Something Mitt Romney Almost Got Right

Perhaps the most outrageous part of Romney’s deservedly-infamous speech to the $50,000-a-plate dinner was his assertion that he inherited nothing from his upbringing.  After all, he was only the son of the CEO of American Motors and then the Governor of Michigan, who went to one of the country’s best prep schools and then to Harvard (where, as Andy Sabl has reminded us, he made ends meet by selling stock): how in the world could anyone think that that gave him anything?  He might be as delusional as his running mate, which is saying a lot.

But in that speech he did say one thing that is undeniably true (even if he said it to make an absurd point):

Frankly, I was born with a silver spoon, which is the greatest gift you can have: which is to get born in America.

Absolutely true.  In today’s world, a child’s life chances are pervasively determined by which country she is born in.  Being born in the United States or the rich countries of Europe is tantamount to winning life’s lottery compared to the rest of the world.  Martha Nussbaum a few years ago noted that

A child born in Sweden today has a life expectancy at birth of 79.7 years. A child born in Sierra Leone has a life expectancy at birth of 38.9 years. In the USA, GDP per capita is US$34 142; in Sierra Leone, GDP per capita is US$490. Adult literacy rates in the top 20 nations are around 99%; in Sierra Leone, the literacy rate is 36%. In 26 nations, the adult literacy rate is under 50%.

Suzy Khimm got the numbers last year while reporting on the Occupy Movement’s claim to be the “99%.”  True, but only in the United States:

Those at the 34th percentile of income in the United States are at the 90th percentile globally, and those at the 50th percentile in the United States are at the 93rd percentile globally. Even the very poorest Americans — those at the 2nd percentile of income in the United States — are at the 62nd percentile globally.

And this adjusts for relative price levels.  Recently the United Nations Development Programme estimated that hunger and malnutrition affect more than 900 million people worldwide — the overwhelmiing majority of them in the Global South.

Note, of course, that using Romney’s words in this way shows the absurdity of his message.  Romney was attempting to make the Social Darwinist claim that the distribution of wealth is a function of virtue.  In fact, it is anything but: it is essentially a function of luck. 

If anything, the Republican Party is doing its best to clamp down on any attempts to change that: the egregious farm bill written by the House GOP leadership increases farm subsidies and removes the small measure of food aid reform contained in the last farm bill.  If the “deficit chickenhawks” in the Republican Party get their way, the majority of your food aid tax dollars will continue to go to wealthy US agribusiness and shipping interests, essentially serving as a way to dump food into the Global South and undermine local agriculture.

None of this, of course, should be taken as a reason to stop fighting against inequality in the United States.  But inequalities between countries have grown exponentially in the last hundred years: they are now simply too massive to be ignored.  US aid policies need to be the next frontier of a vigorous progressivism.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

18 thoughts on “Something Mitt Romney Almost Got Right”

  1. “But inequalities between countries have grown exponentially in the last hundred years”

    I am sceptical of this claim. The world is a very unequal place, but so was the world of 1912. It would be interesting to see which countries have fallen further behind the US in per capita terms in the last 100 years and which have caught up.

    1. Exactly Jonathan needs to see some of Hans Rosling’s presentations before repeating this claim.

      Rosling’s constant point is that it is no longer 1970, that it IS in fact intra-country inequality that is the big deal in the world, NOT inter-country inequality, and that most of the folk truths we believe about inequality are forty years out of date.

      1. FWIW, I got it from the UNDP Report in 2000, cited in the Nussbaum piece:

        “Global inequalities in income increased in the 20th century by orders of magnitude
        out of proportion to anything experienced before. The distance between the
        incomes of the richest and poorest country was about 3 to 1 in 1820, 35 to 1 in
        1950, 44 to 1 in 1973 and 72 to 1 in 1992.”

        I imagine that this might have a good deal to do with 1) how inequality is measured; and 2) the fact that nations like the Tigers, China, and India have become somewhat “middle income”. But UNDP is a good source, and they are quite clear on the numbers.

        If you do have a contradictory cite, I’d love to see it (that’s not snark — I’m actually interested).

        1. Look at the language the UNDP is using. They’re very specifically using “richest and poorest country”, not any sort of population weighted measure. They’re also (for obvious political reasons) not in the business of saying how this compares to within-country inequality.

          It’s not hard to see Hans Rosling’s take on this material: Doa google search for “Hans Rosling youtube”, eg
          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUwS1uAdUcI (specific to this context starts at around 14 min in)
          or
          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVhWqwnZ1eM

          (Yeah yeah, they’re from TED. Generally a red flag, but as far as I can tell Rosling has no ideological agenda, certainly not the TED “the rich will save the world, aren’t you all so great” agenda.)

