The Middle Shall Inherit the Earth: America’s Sin of Omission

My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English and I couldn’t speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. And they knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them, but they knew it was so. Because I saw it in their eyes. […] And somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child. I never thought, then in 1928, that I’d be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students, and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance. And I’ll let you in on a secret… I mean to use it.

Lyndon Johnson (1965), calling for passage of the Voting Rights Act

It wasn’t always this way. When Lyndon Johnson spoke about “all Americans,” he made it crystal clear that he was talking about the poor and people of color. Check out his 1964 election ad and compare it to one of Barack Obama’s most popular ads. Obama talks about everyone but the poor—calling for more taxes on the rich and tax cuts for the middle class. Even Clinton’s much-heralded convention speech discussed how to “empower middle class families and help poor kids.” Notice that the specter of poverty among adults was kept offstage.

Listening to the presidential debates last week, you’d be blown away to discover that one in four black Americans is living in poverty. Or that one in four Hispanic Americans is living in poverty. Or that the national poverty rate for individuals is 15 percent. Mitt Romney mentioned the poor three times, and twice only to say how the federal government should stop trying to help them—first by letting states weaken Medicaid standards, and second by letting states voucherize public education. The final time, Romney argued that “one out of six people [living] in poverty” is proof of Obama’s failing economic policy. Shortsighted as that may be, at least he mentioned the poor. Obama didn’t mention the poor once, aside from a brief nod to those “striving to get in the middle class.” How’s that for #euphemismofthenight?

 I want to hit those numbers again. One in four black Americans is living in poverty. One in four Hispanic Americans is living in poverty. These numbers should be burnt into our collective conscience until we muster the political courage to do something about it. How many presidents? 44. How many states? 50. How many black and Hispanic Americans are living in poverty? One in four.

 And yet, all we hear about is the middle class—a term so vague as to be deceptive. Those “middle class” tax cuts Obama likes to discuss actually reach individuals making up to $250,000. (A quarter of a million, by the way, puts a family in the top 3% of households—decisively not “middle” in any rational sense.) And despite now-infamous 47% comments, Romney hilariously described his upbringing at the GOP convention by saying, “I was born in the middle of the century in the middle of the country.” Middle, no doubt, is in.

This is just a month after the U.S. Census Bureau released income and poverty figures for 2011. On September 12, the agency revealed the staggering 15% poverty rate, with 46.2 million Americans in poverty. Keep in mind this is according to the OMB’s threshold for poverty, which for a family of four in 2011 was a mere $23,021. Next time a probably-rich HLS student tells you they “need” to make $160,000 defending the wealthy, powerful, and corrupt (and white), try suggesting that (perhaps) they have no idea what “need” means.

More shocking than the general poverty rates is how poverty affects children—especially children of color. Nationally, more than 1 in 5 children lives in poverty. These 16.1 million children are disproportionately black and Hispanic. According to one prominent study, 39 percent of black children and 34 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty. In many states (like Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, and Wisconsin), roughly half of all black children live below the poverty level. That’s right: Half.

Such staggering rates explain why, in a recent UNICEF study of 35 wealthy countries, the US came in 34th—between Latvia and Romania. But at least we won the Olympics, right?

You might expect these figures to cause an outcry in a nation that considers itself the best country (company?) in the world. You might expect these figures, which have remained stagnant after three consecutive years of increases, to factor in to the media’s coverage of the presidential race. After all, last year’s figures were just as unconscionable.

Yet a recent study by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) confirmed what we already know: the candidates don’t discuss poverty, and the media aren’t helping. The study analyzed six months of campaign coverage by eight prominent news outlets. The results say a lot about our political and “journalistic” culture: only 17 of the 10,489 campaign stories studied (0.2 percent) addressed poverty in a substantive (their word) way, and not a single one of the eight outlets published a substantive discussion of poverty in even 1 percent of its campaign stories.

You might ask, why’s talking about poverty such a big deal? Preach to the middle class, win the election, and then make changes that benefit everyone—including the poor. But talking about poverty is such a big deal because it changes what’s politically possible in America. The more we say “we’re all in this together” but only talk about the middle class, the easier it becomes to believe that “we” doesn’t include the poor. Furthermore, you don’t always win elections (see, e.g., the eighties and the aughts). And if you fail to defend the dignity and humanity of all Americans—especially the poor—when you’re in office, it’s going to be incredibly easy for the right to undercut education, healthcare, and employment programs when they’re in office. No wonder these programs are constantly under attack—even their supposed proponents don’t like to acknowledge the people they’re designed to empower.

