What Romney doesn’t understand about personal responsibility

September 20, 2012

The worst of Romney’s now-infamous comments about "the 47 percent" came in this couplet: “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Put aside the tin-eared term "those people." When he said this, Romney didn’t just write off half the country behind closed doors. He also confirmed the worst suspicions about who he is: an entitled rich guy with no understanding of how people who aren’t rich actually live.

Steve Senne/AP

The thing about not having much money is you have to take much more responsibility for your life. You can’t pay people to watch your kids or clean your house or fix your meals. You can’t necessarily afford a car or a washing machine or a home in a good school district. That’s what money buys you: goods and services that make your life easier, that give you time and space to focus on what you want to focus on.

That’s what money has bought Romney, too. He’s a guy who sold his dad’s stock to pay for college, who built an elevator to ensure easier access to his multiple cars and who was able to support his wife’s decision to be a stay-at-home mom. That’s great! That’s the dream.

The problem is living the dream has blinded him to other people's reality. His comments evince no understanding of how difficult it is to focus on college when you’re also working full time, how much planning it takes to reliably commute to work without a car, how awful it is to choose between skipping a day on a job you can't afford to lose and letting your sick child fend for herself. The working poor haven’t abdicated responsibility for their lives. They’re drowning in it.

In their book “Poor Economics,” the poverty researchers Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo try to explain why the poor around the world so often make decisions that befuddle the rich.

Their answer, in part, is this: The poor use up an enormous amount of their mental energy just getting by. They’re not dumber or lazier or more interested in being dependent on the government. They’re just cognitively exhausted:

Our real advantage comes from the many things that we take as given. We live in houses where clean water gets piped in -- we do not need to remember to add Chlorine to the water supply every morning. The sewage goes away on its own -- we do not actually know how. We can (mostly) trust our doctors to do the best they can and can trust the public health system to figure out what we should and should not do. ... And perhaps most important, most of us do not have to worry where our next meal will come from. In other words, we rarely need to draw upon our limited endowment of self-control and decisiveness, while the poor are constantly being required to do so.

Banerjee and Duflo’s argument has been increasingly confirmed by the nascent science of  “decision fatigue.” Study after study shows that the more we need to worry about in a day, the harder we have to work to make good decisions.

As economist Jed Friedman wrote in as the World Bank's development blog:

The repeated trade-offs confronting the poor in daily decision making -- i.e. ‘should I purchase a bit more food or a bit more fertilizer?’ -- occupy cognitive resources that would instead lay fallow for the wealthy when confronted with the same decision. The rich can afford both a bit more food and a bit more fertilizer, no decision is necessary.

The point here isn’t that Romney is unfamiliar with cutting-edge work in cognitive psychology. It’s that he misses even the intuitive message of this work, the part most of us know without reading any studies: It’s really, really hard to be poor. That’s because the poorer you are, the more personal responsibility you have to take.

Romney, apparently, thinks it’s folks like him who’ve really had it hard. “I have inherited nothing,” the son of a former auto executive and governor told the room of donors. “Everything Ann and I have, we earned the old-fashioned way.” This is a man blind to his own privilege.

Which is his right. But that sentiment informs his policy platform -- which calls for sharply cutting social services for the poor to pay for huge tax cuts for the rich -- and it suggests he’s trying to make policy with a worldview that’s completely backward.

As president, Romney's job would be to worry about those people, and to help them. But first he needs to understand what they're going through.

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Ezra Klein · September 20, 2012