Poor little rich girl neglects to mention the stock portfolio that paid for the tuna fish

Ann Romney’s convention speech: doubling down on the absurd premise that living frugally on vast inherited wealth counts as struggle.

I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Ann Romney’s convention speech doubled down on a gaffe from her past: the claim that she and Mitt had very little money when they were going to college:

We were very young. Both still in college. There were many reasons to delay marriage, and you know? We just didn’t care. We got married and moved into a basement apartment. We walked to class together, shared the housekeeping, and ate a lot of pasta and tuna fish. Our desk was a door propped up on sawhorses. Our dining room table was a fold down ironing board in the kitchen. Those were very special days.

As Mitt might say, she’s got to be gosh-darned kidding me. As I blogged a few months ago, the way she and Mitt paid for their pasta and tuna fish, and the desk that was a door, was by SELLING STOCK, given to them by his family, that on a conservative calculation was worth in current money almost FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS [Update: or at least two hundred thousand; see below]. The only difference between the disastrous interview that helped lose Mitt his first election and the convention speech was that the story contained in the latter conveniently left out the huge nest egg. But the nest egg matters more than a little. Its presence guaranteed that this family’s early life would be the antonym of struggling.

Reminding viewers of the facts ought to be the press’ job. But it’s not doing it. The reports I’ve seen—including the New York Times—have made no mention of Ann and Mitt’s vast gifted wealth (and the much vaster wealth that they could of course have drawn on if in trouble). A speech eagerly reported as humanizing and successful actually had a fabricated reality at its center. Self-styled journalists who are letting Ann get away with this ought to be deeply ashamed of their alleged selves.

Worse: I doubt that Ann realizes that her tale of struggle is a fabrication. She probably really believes that living relatively frugally on a huge stock portfolio counts as economic struggle and anxiety about one’s prospects. No wonder she and her husband are so insouciant about slashing programs to benefit the poor. If I thought that’s what poverty was, I’d slash aid to me too.

[Update, 8/30/12, 11:15 a.m. EDT: given the debate from the comments below, I’m willing to amend the conservative estimate of Ann and Mitt’s stock wealth in college from $400,000 to $200,000 in today’s dollars–though it could have been much more. That was still enough to see them comfortably through several years of modest living, and to place them at something like the top one percent of students or young families. And it was of course backed up by so much wealth on both sides of the family in case of true need that, unlike everyone else in their alleged situation, they had absolutely no need to worry about economic reverses or health problems.]

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.

39 thoughts on “Poor little rich girl neglects to mention the stock portfolio that paid for the tuna fish”

  1. I doubt that Ann realizes that her tale of struggle is a fabrication. She probably really believes…

    Oh absolutely.

    We know enough about the way human memory works now to completely affirm your statement. Our memories are watery and self-serving. We can’t even fact check out our own lives. I don’t trust any of my memories as being rendered reality. Everything “me” is suspect. We embellish and then polish the embellishments. Ann Romney’s mythography is a wonderful example. As for Paul Ryan as Paul Bunyan, heavy-lifting himself out of flipping burgers to the steps of the White House, the only thing that stops that from being tireless gloated is the paper trail that his college education came at taxpayer expense. He can only transmute the memories so much. (But do check out his wikipedia entry to see the way our country’s social largess gets refitted into a positive Ryan personality trait of “saving” it up).

    Aphorism of the day:

    In order to justify their enormous advantages in life, some Bluestockings fabricate memories of transmuting a lead spoon into silver.

    1. I just finished reading Subliminal, by Leonard Mlodinov and you’re exactly right.

      However it’s also often a simple failure to understand one’s privilege. My own mother used to tell stories of living off soup crackers and working in a bottle factory. Yet this was a woman whose mother went to college, who’s father was a successful ad man, and herself went to a fancy liberal arts college back east. Indeed, she may have been “slumming it” for a while. But the amount of societal and human capital in the family was enormous. I was technically “poor” for my adult life until my mid-thirties, but my human capital was enormous.

      Privilege is as much about inherited socialization as it is about money. And we inherit this as much as the gilded class. We didn’t build it, it built us.

      1. It’s not just the failure to understand one’s privilege, it’s also the failure to take any real lessons from one’s own (even if limited) suffering. When I look back at my experiences living on off-brand canned sardines and sleeping in a basement next to the steam pipes, I remember how @$#% miserable the experience was, and feel pity for people faced with the prospect of that kind of existence or worse for their whole lives. Conservatives who have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps appear to feel contempt instead.

        1. That’s an interesting point. I imagine conservatives might look at such an experience and, because they were able to overcome it, assume that everyone should be able to. Yet there is a failure to account for the hidden advantages they had that others who never made it out did not have.

