Mitt Romney and Ann: the students “struggling” so much that they had to sell stock.

Mitt is claiming that he got nothing from his dad except a home loan in grad school. That’s not true. In an infamous 1994 interview, Ann Romney lamented that nobody understood that as “struggling students” she and Mitt could only bind flesh to spirit by selling stock.

Mitt Romney is going around saying that he made all his money himself, aside from a loan from his dad to buy his first house.

Journalists who buy that have short memories. I was living in Massachusetts when Romney first ran for the Senate, and remembered this interview with Ann Romney in the Boston Globe (by Jack Thomas, October 20, 1994; the abstract is here; the full text costs $4.95). Of her student days with Mitt at BYU, Ann said:

“They were not easy years. You have to understand, I was raised in a lovely neighborhood, as was Mitt, and at BYU, we moved into a $62-a-month basement apartment with a cement floor and lived there two years as students with no income.

“It was tiny. And I didn’t have money to carpet the floor. But you can get remnants, samples, so I glued them together, all different colors. It looked awful, but it was carpeting.

“We were happy, studying hard. Neither one of us had a job, because Mitt had enough of an investment from stock that we could sell off a little at a time.

“The stock came from Mitt’s father. When he took over American Motors, the stock was worth nothing. But he invested Mitt’s birthday money year to year — it wasn’t much, a few thousand, but he put it into American Motors because he believed in himself. Five years later, stock that had been $6 a share was $96 and Mitt cashed it so we could live and pay for education.

“Mitt and I walked to class together, shared housekeeping, had a lot of pasta and tuna fish and learned hard lessons.

“We had our first child in that tiny apartment. We couldn’t afford a desk, so we used a door propped on sawhorses in our bedroom. It was a big door, so we could study on it together. And we bought a portable crib, took the legs off and put it on the desk while we studied. I had a baby sitter during class time, but otherwise, I’d hold my son on my lap while I studied.

“The funny thing is that I never expected help. My father had become wealthy through hard work, as did Mitt’s father, but I never expected our parents to take care of us. They’d visit, laugh and say, `We can’t believe you guys are living like this.’ They’d take us out to dinner, have a good time, then leave.

“We stayed till Mitt graduated in 1971, and when he was accepted at Harvard Law, we came east. He was also accepted at Harvard Business School as part of a joint program that admits 25 a year, so he was getting degrees from Harvard Law and Business schools at the same time.

“Remember, we’d been paying $62 a month rent, but here, rents were $400, and for a dump. This is when we took the now-famous loan that Mitt talks about from his father and bought a $42,000 home in Belmont, and you know? The mortgage payment was less than rent. Mitt saw that the Boston market was behind Chicago, LA and New York. We stayed there seven years and sold it for $90,000, so we not only stayed for free, we made money. As I said, Mitt’s very bright.

“Another son came along 18 months later, although we waited four years to have the third, because Mitt was still in school and we had no income except the stock we were chipping away at. We were living on the edge, not entertaining. No, I did not work. Mitt thought it was important for me to stay home with the children, and I was delighted.

“Right after Mitt graduated in 1975, we had our third boy and it was about the time Mitt’s first paycheck came along. So, we were married a long time before we had any income, about five years as struggling students. …

“Now, every once in a while, we say if things get rough, we can go back to a $62-a-month apartment and be happy. All we need is each other and a little corner and we’ll be fine.”

Ann was widely mocked for this at the time. I don’t dissent from the mockery. Her idea of her and Mitt facing “not easy years,” having “no income,” “living on the edge” as “struggling students,” was that the couple had had to face college with only sale of stock to sustain them. By Ann’s own account, the stock amounted to “a few thousand” dollars when bought, but it had gone up by a factor of sixteen. So let’s conservatively say that they got through five years as students—neither one of them working—only by “chipping away at” assets of $60,000 in 1969 dollars (about $377,000 today).

