Speaking at a press conference in South Carolina this week, Mitt Romney was asked about his personal finances — how much he makes, how much he’s worth, what his tax rate is — and he responded that he likely pays an effective tax rate of roughly 15% (the capital gains rate) and that he earned a bit in speaking fees in 2011 but “not very much.”

The press and fellow Republicans have pounced on Romney, having discovered that what he referred to as “not very much” money was $375,000, or roughly ten times the median personal income of the nation he hopes to run.

“Not very much money” is a relative term in two ways. One’s definition of “not very much” depends both on the speaker’s net worth and what the money would be used for. A $200 sandwich at the bodega is outrageous, but $200 for rent is on the cheap end of the spectrum. A $200 lunch might be unthinkable to you and I, but to Mitt Romney is is well within reason — just not at the bodega.

A Matter of Perspective

Some commentators have pointed out that Romney likely didn’t think reporters would do their job by finding out exactly what “not very much” means to him, or that it wouldn’t matter if they did because most people don’t really read that much anyway. And that may be the case: that Romney is not only fabulously wealthy, but also deeply cynical.

But for the sake of this column, let’s pretend that Romney doesn’t think $375,000 is very much money. It’s much more fun that way. An average American’s income for a decade? Not very much, according to the $250 million man who wants your vote this November because he “gets” the economy.

That Romney possesses a deep understanding of how the private sector works is hard to refute, but what does he know about the budgeting that goes into running an average American household?

I certainly won’t be the first to point out that this might make Mitt Romney less likely to understand what “not very much” means to middle class Americans, and even less likely to understand what it means to poor Americans. Should Romney get the nomination, and win the general election, he will have the bully pulpit and a majority in the House to help direct the country’s fiscal policy for at least the first two years of his first term.

Will his definition of “not very much” money get in the way of his ability to represent Americans’ interests?

That question is so full of hypotheticals, it is rendered pointless.

Hitting Home

Perhaps the only takeaway for you and I is to keep in mind is that the relative term “not very much” can start to change as our careers (hopefully) advance. For Mitt Romney, maybe, $375,000 is not very much because he has handled so much money, and has so much of it sitting around earning him more money still.

And maybe you, too, started earning more money over the last few years, and your point of reference has shifted, your eyes opened to the availability of finer goods, experiences, apartments or homes. That’s a good thing, but recall that your definition of “not very much” can quickly cross a line into absurdity and waste.

Every time I see a $100 t-shirt on a rack in New York, I think about these people whose desire for luxury outweighs logic and defies good taste. I guess what I mean here is: keep an eye on what you call “not very much,” both when t-shirt shopping and when speaking to the press as a presidential candidate of an ostensibly populist political party.

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