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Last month, blogs were abuzz about recent studies suggesting that wealth reduces compassion — that increasing wealth corresponds with decreasing empathy for others. That's gotta be one of the reasons Mitt Romney — one of the the richest people to run for president in 20 years— could stand in front of audience of college students in Ohio and tell them "Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business," without acknowledging that many of those students will struggle to find jobs and pay student loans after graduation? How else could Romney regale students with a story about a friend of his who borrowed $20,000 from his parents to start a business, and remain utterly oblivious to the parents of most of the students in the audience probably didn't have $20,000 to lend them in the first place?

However, at the University of Utah outside the loan office, students gave mixed reactions about whether they like the idea or not.

"If your parents are willing and able, I'm sure," said U student Griffin Bullock. "That's a better scenario to pursue than getting a loan from a bank or something else."

"I think that that kind of shows how out there Mitt Romney is in terms of what he thinks is a normal amount of money to deal with in a regular situation," added U student Karl Mathis.

At the students get to hear the story of how Romney and his wife Ann helped their son Tagg get his start in business.

About a month after Mitt Romney ended his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in February 2008, his eldest son, Tagg, and Spencer Zwick, the campaign’s top fund-raiser, met with a beef company executive who had been a major campaign donor over dinner at the posh Torrey Pines resort in San Diego.

This meeting, however, was not about politics. Instead, the younger Romney, who had been a senior adviser to his father, and Mr. Zwick presented the executive, John R. Miller, with a business proposition: the opportunity to invest in a private equity fund they were starting, Solamere Capital.

Neither had experience in private equity. But what the close friends did have was the Romney name and a Rolodex of deep-pocketed potential investors who had backed Mr. Romney’s presidential run — more than enough to start them down that familiar path from politics to profit.

Two years later, despite a challenging fund-raising climate for private equity, Solamere, named after a wealthy enclave in Utah’s Deer Valley where the Romneys have a winter home, finished raising its first fund. The firm blew past its $200 million goal, securing $244 million from 64 investors, including a critical, early $10 million from Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, and hefty commitments from wealthy supporters of the campaign.

Like father like son. Obliviousness must run in the family, because the NYT article above quotes Tagg Romney as claiming that being Mitt Romney's son had no bearing upon his success.

Solamere’s founders dispute any notion that they have cashed in on their political connections, arguing that Solamere, like any fund, has had to persuade investors on its merits.

“No one we went to as an investor said, ‘Oh, your dad is Mitt Romney, I’m going to give you $10 million,” Tagg Romney said, noting that his father’s political future was uncertain when the firm began. He added, “Our relationships with people got us in the door, but that did not get us investors.”

(There's even more bad news for the students at the financial aid office. Yesterday, Senate Republicans chose to risk higher interest rates on student loans in order to protect wealthy Americans like Mitt Romney and sons.)

It doesn't occur to Mitt Romney that most students today don't have parents who can lend them $20,000 — or $20, or so much as bus fare in some cases, any more than it occurs to him that those students' parents probably didn't get their start struggling to live on the yields from their stock portfolios.  And it doesn't occur to Tagg Romney that (a) having parents who could give him $10 million and (b) being Mitt Romney's son opened doors to him that would have remained firmly closed to others who did have private equity experience, but lacked $10 million in parental support and the advantage of being the son of the next likely Republican presidential candidate. (And, it goes without saying, possibly the son of the next president.)

The Web of Privilege vs. the Safety Net

The two stories frame a brand of denialism that allows conservatives to cut Head Start programs for low-income children and their families on one hand, and Tagg Romney to deny that being Tagg Romney gave him any kind of head start. The Guardian's Gary Younge defines this as a tactical denial of "a web of privilege that supports this so-called meritocracy."

Tagg insists that neither his name nor the fact that his father had made it clear he would run for the presidency again had anything to do with his success. "The reason people invested in us is that they liked our strategies,'' he told the New York Times.

Class privilege, and the power it confers, is often conveniently misunderstood by its beneficiaries as the product of their own genius rather than generations of advantage, stoutly defended and faithfully bequeathed. Evidence of such advantages is not freely available. It is not in the powerful's interest for the rest of us to know how their influence is attained or exercised. But every now and then a dam bursts and the facts come flooding forth.

If elections in Europe are any indication, the dam is already starting to burst.  Of course, the facts of Romney's wealth — his top secret tax returns, his Wall Street wealth, his membership in "the top 0.001 percent," his $101 million individual retirement account (IRA), his Swiss bank account, his secret tax shelter in the Cayman Islands, his "special" 13.9% tax rate (and how it compares with the rest of America) — haven't come forth in a sudden flood, so much as a steady drip. (Some of it inadvertently supplied by Romney himself.) For Americans living in this recession, the contrast between Romney's reality and their own is stark, to say the least.

The GOP's complacent conservatism makes it easy for guys like the Romneys to deny the "web of privilege" by providing a justification or rationalization for economic inequality that allows them to wrap themselves in the mantle of "meritocracy."

