You Eat Mitt Romney’s Salt

Don’t you love the Romney video? I’m not going to deny it, right now I am with Team Dem. It’s true, we usually say “the bosses have two parties”; but it’s not usual for them to run for office personally, themselves. And when they do, wow, what a window onto how they really think.

It’s hard to even imagine the mindset where the person sitting in the back of the town car is the “maker” and the person upfront driving is just lazing around; where the guys maintaining the hedges and manning the security gates at the mansion are idle parasites, while the person living in it, just by virtue of that fact, is working; where the person who owns the dressage horse is the producer and the people who groom it and feed it and muck it are the layabouts. As some on the right have pointed out, it’s weird, also, that “producing” is now equated with paying federal taxes. Isn’t working in the private sector supposed to be productive? Isn’t a successful business contributing something to society besides checks to the IRS?

It is weird. But as we’re all realizing, the 47 percent/53 percent rhetoric has a long history on the Right. (It would be interesting to explore this via the rounding-up of 46.4 percent to 47, the same way medievalists trace the dissemination of a text by the propagation of copyists’ errors.) Naturally, brother Konczal is on the case, with a great post tracing out four lineages of the 47 percent. His preferred starting point, like others’, is the Wall Street Journal‘s notorious 2002 editorial on the “lucky duckies” who pay no income tax.

That’s a key reference point, for sure. But I think this attitude goes back a bit further. The masters of mankind, it seems to me, have always cultivated a funny kind of solipsism, imagining that the people who fed and clothed and worked and fought for them, were somehow living off of them instead.

Here, as transcribed in Peter Laslett’s The World We Have Lost, is Gregory King’s 1688 “scheme” of the population of England. It’s fascinating to see the careful gradations of status (early-moderns were nothing if not attentive to “degree”); we’ll be pleased to see, for instance, that “persons in liberal arts and sciences,” come above shopkeepers, though below farmers. But look below that to the “general account” at the bottom. We have 2.675 million people “increasing the wealth of the kingdom,” and 2.825 million “decreasing the wealth of the kingdom.” The latter group includes not only the vagrants, gypsies and thieves, but common seamen, soldiers, laborers, and “cottagers,” i.e. landless farmworkers. So in three centuries, the increasers are up from 49 percent to 53 percent, and the lucky duckies are down from 51 percent to 47. That’s progress, I guess.

One can’t help wondering how the wealth of the kingdom would hold up if the eminent traders by sea couldn’t find common seamen, if the farmers had to do without laborers, if there were officers but no common soldiers. 

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?

Always more where they come from, I suppose Gregory King might say.

Here, also from Laslett, is a similar division from 100 years earlier, by Sir Thomas Smith:

1. ‘The first part of the Gentlemen of England called Nobilitas Major.’ This is the nobility, or aristocracy proper.
2. ‘The second sort of Gentlemen called Nobilitas Minor.’ This is the gentry and Smith further divides it into Knights, Esquires and gentlemen.
3. ‘Citizens, Burgesses and Yeomen.’
4. ‘The fourth sort of men which do not rule.’

Of this last group, Smith explains:

The fourth sort or class amongst us is of those which the old Romans called capite sensu proletarii or operarii, day labourers, poor husbandmen, yea merchants or retailers which have no free land, copyholders, and all artificers, as tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, brick- makers, brick-layers, etc. These have no voice nor authority in our commonwealth and no account is made of them, but only to be ruled and not to rule others.

In other words, Elizabethan Mitt Romney, your job is not to worry about those people.

Smith’s contemporary Shakespeare evidently had distinctions like these in mind when he wrote Coriolanus. (A remarkably radical play; I think it was the only Shakespeare Brecht approved of.) The title chracter’s overriding passion is his contempt for the common people, those “geese that bear the shapes of men,” who “sit by th’ fire and presume to know what’s done i’ the Capitol.” He hates them specifically because they are, as it were, dependent, and think of themselves as victims.

