Watching the American Vice-Presidential debate last night, I was struck by Paul Ryan’s bizarre segue from an accusation about Romney wanting to let the Detroit auto industry go bankrupt to a story about an act of charity by Romney. Here’s a transcript of that Paul Ryan answer (posted by Daniel Sinker, who thought it was “mind-bendingly awful“):
Mitt Romney’s a car guy. They keep misquoting him, but let me tell you about the Mitt Romney I know. This is a guy who — I was talking to a family in Northborough, Massachusetts the other day, Cheryl and Mark Nixon. Their kids were hit in a car crash, four of them — two of them, Rob and Reid, were paralyzed. The Romneys didn’t know them. They went to the same church. They never met before.
Mitt asked if he could come over on Christmas. He brought his boys, his wife and gifts. Later on he said, I know you’re struggling, Mark. Don’t worry about their college; I’ll pay for it.
When Mark told me this story — because you know what, Mitt Romney doesn’t tell these stories.
The Nixons told this story. When he told me this story, he said it wasn’t the help — the cash help; it’s that he gave his time, and he has consistently. This is a man who gave 30 percent of his income to charity, more than the two of us combined. Mitt Romney’s a good man. He cares about a hundred percent of Americans in this country.
Even leaving aside how inadequate “he’s a car guy” is as a response to a question about the auto bailout, and leaving aside Sinker’s question, “what sociopathic debate coach thought it was OK to tell an anecdote about a car crash to a man who lost his wife and daughter in one?” Biden’s answer reminded people that he knows a thing or two about the aftermath of accidents, and perhaps his personal experience is why he pursued that line of response.
But I was waiting for Biden to ask, “So is Mitt Romney going to step in and personally pay for the college education of every kid in every struggling family in America? For a hundred percent of Americans, as you say? Because that’s what this debate is about—not about people lucky enough to go to the same church as a rich politician and unlucky enough to have a very visible tragedy that draws his generous attention. The financial crisis was like a car crash for the whole country, and we still haven’t finished recovering, and not even Mitt Romney is personally rich enough to foot the bill to get everyone on their feet. That’s why we’re talking about what society can do if we care about one hundred percent of people. What government can do. What we can do, together.”
It’s an answer we need to hear more of in political discussions—because we hear the personal-good-works line a lot, especially here in Toronto recently. Rob Ford claims no politician in the country does more for black people than him, and his brother repeatedly makes the same claim, because he funds and coaches a Catholic high-school football team in a high-poverty neighbourhood, and there are some black youth on his team. That’s nice, but it is absolutely irrelevant to a discussion of what government can or should do for racialized youth or impoverished people in general.
Back during the mayoral election campaign, during a CBC debate, Ford was going on—as he does—about how as a councillor he had shown how he could help people by taking their calls and going to visit them to help them solve their gripes. “If you have a problem, call me and I’ll personally make sure I resolve your problem,” he said to this city of 2.6 million people. Rocco Rossi responded with a great line: ”You can’t run a city by bat-signal.”
Personal generosity has nothing to do with your outlook on government spending programs. If your feeling is that the government shouldn’t be involved in helping people, then say so. And if your idea is that private citizens are responsible for providing the social safety net through individual acts of charity, then explain why and how you expect that to work at the society-wide scale. And by all means, if someone accuses you of being personally ungenerous, then point to your charitable contributions and works. But when you’re asked about social policy, don’t tell me about your private generosity, because your private generosity does not scale up to be a government policy.
If the question is how you would, as the leader of a government, use your position in government to improve the lives of citizens, then an envelope of cash you handed to someone at one point is simply not relevant. In fact, it just raises the question, “Why is that person you helped more deserving of assistance than all the others in need? Because they were lucky enough to meet you? That’s a strange barometer of worthiness.”
That you were put in a position to be able to help someone is a data point that shows there are people who could use a hand—people for whom the system simply isn’t working well enough that they could get by without your help. That you helped them showed that you thought they needed and deserved something that the system currently didn’t provide. That’s what the anecdote shows.
So the question, now that you are asking to run the system, is how are you going to fix the system so that this kind of intervention isn’t required? And if you don’t want to fix the system even though you acknowledge it has these gaps that need filling, then why not? Don’t tell me what you said and gave to the one person you met. Tell me what you say to all the people you don’t meet, and to whom you have offered nothing.
Photo from BarackObama.com.