MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we are going to talk more about those protests that have been spreading in the Muslim world connected to a provocative video that has now gone viral. We'll talk about whether this is about a clash of civilizations or values or something else.
But first to politics in the U.S. in this election year. By now you've probably heard or read or seen some of the controversial comments by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, secretly recorded at a wealthy donor fundraiser where Governor Romney can be heard saying that 47 percent of Americans will vote for President Obama, quote, "no matter what," because they are, quote, "dependent upon government, believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, food, to housing, to you name it," unquote, and, he said, who pay no income tax
Now, the comments set off some strong reactions from Democrats, of course, who say they were offensive and demeaning, but also from some Republicans who say that Mr. Romney's comments were ill advised and politically stupid. We wanted to ask a different question, though: Is Romney in a way right?
To help us answer that question we've called two folks who've given it some thought but from perspectives that we think you may not have heard so far. David Sirota is a columnist and blogger for Salon. He wrote about Mitt Romney's comments in a column titled "Mitt's Grotesque Gamble." He's also the author of three books, including the latest, "Back to Our Future," and he's also co-host of the radio program "The Rundown" on KHOW.
David, thanks for joining us.
DAVID SIROTA: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Dan Mitchell is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He formerly served as an economist for Senator Bob Packwood and the Senate Finance Committee and he also served on the 1998 Bush-Quail transition team and he's here too. Thank you so much for joining us also.
DAN MITCHELL: Well, thank you.
MARTIN: So David Sirota, I'm going to start by letting you make your argument, and I also want to emphasize again, you are a proud conser - sorry - a proud progressive. You felt that Mitt Romney's comments were offensive, but you say in your column: First the facts; Romney is not only correct that many Americans are dependent upon the government, he's also almost certainly understating the truth. Tell us more.
SIROTA: Yeah. Well, 47 percent of us don't just rely on government; I think mostly 100 percent of us are dependent in many ways on government. When you're driving on a road, when you're sending your kids to public school, when you're relying on the firefighters to fight fires and police to secure your communities, we are all dependent on government.
Where I think Mitt Romney gets really ugly and goes in the wrong direction is to say that only 47 percent of Americans are quote-unquote dependent, and that that dependency is somehow a terrible, awful thing. First of all, it's kind of ridiculous for a guy whose family - who he admits his family got on their feet in this country through welfare and public assistance to then rail on people being dependent.
It's also ridiculous for Mitt Romney to say that 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes somehow see themselves as victims. Well, here's the thing. Mitt Romney makes most of his money through capital gains. So he basically isn't paying very much in federal income taxes. So there's that hypocrisy.
But I would also say this. To ascribe something horrible and awful to people who are working hard trying to move up the ladder, who are beneficiaries of some government assistance, to demonize them, it's just not the kind of thing that will bring us together to try to fix the economy as a whole.
MARTIN: OK. All right. Let's get Dan Mitchell in the conversation. Dan Mitchell, you're with the conservative Cato Institute. That's a libertarian think tank or a policy research group. You said that Romney cited the wrong statistic. So talk a little bit more about that.
MITCHELL: Yeah. I think Romney was wrong, wrong, and right. He was wrong in that he picked the incorrect number. It's not the 47 percent who don't pay federal tax. The number he probably should've hit on was the 49 percent of households - and of course there's some overlap with these two groups - the 49 percent of households who are getting some benefit - some sort of direct benefit from the government.
But even that's wrong because if somebody's getting a Social Security check after spending a lifetime of work in the private sector, they definitely don't see themselves as part of the, you know, some people call this the takers versus makers debate and things like that. So obviously, just because you get something from the government doesn't mean you see yourself as in favor of big government.
MARTIN: Or the veterans, for example. There are a number of letters to the editor...
MARTIN: ...in the Washington Post today from military veterans who receive veterans benefits who say I get a check from the government. Thank you very much, I am not a taker or a moocher. I earned it.
MITCHELL: So whether you're in the 47 percent who don't pay income tax or the 49 percent who get a benefit, that doesn't mean you're part of the coalition of big government, for lack of a better phrase. Where Romney is right, though, at least indirectly, is he's touched on something that I think does concern a lot of Americans, and that's the fact that government has been getting bigger over time and if you look at the demographics in entitlement programs, it's going to get bigger in the future.
And you look at what's happening in Europe. Maybe, just maybe, it isn't a good idea to have the federal government get bigger and bigger and have more people (unintelligible) and whether that more people is 10 percent of the population now, 20 percent, whatever it is, we know it's going to get bigger in the future - maybe that's not a good thing.
MARTIN: David Sirota, take that point, if you would, and just to sort of consolidate your thought for a minute, you're saying that the issue is not that America is a nation of moochers, that it's a nation of ingrates, where people don't acknowledge the kind of support that they get from the government and how important it really is.
But what about Mr. Mitchell's point that perhaps it is not a good idea to have the government have such a large footprint in American life?
SIROTA: Well, there's a question about how big the government is in terms of - compared to GDP. I know government employment right now as a percentage of GDP is at a 45-year low. So there's a big debate about the size of government. What I would say is that we need to be looking at both the revenue side when it comes to taxes and we need to be looking at the spending side.
We need to be having that conversation. Certainly we need to be having that conversation. But it makes it difficult to have that conversation when one of the two parties' presidential candidates is standing up and insisting that one side doesn't even want to have that conversation. It also makes it difficult to have that conversation, as you alluded to, when many Americans, as studies show, don't even acknowledge to themselves and to the public at large that they are the beneficiaries of major government programs.