  2. And you’ll also not hear that Paul Ryan and his wife are sitting on an inheritance of a million bucks or so that’s in a couple limited partnerships in Florida and Wisconsin for tax-avoidance purposes. Instead, you’ll hear that his dad died (which is genuinely tragic but doesn’t change the fact that his path to success was primarily dependent on nepotism) when he was young and that he was a waited tables in DC for a few months (between a nepotism gig in DC and a nepotism gig back home in WI). As much as I despise Chris Christie’s disgusting strategy of rising to political prominence by exploiting a financial catastrophe to turn people against unions, he at least has a pretty legitimate story when he claims a working-class background; that’s why the bio/beginning of his speech was solid while Ann Romney sounded like she was reading stuff off the teleprompter that she’d never even thought of before. Ann Romney did much better with the political content of her speech than the invented biographical stuff.

    1. What will also not hear mentioned is that Ryan funded his college studies at Miami of Ohio with his Social Security Survivor’s benefits.

      I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that: he had the ability to succeed there. Did his circumstances really warrant it? I don’t know and don’t care. What is wrong is Ryan wanting to pull up the ladder behind him. It never ceases to amaze me how totally lacking in empathy these people are.

      1. And, of course, Chris Christie praised the GI Bill for funding his dad’s way at Rutgers and making it possible for him to give his kid a better education than most. No, wait, he used his dad as an example of how people can truly be self-made success stories in America.

      2. Exactly. The taxpayers funded a truly fine education for me, right up through a BA from UC San Diego. Now that I enjoy a robust annual income, I am glad to pay it forward so that another smart but impecunious young man or woman can have the same opportunity. Anything else is inhumane. I didn’t get where I am exclusively through my own hard work. The taxpayers educated me, I inherited a modest sum from my grandparents, and I hit (a little bit) the stock option lottery at a startup where I worked for a couple of years before it was acquired by a publicly-traded multinational (where I still work). I was also born with an IQ in the top 1% of the US population, and I’m a married heterosexual white male. Fair or not (and I lean strongly towards not), these are HUGE advantages in our highly unequal society, and I realize I’m very lucky.

        1. Thank you so much for realizing and articulating that, Andrew. Gives me hope we are not completely doomed.

  3. I heard that old cogger Bob Schaffer go googoo over Ann’s speech. On the national CBS radio feed, Bob failed to mention a factual challenge to the tuna fish moment! Bob needs to retire!

    1. Not before he applies his unparalleled ability to avoid obvious follow-up questions and let people say whatever they want to say, unchallenged, as a moderator of one of the three debates, of course.

    1. “Romney Hailed as Regular Guy by Woman with Horse in Olympics”

      Now now.
      Life wouldn’t be fair if there wasn’t some way for the un-athletic wealthy to buy themselves an Olympic medal…

    2. The other Andy’s post was a nice bit of snark–but it didn’t fact-check the narrative. (Nothing against him: he didn’t purport to be doing so.) That Mitt and Ann are very wealthy now is certainly no secret, and Ann’s speech in fact trumpeted that. But the speech also strongly implied that the couple had had modest means, and could therefore sympathize now with the economic concerns of the struggling, before Mitt’s business made them wealthy. That’s what needs to be punctured.

  4. great post, but i have a nitpick — i think you may be overstating the value of the Romney’s stock based on what Ann said in the 1994 interview.

    here’s what she said:
    “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.”

    you read that as a 1600% gain on the entire “few thousand,” but she clearly states that the investment was made incrementally (“year to year”) and we don’t know if that rise in share price happened *after* the few thousand was fully invested or *while* it was accumulating. i think Ann’s statement could be read either way.

    1. Is that “not much” like Mitt’s speaking fees of a few hundred thousand bucks or “not much” like some change found in the sofa? These folks have a whole different slant on what “not much” looks like so take it all with a bunch of grains of salt.

    2. Does this matter? The son of a CEO turned governor is trying to claim he’s lived the life of folks who started with nothing. It’s insanely out-of-touch and it would’ve ended John Kerry’s candidacy if he’d said anything like it. Or if he’d dressed up coal miners in hard hats and sooted clothes on a day the mine was shut down for a photo op when the boss forced them to attend a political rally without pay (seriously, why isn’t this a bigger story today?).

      This isn’t just meaningless bio-puffing either. Because of his experience, he’s saying that can-do Americans will be more likely to succeed if we cut anti-poverty spending (that mostly pays for food and healthcare for children and the elderly) in half because then everyone can be self-reliant like he was. Ryan’s making the same claims. In fact, Romney could’ve had zero monetary inheritance and he still would’ve had the connections, pedigree and primary education that make out-of-state college and law/business school accessible to very few people (especially at that time).

      1. yes, accuracy matters.

        i think it matters even more when one has a good case, because you risk having the whole good case dismissed as “inaccurate” if you get one of the details wrong.

