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Kinsley: Romney's 'success' problem

Is getting ahead in the U.S. simply a matter of brainpower and hard work, as the GOP candidate says? And if so, is everyone else stupid and lazy?

August 02, 2012|By Michael Kinsley
  • Mitt Romney worries that Americans are losing their appreciation of success.
Mitt Romney worries that Americans are losing their appreciation of success. (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)

Why does a typical bus driver in the U.S. earn a monthly disposable income (after taxes) of $1,594, while a typical bus driver in Peru earns $325? Why does an airline pilot here bring home $4,206 a month, while a pilot in Lithuania doing what we hope is pretty much the same job with the same training makes only $1,674? (These figures, from worldsalaries.org, use 2005 dollars, adjusted for the actual purchasing power of various currencies.)

Well, the explanation is obvious, isn't it? These foreigners just aren't as smart as we Americans are and they don't work as hard. Because if they did — as Mitt Romney was just explaining in Israel — they would be as successful as we are. And that's pretty darned successful. And they aren't.

Romney worries that Americans are losing their appreciation of success, as evidenced by President Obama's desire to reduce the rewards of success by raising taxes on high incomes. He sees in this not just a bigger tax bill for successful people but an insult as well. An alternative perspective is that any successful person who feels personally insulted by a request from the president to share a bit of it is, in the immortal words of Liberace, crying "all the way to the bank" (or, to quote someone else, "a master of the fancied slight").

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

You might also ask yourself: If Obama is insulting successful people by suggesting that their success doesn't necessarily result entirely from their own hard work and brainpower, doesn't that mean that Romney is insulting the vast majority of folks who are unsuccessful (by Romney's exalted standard) by implying that they are lazy and stupid? If your success is entirely your own achievement, then your lack of success is entirely your own fault.

And how would Romney explain the fact that the average monthly disposable income of a baker in the United States is $1,461, whereas for a baker in Romania it's $276? Is the bread in this country so much better than bread around the world? Not in my experience.

Furthermore, consider those countries where many occupations are paid better than in the United States. A baker in Australia has disposable income of $1,865 a month. A German airline pilot earns $8,448. How can this be? Can there be countries where people are smarter and harder working than in the United States of America? The Romney theory of success allows for no other explanation.

In recent days, Republicans have been beating Obama about the head over his "you didn't build that" remark, with which he suggested that successful people didn't get where they got on their own. Many of my colleagues in the commentariat, and some Democratic politicians on the stump (most notably Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren), have pointed to all the ways in which any citizen's personal success is aided by government. Highways, education, medical research and so on. It's all true.

The argument makes me a bit nervous, though, because it is often invoked to justify government spending that ought to either stand on its own feet or be eliminated. Sample argument: We ought to subsidize passenger trains because we subsidize buses through maintaining the interstate highway system and airlines in various ways. Or, farm price supports, which started with the New Deal, must be maintained because somewhere around 1952 they stopped being a notorious boondoggle and blossomed into an honorable tradition. And so on.

However, as the comparisons demonstrate, you don't have to favor any particular form of government spending to reject the notion that a person's success is, and in a capitalist system should be, built entirely on his or her own efforts. The main societal subsidy to your neighborhood success story — the reason an American hotel chambermaid (of either sex) supports his or her family on a disposable income of $1,251 a month but a Brazilian must do it for $332 — is the privilege of working in a prosperous country. That prosperity is the compounded result of previous prosperity. Somewhere back there, it may be credited to somebody's hard work and special talent. But it's not anybody alive today. (And why talent, as opposed to work, deserves special reward is a good question for another time.)

The only way the most brilliant and/or hardworking butcher or baker or candlestick maker in most of the rest of the world can enjoy an income like that of his or her U.S. counterpart is to move here. And we know how much that idea excites Romney and the GOP.

And what about the inventor or the entrepreneur? The candlestick maker who discovers a better way to make candles — or a way to dispense with candles completely? Perhaps by inventing the electric light bulb? Even in proposing to raise their taxes a bit, Obama loses no opportunity to praise these godlike creatures. Romney, as one himself, can barely contain his enthusiasm for the very successful, whatever the basis for their success. They're not all entrepreneurs, and even the entrepreneurs owe some large chunk of their success to those who have gone before, like Thomas Edison. They don't need more tax breaks. If anything is its own reward, it's success.

Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor of The Times, is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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