Look. I don’t begrudge Romney’s having had his college tuition and living expenses paid for with family money. Mine were too. My background, though not as fancy as Mitt or Ann Romney’s, was privileged enough. But the guy should just come out and admit it: “I was a child of privilege and have my parents’ wealth to thank for my education. That said, I worked very very hard in business, and the vast majority of my fortune I earned myself.”

But there is of course a reason he can’t say that: such a statement is customarily followed by an expression of gratitude and a willingness to give something back to society. And gratitude and a willingness to give something back are precisely what Romney lacks—in common with the party he’s aspiring to represent.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

53 thoughts on “Mitt Romney and Ann: the students “struggling” so much that they had to sell stock.”

  1. Makes me think of my own time in graduate school, 1970-1973, at West Virginia University. I was working (as a TA; my annual income started at $3,000 per year plus tuition reimbursement, rising to $3,600 in the third year), as was my wife (a slightly-above minimum wage job in a bank,), so we had a total income of around $8,000 – $10,000 per year. Per capita personal income in 1970 was $4,052 (Statistical Abstract of the U.S.), so, even as a struggling grad student, I was in a family with a roughly average income for the time. (Median household income, all families, was $8,734 in 1970; $9,097 for white families and $5,537 for African-American familes’ also from the Statistical Abstract.) Given that we were living in West Virginia, we probably had a slighly above-average income for the state. (By 1980, in both West Virginia and Utah, per capita personal income was about 80% of the U.S. level, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the Romneys were also living at a level somewhat above the Utah average, at least before they had children; afterwwards, not.) No wonder it didn’t feel like poverty, even at the time…

  2. Maybe he doesn’t think he needs to pay anything back, because he paid for what he got from society, at the time he got it?

    I don’t like the guy, but I’d be sympathetic to that. The guy built the fortune himself, paying taxes the whole time. He paid his “debt to society” on the installment plan, as he incurred it, and then some.

    1. The problem with Romney’s income isn’t the wealth. He built a fortune with some fairly common destructive business practices like leveraged buy-outs, etc… that, again, were common and underregulated. At the same time, his particular line of work provided an income that was under-taxed.

      That puts a lot of wealth into Mitt’s pockets before he quit his job to go into politics. I think the problem for most Americans isn’t that Romney is wealthy; the problem is that he’s getting wealthier without work. For a country that constantly talks about earning your own fortune with hard work, it’s unsettling to watch Romney pull in $20 million per year while he says that he’s “also unemployed.”

      Then the government subsidizes that income by treating it differently from wages, meaning he pays less on each dollar he makes than a middle class family. The favorable treatment given to investment income is going to come into crisper focus this year if Romney is the nominee, and it already has crystalized in an interesting way.

      1. Nice rant but off the point. If Romney “paid taxes the whole time” then it was far less as a percentage than the vast majority of people. It is convenient to say that you should be exempt or treated differently the hard part is convincing someone else that they should not. There is the hypocrisy of that argument.

    2. “…paying taxes the whole time. He paid his “debt to society” on the installment plan, as he incurred it, and then some.

      Really? As we recently learned Romney paid an effective tax rate of 14% last year, substantially lower then most teachers, cops or fireman. Is that what you call paying your debt to a society that allowed him to be raised and educated in extraordinary priviledge and to amass an enormous fortune by exploiting the tax code?

  3. There was a time when a guy like Mitt would have been socialized to understand how much he’d been handed, and feel some sense of obligation. I think it’s entirely possible, in fact, that Mitt was socialized that way and that he really does feel a bit of noblesse oblige.

    But Brett, as always, speaks for the modern Republican/Tea Party, and the Mitt of my imagination would be intolerable to the Republicans. So Mitt stifles those impulses.

    You could be Warren Buffett, accomplishment-wise, but if you had a sense of your own good fortune, and a notion of how the U.S. government facilitated your wealth, a lot of Republicans would regard you with contempt.

