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Makers and Takers

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Well, the latest Ryan video isn't a big shock, and given the 47 percent video already out there won't even get much attention, but it does remind us yet again: this really is what these guys believe. Whenever they are among friends, in quiet rooms, as Romney likes to put it, they relax and tell people what really think in their heart of hearts, that Americans can be divided into two clearly defined categories: producers and moochers, leeches and successes, makers and takers.

This extreme right-wing Republican worldview, so reminiscent of Ayn Rand's toxic philosophy that celebrated greed and selfishness and even rejected Christianity because it was concerned with helping others, is of course wrong on its facts: to call people who worked their whole lives and now live on Social Security, or veterans who fought this country's wars and now collect veteran benefits, or the mother who goes on welfare for a couple of years so she can go back to college and then get a much better job, to call these people takers or dependent victims is just dead wrong. But I pride myself on my open mind, so I will say right now: there is one way I agree with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. I will admit that there are takers and makers. They just have who those people are very mixed up.

Let me tell you about a couple of people I know about. I'll let you decide who is the taker and who is the maker.

One of them is in her 80s after being a stay-at-home mom raising five children and taking care of many of the neighbor kids whose mothers had to work or became ill for a while. She lives on Social Security and her deceased husband's teacher's pension check, and as her health has grown worse over the years relies more and more on Medicare for her health care. She took in a foster son with disabilities who she still helps look after. She has volunteered for numerous church projects, along with her husband was the host family for foreign students and their families, visited and took care of numerous elderly and terminally ill people she knew, for years was a volunteer tutoring struggling children in a local elementary school, played a major role helping start a community art center.

The other was a businessman, a very successful one. He made hundreds of millions as CEO of a private equity company. He made his money by buying up companies and "harvesting" their profit-making potential over the next five to seven years. His basic business model was to load companies up with debt, but then write the debt off his company's taxes, and pay his core company massive management fees whether the company in question did well or not. His other core business strategy was to be a pioneer in outsourcing, shedding people from the company workforce, and cutting the remaining workers' pay, pensions, and health care benefits. He also made lots of money lots of money investing in Chinese companies with near-slave labor factories. He paid a far lower share of all that income he made in taxes than most people by using a dizzying array of tax loopholes specially designed for Wall Street tycoons like himself, and he hid a lot of money away in secret Swiss and Cayman Island accounts.

If I were the moderator of the debate tonight, I would make the entire debate focus on one question: which of these people is the taker and which is the maker? This seems to be the central question on Romney and Ryan's minds, and it is the central question on mine as well.

There are some lazy people in America, some selfish people, some people who cheat their neighbors and don't contribute to their communities. Some of them are poor, some of them are middle class, and some of them are wealthy. But I have great faith in the fundamental decency of the vast majority of the American people. However lucky most people have been in their lives, however rich or poor they may be, whatever their current circumstance in life, most folks are more like the first person I discussed than the second. They do a good job of raising their families; they work hard at their jobs, in or out of the home; they help take the neighbor kids when they need to, and look after the ill or older folks in the community. They coach Little League, they volunteer for churches and civic groups, they start community art centers or clinics or counseling programs. I know people who are desperately poor themselves, or badly disabled, who still find ways to help other people and share what they have with people worse off than themselves.

The problem with the extreme right-wing philosophy of Romney, Ryan, and Ayn Rand is that they think being wealthy (no matter how you got that way) means you are automatically a good person, a producer, a "maker." On the other hand, if you are in tougher shape financially and get a hand from government, no matter what else you have done in your life, no matter how hard you worked when younger or how hard you will work when your get your degree, that you are a "taker." I would describe what I think of that philosophy, but it would cause me to swear and my mother wouldn't approve.

Fortunately, even before the official debates begin tonight, Democrats are already winning this philosophical debate. We have been seeing in the polling, not just in the electoral horse race numbers but in longer term trends, that the American people are becoming more, not less, sympathetic to people in need in these tough times. And politicians are finally starting to realize it. Even the Republicans are getting into the compassion lead, although it's not clear that anyone actually believes them -- take another look at this Romney ad from a few days ago:

And now look at one of my very favorite ads of the cycle so far, the Obama ad responding to that one, where the campaign focuses on and brags about their support for Medicaid, the health care program for poor Americans:

A majority of voters fundamentally reject the Romney/Ryan formulation of makers and takers. They know there are bad people out there who cheat their fellow citizens, but they also know that there are probably more of them that are Wall Street financial wizards than are grandmothers living on Social Security.

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