While I was taking a break from sous-viding myself at the Chicago Sweatlodge, CNN called a desultory victory for Mitt Romney in his home state of Michigan. I like Kevin Drum’s formulation for this: “a quantum superposition between winning and losing.” Maybe it was the heat—after a few trips between the sauna and the cold bath I was starting to get a bit dizzy—but I started to feel sorry for Romney in all his vast wealth.
This was confirmed the next night as I was catching up on the Daily Show, in which Jon Stewart plaintively asked why Rick Santorum isn’t handily beating Romney, who, to paraphrase Ann Richards, was born with a silver foot in his mouth:
If you’re busy, the jokes are what you’d expect: making fun of Mitt for saying his wife has a “couple Cadillacs,” and saying that he doesn’t follow NASCAR (shopworn marker of lower-middle-class authenticity) but has “some great friends who are NASCAR team owners.” Yes, Stewart has a professional obligation to make fun of everybody, but this hit a dissonant note.
He’s wealthy. And not merely wealthy, but wealthy beyond the comprehension of all but a few people (he could buy Michael Jordan’s mansion on a bit more than his annual income). You can take that as you will. He’d be the wealthiest man to ever be president, except for George Washington and perhaps a couple others. But we’ve had wealthy presidents more recently, and their wealth didn’t guarantee an ambivalence to the poor or collusion with their peers, as with the Roosevelts and John F. Kennedy (who were not only from wealth but political power as well). And we’ve had presidents from modest means whose policies often favored the wealthy—Reagan and, to an extent, Clinton, to take a couple recent examples. Or just compare Romney’s tax plan with Gingrich’s:
As a multimillionaire, Romney would actually fare much less well under his own plan than under the one put forward by Gingrich.
The former House speaker wants to eliminate capital gains taxes altogether [Romney’s plan wouldn’t lower capital gains taxes on households earning under $200,000] and lower corporate taxes to 12.5 percent, which would be among the lowest in the world. Do this, he says, and investment dollars will flow back into the country.
In and of itself, candidate wealth is a poor proxy for ideology and policy.
It’s odd, particularly in contrast to one of the complaints about George W. Bush: his cornpone brush-clearing photo-ops, as down-home as an Old El Paso commercial, and his other attempts to dress down his patrician heritage. (Bush’s wealth wasn’t comparable to Romney’s, but he was much more grounded in Establishment power. George Romney had power in that what was good for his company was good for America; the Bush family had no need for such metaphors, passing down the levers of American power from generation to generation.) Intentionally or not, Romney’s just being honest. He’s rich; he owns a lot of stuff, if a comparatively modest amount of stuff given his income and net worth; he has a lot of rich friends. Given the alternatives, I’d just as soon that he not pretend otherwise. His comment about being connected to stock-car racing through his owner friends is inevitably amusing in a Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not sense, but I have trouble making fun of him for answering the question honestly, despite the assumption that doing so will hurt him among the proles.
Being wealthy is just really weird. In 2006, just before the crash, Pamela Haag wrote an illuminating essay for The American Scholar on having more money than you could ever need. It’s a good contrast to the quick-hit excursions into the lives of the hapless rich, as she focuses less on the trappings of money than its mindset, and the tensions that arise from going from nothing to everything in less than a generation:
Before money I had to like work, so I did. Now I see my part-time work rashly and impetuously, from moment to moment. It is vulnerable to my shifting moods. Not only can I fantasize about walking out, I can do it, which is a strangely regressive power. More wealth puts me potentially on equal psychological footing with my three-year-old, who throws temper tantrums, is deliriously happy one minute and distraught the next, who acquires passions with wild impetuosity and drops them without guilt, remorse, or fear. Wealth has paid the ransom to free moods held hostage by pragmatism and necessity.
I fear that this is where you begin to think me a real jerk, assuming that you do not already. You are confident that you would still hear and see all of the economic miseries and injustices in the world. You would know Applebee’s from Sotheby’s, and you would let wealth wash over you like a wave as your feet remained firmly and ever more deeply planted in the sand. I hope for that also. But what if you were not proximate to the ups and downs of the economy, rising tuition costs, swings in the real-estate market, or the fate of a 401K? Would you choose to see and hear all the time? You might, but now it requires different skills, and self-consciousness, and sometimes you might weary of the effort involved and indulge in an anti-social insulation. It is like trying to train yourself not to slouch. You must constantly, consciously, think about standing up straight and not slouching, which goes against the powerful inertia to just do what comes (too) easily.
Recently my household crossed a financial threshold: if I lost my job, a likely scenario in this economy and in my industry, we wouldn’t be immediately screwed. With slightly less than half our income gone, we could pay the bills, continue to live in our apartment, and so forth. Even if we both lost our jobs, we could probably get by for the recommended six months, barring a simultaneous medical emergency. Unlike Haag, I still have to like to work, because unemployment would wreck our retirement savings, but it wouldn’t put us out on the street. I’m as distant from the concerns of the working poor as Haag is from me; while I try not to slouch, as she points out, your mindset can change very quickly.
Haag also had something valuable to say about the abstract nature of wealth:
But I think now that the secret to wealth is secrecy itself. It is the wedge of wealth, a means of getting traction on the market. Knowledge dispersed equalizes power, and knowledge hoarded skews it. My husband’s model is a secret, and other wealthy people have their own secrets—knowledge, a contact, a loophole.
Wealth in turn elicits more conspiratorial secrecy. Secrecy is as important to accumulating the money as to making it. To avoid becoming immorally extravagant, wasteful, and decadent, you have to calibrate money with desire delicately….
There is something self-incriminating about admitting wealth and poverty alike. The poor do not confess to being poor; the wealthy do not admit to being wealthy. The poor are ashamed, and the rich (at least some of them) are embarrassed. So wealth whispers under its breath like a closeted subculture….
But we are not the only ones in class drag. Almost all Americans claim moral asylum in the endlessly elastic middle class when they are polled or asked about their finances, which creates the illusion of a classless middle class society. Only the most brazen outliers declare what they are. “I am rich.” “I am poor.”
Romney isn’t brazen about his wealth, but he’s not in class drag, either. Peculiarly, I find this admirable—certainly more so than law-school grad (and psychologist’s son) Rick Santorum whipping his fans into an pseudo-anti-intellectual froth over the president’s support of higher and vocational education. It’s unfortunate that Romney’s uncomfortable transparency is filed under the reductive category of “gaffes” instead of the revealing slippage that happens when we discuss class in the context of politics. Whereas early front-runner Donald Trump is practically a cartoon conceit of big money, Romney’s flatfooted tap-dance around the subject marks him as that rarest of figures, authentically wealthy. The truth doesn’t always hurt, but it’s usually cringe-inducing.