    1. pf: There was a time when a guy like Mitt would have been socialized to understand how much he’d been handed, and feel some sense of obligation. I think it’s entirely possible, in fact, that Mitt was socialized that way…

      Check out this debate answer that Josh Marshall flagged the other day as “Mitt’s epic meltdown”:

      There are many fascinating things going on in Romney’s answer. Perhaps the most stunning is the bald assertion that he is a self-made man who inherited nothing. Romney gives no indication that he understands having a rich corporate father who became the governor of a state made life immeasurably easier for him. Even sicker, Romney then uses his dad’s name at answer’s end to try to appeal to Hispanic voters(!). Yes you read that correctly: Right after denying his “leg-up,” Mitt uses his daddy’s name to try to climb even higher…

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen a slimier political moment that that.
      Epic indeed.

      I loathe GWB, but I respect him. “W” knew the Bush name absolutely aided his ambitions. He was comfortable in his “Bush skin” and used it to great advantage whenever he could. Romney apparently lacks that level of self-reflection. Either that, or he has been lying to himself for so long he has no idea that without Daddy, he’d be a two-bit Amway con artist living out of a trailer and watching wrestling on tv.

  4. First off, there’s more than a whiff of BS about the story – like the door-desk. But the story kind of misses the point. It is doubtful the Romnrys were ever in any real danger of not being able to finish college their rent – let alone starve.

    It is the kind of pseudo hardscrabble experience that makes for a good story, and earns some Mormon “self-made man” street cred, but is more than a little bogus.

    1. Actually, I had a desk just like that. I did all my work on it in college, and then my brother used it after me in both college and grad school.

      What makes you think it’s baloney?

      Truth be told, Mitt and Ann deserve credit for living resourcefully and within their means, when they could have blown through their capital quickly, as many rich kids do.

      (It doesn’t alter my opinion of his ingratitude for his advantage, or his lack of empathy, nor do I think he is particularly skillful at anything but rent-seeking and looking good in a suit to other businessmen of the rentier class.)

      1. It’s baloney to talk about the experience as if they were living hand-to-mouth, in fear that if they blew their budget they’d have to drop out of school or lose their apartment. They were living a perfectly admirable and respectable frugal student lifestyle; where it becomes dishonorable is when they talk about it like itwas Abe Lincoln’s log cabin, like the experience made them hardened street-savvy survivors.

      2. I think the point is that they don’t recognize, or admit, their degree of privilege, even in that context. Did they have to borrow money for tuition or living expenses, or work part-time? No. Did they have to worry about what might happen if an unexpected financial disaster struck? I don’t think so. There is a difference between living frugally by choice and doing so because you have to.

        In some sense, none of that matters, of course. Lots of people enjoy privileged or somewhat privileged upbringings. It’s not a sign of bad character or anything. But pretending that it was not privileged is BS.

  5. “we waited four years to have the third” … does anyone think these two lovely, attractive people didn’t have sex for four years? Or is that pretty much an admission to using birth control? Santorum’s got himself a campaign issue!

    1. > “we waited four years to have the third” … does anyone think these two
      > lovely, attractive people didn’t have sex for four years? Or is that
      > pretty much an admission to using birth control? Santorum’s got
      > himself a campaign issue!

      Mormons have no prohibition against birth control, just premarital use thereof. Social pressure is toward large families once married for a few years, but AFAIK they are not expected to undertake continuous production as Catholics were in that era.


  6. No matter how much you’ve been “handed”, at some point you’ve handed it back, and don’t owe anything anymore. Were this not the case, then society would be continually declining, from all the people getting X, and giving back X-n. But society doesn’t decline, it rises, indicating that, on average, people “give back” quite a bit more than they are given.

    We’ve identified an above average amount Romney got from his parents. But he’s started from somewhat above average wealth, and built it to fantastic wealth, and along the way paid a fantastic sum in taxes. hugely in excess of any honest accounting of the services he has received. (By honest, I mean not tautologically rigged so that he could never manage that.)

    In a country where, on average, people “give back” more than they’ve got, Romney has given back enough more than the average person to boggle the mind.

    This is the basis of my saying that he has already given back what he was given, and is perfectly entitled to shrug off the incessant demands that he pay a bill he paid long, long ago.

