So, Mr. Romney, who do you envy?

by John MacBeath Watkins

Mitt Romney says that if you think there are problems in this country with inequity, that's because you envy the successful and you should only talk about these things in "quiet rooms."

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QUESTIONER: When you said that we already have a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy, I’m curious about the word envy. Did you suggest that anyone who questions the policies and practices of Wall Street and financial institutions, anyone who has questions about the distribution of wealth and power in this country, is envious? Is it about jealousy, or fairness?
ROMNEY: You know, I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare. When you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on 99 percent versus one percent, and those people who have been most successful will be in the one percent, you have opened up a wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God. The American people, I believe in the final analysis, will reject it.
QUESTIONER: Are there no fair questions about the distribution of wealth without it being seen as envy, though?
ROMNEY: I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like. But the president has made it part of his campaign rally. Everywhere he goes we hear him talking about millionaires and billionaires and executives and Wall Street. It’s a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach and I think it will fail.

As it happens, I'm writing this in a rather quiet room, so let's discuss the issue of inequity. Americans have historically been more willing to tolerate inequity than citizens of many other industrialized countries, so long as they believed that they, too, might make their fortune.

One way of evaluating your chances of doing that is to see how strong the link is between the income of parents and their children. Here's how America stacked up as of March 2010 from this source:

You can click on the image to make it larger. I've got a feeling that if we had as much social mobility as, say, Canada, never mind Denmark, inequity would be a non-issue. It's the fact that it has become very hard for people to rise in economic status that the distribution of economic status has become an issue, not just the inequity itself.

Romney needs to identify the criticism of inequity as envy because he is rich, and he's rich in part because his father was rich. It helped him get a good education, it helped him get a good job. Mind you, I don't deny that he worked to make himself wealthier, and his character helped him do that. A man who did not "enjoy being able to fire people" might have laid off fewer people and extracted less wealth from the companies Bain took over. A man less willing to say whatever he thought people wanted to hear might have made fewer deals for Bain. But I'm sure his character, as well, was formed by having a father with these characteristics.

And if the problem with his wealth is not that people are envious of it, but that it was not a fortune most Americans could have aspired to, he'd feel guilty about that, if he is capable of such an emotion. Perhaps, as well, he's putting himself in the place of those who criticize the way people like him make their money, and thinking about how he would feel if he were in their shoes. He strikes me as being ill equipped to deal with issues of fairness, and for the selfish man, a man who lacks empathy, envy is the available emotion -- a feeling not that society has been unfair to others, but that it has been unfair to you, because you aren't getting what you want.

After all, he didn't become a philanthropist with either the wealth he earned or the wealth he inherited. He's spent a chunk of his own fortune trying to buy his way into high office, meaning that his greatest instinct to charity is to himself.

When Bill Clinton said, "I feel your pain," it sounded hokey, but people believed him, because he'd come from humble origins and had seen how both halves live. He seems to have a certain kind of charm, where the people he meets seem to feel flattered by his attention, feel known. If Mitt Romney tried that line, "I feel your pain," it would sound as phony as he is.

The fact that Romney will say anything to achieve high office shows that he does not have a personal vision of how he wants to change the country. All he wants is the status of being in high office. Apparently, he thinks the social status he's gained by being wealthy is insufficient, and he wants President Obama's job.

So, Mr Romney, is that because you are envious of the president's status?