They said they were an-hungry; sigh’d forth proverbs, —
That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat,
That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not
Corn for the rich men only: — with these shreds
They vented their complainings…

He has no patience for this idea that people are entitled to enough to to eat:

Would the nobility lay aside their ruth
And let me use my sword, I’d make a quarry
With thousands of these quarter’d slaves, as high
As I could pick my lance.

One more instance. Did everybody read Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders?

It’s a magnificent, but also profoundly conservative, work of fiction. In Mueenuddin’s world the social hierarchy is so natural, so unquestioned, that any crossing of its boundaries can only be understood as a personal, moral failing, which of course always comes at a great personal cost. There’s one phrase in particular that occurs repeatedly in the book: “They eat your salt,” “you ate his salt,” etc. The thing about this evidently routine expression is that the eater is always someone of lower status, and the person whose salt is being eaten is always a landlord or aristocrat. “Oh what could be the matter in your service? I’ve eaten your salt all my life,” says the electrician who has, in fact, spent all his life keeping the pumps going on the estates of the man he’s petitioning. Somehow, in this world, the person who sits in a mansion in Lahore or Karachi is entitled as a matter of course to all the salt and all the good things of life, and the person who physically produces the salt should be grateful to get any of it.

Mueenuddin describes this world vividly and convincingly, in part because he is a writer of great talent, but also clearly in part because he shares its essential values. Just in case we haven’t got the point, the collection’s final story, “A Spoiled Man,” is about how an old laborer’s life is ruined when his master’s naive American wife gets the idea he deserves a paycheck and proper place to sleep, giving him the disastrous idea that he has rights. You couldn’t write fiction like that in this country, I don’t think. Hundreds of years of popular struggle have reshaped the culture in ways that no one with the sensitivity to write good fiction could ignore. A Romney is a different story.

UDPATE: Krugman today is superb on this. (Speaking of being on Team Dem.)

19 thoughts on “You Eat Mitt Romney’s Salt”

  1. Awesome look.

    From Seligman's Progressive Taxation in Theory and Practice, starting in the mid-18th century you begin to get arguments for a basic deduction when it comes to general taxes. Here are some choice quotes:

    The French political economist François Véron Duverger de Forbonnais argued in 1758 that "the object of taxation is the preservation of property; and property is nil if it does not afford subsistence. Hence, the physical subsistence of every family is a privileged part of all income. Only the surplus above this minimum can be assigned to the public for the support of government."

    Dean Woodward in 1768. "Before we begin to tax any income for the poor, we must deduct from it as much as is requisite to purchase for the possessor and his family the absolute necessaries of life. No man can be bound to give to another what is essential to his own subsistence. To this every man has the exclusive right on which the very claim of the poor is founded."

    I might try to find the counter-reaction to those arguments in the future – I bet they are fascinating.

  2. –I don’t like Mitt either, especially because I paid a higher tax rate than he did last year, on one one-thousandth of his income.

    –I think you may be doing Gregory King’s 1688 English class taxonomy a disservice.

    By “the wealth of the kingdom” King may have meant “revenue of the state.” In other words, he wasn’t drawing a distinction between those who are economically productive and those who are unproductive, but between those families that are likely to pay taxes and those that decrease state revenue because they don’t pay taxes and are likely to be charges on the parish at some point. That’s obviously true of common soldiers and navy seamen who draw pay from the Crown, and for vagrants and paupers who pay no tax but may burden state charities. It’s also suggested by King’s stats on the size of the aristocratic family. The lords temporal are accorded an average family size of 40 heads, and that’s not because the duchess had 38 children. Most of the people in the lords temporal class are actually footmen, grooms, scullery maids and the like—servants who are “increasing the kingdom’s wealth” because they are embedded in taxed households. I guess that sort of gibes with Mitt’s line, too, but King may not be saying that the lower half is an economic dead weight.