    1. Oh, nonsense. He used a method of legal thievery to garner for himself value that other people created. He converted valuables into cash. He bought and then burdened companies, sucking them dry, then left the dry husks scattered around behind him.

      You, Brett, look at his 12 giant houses and think that he did something worth while.

      From Doghouse Riley:

      … There’s no sacred text of Alexander Hamilton which consecrates what was done at Bain. There’s no shrine to unfettered rapine honored in every American household. What Bain did—what Willard Mitt Romney and his two hard-scrabbled Hahvahd degrees did—was take every advantage of a gamed system, a gamed system we can call, not for want of a better term but because there is no better term, the Reagan Revolution.

      Faced with a troubled, stagnant economy which was in trouble, and had stagnated, largely because its multinational colossi did not want to be bothered adapting to a changing world—one in which energy wasn’t plentiful and cheap, one in which the United States did not stand as the only global player, one in which consumers had begun to take their rightful place in the endless merry-go-round of merchantilism—in other words, the world of the 21st century, the one we’re failing to adapt to today—unless their built-in advantages were preserved. So the Reagan administration, and the Western-Southern alliance in the Congress, defanged and dismantled the legislative safeguards which had for two generations somewhat leveled the playing field, and protected the vulnerable public from the worst of Boom and Bust. Which allowed the “visionaries” and “tenacious achievers” to bleed the system, to convert assets into cash. Meanwhile destroying the assets.

      Fooled plenty of people. Made Reagan look like an Economic Miracle Worker, provided you didn’t look too closely or ask why he simultaneously had the worst jobs creation record of any post-war President. Until his successor inherited the snake oil inventory.

      That’s what Romney did; his tireless efforts were designed to prove that any idiot with money can make more money, provided making more money is the only thing he cares about.

    2. hugely in excess of any honest accounting of the services he has received.

      You are assuming that he doesn’t continue to receive things of value from society.

  7. Brett

    Check out Adam Smith on the divison of labour. Ten guys working together can make much more than ten working separately. To whom does the “extra” belong? If divided equally, no problem. If divided unequally, then the guy who gets the biggest share owes something to the cooperation of the other nine. A country is, among other things, a huge divison of labour scheme, one with a long past of investment in human, social and physical capital. No-one born into such a scheme “makes everything themselves”. They can’t. Any notion that what people earn reflects their individual talents or productivity is simplistic beyong belief – a fairytale to justify the present distribution. What made Romney’s stock rise? Who set the tax levels on his income? Who decided that bankers are worth more than plumbers? At every point Romney benefited from a political and social arrangement he personally did little to create or maintain, as do we all. So it might be reasonable for him to acknowledge this, and acknowledge that with his extra benefits come extra obligations.

    1. “Ten guys working together can make much more than ten working separately. To whom does the “extra” belong?”

      Well, if you’re a liberal, you think it belongs to the government. After all, who else does an increase in productivity belong to, if several people get together to make more, if not several other people?

      This is what I meant by tautological. You’ve defined what Romney owes in such a fashion that, no matter how much he’s paid, he’ll never be paid up, because everything he’s helped create is attributed to the government. That between him and people who failed or didn’t try, the government was a constant, and Romney was the variable, means nothing to you, only government gets the credit for anything.

      1. Brett,

        It’s an interesting idea that “government is a constant.” It should be pretty easy to research, too. One possible way of testing that hypothesis would be to look at how government interacts with different people. Bad example: we could look at tax rates. The government asks Mitt Romney to pay less in taxes than they ask a wage-earner in his income bracket to pay.

        The idea that “Romney is the variable” is separately testable. Besides the intra-Romney variation in beliefs, I wonder, what would you look at to prove that Romney is distinguishable from Businessman X? I would imagine that there’s a lot of confounds there. There would be a penumbra of questions relating to family background, economic climate when he was looking for work, and of course, luck (or error). Could you present your argument for why the Romney-versus-Businessman X differentiation would be more relevant to Romney’s success than the situational confounds?