    3. To have the equivalent of $400,000 today, you would only need about 70,000 in 1970 dollars. And I’m reading that “a few thousand” as the year;y birthday money, not the total…

  5. …a follow up to my previous post:

    does anyone have access to American Motors historical stock prices? because from the best i can tell the only time it ever saw a incredible rise like Ann described ($6 to $96 in 5 years) was in the late 1950s in the five years after George Romney became CEO in 1954.

    this 2007 NYT article reports:
    “By 1959, the company’s stock had soared to $90 a share from $7 a share, and Time magazine had put him on its cover.”

    and this AP news story from Dec 1959 says nearly the same thing:
    “American Motors stock two years ago this month was selling for $5.25 a share. It closed yesterday at $86.50 […]”

    but by the time Mitt and Ann were married and attending BYU in the fall of 1969 the stock price was more in the range of just $8 to $12 per share from contemporary news stories i found.

    what this suggests to me is that Ann never really had much of a clue about Mitt’s finances. in her 1994 interview she was probably just repeating a family anecdote about George’s glory days when she talked stock prices, not giving us accurate data with which we might calculate the value of Mitt’s inherited stock holdings.

    1. and btw, i am reading now that by Aug 1961 the stock price of American Motors had fallen back to $18, so the spectacular run-up a few years before was probably largely speculative.

      1. Don’t forget that when stock prices soar like that there is every possibility of a 3 or 4 for 1 stock split.

      2. It peaked around $90 at the end of 1959; dropped from $75 to $25 overnight in March of 1960; presumably a 3:1 split with the $18 price being equivalent to $54 pre-split.

        1. Inflation from the era is roughly seven-fold. Andrew, trusting Ann Romney’s claims, thought stock gains were roughly 16-fold, for a combined back-of-the-envelope calculation that every one of the “few thousand dollars” of birthday money put in the fund would have been worth something like (more than) $100 of today’s money when Mitt was in college.

          Correcting for palerobber’s concerns and Zach’s observation of a 3:1 split, we get stock gains of no less than 8-fold or 9-fold, instead of 16-fold. Each of the “few thousand dollars” of birthday money would still have been worth something like $60 of today’s money when Mitt was making withdrawals – and so a “few thousand” of them would have been, at a bare minimum, $200,000.

          Even with no income, having been through graduate school I can assure you that $200,000 is a good several years of trouble-free comfortably middle-class living for a young couple with few other responsibilities.

          1. Thanks for the caveats and corrections, everyone. I’m happy to adopt $200,000 as the new conservative estimate–with, of course, virtually unlimited wealth ready as a backstop in case of misfortune. The takeaway point is the same: they lived in relative comfort with zero economic anxiety.

  6. I wonder if Ann was referring to bluefin tuna toro. That stuff is very expensive, even if you buy it at the La Jolla Whole Foods. And here’s something else. I’ve consumed my share of tuna casserole, particularly in our struggling days, and I come from a long line of people who consider themselves fortunate that they can eat tuna instead of beans every once in while. And no one has ever referred to the noodle portion of tuna noodle casserole as “pasta.” What a toff!

  7. Every single month, they had to look at their gifted nest egg and see it dwindling. On their meager incomes and large expenses for prestigious schools, that nest egg was only going to last another 7 years. Even worse, they almost considered taking out -perish the though- a student loan!!! Pretty soon, like it or not, Mitt was going to have to find work. Could you imagine the stress? My heart goes out to them.

  8. What about this comment from your blog in January?

    “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.” How did they ‘wait’ to have the third?? Were they able to ‘plan parenthood’ using birth control?

    1. Republicans have never been against birth control for middle-class or wealthy people, at least not in the modern era. Even their prohibitions on abortion have never meant an effective ban on abortion for the wealthy.

      It’s the poor folks they want kept ignorant of birth control, and whom they want to deny access to birth control, and especially whom they want to deny access to abortion.

      1. It amazes me that upper crust Republicans want poor women (especially poor black women) to have more babies. Have they thought out the demographic consequences when that spawn (or at least those who avoid incarceration) attain voting age?

        I understand that those in the Roman Catholic hierarchy have their own reason for encouraging breeding among the poor–more tight little asses for their priests to bugger in a few years. But the motive of the plutocrats confounds me.

        1. One does not have to be quite that directly offensive. A whole lot of Catholic teaching is explained if one assumes that the highest purpose of human life is to create more souls to worship God. It does not particularly matter what conditions the bodies that house those souls live in, just so long as they are baptised in the faith. So: no contraception, no abortion, just multiply multiply multiply – and praise God, here and in the hereafter.

      2. It really depends who you are talking about.

        Catholics have been opposed to birth control approximately forever (a millenium or more).

        Protestants and Jews have been opposed to extra-marital sex since forever, but not to birth control in the context of marriage since the early 1900’s.

  9. Andrew Sabl says:

    “Thanks for the caveats and corrections, everyone. I’m happy to adopt $200,000 as the new conservative estimate–with, of course, virtually unlimited wealth ready as a backstop in case of misfortune. The takeaway point is the same: they lived in relative comfort with zero economic anxiety.”

    Come on, you’ve been totally pawned. They might have had to live on only 30 or 40K per year, while getting started!

    For people of their background, that’s suffering 🙂

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