Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Some South Carolina facts for discussion in quiet rooms

Some fascinating facts about South Carolina's people, wealth, businesses and home ownership were updated by the U.S. Census Bureau late last month, and they offer a snapshot worth considering.

Here are only a few notes:

How many are we? Our 2010 population totaled 4.625 million, an increase of 15.3 percent over the 2000 census. It would appear that despite all the rhetoric advising Americans not to complete and return their census forms, South Carolinians did.

How old are we? Of that total population in 2010, nearly a quarter -- 23.4 percent -- were under the age of 18. Senior citizens -- those age 65 and over -- accounted for 13.7 percent of our total.

What is our dominant gender? At 51.4 percent of the total, women outnumber men.

What color are we? Representing 66.2 percent of the population, whites outnumber everyone else. The next largest minority is African-Americans, with 27.9 percent of the total. Hispanic or Latino respondents accounted for 5.1 percent.

How safe is our border? For all the Sturm und Drang over immigration -- which has always been a bee in South Carolinians' collective bonnet -- foreign-born persons represent only 4.4 percent of our residents, well below the national figure is 12.4 percent. So why the xenophobia?

How many of us have served the nation? According to data collected between 2005 and 2009, South Carolina is home to a shade less than 400,000 veterans, roughly 1.73 percent of the nation's total of 22,894,578.

How educated are we? The good news is that 82.2 percent of South Carolinians, age 25 and older, have graduated from high school; the bad news is that the other 17.8 percent of us haven't. Only 23.5 percent of us hold bachelor's degrees or more advanced degrees.

How many houses do we have? Our total "housing units" are 2.137 million, but 17 percent of those are in multi-unit structures -- presumably beach condos, apartments and dormitories.

How many own our homes? There are 1.693 million "households" in our state, with an average 2.52 persons per household, and 70.3 percent of us own homes.

How wealthy are we? We're rolling in filthy lucre, by medieval standards. South Carolinians earned $23,196 per capita, in 2009 dollars, in the 12 months before being surveyed. Our median household income in 2009 was $42,580 -- roughly 12 percent of Mitt Romney's income from public speaking fees last year.

How many of us live in poverty? South Carolinians living below the poverty level in 2009 totaled 17.1 percent of us. That's three percent higher than the national average.

However, those South Carolinians in business are really in business.

How many "firms" are based in South Carolina? 360,397 in 2007. Of that number, only 12 percent were owned by African-Americans, 1.8 percent were owned by citizens of Asian heritage, and 1.7 percent were owned by Hispanic/Latino citizens. Women owned fewer than a third: only 27.6 percent.

But some of us have made out like bandits: We shipped nearly $94 billion in manufactured goods in 2007, we booked more $40 billion in merchant wholesale sales in 2007, and our retailers did more than $54 billion in business the same year. In fact, our retail sales per capita in 2007 totaled $12,273 -- which is striking, given that it represents half of our per capita income.

What does this tell us? Maybe that the average South Carolinian is a white female, between 18 and 65, with a high school diploma but no college degree, who earns less than $25,000 annually and who doesn't live alone, and who has a much greater chance of knowing someone who lives in poverty than of knowing a veteran.

Is this an appropriate topic to discuss in the public square, as a matter of public policy, or should we -- as Mitt Romney advises -- only talk about these things in "quiet rooms"?

I like how editorialist Eric Zorn put it, in an op-ed published last week in the Chicago Tribune:

Inside voices everyone, please!

We're going to talk about the widening income gap between rich and poor, tax policy and the seemliness of predatory investing, and GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney wants us to do so only "in quiet rooms."

He made this suggestion in an interview Wednesday with NBC "Today" host Matt Lauer, the relevant portion of which began when Lauer challenged Romney's assertion in his victory speech Tuesday after the New Hampshire primary that questions about his lucrative career in high finance are rooted in "the bitter politics of envy."

"I think it's about envy," Romney replied. "I think it's about class warfare. I think when you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on 99 percent vs. 1 percent, and those people who've been most successful will be in the 1 percent, you've opened up a whole new wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God."

Had I been in Lauer's chair, I would have reminded Romney that "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, when top-bracket earners paid a 91 percent federal income tax rate. They now pay 35 percent, and yet Republicans howl that those who want to move it back up to 39 percent, where it was through most of the 1990s, are "socialists."

Instead, Lauer asked, "Are there no fair questions about the distribution of wealth without it being seen as envy, though?"

"You know I think it's fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms," Romney said. "But the president has made this part of his campaign rally. Everywhere he goes we hear him talking about millionaires and billionaires and executives and Wall Street. It's a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach."

Attack? Yes. Politics isn't beanbag as Romney himself reminded us recently. And harsh criticism of opponents' records and philosophies is common, as the broadsides against President Barack Obama in Romney's stinging, hyperbolic victory speech illustrated.

But envy? No. Envy requires bitter resentment, and most of us don't resent or begrudge the material success of the industrious, the talented or even the lucky — Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, say, or Oprah Winfrey, Derrick Rose, Steven Spielberg and Scott Anetsberger, the Lombard man who, we just learned, hit the $1 million jackpot in the Illinois Lottery's Merry Millionaire scratch-off game twice in nine years.

I'd even go so far as to say the vast majority of Americans admire successful venture capitalists — those who get rich investing in the ideas of ambitious entrepreneurs (whom we also admire), thus creating new products and businesses that fuel economic growth.

That's free enterprise. And despite Romney's complaint that those in both parties who are critical of his tenure at Bain Capital investment firm "want to put free enterprise on trial," no one in the political mainstream is challenging its basics.

What they are challenging are the rules of high finance that allow private equity firms like Bain to sweep in, buy up mature companies, gut and restructure them with heavy infusions of other people's money, then bail out with handsome profits even when the company may be headed for bankruptcy.

"There's a big difference between financial manipulation and capitalism," said Newt Gingrich, the GOP candidate whose technically unaffiliated political action committee will spend a reported $5 million in South Carolina this week to promote and air "When Mitt Romney Came To Town," a 28-minute video that portrays Romney the businessman as rapacious, heartless and obtuse.

Others critics are challenging a tax system that has allowed wealth to concentrate more and more at the top, impeded income mobility and hit particularly hard at middle-income families, losers in a class war they did not start.

They want to put on trial a structure that bails out bankers in trouble but shrugs off the woes of the unemployed and the foreclosed as part of the "creative destruction" necessary for growth.

They're angry, not envious.

As a relatively calm person, I support Romney's implicit call for polite, reasoned discourse here. But it won't happen until he sets an example, stops flinging self-pitying accusations and acknowledges that his foes and critics have reasonable concerns about fairness and growing income inequality. He could start by allowing that it isn't anti-God and anti-capitalism insisting that we do better by those destroyed in the cycle of creative destruction.

In other words, expect a lot of noise in the coming months.

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