Mitt Romney repeated one of the most malicious and misguided political lies of recent years: that people who criticize Wall Street and inequity in America are driven by “envy.”
Besides the fact that one has to wonder who Warren Buffett envies — he’s one of the richest men in America and he’s been a critique of inequity, as has George Soros, a wealthy international capitalist tycoon — the claim is not only absurd, but fundamentally dishonest.
Rather than look at real issues of power, wealth and opportunity, those who question whether it is good for society to have extreme wealth alongside extreme poverty are dismissed via insult — it’s “envy.” Occupy Wall Street, nothing but envy. President Obama’s effort to curb Wall Street excesses – just envy. Any criticism of the wealth gap and lack of opportunity gets brushed aside as “envy.”
This is a point that President Obama and the Democrats need to turn around on Romney. It’s best to do it with real stories. A family who lost health care and couldn’t afford an operation for a child, thereby leaving the child crippled or handicapped, for instance. Is their problem simply that they envy the rich? It’s not wrong that the wealthy have excellent insurance as a matter of course and the poor often see their children suffer. They’re just envious of the health care the rich take for granted.
A worker that lost his job and has nowhere to turn as they can’t afford college for their children or to keep their house thanks to the recession. They shouldn’t be upset about the shenanigans on Wall Street or how the wealthy have gained nearly 300% in the last thirty years while the poorest have barely stayed ahead of inflation. No, it’s just envy.
The message should be clear: It’s not envy to want real opportunity for Americans. It’s patriotism. It’s the values of our constitution, it’s the key to the future of the country. If we allow these inequities to continue in the false belief that somehow wealth and opportunity will trickle down and the wealthy are all “job creators,” then our country will continue to decline and we’ll find that America’s day in the sun is over. We need to fight for real opportunity and against a new aristocracy, because that’s a fight for America’s values and future. That’s got to be the message that the President runs on this year.
And soundbites of Romney muttering “it’s envy” should be ubiquitous on Obama commercials. An elitist Wall Street insider who has lived of life of privilege sneers down his nose and says the poor unemployed and struggling are just envious of people like him.
“Let them eat cake,” he may as well add.
Don’t get me wrong. I actually think Mitt Romney isn’t a bad candidate and would probably do well as President. But as you can probably tell, this claim that “it’s envy” to be concerned about poverty, equal opportunity and wealth disparity has gotten under my skin.
Moreover, if I compare my household income with the rest of the country’s, I’m not in the 1%, but I’m not that far away. My wife and I work very hard, make good money and are living the American dream. We’ll be able to provide the best for our kids, help them if they ever have difficulties in school, and get them a good education. But if I were to say “well, we’re smart and got ahead, those poor blokes down the road who are having a rough go are just envious,” well — what kind of arrogant slime ball would I be?
The second fallacy is the dodge, “oh we should be concerned and help, but government shouldn’t do it, it should be done by individuals.” Sure. We should all be concerned about murder, rape and arson, but government shouldn’t handle those protections, let individuals do it. The fact of the matter is that the collective action problem is real, well documented, and undeniable. If you leave it to the private sector problems get worse. You need government to do so because nobody else can do it. You might get food shelves to keep the poor from starving, but you won’t get real opportunity.
And that is where Obama has the rhetorical upper hand. He can say “the American dream is that every American has access to the education and opportunity to go into the market, work hard, innovate and be rewarded for the fruits of his or her labor. We reject socialism and efforts to equalize all outcomes because that makes everyone worse off and undercuts innovation and ambition. If you doubt that, look at the former Communist world. But to work capitalism needs to make sure that the elites aren’t rigging the game in a way that denies liberty, opportunity a fair shot to the middle class and poor.
“If we unleash America’s potential of ingenious experimentation, a willingness to work hard and take risks, and freedom to break with the past and try new things, we can achieve anything, we can maintain the American dream for generations. When a small group of elites rig the game with insider trading, schemes to rob pension funds and retirement accounts, predatory lending practices aimed at the poor and a tax system that gives them advantages that most people don’t have, it’s undercutting the American dream. It’s contrary to American values. It’s risking our future.
“It’s not envy to want a fair chance for everyone. Let those who work hard and innovate well succeed and become wealthy. Let those who choose to do the minimum and refuse to take the opportunities that exist suffer the consequences. Let it be the actions of the individual that determines the outcome, not the structure of a rigged game. It’s not envy to want fair play, it’s a sense of justice.”