Dear Mitt Romney,
The eminently quotable Barry Switzer once said, “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” I love that quote. I love it because it doesn’t say it’s bad to score a run; it just means that you should be careful what you’re bragging about afterwards. And that’s not just a lesson for sports.
The majority of the people in my family are about as far from wealthy as one can get in the United States. I don’t apologize for this; I certainly don’t brag about it, either. It’s simply a fact of life—as is the fact that, like most American families, we have worked about as hard as we could, generation after generation, just to maintain our homes and… well, stay alive.
I suppose if anything, I’m a little ahead of the game. At the time I am writing this, I’m thirty-five years old. I’ve won some writing contests and published a stack of poetry books, with a fantasy series coming out in e-book form early next year. These accomplishments haven’t exactly made me a ton of money (I frequently joke that I’ve made dozens of dollars off poetry) but they’re hard-won and, perhaps for exactly that reason, satisfying.
I’ve also been an English professor for about six years. Before that, I worked odd factory positions, flipped burgers, swung hammers, and once had a job collecting and analyzing urine samples in a rehab center. I’ve lived off the dollar menu. For a brief time, I was homeless. Until relatively recently, despite pretty much always having at least one job (sometimes two), I paid little or no income tax.
In case you’re wondering where all my money went (aside from such frivolities as food and heat), I’ll tell you in a word: medication. You see, I was born with scoliosis, major deformities in my feet and ankles, and severe hearing loss stemming from the fact that half my right ear never formed. While some of those problems could be fixed (or at least ameliorated) by surgery, a certain ominous phrase known as pre-existing conditions meant that wasn’t an option for me—even when I had health insurance, which wasn’t often.
Trust me, this isn’t a plea for sympathy. Nor am I claiming some kind of rhetorical authority granted simply by virtue of enduring relatively mild to moderate hardship. I’m just trying to explain where I was—who I was—the first time I encountered the very conservative viewpoint that you recently, infamously (or, in your words, “inelegantly”) expressed.
In college, I dated a woman whose wealthy parents frequently argued that entitlement programs breed laziness. Taxes were suspect at best and the mere mention of liberal “safety nets” prompted an icy, near-instantaneous shift in mood. However, these are also the same people who insisted on loaning me eight hundred dollars when my financial aid fell through. Later, when they heard that my parents couldn’t afford to attend my graduation, they jumped in their SUV and drove through an Iowa blizzard just so they could cheer me on themselves.
But perhaps more telling than that, I remember hearing these two articulate, arch-conservatives (a stock analyst and an accountant, both retired) insist that their daughter’s openly liberal boyfriend probably deserved some kind of government assistance in light of his responsible attitude, solid work ethic, and the fact that he was having a hard time through no real fault of his own.
What can I say? I was flattered. Sure, they were missing the point (viewing me as an exception to the rule, rather than further proof that the rule itself is bogus) but it’s hard to object to a compliment. You see, Mitt, I’ve spent a good portion of my life arguing against the stereotype of the poor as irresponsible, do-nothing moochers… and, well, you’re not exactly helping.
The optimist in me genuinely believes that deep down, uber-wealthy conservatives (like yourself and the majority of your donors) don’t mind helping those in need; you just don’t want to be forced to help. And to some degree, I can see your point. Having grown up poor, I’ve encountered an small handful of people who took unfair advantage of the very safety nets I am here defending—just as there are those who take unfair advantage of tax loopholes or an unregulated Wall Street. In my college classes, though, I sometimes teach argumentative fallacies; one of them involves drawing major conclusions on the basis of just one or two, or a few, examples.
More to the point, you seem to think that poor and middle class Americans are asking you to apologize for your wealth. We’re not. Nobody worth their salt really thinks that good fortune is a bad thing. In fact, I don’t know how this has escaped your notice but the overwhelming majority of liberal heroes—like the overwhelming majority of their conservative counterparts—are filthy rich.
Whether wealth is a root cause of our adoration or merely circumstantial depends on the one doing the adoring, I suppose. The problem here isn’t that the wealthy are rich, though; it’s that some wealthy people seem to have this strange psychological need to believe that they are the everyman, and convincing them otherwise is like trying to convince a Birther that Obama is an American citizen or a Truther that George W. Bush wasn’t complicit in 9/11.
It’s perfectly reasonable to debate how entitlement programs should be funded and regulated; what you’re failing to grasp, though, is the maddening hypocrisy you exhibit when you imply the laziness and immorality of programs designed to help those who maybe don’t have a couch to crash on or a Swiss bank account to inherit.
Put another way—yes, it’s good to score a run. It’s good for you and it’s good for the team. Just stop acting like you hit a grand slam.