  8. … he invested Mitt’s birthday money year to year — it wasn’t much, a few thousand, but he put it into American Motors …

    A few thousand 1950-something dollars a year? That was pretty close to a teacher’s income then.

    1. It’s ambiguous, but I took it to mean a few thousand total, not a few thousand a year. Still a very big chunk when adjusted for inflation and multiplied by sixteen.

      1. Assume 3000 total invested in American Motors at $6 a share, cashed out at $96 a share. That is $48,000. 4 years of tuition at BYU in the late 60s is $855. 62 a month rent for 2 years is 7688. Another 2 years of undergrad living in a similar venue yields a total of 15376, leaving the Romneys with 31,769 (minus taxes) to spend. That is a ton of cash for an undergrad to spend on food, books, and booze for 4 years today!

        1. All correct except for one thing: this couple were Mormons with a couple of kids. I don’t think they spent much on booze. For that matter, they probably saved a pile by not spending anything on coffee.

    2. “That was pretty close to a teacher’s income then.”
      Like the lady said, “it wasn’t much.”

  9. Wow, Mitt really lived it up in college. Tuition at BYU in 1970 was a paltry $250 a year. See:

    At 96 dollars a share Mitt would need to cash in only about 3 shares a year to pay for schooling! I would certainly call those “easy years”.

    To me the worst part about the Romneys is not that they don’t want to pay back society, it is that they pretend that they had it so rough. They were privileged to have been given wealth as young adults. It is pretty insulting to try and argue otherwise.

  10. According to
    Mitt Romney is exceedingly frugal. His friends call him “cheap.”

    But “I worked my way tbrough college selling off the stock my dad gave me from the giant auto company he was President of” doesn’t have that self-made man ring to me. And, “So then I went to grad school and my dad lent me the downpayment for a house” also doesn’t have that whiff of utter privation.

  11. This story reminds me of George H W Bush’s story of buying his Kenebunkport house right out of college with his “own money”. Maybe he earned that money bagging groceries between classes and was brown bagging to scrape togeather the down payment. Yeah right. More likely he cashed in some of dad’s nazi gold that was under the steps in the basement.

  12. They lived in an apartment? When my wife and I were first married, we lived in a hole in the ground with a plastic tarp over us. And the rent was $75/month, which we raised by culling pennies from a wishing well. It wasn’t so bad in the summer, because we could bathe while we were picking up change, but during the winter we nearly froze, especially since our clothes were made out of discarded paper towels we pulled from a dumpster. A desk made out of a sawhorse and a door? Luxury! Our desk was made of out twigs we stole from squirrels (who were eating better than we were, I tell you!).

    And Mitt’s dad gave him stock in American Motors? The only nest egg our parents gave us was some counterfeit Confederate money, which we had to burn to stay warm. On our wedding day, Dad would give us some cigarettes he conned out of his cellmate, but we were too poor to smoke them. We traded them for a new tarp.

  13. That’s because the others can’t afford time to waste on these blasted newfangled intertubes or yours 🙂

  14. Oh, and doubling your money in the boston real estate market in 7 years during the 70s? That would be a normal or even sub-optimal rate of return.

    1. The cost of registering for college when I was an undergrad at a state college in California was $60. Since minimum wage at that time for students was $1.15 (less than the regular minimum wage of $1.25 in order to encourage employers to hire students) and I could only work at most 20 hours a week while going to school full time, my monthly income was just under $100. Somehow Mrs. Romney’s lament about living like I did–but without having to work at the same time–leaves me rather cold. Now, of course, the cost of public higher education in California has risen much much higher than could be accounted for by inflation, while minimum wage has not kept pace, so even Mr. Romney’s advice to go to a less expensive school is in fact condescending. Kinda like that old “let them eat cake” thing. Now, kids from the economic class into which I was born have an increasingly diminishing chance of completing their education, getting a decent job, and–oh yes–paying back to society. I’d actually be happy to have the tax rate my parents (who did give me the $60 for registration) had, if we could once again have the finest public educational system in the world, wonderful public parks, and the other benefits of living in California in the 1950s and 60s.