Individuals with conservative ideologies are happier than liberal-leaners, and new research pinpoints the reason: Conservatives rationalize social and economic inequalities.

… Regardless of marital status, income or church attendance, right-wing individuals reported greater life satisfaction and well-being than left-wingers, the new study found. Conservatives also scored highest on measures of rationalization, which gauge a person's tendency to justify, or explain away, inequalities.

To justify economic inequalities, a person could support the idea of meritocracy, in which people supposedly move up their economic status in society based on hard work and good performance. In that way, one's social class attainment, whether upper, middle or lower, would be perceived as totally fair and justified.

Meritocracy Mythology

"Class privilege, and the power it confers" is inherent in narratives of both Mitt and Tagg Romney. Mitt Romney was born to privilege, as the son of an auto-industry CEO and former governor. Tagg Romney was born to privilege as the son of a private equity CEO and former governor. Both went on to make huge fortunes of their own, both on top of and as a result of the wealth and privilege to which they were born. However, both misunderstand that genius as "the product of their own genius." There may be a couple of reasons for this.

In part, the denial of class privilege plays into the same mythology that makes it so successful with the GOP's conservative base: the Myth of the Self-Made American, so brilliantly defined by fellow blogger Sara Robinson.

This ignorance is on full display at your average Tea Party gathering, which is full of people who will proudly insist that they're entirely self-made. "I did it all myself," they'll snarl, quivering in spittle-flecked outrage. "I didn't get any government handouts. Nobody ever did anything for me -- so why are all my tax dollars going to support those shiftless welfare cheats who aren't willing to work like I did?"

The magnitude of the self-delusion is gobstopping. Did Mr. Self-Made Man grow up in a VA or FHA-funded house? Attend a public school or college? Go to school on the GI Bill, Pell Grants, or student loans? Does he claim a mortgage interest tax deduction every year? Does he support his retired parents out of pocket, or does Social Security do it for him? Does his employer get government contracts or subsidies that make his paycheck possible? Does his business depend on a sound currency, enforceable contracts, or reliable transportation systems?

It's like his rich Uncle Sam, the benefactor whose generous bequests paid his way into the middle class, has been written totally out of his entire life story. Forget gratitude; these social contract deniers insist loudly that none of that ever happened. At all. They pay taxes; but they've never seen a cent returned to them for anything. And they write their "self-made" myths accordingly.

The programs that support millions of "self-made" Americans share one problematic characteristic of the "web of privilege" that supports wealthy Americans: unlike government agency-administered programs that benefit low-income Americans, they are largely invisible.

Making the invisible visible, Robinson writes, is imperative to doing away with the "self-made" myth and saving the social contract. The same can be said of the "web of privilege" that supports wealthier Americans, and makes their success possible. That web, in fact, has become more visible, as millions of Americans fall through the holes that the economic crisis and conservative politics have created the safety net.

As increase income inequality and wealth in equality makes the "web of privilege" more visible, more and more Americans question its existence. And that becomes problematic for the beneficiaries of the "web" and the privileges is confers.

The Problem With Privilege

I first encountered problematic nature of wealth privilege when I watched Born Rich, Jamie Johnson's documentary about the children of America's wealthiest families — that is, those lucky enough to be born to immense inherited wealth (including himself). I'm not sure how Johnson's documentary ended up in Netflix recommendations (his second film, The One Percent, is in my queue), but I was as interested as anyone else to see how "the one percent lived." \\

I saw a lot that I expected to see, and something else that I didn't.

I think I got an inkling when I saw, Born Rich, Jamie Johnson's documentary about young people with immense, inherited wealth. I think I expected to see a certain degree of swaggering confidence in the participants. After all, they're young and rich (and, all of them I think, white). I was surprised at the degree of insecurity among some of them, who know that much of what they have they didn't earn, except by being born into their particular families. Perhaps that's the other side of the coin. I can only guess — since I can't know — that maybe some white Americans would rather not wonder how much of what they have, they have in part because of the color of their skin, and because of the socioeconomic advantages and privilege that come with it.

The problem with privilege, it turns out, is that it may be unearned. Sometimes that's due to an accident of birth — some people are lucky enough to born to wealth earned by generations that came before them. Sometimes that's due to using the power conferred by class privilege to one's advantage.

Anyone trying to understand the role of the government in the economy should know that whatever it does or does not do by way of redistribution is trivial compared with the actions it takes to determine the initial distribution. Rich people don’t get rich exclusively by virtue of their talents and hard work; they get rich because the government made rules to allow them to get rich.

Perhaps that's part of what's driving sensitivity and defensiveness about their wealth and the privilege and power it confers. As Jamelle Bouie writes, Mitt Romney may be building his whole campaign around a defense of unearned privilege.