    What’s striking is not King’s treatment of the lower half but that he puts almost half the population in the upper level—essentially, middle class and better. That’s an astonishingly large middle class for a pre-industrial economy, and it’s by no means solely composed of idle lords, clergymen, rentiers and merchant princes. The village blacksmith and carpenter and the ship’s sail-mender are likely lumped under “artizans and handicrafts,” and most of the freeholders and (tenant) farmers were themselves following the plow. There’s actually a huge conceptual gulf between King’s class structure and Smith’s of 100 years earlier, because King promotes into the valued middle class the artisans, shopkeepers and tenant farmers that Smith despises as no-account. The two documents show just how vigorously England’s 17th-century proto-capitalism was eroding older class hierarchies.

    –There’s a psychology, not just an ideology, behind our notions of dependent inequality. People feel they owe something to a boss or an overlord because he’s the man who makes things happen. He gives people a job, a role, recompense, security, a coherent enterprise to join in a chaotic world where those things aren’t guaranteed. Alexander would be nothing without his spearmen, but what would they be without him? Peasants, that’s what.

    While by no means the whole truth, those notions aren’t entirely wrong either. To give it its due, dependent inequality under capitalism isn’t purely a matter of caste privilege. Businessmen do organize patently useful enterprises that are subject to the half-way meritocratic discipline of the market, and working people do feel dependent on them: we’re grateful to the bosses who hire us, because we don’t quite see how we would survive without them. That confers an enormous prestige and moral ascendancy on business owners which, combined with the powerful legitimating principle of market competition, buttresses their “right to rule.” There are reasons why the bourgeoisie overthrew the aristocracy but has not been overthrown in its turn.

    The socialist riposte is that egalitarian state planners will organize useful collective enterprise that gives us recompense and security. Unfortunately, despite their egalitarian rhetoric socialist regimes were rife with caste privileges—Brecht definitely enjoyed them—and grotesque cults of dependency on gifted leaders. The material results weren’t great, either.

    I’m a social democratic Goldilocks, so I say half entrepreneurialism, half egalitarian state planning.

    1. I don't get the distinction between psychology and ideology. By psychology you seem to mean a framework for organizing ideas/emotions about the social world, produced by that social world. How is that not just the classic Marxian consciousness shaped by their social existence? Ideology is not just a body of lies consciously produced and distributed. It also includes the partial-truths that follow as natural/obvious to people who find themselves in particular social relations.

      I think it is entirely possible that something is both ideological and a "notion" that is not "entirely wrong either." Indeed, the most pernicious ideological notions are ones that are intelligible given people's daily lives. Commodity fetishism works because from a certain perspective in a capitalist economy it honestly does appear that way. What makes it ideological, and worth criticizing, is that it misses a bunch of other stuff (the relations of production behind all the shiny things at the mall) and naturalizes relationships that are ultimately just the product of a screwed up social structure that needs to be changed.

      I also think the apparent unequal distribution of what you see as entrepreneurial skill is much more an effect of class/economic structure than a cause.

  3. I think it's just a phase in the normal cycle. Elite gets powerful, gets cocky, then they get their heads chopped off (or some of them, anyway), then the next cycle starts.

    So, some of the elite are like that, and some of them are more realistic. And you are with that second group? Well, good for you, I guess.

  4. …and, in fact, elections is exactly the mechanism that's supposed to prevent a hard landing at the end of a cycle, and protect Romney&Co's necks. We'll see if it works this time.

  5. By “the wealth of the kingdom” King may have meant “revenue of the state.” In other words, he wasn’t drawing a distinction between those who are economically productive and those who are unproductive, but between those families that are likely to pay taxes and those that decrease state revenue because they don’t pay taxes and are likely to be charges on the parish at some point.

    Quite possibly. But isn't that what MItt is saying too?

    What’s striking is not King’s treatment of the lower half but that he puts almost half the population in the upper level—essentially, middle class and better. … There’s actually a huge conceptual gulf between King’s class structure and Smith’s of 100 years earlier, because King promotes into the valued middle class the artisans, shopkeepers and tenant farmers that Smith despises as no-account. The two documents show just how vigorously England’s 17th-century proto-capitalism was eroding older class hierarchies.

