultimately his problem: He’s writing off people who might well have voted for him, and trying to pursue people who never would. That seems unlikely to work.

Peter Seebach

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Comment

  1. Worth noting about “people who view themselves as richer or of higher social class have less empathy” is entirely contextual. One of my first memories of going to Blake Middle School was one classmate saying to another, “just because we have a Porsche and a swimming pool doesn’t make us rich.”

    Indeed, it is quite possible to feel poor if your family is the only one you know that owns only a single luxury car. Or only two. And it is equally possible to feel rich because you still have a home, while all your friends are loosing theirs.

    In fact, the whole disconnect that is at the heart of the matter is that wealthy people don’t consider themselves wealthy: they work hard (by their standards), and they are surrounded by equally wealthy people. They know plenty of people who are wealthier, and don’t think much about those who are less wealthy— or assume that those people just don’t work as hard.

    Dave Leppik · 2012-09-24 09:18 · #

  2. The interracial marriage argument is the same one I use when I talk about my support of gay marriage. I can’t understand how you can say, “this is just my beliefs,” and then try to make it our law. You have always been allowed to believe what you want to believe, your church can marry or not marry as they see fit, but, suggesting that we all should live in accordance with your beliefs makes them something other than beliefs. It makes them a law, an unconstitutional law. And I don’t think it’s acceptable to hide that bigotry behind the shroud of “belief.”

    — Ariel D-M · 2012-10-02 22:51 · #

 
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