There was a Cornell study that showed that roughly half of people who received direct cash payments from the government will tell pollsters that they don't receive any cash payments, any cash assistance from the government. So there's kind of a cognitive dissonance. And I think one other point that needs to be raised here is that when we're talking about going back to Mitt Romney's comments about the 47 percent who don't pay federal income taxes, let's remember who the vast majority of those people are.
Those people are elderly people, those are households that make less than $20,000 a year, and those are beneficiaries of the Child Tax Credit, which was originally a Republican proposal. So what I would ask of Republicans and conservatives is, if you're going to rip on that, do you want to raise taxes on people making under $20,000 a year? Do you want to raise taxes on the elderly and their Social Security income? Do you want to remove the Child Tax Credit?
MARTIN: I'm speaking with David Sirota. He's a columnist, author, and radio host. That's who was speaking just now. I'm also speaking with Dan Mitchell. He's a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. That's a Libertarian think tank that advocates for limited government.
Dan Mitchell, one of the most scathing critiques of Mitt Romney's comments was from David Brooks, a Republican conservative columnist for the New York Times who talked about - his comments kind of betrayed just a lack of understanding of the importance of a safety net in a, you know, complex society, that it's just - that his views really aren't reflective of America's values about how you really - that just because you get some support from the government, that doesn't mean that you don't want to stand on your own two feet, but that there is a need for some - the government in this complex economy does important things that nobody else can do. I just wanted to ask you to pick up that thought.
MITCHELL: Well, at the risk of sounding wishy-washy I think yes and no about what David Brooks wrote because he was part of the big government Bush administration. We doubled the size of the federal government almost under Bush. Now, if that's conservatism, then I want nothing to do with it. Now, of course I work at a libertarian think tank so it's easy for me to say that.
On the other hand, he's right about the fact that historically we have had safety net programs. What bothers, I think, some conservatives and a lot of libertarians and just a lot of tax payers out there is at what point does the safety net become a hammock, at what point are you encouraging dependency, at what point are you subsidizing people not to produce?
Now, I think the vast majority of low income people in America still want to advance and be self-reliant and independent. I think that's one of the key differences in the social capital of America compared to Europe.
There were some really disturbing poll numbers in France a couple of years ago. Something like 76 percent of French students wanted a job in the government instead of in the productive sector of the economy, whereas I think, in America, it doesn't matter how poor you are, for the most part, you'd rather actually make it on your own and be a net contributor. So...
MARTIN: Isn't that another example, though, of where Mitt Romney got it wrong? And was this a semantic difference, in your view, or was this a philosophical perspective that he has? I mean, part of his argument here is that, by definition, if you receive a government benefit, then you are dependent and see yourself as a victim. So what I'm asking you - and forgive me. I shouldn't ask you to speak for him, but is this a philosophical perspective that is widely shared or that he has, or do you think he misspoke, or what's your take on that?
MITCHELL: I think Mitt Romney - and this is just my own guess, because who knows what's really in his head - I think Mitt Romney is a moderate who's pretending to be a conservative and, therefore, he's speaking a foreign language. It would be like me talking about Shakespeare. I mean, I'm not an expert on Shakespeare. If you had me on here talking about Shakespeare, I'd say, well, you know, oil, boil, toil and trouble, or whatever that line was, and I'd sound like an idiot because it wouldn't be my language. It wouldn't be my expertise.
And I think Mitt Romney's a technocrat without any ideological views - at least no strong ones - and so he's trying to appeal to Republican voters. He knows that Republicans don't like big government and dependency, so he's trying to speak that language, but he's inarticulate because it's not who he is.
MARTIN: David Sirota, a final thought from you? Where do you think this conversation should go from here?
SIROTA: Well, I think it's good that we're having the conversation about redistribution and about dependence and about what levels of that we want in this country. I think that the - I hope, my hope is that the fallacy that we can have a society where there's pure self-reliance and pure individualism, my hope is that that's debunked. There is no such thing in a civilized society.
The definition of civilization is that we do depend on each other. And people listening to this, whether they're driving in their cars on a road, sending their kids to public school, they're having a fire put out near their home, a forest fire like out here in Colorado. The fact is, we are actually dependent on each other. And each other, in a democratic - small D - society is that G word, government. And we have to have that conversation about how much of that we want, but it's an important point to debate.
MARTIN: Dan Mitchell, very brief final thought from you. I gave David the first word. I think it's fair to give you the last.
MITCHELL: Well, everything that David is talking about could be done with government consuming 10 percent of GDP. We now have government consuming 25 percent of GDP on the federal level, another 15 percent for state and local and, of course, we're heading toward European levels. That's where we get in trouble. There's a turning point or a tipping point.
MARTIN: Dan Mitchell's a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. That's a libertarian research group. He formerly served as an economist for Senator Bob Packwood and the Senate Finance Committee. He also served on the 1988 Bush-Quayle transition team. He was nice enough to join us from our studios in Washington, D.C.
David Sorita is a columnist and blogger for Salon. He wrote about Mitt Romney's comments in a column titled "Mitt's Grotesque Gamble." He's also the author of three books, including 2011's "Back to Our Future" and co-host of the radio program, "The Rundown." He joined us from his studios, which are in Denver, Colorado.
Thank you both so much.
SIROTA: Thank you.
MITCHELL: Yup. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.