January 8, 2012

Opportunity Knocks: Romney vs. Reality

Editorial, Valley News, White River Junction, Vt., Jan. 8, 2012:

As Mitt Romney tells it, the 2012 presidential campaign will be a titanic struggle for the very soul of America, in which the Republican hero (played by … Mitt Romney) seeks not only to unseat President Obama but also to rout the incumbent’s dark vision of transforming America into “an Entitlement Society.” By contrast, the shining Republican knight will fight under the banner of what Romney calls “the Opportunity Society.” We take it the candidate is Big on Capitalization, as well as Unfettered Capitalism.

“In an Entitlement Society,” Romney wrote last month in USA Today, “government provides every citizen the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort and willingness to innovate, pioneer or take risk. In an Opportunity Society, free people living under a limited government choose whether or not to pursue education, engage in hard work, and pursue the passion of their ideas and dreams. If they succeed, they merit the rewards they are able to enjoy.” What happens if they fail is not specified.

Anyway, it’s easy to understand why this fable appeals to Romney, with $200 million in the bank and houses from sea to shining sea. One might even say the former venture capitalist exudes a sense of entitlement. It has apparently escaped his attention that the average guy has approximately as much chance of succeeding in the Opportunity Society of Romney’s fantasy as he does of hitting the Powerball numbers.

The Opportunity Society as many Americans experience it consists primarily of the opportunity to switch careers in middle age because their job was hijacked and taken overseas by corporate buyout specialists; to run the risk of not carrying health insurance because it is literally unaffordable; to see their children graduate under a mountain of higher-education debt; to watch their savings flushed down Wall Street’s 401(k) sewer because traditional pensions hardly exist any more. These are the sorts of opportunities created over the past few decades not by Obama, but by a philosophy that very much mirrors Romney’s faith in the wisdom of the market.

For the moment at least, people can still fall back on “entitlements” like Social Security and Medicare, benefits to which they become “entitled” by a working lifetime of taxes borne by themselves and their employers. Perhaps if he’s elected, Romney will create the opportunity for people to forgo these debilitating obstacles to the entrepreneurial spirit.

And what of this Entitlement Society allegedly being constructed by the current president? In the Romney version, Obama seeks to transform a merit-based nation of natural-born strivers into one of those notorious European-style social democracies. As it turns out, that might not be as bad as Romney imagines. As The New York Times reported Thursday, many researchers have concluded in recent years that Americans enjoy far less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe, where unionization remains strong, the social safety net is more robust, and income inequality is less sharp.

All this is not to say that creating an Opportunity Society in the United States is impossible or undesirable. The question is, opportunity for what? Our answer would be the chance to live a good life, however each person defines that; a chance to fulfill one’s potential and to use one’s abilities to their fullest. How to get there? The first prerequisite is a level playing field. In our opportunity society, no one would suffer a disadvantage by the circumstances of his or her birth, and educational opportunity would be equal. Inherited wealth would confer no permanent advantage. Talent and hard work would be valued and rewarded by society in proportion to how much they contribute to the commonweal. A sturdy safety net would prevent those who stumble on the way up from going into free-fall. Risk-taking would not be confused with recklessness. Access to affordable health care would be a given, and those nearing the finish line in the race of life would enjoy secure retirement. In short, constructing a true merit-based democracy requires providing opportunities starkly at odds with many of Romney’s priorities.