Friday, September 21, 2012

Seth Abramson's Voice

Dear Governor Romney,

Like you, I have a J.D. from Harvard Law School (HLS '01). Unlike you, I'm among the 47% of Americans who have paid little or no federal income tax for a substantial portion of their adult lives. You recently described this demographic (totaling over 150 million Americans) as "dependent upon government" -- that is, as comprised of individuals who, or so you claim, "believe that they are victims, believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, believe that they're entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it." I'm in that group of persons, in other words, who (or so you say) "won't take personal responsibility and care for their lives." These comments came as no small surprise to me, Governor, as I had always thought of myself -- and long believed it implicit in my biography -- that I am someone who is thoughtful, passionate, ambitious, and (yes) successful. Perhaps not successful in the only way you seem to understand America or Americans -- in monetary terms -- but in ways I'm not at all ashamed to say have made my life worth living, and have hopefully helped improve, on occasion, the lives of others in my community. When you measure a life purely in economic terms, Governor, as seems to be your penchant -- an unprecedented one, I believe, for someone who would govern a democratic, industrialized nation -- you only confirm in my mind, and in the minds of millions of others, that you do not understand the source of America's greatness. What makes America great is the courage of its people, and that courage is exhibited daily in corners of our economy and our society that clearly remain opaque to your view.

When you were at Harvard Law School in the early 1970s, you lived with Ann in a beautiful home given to you rent-free by your father, Michigan Governor George Romney. And you paid your daily bills using stock revenue you inherited from your father. (I'm afraid that when you told a gaggle of millionaires at your recent $50,000-a-plate fundraiser that you "inherited nothing," you were not being at all truthful.) When I was at Harvard Law School in the late 1990s, I lived in a fifty-year-old dormitory called "the Gropius Complex," and my room was a 10' x 10' cubbyhole. I lived entirely off public and private loans. I'll be paying back those loans until I'm in my mid- to late forties, thanks in large part to your party's morally-bankrupt obstruction of the President's student-loan reforms.

After you graduated from HLS in 1975, you took a job at the Boston Consulting Group, working as a management consultant to some of the nation's wealthiest businesses and households; your job was to help the super-rich augment their wealth to levels previously unimagined in the history of humankind. You were, I'm sure, handsomely rewarded for that employment, and no doubt many of your clients were able to purchase their fifth and sixth sports cars on the strength of your efforts. When I left HLS in 2001, it was with a student loan burden of more than $125,000; nevertheless, I decided to do with my law degree what I had set out to do on the day I applied to law school: I took a job as a public defender, working on behalf of America's poorest citizens for a little over $30,000/year. My colleagues at the public defender's office in New Hampshire, many of whom had come from top law schools around the nation, never once complained about their wages because they were, as I was, honored to uphold the U.S. Constitution every day in court -- and to work on behalf of those fellow citizens least equipped to advocate on their own behalves. The men and women I worked with at the New Hampshire Public Defender between 2001 and 2007 are still my heroes; many of them faced financial difficulties I can't even imagine, as while their student loan debt was commensurate with mine, they lacked the advantage of the generous loan-forgiveness program our alma mater has offered for several decades now. Even with that substantial assistance, I sometimes found it difficult to make ends meet. It wasn't just because I was earning less than 20% of the salary my law school classmates were earning: Some unexpected medical expenses arose; I was helping to support two other individuals I cared about very much; there were a thousand unforeseeable expenses that daily ate into my virtually nonexistent checking account. In short, I always felt -- and always was -- approximately one paycheck from destitution. I had no savings, no stock, no property, and no equity. (Nor do I now.) During those early years of public service my debt-to-income ratio stagnated at more than 4:1 -- so preposterously unbalanced a figure that my student-loan exit interviewer at HLS laughed out loud when she first saw it. 

I don't think for a minute, nor would I ever argue, that I ever had it as bad as many others have and do -- the lives my clients lived were by and large far more financially desperate than my own (and almost all of them worked full-time, Governor, sometimes in multiple jobs, and still couldn't afford de minimis bail money or an attorney for their own defense) -- but I still remember the day my bank account finally tapped out in 2005. I remember the day my then-fiancee and I literally rolled pennies we found in my bargain-basement Civic (not nickels, mind you) to prepare ourselves for a trip to the supermarket. I was ashamed of my financial state, then, as I am now in relating that time in my life. But not for a moment -- not for one second -- did I ever question my decision to enter a life of public service. Upholding my attorney's oath to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution against the encroachments of an imperious government, and to speak passionately and (I hope) eloquently for those without the resources to do so for themselves, was consistent, in all respects, with the values my schoolteacher mother and businessman father had instilled in me growing up in Massachusetts. Governor, entering a life of public service is almost never a financially wise decision, especially not for an attorney with massive private student-loan debt -- yet still you are doing your level best to create an economic climate in America in which middle-class Americans are precluded from making life decisions for reasons other than money. It's not just public defenders or schoolteachers your craven economic policies antagonize; the "forty-seven percent" you spoke of recently, and with such evident disdain, include hundreds of thousands of war veterans and active-duty servicemen and servicewomen, all of whom have given up (as I did and do) potentially lucrative careers in the financial sector in order to directly serve their country instead. You apparently believe none of us ought to have entered lives of public service when more monetarily rewarding options were in the offing; we ought to have bigfooted around markets flush with invisible assets -- markets that don't actually build anything but stock portfolios and Swiss bank accounts -- as you did for so many years. Shame on you for such a disgraceful dismissal of the call to service that is central not only to all religious faiths, but to American secular culture and (more specifically and dramatically) to the legal profession you so quickly turned away from.