    This is a good point. I agree, except that I'm not convinced it's all down to proto-capitalism. England had a (political) revolution in the intervening century too.

    owe something to a boss or an overlord because he’s the man who makes things happen. He gives people a job, a role, recompense, security, a coherent enterprise to join in a chaotic world where those things aren’t guaranteed. Alexander would be nothing without his spearmen, but what would they be without him? Peasants, that’s what. While by no means the whole truth, those notions aren’t entirely wrong either.

    Of course. Ideology isn't just false beliefs, it's beliefs that are true for a particular group, or in a particular context, being generalized as if they were universal laws.

    Businessmen do organize patently useful enterprises that are subject to the half-way meritocratic discipline of the market, and working people do feel dependent on them: we’re grateful to the bosses who hire us, because we don’t quite see how we would survive without them. That confers an enormous prestige and moral ascendancy on business owners which, combined with the powerful legitimating principle of market competition, buttresses their “right to rule.”

    Oh for sure. But there are bourgeois and bourgeois. I freely confess to respecting the capitalists who genuinely "organize patently useful enterprises," the robber barons who built steel plants and railroads, the Steve Jobs types today. But a big part of the bourgeoisie — including its highest status and most politically active fractions — aren't doing that. They are in finance, in the business of extracting the surplus from productive enterprises rather than building them. There is a difference between capitalists-as-owners-of-capital and capitalists-as-managers-of-enterprise, even sometimes an outright conflict — that's the point of the "disgorge the cash" series of posts here. A big part of the problem is that the technical requirement for a distinct coordination function in a complex division of labor has been conflated with the idea that that function needs to take the form of a property right. And that then allows whoever ends up with that property right to take credit for the work of coordination that, often, they have nothing to do with.

    The socialist riposte is that egalitarian state planners will organize useful collective enterprise that gives us recompense and security.

    The socialist riposte is that there is much more scope for democratic planing by those actually engaged in productive work — that a planning function is necessary but not a distinct class of planners. How good the grounds for believing that are, we can debate, but that's what socialists say.

    I’m a social democratic Goldilocks, so I say half entrepreneurialism, half egalitarian state planning.

    I could live with that. I don't think you get there without a more utopian vision.

    1. I disagree that the important distinction is between owners and managers (as I understand you to mean). Will'spoint was that without a visionary leader who risks, explores,and finds amongst the entropy, pockets ofvalue-adding activity in excess of the cost, the job appliers would have nothing to apply to. What's worth distinguishing there about maintainers and efficiency-enhancers vis-a-vis originators? It feels like some other conversations are creeping into this one through that crack.

  6. “Isn’t that what Mitt is saying?”

    Right, as I wrote, King’s balance sheet sort of is what Mitt’s saying—but then it’s sort of not, too.

    Mitt explicitly conflates non-payment of income tax with economic uselessness and general delinquency. King may be making a narrower statement about the English fisc—simply, these are the people that send revenue to the treasury, while these others could be a drain on the treasury. He was essentially doing a demographic analysis of government budgetary strains. If you asked King whether he thought the realm could get along without its farm laborers, seamen and soldiers, he would probably have said “No, of course not, but they may pose a problem for the exchequer.” King, like Mitt, would surely not say that common soldiers were superfluous and should be let go; he’s simply observing that they are expensive for the crown to maintain. So King isn’t making any statement at all about workers’—or clergymen’s—importance to the private economy, just assessing their relative impacts on state finances. Mitt does that too, but then he conflates that with irresponsibility, sloth, victimology etc, to argue for the parasitism of the working class.

    Remember that King is analyzing a corporatist revenue system, one based more on property holdings than cash income—property including rent-producing legal entitlements, like a government office, vicarage, or guild membership—in which the basic unit is the household. His analysis doesn’t align well with our modern notions of tax liability based on individual earnings. The main organizing principle behind his taxonomy is whether the people in question are or are not attached to a taxable piece of real estate. Soldiers and seamen have no fixed abode; neither do vagrants. Cottagers and out-servants and laborers may have a place to lay their heads, but it’s not rent-producing land like the lord’s manor.

