Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Difference Between Wealth and Power

Public Service?  Psssshhhh.  I'm in it for the MONEY
Mitt Romney has come under fire for his wealth management schemes, particularly his offshore accounts and his attempts to avoid paying taxes on his income.  The offshore accounts are problematic in a number of ways, but the tax avoidance question is more difficult, and really represents two different questions about Mitt Romney.  The interesting point here, I think, is that these questions truly go to the heart of the central organizing principle of the Romney campaign: that his time as CEO of a private equity firm made him unusually prepared, and much more so than Barack Obama the Academic and "Community Organizer", to lead the US economy out of the doldrums.

The first question is kind of unfair, and not one I think will ultimately impact the race in any appreciable way.  That is the basic tax avoidance question.  Mitt Romney has never been in Congress - he cannot legitimately be held responsible for any of the convoluted and bizarre US tax code.  Therefore, as long as his strategies were legal, he should encounter no disapproval from the electorate.  He followed the law, and where the law allowed particularly wealthy and well-advised people to reduce their tax bill, that's really the responsibility of the legislators who created those loopholes.  They did not do so for the betterment of their constituents, but to benefit people just like Mitt Romney, and it would frankly be stupid of him not to avail himself of them when possible.  Of course, if he is found to be illegally concealing wealth offshore or otherwise violating the law in order to avoid paying taxes or even accounting for funds he might have earned in questionable fashion, then all bets are off.  He should be prosecuted and learn the painful lesson that people with a certain kind of past should not run for public office.

But there is a much larger question here than legality, and this is where Romney operates at a deficit.  People in public life, particularly politics, see money not as wealth but as a tool.  It is their stock in trade, not to be accumulated but used in ways to increase their visibility and power, and ultimately as the leverage necessary to win electoral office.  As a result of the particular philosophy about the value and utility of money, they often make a point of overpaying taxes, demonstrating that they are responsible contributors to the community at large, and are concerned with the well being of the community rather than their own standard of living.  This is just another strategic use of their resources, and it's a gap that the stereotypically plutocratic Governor Romney cannot close.  He will always appear to be exactly what he has always been - someone who put the accumulation of wealth for himself and his investors ahead of communities, families and businesses.  And the more he talks about his history as a businessman and "job creator", the core message of his campaign, the more obvious the basic philosophical differences between him and Obama become.

One wonders how the Romney campaign might respond to this angle of attack.  There's never going to be a good response to the negative connotations of the phrase "Swiss Bank Account", and if there was some similar line of attack they could use against Obama, it's virtually certain we'd have heard it by now.  When the basic narratives of the candidates' life history paint one as a well-intentioned public servant and the other as a greedy, destructive plutocrat who placed his own wealth above that of his community, there isn't a lot of other directions to go.  You could try to make it about competence, but the question would keep arising - competence at what?