With all due respect, Governor, it's your values, not those of veterans or public schoolteachers or public defenders, which are absolutely unthinkable to me. I could never have justified acquiring a degree from Harvard Law School if it had not been my express intent to immediately -- immediately, sir, and not in some distant, entirely-speculative future -- put my pedigree to work largely on behalf of those less fortunate than myself. In this respect I am deeply sympathetic to, and stand in abiding admiration of, the values of another Harvard Law School graduate: President Barack Obama (HLS '91). I'll never be half the man our current President is, Governor, but in knowing how it feels to stand in the midst of one's community while acting daily as a grassroots advocate for that community, we are as one. I can't imagine voting into the White House any man or woman who has not repeatedly sought out that honor and privilege. Indeed, for all seven years I was a public defender I lived in an apartment complex primarily reserved for Section 8 housing recipients -- many of whom became, in time, either clients of mine or the parents of clients. It was important to me to live alongside those I wished to advocate for -- another privilege I don't believe you've ever had, let alone invited, as your lavish lifestyle and recent derisive comments regarding the poorest 47% of Americans make abundantly clear. I daresay that it is HLS graduates like you, sir, who tar us all as aloof, effete plutocrats with no stomach for hard battles in the trenches. Writing a check to charity after decades of padding your own nest egg is just not the same as standing up every day for the constitutional rights of under-resourced Americans. While of course none of us are obligated to serve our communities directly if we don't wish to, frankly, Governor, I'll be damned if I'll be lectured by you about responsibility.

I paid payroll taxes, of course, every year I was a public defender -- which means I paid more in taxes every year I was a modestly-paid public servant than you did working as a hostile-takeover artist during the same period. Some years, however, I paid virtually nothing in federal income taxes due to my dire economic circumstances. These improved in time -- the pay-scale for a public defender in northern New England is (unlike elsewhere in the country) remarkably generous, in my view -- but as I have never governed my life the way you'd govern this country (that is, by translating human values and capital into empty economic data), it was at the very moment my finances were turning around that I began seeking new and (as it happens) even less lucrative ways of serving my community. You see, Governor, I'm a poet: I'm a member of that oldest tribe of humans, the ones who painted on cave walls to illustrate for their families and communities that life and language and our fellow citizens deserve daily glorification in song, in speech, in image, in verse. Given the shameful way your Administration handled public counsel services in the Commonwealth between 2002 and 2007 -- you did all you could to starve the public-service sector in the state of my birth -- it is no surprise to me that you aim, too, to destroy public patronage of the arts in America, as surely poets and public defenders are of infinitely less use to a civilized society than "management consultants" or (now) career politicians like you. But it was only because of federal student loans that I was able to leave the law in 2007 to study poetry at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, with the hope of one day teaching poetry at the college level to the next generation of Americans. This was not (lest the presumed prestige of an Iowa Writers' Workshop degree be insufficient to convince you this career change was not merely entitled folly) done without some significant consideration. By the time I left New Hampshire for Iowa, I'd been honored to see my poems published in scores of magazines around the country, and indeed I received a book contract for my first poetry collection on the evening of my first class in Iowa City. The point, Governor, is that I have always sought to offer my services to the country in whatever capacity I felt best equipped for; that tendency is, I think, very much in the tradition of American innovation and excellence. And it explains, too, why voters should assume that you are uniquely qualified to handle the liquid assets of millionaires but perhaps little else. (I would say that you are also well-suited to bring universal healthcare to large populations of needy Americans, as you proudly did in the Commonwealth just last decade, but as with so much else you've now abandoned that principle and deride proponents of universal healthcare as people who "won't take personal responsibility and care for their lives.") So when I left middle-class legal employment in the public service sector to make $13,000/year as a teaching assistant at a public university in Iowa, it was not because I felt victimized, or entitled, or was chasing an empty fantasy, but because this country needs qualified artists and art teachers as much as it needs venture capitalists. I'd seek out work as the latter, Governor, but I believe your candidacy for the presidency is prima facie evidence that, as I always suspected, such employment often leeches the soul of its positive and generative energies.

