As an aside in acknowledging that he pays roughly 15 percent of his income in taxes, a lower share than many middle-class Americans, Mitt Romney also mentioned that he “gets speaker fees from time to time, but not very much.”
Campaign disclosure forms express that “not very much” in stark numerical terms: $374,000 in speaking fees from February 2010 to February 2011, when Romney ceased accepting paying gigs in order to run for president full time.
From Romney’s point of view, his description of that income is correct and understandable. If you have an estimated net worth of $270 million, $374,000 truly is “not very much,” a mere 0.14 percent of your wealth. On the other hand, from the point of view of most Americans, that same sum is really quite a lot. In fact, Romney’s income from speeches alone would put him in the fabled top 1 percent in terms of household income.
The issue is relevant not because it feeds some sort of voter envy over Romney’s wealth. It’s relevant in terms of perspective. Romney’s dismissal of $374,000 as “not very much,” when in fact it’s more than 99 percent of American households make each year, tells you a lot about how the world looks through his eyeballs. As the son of one of Detroit’s most powerful auto executives, and as a highly successful venture capitalist himself, he has experienced the world from a very different vantage point than most of his fellow Americans.
Does that matter? Well, the GOP critique of Barack Obama has focused on a claim that, raised partially overseas, he was not exposed to the full “American experience” and is thus less than fully American. He doesn’t understand us; he’s not one of us. That’s the crux of the whole “birther” phenomenon, as well as claims from the likes of Newt Gingrich that Obama is an “anti-colonialist” who somehow absorbed the political viewpoint of the foreign-born father that he almost never saw. It has even led black Americans as diverse in viewpoint as Cornel West and Herman Cain to question Obama’s authenticity as an American black man.
In a sense, Romney also grew up and continues to reside in a foreign land, a place with very different rules, customs and culture than most Americans experienced. It formed his world view in a way that he can never fully escape, in part because there is little evidence that he had tried. And on the campaign trail, that managerial instinct to focus on the numbers rather than the human impact reveals itself repeatedly.
It comes across, for example, when Romney tried to claim recently that he too has lived in fear of getting the pink slip, although his campaign later ducked questions about when that fabled time might have occurred. It was akin to John Kerry asking “who among us does not like NASCAR”? And when asked in Nevada — ground zero of the foreclosure boom — what should be done to address the housing crisis that continues to put hundreds of thousands of American families out of their homes, Romney’s blunt answer was “don’t try to stop the foreclosure process, let it run its course and bottom out.”
That is the viewpoint of a CEO or outside consultant who is trained to see workers as units of production, and desperate homeowners clinging to their property as an obstacle to efficient markets. Don’t get me wrong: There is a place, even a need, for such bottom-line attitudes in a capitalist system.
The question that voters have to answer in 2012 is whether that place is the White House.
– Jay Bookman