It makes sense why politicians and the media focus on appeasing the middle class. First, they’re the bulk of the electorate. Second, in our corporate media market, poverty doesn’t sell. And third, studies reveal that we all like to think of ourselves as middle class—in other countries, too—although more and more Americans now identify themselves as lower class.

These aren’t justifications. And they’re not excuses. They’re obstacles. Recognizing them as such means that we need to be louder and more courageous when it comes to speaking about poverty in America. We need to speak with more conviction and more honesty as we develop a shared vocabulary to discuss the racial gap in economic opportunity. Healing poverty is a moral obligation, and it’s one we’re failing horribly. It’s time to call upon our politicians, journalists, and friends to articulate the “we” in “we’re all in this together.” Otherwise, it will be the middle who inherit the earth—all because we were too meek to tell it like it is.

Romney’s Tax Returns: A Republican Trump Card?

Did he [Romney] take unusual steps to avoid paying his fair share? Who knows? He refuses to release enough of his tax returns to give a clear picture of his finances.

– Rep. James Clyburn

Never in modern American history has a presidential candidate tried so hard to hide himself from the people he hopes to serve. […] [W]e can only imagine what new secrets would be revealed if he showed the American people a dozen years of tax returns—like his father did.

– Sen. Harry Reid

This summer, Democrats have continually pounded Mitt Romney for refusing to release more of his tax returns. And last week at the Democratic National Convention, the criticisms continued to snowball. Former Ohio governor Ted Strickland went so far as to say: “And on [Mitt Romney’s] tax returns, he’s hiding. You know, you have to wonder just what is so embarrassing that he’s going to such great lengths to bury the truth.”

The point of the Democratic criticisms is to paint Mitt Romney as a plutocrat—a Gordon Gekko character who doesn’t pay his fair share of taxes.

Nonetheless, I have a theory: Might it be possible that Mitt Romney actually wants Democrats to keep focusing on his tax returns?

Maybe Romney actually wants left-wing PACs to burn millions on TV commercials attacking his tax returns. Maybe Romney actually wants the Democrats to spend most of August, September, and October speculating on his exploitation of the Internal Revenue Code. Maybe Romney actually wants to lure President Obama into staking his credibility on the idea that Romney is a tax dodger.

Imagine all that. Then suppose that in the last week of October, Romney finally releases his tax returns. What if the record shows that Romney—far from underpaying his taxes—actually overpaid them? What if the deductions records reveal Romney to have donated the bulk of his income to children’s cancer foundations, Habitat for Humanity, Girl Scout cookies, the Mormon Church, and surgery for babies with cleft palates?

In that scenario, an entire Democratic season of anti-Bain attack ads would backfire. And Romney’s public image would be transformed. Far from being a greedy capitalist, he would be a paragon of charitable virtue. A humble philanthropist unwillingly forced to reveal his generosity by a bunch of conniving Democrats.

It would be one heck of an October surprise. It could lead to a two-point swing that delivers Florida and Ohio for the GOP in a close election.

Best of all, Romney would have planned it all along.

Look, Mitt Romney is a smart person. He earned two Harvard degrees, built a multibillion-dollar firm, and saved the Salt Lake City Olympics. He knows that his every action will be scrutinized. He pays his advisers millions for sophisticated political advice. And he has been running for President for over eight years. Does anyone really think that Romney would have made the beginner’s mistake of underpaying his taxes?

But what about Romney’s disclosure of his 2010 tax return, the one showing the 13.9% tax rate? Would that return imply that Romney paid a similarly-low tax rate in other years?

Absolutely not. The 2010 tax return was the only one that Romney chose to reveal. It tells us absolutely nothing about his other years’ returns. For all we know, the 2010 return could be a deliberate anomaly. A special piece of bait.

Card players know this instinctively. Your opponent might play a 2 in one round, but his remaining cards could well be queens, kings, and aces

It is almost never a good idea to stake your future on something on which your opponent knows everything and you know nothing. Think about what happened to the Trojans, who dragged an unfamiliar Greek wooden horse into the heart of their city.

Democrats take a big risk by making a political issue of Romney’s tax returns. For all we know, Romney’s refusal to release more tax returns might be a brilliant masterstroke designed to lure unsuspecting donkeys into an elephant trap.

Chris Seck is a 3L. His column runs on Wednesdays.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.

