|National Park Service|
Many of our presidents have been rich. Our first, George Washington, whose land and other holdings brought his fortune to an adjusted $525 M, made him the wealthiest by far. Speak about getting out in front of a trend. Of course there have been ups and downs — Jefferson and Madison were super rich while in office and both died in debt. TR inherited his money. Bill Clinton had modest means during most of his presidency but has since made a fortune. Only eleven of our presidents, including one of our greatest, Abraham Lincoln, were not millionaires. With a net worth estimated as high as $250 Million, if elected, Mitt Romney would immediately rise to second richest. Of course there have been other super rich candidates in modern times — Ross Perot (by far the wealthiest), Steve Forbes, John Kerry and this year John Huntsman. They all lost their bids.
Wealth doesn’t disqualify Romney, nor should it. As discussed in earlier posts, Billionaire Mayor Michael Blumberg and other enormously wealthy office holders can be and are effective. But there is a dark side. It’s not that more rich people are running for high office, but that the price of entry is making politics less and less accessible (often prohibitive) to even moderately affluent citizens.
Big money has always played an outsized role in our democracy. Big banks, big corporations and the wealthy class have always held the vital center of power. Using business speak, we might call them the control stakeholders. Middle class Americans may have been an engine of our economy through their purchase of goods and services in the post war period, but let’s not pretend that they have ever been in control. That’s not socialist talk or business bashing, just a reality check.
The Occupy initiative (you can’t call it a movement) made a singular contribution to our current discourse: the 99%, or conversely the 1%. They touched a nerve reminding us, as if we didn’t already know, that the disparity between those at the very top and everyone else is growing exponentially, the gulf widening every day. In making 1% a headline, they were sounding an alarm. Staying on the present course, portends big trouble in our future. It’s the kind of trouble that could make Zuccotti Park look like contained child’s play. What’s remarkable is that Occupy isn’t a movement and that this kind of trouble has yet to show its face. That speaks volumes about today’s complacent populace, but perhaps more so that a vital tipping point has yet to be reached.
It is in this context that Mitt Romney’s wealth, not unprecedented in elective politics, has taken on a larger meaning. Many people see him as the 1%’s number one poster person. Fair or not, he has become the token for one of the fundamental societal problems of our time. It isn’t only that people like him have so much more than anyone else but that the system seems structured to keep them at an advantage, one that is expanding rather than being held in check. That probably explains why his taxes loom so large as an issue.
Most of us don’t have tax shelters and even fewer have money stashed abroad. The Romney advantage is inaccessible to us. Of course it is perfectly legal. Much-admired companies like Apple keep a disproportionate portion of their money off shore, also to avoid paying taxes. Romney’s problem is not that he has done anything wrong but that, unlike most of the super-rich, he is running for president. That’s a personal game changer. We hold our presidential candidates to a higher standard, one in which their assumed right to privacy, albeit still in place, is greatly diminished.
So it isn’t a matter of whether Romney is paying taxes owed but whether in not making the returns public, he may be hiding something. Are there indeed years in which, using shelters and loopholes, he paid none? As Republican icon Ronald Reagan might say, we should trust but we need to verify. Of course, beyond the problem that we want transparency, is that Romney’s economic proposals are likely to benefit him personally. Simply put, they will put even more money directly into his pockets and, of course, not necessarily in ours. Whether or not that’s fair is irrelevant. Perceptions rule the day in politics. Just look at the current campaign, it’s all about building perceptions, one of the few non-partisan actions left.
There is something quite remarkable, even inexplicable, about Romney’s continued insistence on keeping things so close to the vest. It certainly isn’t doing him any service. In addition to the issue of his opaque wealth, he will be the first Mormon standard bearer of a major political party. The Mormon Church itself is noted for a high level of secrecy. While Romney invited a few reporters to join him for Sunday worship at his New Hampshire church this past weekend, non-Mormons and even some of the faithful are barred from entering their Temples. As the official church website puts it, “only baptized members who are qualified and prepared are allowed to enter a temple after it is dedicated.” There are also aspects of his church’s relatively recent history, including polygamy and racial discrimination, that Romney understandably keeps off the table.
To be clear, nothing should bar a Mormon from the presidency any more than being a Jew, Muslim, Hindu or follower of any other religion. With two Catholics running for Vice President this year, we’re likely to see a long overdue inclusion of non-Protestants running for and being elected to the White House. Perhaps even atheists. But, like it or not, the uniquely built-in secrecy of the Mormon Church just feeds on the perception, again perhaps unfairly, that Romney is keeping something from us. Withholding his tax returns has larger consquences.
Despite Occupy’s success in bringing the 1% issue to the forefront, it may not be the central issue our presidential election. One thing that stands in the way is that raising the issue prompts cries of class warfare. I would argue just the opposite. If we want short circuit real class warfare in this country, we should be addressing the disparity between what is essentially a divided society, and doing it with considerable urgency. Redistribution of wealth may not be the solution, nor is it in the cards given our capitalistic system. But narrowing the gap and tipping the balance of advantage more in the direction of the 99% must be considered, and seriously so. Other than paying lip service, the chances of a President Mitt Romney becoming an advocate for the 99% are next to nil. That, among other things, is what this upcoming election is really all about.
Stay tuned — it’s called Transcenders and it will be coming soon.