Here’s an interesting and less-discussed portion of the now-infamous Mitt Romney fundraising tape, where he explains the importance of being American:
Romney told the donors there are people who say to him, “‘Oh, you were born with a silver spoon,’ you know, ‘You never had to earn anything,’ and so forth. And, and frankly, I was born with a silver spoon, which is the greatest gift you could have, which is to get born in America. I’ll tell ya, there is — 95 percent of life is set up for you if you’re born in this country.” […]
Romney’s reference to the 95 percent “set up” sheds further light on his attitude toward the 47 percent of Americans he said don’t take personal responsibility and care for themselves.
If Romney believes, as he said, that “95 percent of life is set up for you if you’re born in this country,” then people who fail to become successful have only themselves to blame, which helps explain why Romney feels he’ll never be able to redeem such people. He said in February that he is “not concerned about the very poor” because the government’s social programs take care of them.
That’s a good thing to extrapolate from the comments. But there are more things to say, many of which I discussed in a wide-ranging interview yesterday on Majority Report Radio with Sam Seder. Reflecting on this comment, I noted that it pretty much eliminates the narrative, pushed strongly during the Republican National Convention, that it’s somehow offensive to say “if you had a business, you didn’t build that.” The reason Romney believes that 95% of the success in America can be attributed to being born here comes from the vast amount of resources we have available for use, from an education system to infrastructure and on and on. So something else besides ingenuity and hard work is responsible for the success of the job creators. That’s the implicit belief here.
However, as Ryan Grim and Arthur Delaney go on to explain in their story, this is kind of a mythologized view of America. In fact, that head start on success by virtue of being born in America doesn’t reach a large section of the public anymore. The poverty rate has stubbornly stayed over 15% in recent years, and far more stumble into poverty at least at one part of their lives. That’s been particularly true during the Great Recession. What’s worse, social mobility has stunted in America to almost the lowest rate among industrialized nations in the world. It’s not really true anymore that 95% of your life is set for you just by being an American.
Despite the United States’ famed economic mobility, many Europeans have it better. Among American families in which the father’s earnings put him in the bottom 20 percent of incomes, 42.2 percent of the sons remain in the bottom fifth as adults, while only 7.9 percent make it to the top fifth. For sons raised in the top 20 percent, 36 percent stay in the top fifth as adults, while fewer than 10 percent sink to the bottom, according to Rank’s research. By comparison, in Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom, a lower percentage of sons raised in poor families stay poor, and a greater percentage become rich.
Yet this is a persistent myth brought forward by both parties. Just today, in a Univision forum, President Obama said something to the effect of “In America, you can go as far as your dreams will take you.” He was talking about education, and about creating equal opportunity to fulfill dreams. Only that’s not true anymore. And the responsibility on politicians should be to devise policies that get us back to that place, and to say to those who don’t happen to make it through life’s rich pageant unscathed that America stands ready to offer them assistance as well. Not to promote this myth that just because they happened to navigate the American system and become rich and successful, that such an avenue is open to everyone.
Anyway, I haven’t fully formed this critique, but you get a sense of it in this discussion with Sam.