Smile Politely

Social policy binders

As is usual with memes, “Binders Full of Women” bolted out the gate Wednesday night with enthusiasm and excess. All because one man did what he does best: say something awkward to 67.2 million people. And the internet did what it does best: spray buckshot wide and far.

The man in question is Mitt Romney. In case you were sick yesterday, or in the midst of a technology/internet/news purge, or trapped in a binder in your basement, here’s a quick recap. A question was asked in the presidential debate about pay equity for women. President Obama answered that he passed the Lily Ledbetter Act, which makes it easier for women to bring lawsuits based on on-going discrimination. Mitt Romney talked about his time as a governor:

I had the chance to pull together a Cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men. And I — and I went to my staff, and I said, how come all the people for these jobs are all men?

They said, well, these are the people that have the qualifications. And I said, well, gosh, can’t we find some — some women that are also qualified?

And so we we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our Cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, can you help us find folks? And I brought us whole binders full of — of women.

“Did he just say ‘binders full of women?’” my wife asked, jaw open, looking at my brother and me for confirmation.

My brother piped in, “Oh, I hope that goes viral.”

I immediately updated my Facebook status, because that’s what you do when a new meme is born and you want to be cool.

My brother got his wish. See for a seemingly endless list of increasingly stale jokes. Google “Mitt Romney” today and the third most popular suggestion is “binder” (after “position,” suggestively enough).

So, haha, we’ve now had our fun with Romney’s awkwardness. Will it be like the 47% comment, which had legs and affected how people planned to vote? Maybe. Probably not. His message with the 47% comment was that almost half of Americans are freeloaders. It’s hard to spin that. In this case, his point was that he respects women and tried hard to get them on his team.

And yet, there’s a pesky fact about this that could be a problem. It turns out that Romney wasn’t the one demanding more women on his team. A coalition of women groups met before the election and presented him with the infamous binders after he was elected. They were the driving force, not Mitt.

OK, so it was awkwardly stated and not entirely true. Anything else?

Yes, one more thing. This example perfectly illustrates the central philosophical difference between the candidates, the parties, and the left and the right in this country.

The question was equal pay for women in the workplace. How did each candidate respond? Obama talked about enacting social policy into law. Romney talked about personally hiring women.

The exact same interchange happened in the vice presidential debate. Joe Biden said the administration saved the auto industry and contrasted that with Romney’s plan to let it die. Paul Ryan came back with a story that Romney once met a family who had been in a car crash. He later promised to pay for their kid’s college.

So, whether it’s equal pay for women, saving the auto industry, ensuring access to health care, education, and social security for all Americans, the basic difference is this: one side wants to enact social policy to guarantee rights. The other side wants to rely on personal charity.

So, yes, these are nice stories about Mitt Romney’s personal generosity (and would be even better if they were totally true). But his answer to social problems seems to be: know me personally, and I’ll offer you a job (if you are a woman) or pay for your college (if you’ve been in a car crash). His social policy is that he’s a nice guy and will help some people out when he has the chance.

Here’s the cold, hard truth. Charity is not social policy. Charity is admirable and good and we should admire those who engage in it. But charity cannot provide health care to everyone. It could not have saved the auto industry. It has never provided basic income to the elderly, equal pay for equal work, nor has it leveled any playing field. It can only help individuals in random, spotty ways. The only thing that can guarantee rights and provide a real social safety net to citizens is to enact social policy into law. To rely on charity as social policy is to cast aside tens of millions of people.

St. Augustine said it best, many centuries ago: charity is no substitute for justice withheld.


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