In Iowa City I became firmly ensconced in your "forty-seven percent." After graduating from the Writers' Workshop in 2009, I applied to the University of Wisconsin-Madison's literary studies doctoral program, as despite your promises to shutter the NEA and Department of Education I still think literature matters in America. I believe, that is, that public monies are better spent helping graduate students like me attend master's and doctoral programs in the humanities, the social sciences, and then hard sciences than propping up failing corporations with billions of dollars in corporate welfare. Only people are people, Governor -- I am astounded that any man of faith, let alone any husband or father (or strict constructionist of the U.S. Constitution) could ever believe otherwise.

Not long after I moved to Madison, I had the opportunity to attend protests at the Capitol Building relating to Governor Scott Walker's entirely transparent and entirely political union-busting efforts. (I'm only thirty-five, Governor, but I'm old enough to remember when terms like "union-busting" and "voter suppression" were dirty words in American politics; now they're a de facto element of your party's national platform.) Those protests were the most civil and good-natured protests I've ever witnessed -- live or on television -- and looked and sounded absolutely nothing like their portrayal on your campaign's quasi-official television arm, Fox News Channel. The one day things got tense was the day that failed small-state politician Sarah Palin -- a woman with absolutely no investment in Wisconsin's well-being -- came to speak. That day the Capitol Square was flooded with out-of-staters, men and women who'd come to masticate the raw meat ex-Governor Palin is so fond of throwing willy-nilly into public gatherings. I was heartened to see my fellow progressives attempting to engage these right-wingers in polite discussions of public policy. (Never before have I seen a state population so singularly committed to congenial public discourse as here in Wisconsin; it makes me singularly proud to live here.) I myself was speaking with one Palin supporter about the importance of paying schoolteachers adequately -- at the time I was making $12,000/year as a composition instructor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, yet Governor Walker had just signed into law a 10% pay-cut for me and my fellow instructors in order to avoid raising millionaires' taxes by one cent -- when another Palin supporter, a woman in her sixties or seventies, pushed her way between us. She put her finger in my face and shrieked accusingly, "Are you a teacher? Are you a teacher?" I'd gotten out just two words of my reply -- "Yes" and "I" -- when she shouted at me at the top of her lungs, "So _what_! So _what_!" I was taken aback. I paused a moment, honestly (and uncharacteristically) speechless. "Ma'am," I said, "the 'so what' is that I'm teaching your children how to write, and that's an important--" and again she interrupted me to scream "So _what_!" and storm off.

Governor, that's the America your campaign is promising us.

It's an America in which the poor have no legal advocates and unabashed big-government conservatives like you trample our civil liberties, in which the production of art shrivels and dies, in which the contributions of public schoolteachers are mocked by radical ideologues, in which the same unions that brought us weekends and workplace safety standards are destroyed through calculated political action, in which it becomes harder and harder to even cast a vote for one's preferred presidential candidate due to one party's sinister and un-American political machinations. Governor, when you were a graduate student you lived off your familial inheritance. As a graduate student in 2012, I work six jobs -- I'm a teaching assistant at a public university; I'm a writing tutor in a university writing center; I'm a freelance journalist for non-profit magazines; I'm a full-time graduate student in a literary studies doctoral program; I'm a working poet who publishes his writing regularly (sometimes for de minimis honoraria); and I'm an education consultant who works (nearly always pro bono) with young poets and writers applying to graduate creative writing programs -- and I still make well under $25,000/year. But I'm also proud to say that I've excelled in every field I've sought to enter -- two thousand criminal defendants represented in two states over seven years without a single professional conduct complaint; four books published, along with hundreds of individual poems, essays, interviews, and articles -- and I'm nobody's victim. I'm a proud American, and I believe in universal healthcare as a right, not a privilege; I believe in increased (not decreased) access to the franchise; I believe in public patronage of the arts; I believe in grassroots service to one's community; I believe in counting people as people rather than consumers; I believe in voting in the best interests of my country rather than the ephemeral dictates of my own wallet; and I'll be proudly voting for President Barack Obama's re-election in November. It is not sufficient to say that as an American I don't share your values, Governor; it's worse than that: I'm ashamed of your values. I've spent my whole life trying -- and often failing -- to be a good man, and so it's unthinkable to me that I would vote for someone whose public statements and only-cagily-disclosed political agenda evince no interest whatsoever in either public or private goodness. President Obama is a man worthy of this nation's great history of service and humility and individualism; your recent comments to $50,000-a-plate diners at a pricey residence in Miami indicate that you are still, all these decades later, best suited to pushing paper for the well-heeled at places like the Boston Consulting Group. 

It is with this in mind that I eagerly await your return to the private sector on the seventh of November.
Seth Abramson

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Northerners, winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose.  He is also the co-author of the forthcoming third edition of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook . His poems have appeared in such magazines and anthologies as Best New Poets 2008PoetryAmerican Poetry Review, and New York Quarterly. A regular contributor to Poets & Writers magazine and The Huffington Post, his essays on poetry, politics, and higher education have been cited online by The New YorkerRolling StoneThe EconomistThe Los Angeles Times, The Chronicle of Higher EducationInside Higher Ed, The Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and after six years working as a public defender in New Hampshire recently began a doctoral program in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (His blog can be found here.)