Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Politicians feel our pain - they've struggled, too

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'Romnesia' targets a particular kind of rich person, one who seems blind to their own outrageous privilege. Romnesia, the Obama campaign's new favourite word, is defined by British journalist George Monbiot, who coined it in a Guardian column last month, as "the ability of the very rich to forget the context in which they made their money".

The Obama camp has appropriated it to highlight what they say is Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney's propensity to conveniently forget "what his own positions are". As a presidential tweet put it: "If you say women should have access to contraceptive care but you support laws that would let employers deny it, you've got Romnesia."

(The closest Kiwi equivalent might be termed "Johnesia": the propensity of government ministers named John to lapse into brain-fading forgetfulness when confronted with inconvenient, potentially career-damaging questions). Monbiot's "Romnesia" targets a particular kind of rich person, one who seems blind to their own outrageous privilege.

Romnesia leads the smugly well-off to "forget their education, inheritance, family networks, contacts and introductions. To forget the workers whose labour enriched them. To forget the infrastructure and security, the educated workforce, the contracts, subsidies and bail-outs the Government provided".

Old-fashioned businessmen like Hugh Fletcher may well acknowledge, as he did on RNZ's Nine to Noon last week, that he was blessed with opportunities, and that "a lot of the people who are regarded as successful people actually just got lucky with their timing", but he seems to be a dying breed.

Good fortune doesn't appear to enter into the equation. So many of the rich are convinced that they and they alone are responsible for their spoils - and therefore deserve to keep as much as their tax accountants can engineer - that it's been necessary to remind them of the debt they owe to, for example, public services paid for by everyone.

"You didn't build that," Barack Obama has pointed out to America's rich. Not on their own anyway. But, of course, some of the obscenely rich insist otherwise. Mitt Romney's attitude to the poor has been well known since he told CNN this year that "I'm not concerned about the very poor" because "they have a safety net".

In a secretly videotaped speech, Romney joked about being "poor as a church mouse". In the process of disparaging what he claimed was the non-income-tax-paying 47 per cent of Americans - the entitled, freeloading "victims" who would vote Obama no matter what because they were beholden in some way to the state, as opposed to the noble, hardworking job creators like himself - Romney told rich donors that "everything that Ann and I have we earned the old-fashioned way, and that's by hard work".

That conveniently overlooked the Romneys' privileged beginnings. Ann Romney was privately educated and her father was a businessman. Romney's father was Governor of Michigan, and chairman and president of American Motors Corporation. As columnist Ezra Klein pointed out, Romney's "a guy who sold his dad's stock to pay for college, [and] built an elevator to ensure easier access to his multiple cars ..."

The Romneys are now worth around a quarter of a billion dollars, which is nice for them. But the idea that their enormous wealth was the product only of old-fashioned hard work has been comprehensively demolished in a number of damning exposures.

The most recent, by Greg Palast in The Nation, finds that the Romneys made at least US$15 million from the motor industry bailout (which Mitt opposed), while "a few of Romney's most important Wall St donors made more than $4billion".

It's not hard to see why the rich folk might play up their supposed struggles. Annabel Crabb, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, noted that it's become de rigueur for American politicians to "find any scrap of past personal privation and [talk] about it endlessly". Michelle Obama recalled Barack's beat-up car with the rusty holes in the floor. Ann Romney harked back to the humble basement flat she and Mitt slummed in, where an ironing board served as a dining table.

For politicians, wrote Crabb, "poor is the new black". All the same, "there's something vaguely awful about the sight of politicians groping around for instances of hardship in their own lives, so as to ape the very real difficulties so many of their constituents are suffering".

The message seems clear: Being poor isn't that bad. We feel your pain. We've struggled, too, and look how well we've done.

It's not just the Americans. We, too, have politicians who've climbed the ladder in good times with the help of a more generous welfare system and then pulled up the ladder after them.

- NZ Herald

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