    In fact, King obviously isn’t making any general statement about upper-class productivity versus lower-class parasitism. Consider his treatment of servants. As I argued, most of the 6400 people he counts in the temporal lords class are simply servants in noble houses. But then among the people “who decrease the wealth of the kingdom” he includes “out servants.” These servants do exactly the same jobs as the servants in the temporal lords category, but they are not “house servants”—they don’t live in the same house as their employer, but come to work from “outside,” as it were. Because they live in their own hovels instead of the lord’s house, they don’t belong to a taxed household; so they count as people who decrease state revenue. But they are exactly the same social class, doing exactly the same jobs, as the house servants of the temporal lords, who nominally “increase the wealth of the kingdom.” So King isn’t talking about the economic productivity of classes or occupations, but about residence in taxed versus non-taxed households—i.e., households that do or do not have income-producing property.

    Alls I’m trying to do is defend the reputation of a dead man. King may well have been a 17th-century progressive, not a Mitt Romney prototype. (Assuming I’ve read King right, which maybe I haven’t.)

  7. There's no necessary contradiction between Smith and King – the former is vaguer and non-quantitative, and writes of political not financial status. No revolution happened in seventeenth century England in the sense which Marxists (all used) to give to the word.

  8. King puts on the credit side of his ledger everyone who has what used to be called an establishment (now called capital, I suppose) with their dependents; on the debit side, everyone who doesn't, with theirs. It's an account, not a programme.
    Both King and Laslett(esp. first ed.)are wonderful books.

  9. That explains King's ranking order; not by status, but by average income (owing to the establishment of) the family chief.

  10. 5371-

    Yes, you are right on all points. (I read the first edition of Laslett — only linked to the second because that was the only one I could find online.) Honestly, I just thought the parallel between King's categorization and Romney's was interesting. The post and my comments above are not really well thought out. Probably should have skipped this one.

  11. I'm very late to this–I've only just discovered this blog–but I don't know, it doesn't quite apply to King, but there's definitely an analogy to be made to 17th c. political thought more broadly. It's almost the norm for writers in the Tudor/Stuart period to suggest that the common people are basically unproductive. When Margaret Cavendish writes, "Men are not like Beasts, to Work to a General Profit, but like Drones, to Rob the Particular Labours in the Commonwealth; neither is it amongst Mankind as amongst Beasts, for amongst Beasts there are more Bees than Drones, but amongst Mankind there are more Drones, as I may say, than Bees, that is, there are more Unprofitable, than Good Commonwealths men," she's not referring to the nobility.

    And re: Coriolanus: maybe even a more interestingly radical play than is typically supposed. The Shakespeare scholar Oliver Arnold reads it–convincingly–as a critique of the idea of representative government (the people are appointed tribunes in response to their demands during the play). "Here, then, is the truly radical message Coriolanus held for Shakespeare's audience: political representation dissolves the people, makes them nothing" (The Third Citizen, 199).

  12. +N. But surely the mindset isn't so hardto imagine. If the market efficiently prices everything (can we call it Market Calvinism?), and price=value=worth,then pay is proportional to contribution to society. It's an old yarn of economics: the only way to get ahead is by serving others. You can imagine some examples wherein working smarter –not harder–eally does contribute more. And wherein more educated (eg, doctor) does more good than less educated (eg, sandwich filler).

    I think the issues raised are quite serious, possibly meriting more attention than eg DSGE.

  13. The problems with hiring anarmy were covered in Discourses on Livy, but I think the answer to where the seamen would come from is, at least partially, low-wage (or slave) foreigners. I think Carnegie or similar time/fortune said paying his workers more would just leead to them consuming more alcohol at the margins, nothing of great public value. (Another great question!) I guess the carousal viewpoint of common sailors might have informed their ranking.

    It's strange that spiritual leaders are ranked below temporal, as are clergy below gentlemen.

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