More than anything, Romney is running on a plan to generate wealth for the wealthy and protect privilege for the privileged. This isn’t an artifact of his position in the Republican Party; he genuinely believes that the most just outcome is one where the privileged are undisturbed in their position. Need proof? Look at how Romney responds to any mention of his immensely privileged background:

“I’m certainly not going to apologize for my dad and his success in life,” Romney told Fox News. “He was born poor. He worked his way to become very successful despite the fact that he didn’t have a college degree, and one of the things he wanted to do was provide for me and for my brother and sisters.”

This is a straightforward defense of unearned privilege. It’s not just that Romney benefited from the success of his father, it’s that he deserved the tremendous advantage it conferred. He essentially claims the hard work of his father, as if there were a transitive property to overcoming disadvantage.

As I wrote a few years ago, the problem with unearned privilege — conferred by one's wealth, race, gender, and or orientation — is that acknowledging it means assuming responsibility.

No one likes to be reminded of their privilege — whether it’s white privilege, heterosexual privilege, male privilege, or class privilege — because acknowledging that privilege commutes responsibility for that privilege, and the day-by-day, moment-to-moment decision to perpetuate that privilege or know — while knowing the consequences it imposes on others.

Whether we asked for our privilege or not — acknowledging it, if we don’t want to be responsible for perpetuating it and the injustice it perpetuates, means changing how we are in the world, day-by-day and moment-to-moment.

That is difficult and never-ending work, to be honest. It’s easier not to acknowledge it. It’s even easier to pretend it doesn’t exist. In fact, the first essential rule of perpetuating privilege is to pretend it doesn’t exist. That becomes difficult when the voices of those who can confirm the existence of that privilege, because they (a) do not possess it and (b) live with the consequence of its existence every day, become unavoidable.

And, the truth is that even though almost all of us enjoy one or more of the privileges above (especially if you consider class or economic privilege on a global scale), we also live with the consequences of not having one or more of the privileges above. The lack of one privilege can mask the existence of the other. (i.e. “What do mean I’m privileged? I’m barely making ends meet, just got laid off, and don’t have health insurance because my spouse and I aren’t married and he/she can’t carry me on hers, etc.”) That privilege doesn’t go away, but it becomes something taken for granted, as natural as breathing out and breathing in, so that we don’t take it as privilege anymore.

That makes it particularly irritating to be reminded of the privileges you do enjoy — but don’t necessarily see as such — while simultaneously feeling the very real consequences of the privileges you don’t have. It can be downright infuriating to be reminded of our privilege in that context, actually.

From Privilege to Opportunity

Republicans are fond of touting "equality of opportunity," as both a goal and a foregone conclusion. The assumption that "equality of opportunity already exists is the basis for their defensiveness about economic success and their defense of inequality. Mitt Romney's adamant refusals to "apologize for my dad and his success in life" or his own, and his Bain partner Edward Conrad's defense of economic inequality, are but two examples.

Of course, no one is asking Romney or anybody else to apologize for the their success. But how about just acknowledging the privileges that come with it?

I'm not privy to the private conversations among folks like Tagg, but in public anyway, it seems that conservatives have become particularly vehement in defending inequality since the meltdown of 2008, insisting that in America, there is no such thing as privilege, money comes only from merit, wealth is a sign of virtue, and if we raise taxes a smidge on those at the top of the income ladder, we're only "punishing success." Repeat that to yourself and others often enough, and you can easily come to believe that we really do have equality of opportunity. But true equality of opportunity is actually nearly as radical an idea as equality of outcome. True equality of opportunity would mean that every public school would be equally good, for instance. But of course they aren't—people with means move to towns with good schools precisely so they can give their kids more opportunity than other kids get.

There are a thousand ways in which wealth determines the opportunities available to you, in large part by making things easy. Yes, if you're a poor kid being raised by a single parent who never finished high school, you can get to Harvard. But you're going to have to be one in a million. It's going to take extraordinary spirit, determination, and luck for you to make it. I'm sure Tagg Romney is a fine fellow, but the truth is that even if he was a lazy dolt he'd still do well. He went to the best schools, his parents gave him all kinds of enriching experiences, and he never had to worry about much of anything. He wasn't going to get pulled out of college and have to take a job if one of his parents got sick. When he decided this private equity thing looked interesting, there was an escalator waiting, and all he had to do was hop on. That's opportunity.

So when conservatives begin arguing that we don't want equality of outcome, just equality of opportunity, look closely at what it is they're arguing against. More often than not it's the most modest of efforts to make things a just a bit easier for people who aren't at the top. Not a full scholarship to an Ivy League school, just some student loans you'll have to pay back. Not free nose jobs, just a guarantee of health insurance, so you know you won't lose your home if you get sick. Not enough money to buy that Cadillac, just a minimum wage high enough that you'll be able to feed your family. Not anything like real equality of opportunity, in other words. But even that is too much.

Acknowledge it, and then do something about creating real equality of opportunity. So that success depend so much on being Tagg Romney, or any other member of the 0.001 percent.

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