  15. He gave over $7 million to charity over the last two years. That’s more than 15% of his income. Of course, he has given back to society.

    Paying taxes on the other hand doesn’t actually show any willingness to give. Taxes after all are collected with the implicit threat of force.

    1. There is an important difference between charity, which is selective and therefore does not benefit “society” but only those parts one agrees with, and taxes which are beneficial to society as a whole. And, how has it that the notion of a social contract, upon which this country was established has come to be warped into “implicit threat of force”? We have a democracy (a social contract) because we rebelled against the British crown, which was a system of force. Oh, that’s right, driving on the right side of the street and stopping at red lights–that must be “implicit threat of force” too.

      1. This is hilarious.

        I hope liberals realize that “society” as such does not exist. Society is hundreds of millions of individuals each pursuing their own self-interest. Charity helps some individuals in “society” and so do some Government programs…..

        Government spending mostly goes to programs for old people (whose average net worth is higher than the average net worth of the general population) , defense (i.e politically connected corporations and contractors) and interest on the debt (i.e East Asian Governments and Americans – mostly wealthy Americans – who own T-bills). So, a dollar given to charity is much more likely to be spent on helping a truly needy individual than a dollar confiscated by Government.

        Your “lofty” views on the social contract are all very well…. but they have nothing to do with reality and have never had anything to with reality. People pay taxes because if they don’t pay them they will be kidnapped at gunpoint and put in a cage with a convicted felon. This has always been the reason why people pay taxes.

        You need evidence…. Here is some evidence:
        a) People (including liberals) try to pay as less as they can legally get away with. I take every deduction and tax-credit that I can and SO DO YOU.
        b)The Government allows people to pay more than they are required to… almost nobody does (Warren Buffett doesn’t, Paul Krugman doesn’t, President Obama doesn’t and I’d wager neither do you).

        So, to repeat…. There is nothing noble about paying taxes. I do it to prevent imprisonment and anal-rape and so does everybody else I know.

      2. “Oh, that’s right, driving on the right side of the street and stopping at red lights–that must be “implicit threat of force” too.”

        Yes it is… In the real world, people are self-interested and respond to incentives…. People sometimes have an incentive to run red lights, but they rarely respond to that incentive because there is a stronger disincentive in the form of a cop with the right to impose a fine. If you resist, the cop might shoot you. So, yes… it is not a stretch to say that the implicit threat of force makes people stop at red lights.

        I am willing to bet that if the Government stops imposing fines on people who run red lights, the number of instances of people running red lights will go up !

  16. Hmm. How would you decode the following language of Ann Romney?

    “Another son came along 18 months later, although we waited four years to have the third, because Mitt was still in school and we had no income except the stock we were chipping away at.”

    Do you think she might support the Blunt-Rubio amendment, after first opposing it, of course?

    By the way, yes, the Mormon Church qualifies as a charity, but I wouldn’t exactly give Mitt Romney props for giving 15% of his income to charity when 10% or so of that is mandated by his religious belief to be given … to those who are mandating it.

  17. Mitt Romney is convinced ex- President of the united states Bill Clinton "embarrassed the nation" with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, still doesn't believe it can be an issue in 2016 when Hillary Clinton runs for president of the united states.
    “I think Hillary Clinton, if she evolves into a nominee, may have a great deal to talk about regarding her own reputation,” Romney stated on NBC's "Meet The Press" on Sunday. “I don’t imagine that Bill Clinton will most likely be a major element of it.”However the past Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican nominee was requested to discuss the 42nd president in light of the GOP's recent "resurrection" of the Clinton White House.
    “He ashamed the society,” Romney declared of Clinton. “He breached his commitment, I do think, as a matured adult and as a leader in his marriage. And also I think that’s very unfortunate. But yet I don't believe that's Hillary Clinton's to describe.

  18. I don’t imagine that Bill Clinton will most likely be a major element of it.”However the past Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican nominee was requested to discuss the 42nd president in light of the GOP's recent "resurrection" of the Clinton White House.

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