          1. Well, if the UNDP isn’t even weighting for population, then that’s just pure deceit: I would have to see more than that to believe that. But I’ll check it out, as well as the Rosling stuff. My sense at this stage is that there are huge intra-country equality problems, but that is because there are tiny numbers of very rich people in India, say, but the majority of the country is very poor. True enough, but that should not obscure the fact that even the poorest Americans are far, far richer than the majority of people around the world. (And that, in turn, should not make us complacent about inequalities here at home.).

  2. Slightly off-topic, here’s a story (h/t LGM) that the Democrat instrumental in getting the Romney video online was none other than Jimmy Carter’s son James Carter, fed up at the regular slurs on his father’s reputation. Ruthlessness is presumably inherited on the X chromosome.

  3. How many BYU graduates with Romney’s evident aimlessness (using his mission obligations to bail on the more academically challenging and unfamiliar Stanford) would be accepted into the very first class of Harvard’s MBA/JD program without Romney’s connections?

  4. Mitt is a Harvard-trained lawyer and knows bloody well that one only “inherits” through the laws of intestacy. He specifically and repeatedly asserts that he did not “inherit” anything because it is undoubtedly true that both his parent died testate and that he also came into a great deal of family wealth and property via inter vivos transfers. Mitt speaks a literal truth with the intention to deceive laypeople who do not understand the limited scope of his carefully selected terminology. He is a truthful liar.

  5. Excellent illustration of the fundamental incoherence of the modern conservative worldview: we are at once a meritocracy because wealth and privilege don’t matter – one can rise above any circumstance if one wants to, but then that things like democracy and values (not to mention “government getting out of the way”) matter. Maybe the people of Sierra Leone just don’t want it bad enough, and aren’t making the right choices. One is reminded of his comments about Israel and Palestine, where he sees the problem as merely one of virtue and meritocratic Darwinism.

    1. That’s right. Individual self-sufficiency, the puritanical supreme.

      Except of course when a dysfunctional culture of declining moral values prevents the nation from achieving collective merit.

  6. A Mormon “elder” (who was just out of college doing his missionary work) told me (about 37 years ago) something which I may have misconstrued, but it seems that he told me that I must have done something right in Heaven in order to be favored by being born in the USA. It sounded as if he said that I had earned my American birth. At the time, I was not attuned to theological argumentation, and may have missed the point of what he was saying.

    Does anyone have any insights into Mormon doctrine regarding these things?

    1. By one interpretation this sounds pretty mainstream to me. It’s just predestination by another name (and very garbled language).
      You can hardly call it a weird mormonism without accepting the weirdness of the idea in the general Calvinist context.
      What Americans seem to have done here is to literalize theological ideas that were floating around in general, to convert the vague idea of “doing well in heaven” to the concrete idea of “doing well on earth”, and to convert the (horrifying but at least egalitarian) idea of predestination and salvation through god’s grace, to the even more horrifying idea of “my material wealth PROVES my spiritual worthiness”. Again, no different from what happened in Europe post-Calvin.
      (And not an especially unusual doctrine across all world cultures.)

      Of course, by another interpretation what he’s saying is some sort of reincarnation doctrine and at that point, yes, we are very far outside the christian mainstream.

      I’d be curious to know which of these holds, but I suspect it is the boring first one. If Mormons believed in reincarnation, I think we’d all have heard about it by now.

      1. I don’t think he was talking reincarnation, but may have been talking about preincarnation. This was on the Navajo reservation back in the 1970s and he was trying to dig his vehicle out of the mud in his business suit. Not the ideal conditions for learning doctrine. Somehow we exist in another realm prior to birth, or so it seemed.

        I did respectthe Mormon elders for learning to speak passable Navajo; not that many white men bothered.

  7. And Romney will do his part to make America’s life expectancy and literacy become more like Sierra Leone’s than Sweden’s.

  8. What I think Romney is trying to say is: since we don’t redistribute globally, why do it within our borders? So this stat, if true, would actually help his case.

    But inequalities between countries have grown exponentially in the last hundred years: they are now simply too massive to be ignored.

    In other words, as global inequality has increased, the world has become a better place.

  9. But inequalities between countries have grown exponentially in the last hundred years: they are now simply too massive to be ignored. US aid policies need to be the next frontier of a vigorous progressivism.

    Full disclosure: my default position is libertarian. But I mostly read those who I disagree with. I’ve been trying to understand the Left’s concern about income inequality. I would think trying to reduce poverty full stop would be a more straightforward goal.

    But from what I understand, income inequality is a concept that only works within borders. Liberal economists argue that it correlates to bunch of bad things: crime, stability, economic growth, social mobility, and a concentration of political power.

    But afak these correlations don’t occur on a global scale. Ergo, there is no global gini index (ie one score to measure the entire world) just one that gives scores to each independent country.

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