During the 2012 presidential election, no passage caused more heartburn for Mitt Romney’s campaign than this:
“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 …. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
This, of course, is the famous “47 percent” statement, secretly recorded in May at a private fund raiser in Boca Raton, held in reserve, and then opportunistically published in September, as the race was tightening, by the left-wing Mother Jones.
Some people are forever associated with numbers. In Massachusetts, Ted Williams will forever be No. 9. Bill Russell will be No. 6. And Mitt Romney, by virtue of remarks which Yale Law School has recently named the No. 1 quote of 2012, will forever be associated with No. 47. Indeed, if one runs a Google search for “47” (just 47, without the percent sign or word), one finds that 99 out of the first 100 articles are about Romney. (The one exception is a Wikipedia article on the number itself. Apparently, Wikipedia features an article on every number. Some editor there has a very boring job.)
Immediately after their publication, Mitt Romney apologized for his remarks. When Joe Biden cited the comment during the vice presidential debate, the only defense Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan could offer was: “”I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way.”
But here’s the thing. Mitt Romney was right.
Now when I say that Romney was right, I’m not talking about the exact percentage of people who pay no income tax. According to the Tax Policy Center, the correct number for 2011 was 46.4% of households, not 47.0%. And I’m not referring to Romney’s view that his “job is not to worry about those people.” Obviously, a presidential candidate should worry about every voter, no matter how unlikely he is to receive his vote. Romney spoke at the NAACP convention, after all.
But when Romney said that nearly half the population are dependent on government, and believe that government owes them benefits as an entitlement, he was right. Absolutely right. And that ought to concern 100% of us.
If Romney erred at all, he erred by understating the situation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 49% of Americans today live in homes receiving one or more government transfer benefits, an increase of about 20 points from the early 1980s.
According to the Office of Management and the Budget, over the past 50 years, during good times and bad, during Democratic administrations and during Republican administrations, the portion of the federal budget devoted to social welfare payments has risen from about one third of the federal budget to two thirds.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, during that same 50 year span, entitlement transfers—government payments of cash, goods and services to citizens—have grown twice as fast as overall personal income. They now account for nearly 18% of all personal income in America—up from 6% in 1960.
These worrisome statistics (and more) have been gathered and summarized by Nicholas Eberstadt, author of “A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic.” To Eberstadt these trends represent more than a fiscal problem. They represent a moral problem.
As the government spends more on entitlements, the percentage of men willing to work for a living has declined. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of adult men working or seeking work dropped by 13 percentage points between 1948 and 2008. Today, 7.2% of men in their late 30s (the prime working period) have simply removed themselves from the workforce — more than twice the percentage in Greece.
In his admittedly clumsy way, the candidate Romney was sounding the same alarm bell rung more eruditely by the scholar Eberstadt.
Is the alarm justified? According to William Galston of the Brookings Institute, it is not. Transfer payments, after all, are merely payments from some members of society to other members. We’re all in this together, taking, yes, but also giving. As long as we remain a Nation of Givers, Galston says, we’ll be all right.
But the transfer payments are not being paid for by some fanciful Nation of Givers. Our national debt is $16.5 trillion and growing at a rate of $3.82 billion per day. That means that our children, grandchildren, and generations unborn will have the honor of becoming the true Nation of Givers. Galston acknowledges this fact, but deems it an “intergenerational compact.” A compact is a glorified word for agreement or covenant. As every first year law school student learns, there can be no agreement without an offer and acceptance.
When did our children and grandchildren, when did the unborn, accept the role of paymaster for the current beneficiaries of our welfare state? I don’t believe they were ever consulted on the matter. If they had been, they might have responded as the Illinois man from an Abraham Lincoln story did. When confronted by a local citizens’ committee with the prospect of being tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail, he announced, “If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, I’d just as soon it happened to someone else.”
Another, more insidious problem with Galston’s “Nation of Givers” response to Romney’s and Eberstadt’s alarm is a syndrome that might be called the Law of Relative Unease. If we were all truly in this together — receiving a degree of comfort from our status as Takers and receiving an equal degree of unease from our status as Givers — then some kind of equilibrium might emerge, preventing the problem from getting out of hand. A rational citizenry, no matter how much it enjoys transfer payments, would not overburden itself. But that’s not how the political mechanics work.
Under the Law of Relative Unease, when a citizen is confronted with the possible loss of a specific governmental program designed to benefit him, he is uneasy. Granted, when confronted with alarms about the cost to society of an unbridled welfare state, he is also uneasy. But he may be one of only a small group to benefit from a specific transfer payment program, while he is merely one of hundreds of millions to bear the overall societal cost. The loss of his specific, favorite transfer program makes him much more uneasy than the alarms over the general, societal fiscal crisis. Why should he give up the real and tangible benefit of a specific transfer program for the far more remote and impersonal end of restoring society’s fiscal health?
That is why it is so difficult to persuade a Nation of Takers to step back, to see the big picture, and to curb their taking.
And that is why Mitt Romney was right.