Conference on Debt Issues in Low-Income Countries

(Photo: US Mission Geneva/flickr)

I lived in Latin America for a decade, and one of my most indelible memories concerns how poor people so often side with the rich rather than their own interests.

On the way to work one day in São Paulo, I noticed a well-dressed man sitting in his shiny new Mercedes. The only problem: his car was stalled and he was holding up traffic, with horns blaring at him. He got out and beckoned pedestrians dressed in ragged clothing to push him out of the way of traffic. It didn’t take long, and several obliged. They huffed and puffed, breathing heavily, straining their backs, and pushed the Mercedes over to the side of the road. The driver probably spent more on his Mercedes than most of those peons will earn in a lifetime. What did they get in return? A quick thank you. No money. No offer of a ride. The driver did not even get his hands dirty or strain a muscle. He acted as if they were obligated to rescue him.

The big question is why they bother. What’s in it for them? I saw similar scenes repeated time and again.

My wife is Brazilian, and she can’t answer the question, except to say that the poor have been humbled into hoping that the rich guy might toss them a bone (one hint: they never do).

If a low-income person driving a beatermobile in Latin America is involved in a traffic accident with someone driving a shiny new car, eyewitnesses inevitably pop out of the woodwork to assert that the poor man did something wrong. Their fellow poor guy has nothing to offer them. In the end, it does not matter who was at fault. The rich guy is never held responsible for anything.

Most Americans would view this as some sort of cultural oddity, pat themselves on the back and insist that sort of mindset would not happen here.

Sorry to tell you folks: it does happen here. It’s just that nobody noticed.

Consider this: two-thirds of low-income Americans plan to vote for President Barack Obama, and one-third would vote for Mitt Romney, according to various opinion polls. That’s not a majority, but that is one-third too many. And millions of impoverished people never even bother to vote, thinking nothing will improve their lot. How would this group fare under a Romney administration? Listen to the tape in which Romney showered utter contempt for the 47% of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes. And one-third of that group would willingly vote for the guy who openly mocks and disdains them! Voting for Romney is even worse than pushing the rich man’s Mercedes because it willingly and knowingly puts him behind the wheel.

The working poor get a refund every April 15 for only the federal income taxes they pay during the year. They already pay Social Security and Medicare, state income taxes, sales tax, gasoline tax and various excise taxes, none of them refunded later. In all, people at the bottom of the heap often pay a far higher portion of their income to various taxes than do those sitting on top of the world. You get the idea that Romney wants to force these people to also pay federal income tax, which would leave them even fewer pennies to scratch out the daily necessities of life.

Once Romney lets the patricians stop paying estate taxes, once the executives push all their income into capital gains, a lot less money will enter the federal treasury. That means that middle- and lower-income people will pay more and that the inevitable lower revenues will mean huge cuts to programs that help everybody: education, health care, food stamps, police and fire protection, and infrastructure.

Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan introduced a plan to transform Medicare into a voucher system. Instead of guaranteed coverage, he envisions the government paying a flat fee and forcing the elderly to choose which private insurer they want. Good luck, gramps! Romney and Ryan have also endorsed various schemes to privatize Social Security. Few people remember the high poverty rates among seniors before government-run Social Security and Medicare insurance allowed the majority of them to maintain a decent standard of living.

Romney has vowed to end Obamacare on his first day in office. That would be a disaster for millions of people who were getting access to health care for the first time. Ironically, many people who vote for Romney would lose their health insurance due to things like pre-existing conditions.

Some lower-income folks have been tricked into thinking their job prospects would improve under Romney. Remember that’s the guy who famously proposed letting the auto industry collapse. Obama wisely ignored the hecklers and saved it (ditto: “let the housing industry bottom out” to benefit real estate speculators instead of helping anyone in a rut). This is the man who made a freakin’ fortune at Bain by moving American jobs offshore and firing American workers. How many auto workers in Michigan and Ohio are voting for Romney? Did any of them stop to consider that they would be permanently unemployed if not for Obama? And what will happen when another U.S. industry hovers on the verge of failure under Romney instead of Obama?

Based on my experience in Latin America, Romney’s ideas all coincide with the way things work in the Third World. The wealthy pay a pittance in taxes, the middle class pays for everything, the poor get nothing, and the underfunded public services don’t work. That’s why it’s called the Third World. That’s why so many people want to leave. Ask yourself why Romney’s economic plans mimic those of underdeveloped nations.

Romney hasn’t changed a bit since high school, when he taunted an effeminate classmate. He brags, “I like to fire people.” Translation: he likes having power over people’s lives. Romney sees the world through the eyes of that Mercedes driver. The only difference is that he does not ask peons to push his limo: he orders them the way workers at Bain-owned companies are forced to train their Chinese replacements. And if they don’t oblige, his son Tagg might just “take a swing” at them.

John Wright is the author of The Obama Haters: Behind the Right-Wing Campaign of Lies, Innuendo and Racism (Potomac Books, April 2011)