Romney and Obama Fight Over Who Loves Harvard Less

It is finally here. The Most Important Presidential Election Ever. The technocrat vs. the conciliator. The protean vs. the proletarian. The guy who made his dog ride on the top of the car vs. the guy who gave the Queen of England pictures and recordings of himself talking.  The electoral champion who vanquished the mighty Rick Santorum (loser of his last election six years ago by eighteen points) and Ron Paul (whose campaign may have been sabotaged by the candidate’s inability to monitor the horribly racist newsletters issued under his name) vs. the unbeatable hero who managed to defeat a supremely unpopular incumbent party during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression when his septuagenarian opponent sat out his own campaign for a few days to look presidential.

One could imagine that a clash of such titans would focus right from the outset on the most important issues facing the country. Indeed, that is the case.  Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have commenced a smug-off over who is more closely tied to Harvard.

How to evaluate the competing claims? Well, Obama was President of the Harvard Law Review. But Mitt got a J.D./M.B.A. and was thus actually a student at Harvard for one more year than the President. They have both spoken about how much they enjoyed their time here. Both campaigns have recruited heavily from HLS.

Of course, the plain fact of the matter is that they are both “out of touch” in a sense. Ordinary people don’t run for President. It’s a waste of time to argue over whose plebian purity was more tainted by their time in Cambridge. More than anything else, the whole argument illustrates how pointless this presidential campaign will get before the country is granted a merciful reprieve in November.

And so, no one wins the who-is-more-Harvard sweepstakes.

Well, actually, hold on. Late-breaking development: there is going to be a real, actual reading group at the law school next year called “Understanding Obama.”  Romney is officially less Harvardian. He will surely win in a landslide.

John Thorlin is a 3L. His column runs Thursdays.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Harvard Law Record. The comments posted on this Website are solely the opinions of the posters.

A Bunch of (Mostly) White Guys

I’ve been told that this is to be my last column this year, so I wanted to make it a super good one. Unfortunately, the little squirrel hostage I keep in my apartment who writes my columns and takes my finals for me (while stacked on top of ten other squirrels and wearing a trench coat for in-class exams) has caught a serious case of squirrel leprosy, so I am afraid this column will fail to meet most/any of your expectations.

Now that we’ve pretty much decided to stop humoring Santorum and recognize that Mittens is inevitably the nominee (notwithstanding some deus ex machina) of the Republican Party, it’s time to start taking bets as to who Mitt will pick for VP. General consensus is Rob Portman, although there are always murmurings about Marco Rubio and Chris Christie. Let’s talk about these guys, and then I will share with you what ticket I would like to see.

Rob Portman: This guy is the house favorite. And why not? He’s from Ohio, always an unfathomably important state in the presidential elections, and there’s a strong argument that but for his assistance and backing, Romney would not have won Ohio by such a margin, or at all. Portman knows what’s going on in D.C.—he’s worked in the White House and Congress. Unfortunately, he is more boring than dry toast. He’s more boring than Romney for fucksakes. While some might argue that the vice president’s strengths will not ameliorate or hide Romney’s flaws, we could at least try. At the very least, we need a more interesting veep candidate if we want to stay awake this fall.

Marco Rubio: Rubio is hungry. Like a wolf. His name has been tossed around by a lot of Republican candidates, mostly because they don’t seem to know any other Hispanics in politics. Rubio is young and charismatic, meaning that he has a real chance of upstaging Romney on the campaign trail. He also hails from Florida, which will be an important state for the GOP this year (all those old people who want the repeal of Obamacare because they’ve been living off of LBJcare for years). Oh yeah, and this will help Romney capture the Hispanic vote. While Rubio has said he wouldn’t be Romney’s pick, he’s also showed extremely poor judgment when he (jokingly?) recommended Jeb Bush for the position, so you never know.

Chris Christie: Christie is hungry. For some hot dogs. Christie has a certain amount of gravitas, and a hardass personality that would go nicely with Romney’s awkward-private equity-Mormony Mr. Roger’s feel. His appeal might be his downfall, however, Romney may be unwilling to invest in such a potentially volatile running mate.

There are more out there, such as Nikki Haley (who governs the state that went to Newt), Susannah Martinez (who doesn’t want the job, and is too close to being a Palin choice), Tim Pawlenty (lulz no), et al.

But I would love to see Romney pick Olympia Snowe. This is an absurdity, even for me, but I can dream. She’s a woman, and one who actually supports women’s rights. She’s got the experience. She has a strong reputation for ending close votes, which is of paramount importance these days. Most importantly, picking her would signal to the moderates and Independents that Romney actually is a moderate, instead of just some psychopathic quantum politician.

Lisa Wang is a 2L. Her column runs every other Wednesday, and she also be provides commentary on the Republican primary debates.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.