Sunday, August 5, 2012

Does it Matter that Mitt Romney is Richer than God?

A well-worn cliché on the left is that libs have no problem with wealthy people or wealthy candidates per se, only wealthy folks who do not pay their fair share of taxes.  It is true that many wealthy people pay a lower effective rate than the rest of us working stiffs who actually have to worry about “putting food on our families,” as Bush would say.  Controversy over this has reached such a screeching pitch that Harry Reid now claims that an unnamed source informed him that Romney has not paid any taxes at all for ten years, while Romney insists that he has “paid taxes every year.” 

This narrowly-constructed criticism is not that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has obscene amounts of cash (after all, we do not want to seem jealous or whatever…), but rather that he might not have ponied up his fair share of taxes.  Indeed, due to the favorable tax treatment of income from investment dividends, carried interest and the like (which makes up the bulk of income for wealthy folks, particularly in the rarified circles of private equity) as well as various tax loopholes and offshore tax shelters, the Romneys reportedly paid an effective tax rate of less than 14 percent in 2010.  For reference, the relatively unfavorable tax treatment of income from wages means that the middle 20 percent of (mostly wage-earning) Americans paid an average effective rate of 25 percent, taking into account not just progressive federal income taxes, but also (mostly regressive) federal payroll and excise taxes as well as state and local taxes.  

As unfair as all of this may be, I still think this is missing the forest for the trees.

No, the real problem with mega-wealthy public servants goes deeper than how much they pay in taxes.  Never mind that Romney has an individual retirement account (where investments can generally grow tax-free) worth as much as 100 million dollars (do you have even 100 thousand dollars in your IRA? I didn’t think so…) Never mind that the Romney fortune of a quarter billion dollars could feed 125,000 hungry children in the U.S. for an entire year, pay for roughly 2,660 children to get a four-year degree at a public university or 50,000 families to get health insurance for a year.  Never mind that the Romney fortune exceeds the nominal GDP of 9 countries in 2010 or is equal to 5,632 times the median family income in the United States.   I mean, it’s their money, right?  After all, if folks like the Romneys and Paris Hilton want to spend their hard (and not-so-hard) earned cash on dancing horses and a freaking 325,000 dollar DOGHOUSE, that is their God-given right! 

The problem here is one of representation in a democracy. The real question should be how well a person of obscene wealth can be expected to represent 312 million people whose average annual income amounts to a rounding error in one’s personal accounts.

Nor is the issue the amount of money that Romney has, per se.  History tells us that a people of great wealth may be very good, even great, presidents.  After all, our first president had an estate worth half a billion in today’s dollars, and he was among the most heroic, self-sacrificing public servants we have ever had.  The fortunes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, and Teddy Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson (responsible for the Great Society programs) nearly reached or exceeded 100 million each. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (architect of Social Security and the New Deal programs, responsible in part for pulling us out of the Great Depression) had a personal fortune of 60 million.  No one could accuse these men of shirking their responsibilities to the public or ignoring the plight of the poor, hungry and less fortunate of their fellow citizens.  Nor did any of them cash in on their public service after leaving office in the way that many office holders do today.

Which brings us back to Romney.  Probably because of the social insulation his wealth affords him, Romany does not appear to be overly enamored of the people whose vote he needs to put him into office.  The thing is, great wealth distances the person who has it from the vast majority of people who do not.  Now, if you are simply a wealthy recluse, this does not hurt anyone.  But if you are making decisions every day that have an effect on the lives of people that you hardly ever see, much less identify with, can you ever truly represent the interests of average American voters?

Of all the wealthy public servants in office today, Romney has this problem in spades.  A Romney biographer recently pointed out, his life has been spent in a series of bubbles.  He was raised in a wealthy neighborhood in Michigan, after which he went to elite private schools (Stanford and Harvard), where he was surrounded by the sons and daughters of other elites. He avoided the Vietnam draft (all the while openly supporting the war) by going to France on a Mormon mission and going to college (in all, receiving four deferments).  Finally, he landed in the insulated world of private equity and leveraged buy-outs.  As a consequence, Romney has never had to get along with ordinary Americans--having never served in the military, gone to public school, or had an ordinary job.  Which is probably why he seems so wooden and fake in public.  And it may be why he seems so put-upon by having to fraternize with his social inferiors at events that require baby-kissing and flesh-pressing. 

He has no idea what it is like to start out on his own without help from his family, without a fancy private education and without a famous name.  His father, ironically, did know what that is like, as his own family was forced to flee a Mormon polygamist colony in Mexico in 1912 during the revolution, and who subsequently lived an itinerant childhood in the States under impoverished circumstances.  This might help to account for why George Romney was (let’s be honest) a better public servant with apparently greater sensibility for what he owed the people he served in office.
By contrast, his son has demonstrated a stunning disconnect from the challenges faced by average Americans in countless ways.  He once said he was “not worried about the very poor” because they had a “safety net."  In a speech before the NAACP, he declared that the federal government must cut entitlement spending, later dismissing the negative reception to his remarks: "If they want more stuff from the government, tell them to go vote for the other guy--more free stuff."  At a NASCAR event, he mocked the cheap plastic ponchos donned by his fans during a downpour: "I like those fancy raincoats you bought.  Really sprang for the big bucks." His advice to young people struggling to start careers in the worst economy in decades: "Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business."  I don't know if it's ever occurred to Mitt that not everyone has a father who was an executive of a major auto company able to bankroll his or her American dream. Even during the worst economic times in this country, the Romney household has prospered--getting by on just his wits is not something Mitt has any experience with.

When asked about the choice between McCain and Obama in the 2008 presidential election, Chris Rock said in an interview: "I'll go with the guy with one house. The guy with one house is scared about losing his house." And this is the point.  For all his faults (including selling out to Wall Street banks and continuing a failed foreign policy in the Middle East), Obama knows what it is to fight insurance companies while his mother was dying of breast cancer; he knows what it's like to be raised in a cash-strapped single-parent household, face racial discrimination, and apply for student loans to put himself through college.  He has had to make his own way to success.

In the end ask yourself: do you really want a president whose economic plan during both good times and bad is cutting more taxes for the rich (without reducing the deficit) and whose advice to struggling young people is to ask their parents for a loan for college or to start up a business.  Ask yourself if you want a president who prides himself on getting away with paying the absolute minimum in taxes and “not a penny more.”

If you ask me, I’d say we can do better.