Friday, January 20, 2012

Attention, David Brooks: "Romney grits" are not the issue

Nice diversion, David.

David Brooks would have us believe with regard to Romney that "the wealth issue is a sideshow," because Romney is not a "spoiled, cossetted character," but rather a fanatic hard worker shaped by his family's persecution and pioneering grit. True enough, and point taken.

But the trust fund stereotype is a straw man.  Romney's wealth is an issue -- and a potent one at this point in American history -- not because his privileged (and demanding) upbringing spoiled him, but because, as a member of the 1% (or the point-one percent), he proposes to further cut taxes on the wealthy and shred the social safety net.  As Ezra Klein recently pointed out, Romney's budget proposals are far to the right of candidate George W. Bush's. As Jonathan Cohn adds, his cap on Federal spending at 18% of GDP puts him to the right of Paul Ryan, whose budget ends Medicare as we know it and radically reduces Social Security.

Romney's wealth is also at issue because the way he earned it encapsulates both the strength and the weakness of American capitalism in the Reagan and post-Reagan era. Bain may well have revitalized many companies that could not have survived without restructuring via the kind of strategic management the company pioneered and fostered. Bain also loaded down its purchases with debt and effectively looted some of them: the leveraged structure effectively siphoned wealth from employees to investors.  Bain, in short,  contributed both to growth and growing inequality.

The problem is not that Romney participated (and helped innovate) such a system but that he decries any discussion of how to moderate it -- how to restructure American capitalism  so that wealth is more equitably and productively shared -- as "the bitter politics of envy." 

The irony is that Romney is probably not lying (for once)  -- at least with respect to personal inclination -- when he says that he's concerned more for the middle class than for the wealthy and that "I'm not running for office trying to find a way to lower the tax burden paid for by the very high, very highest income individuals. What I'm solving for is growth."  Radical as it is, his economic plan is less extreme in its budget cutting and new tax breaks than those of his rivals. As governor of Massachusetts, he did everything he could to squeeze new revenue out of corporations without violating Republican orthodoxy by creating anything that could be called new taxes. And of course, he expanded the social safety net -- redistributed wealth toward the 8% of the state population that lacked health insurance.

The problem, as Brooks mutedly implies, is that Romney will say or do anything to get elected -- and that includes not only mischaracterizing and demonizing  Obama policies very like those of the old Romney, but binding himself with promises to further cut taxes for the wealthy, gut Medicare and Social Security, effectively end Medicaid, radically reduce other social programs for the poor, increase defense spending in the wake of its doubling over ten years, start a shooting war with Iran and a trade war with China.  He can't "solve for growth" with the Republican primary electorate setting the terms of the equation -- or rather, not for growth that wouldn't radically accelerate already galloping income inequality.

Data-driven Romney has to know that these policies are insane. But as Jonathan Bernstein keeps reminding us, presidents keep their promises -- or at least try their utmost. And therein lies the real mystery of Romney.  He's allowed his ambition to govern to undercut his ability to govern in a way that won't make the United States as unrecognizable as falsely claims Obama is making it.


  1. Annoying fastidiousness, even though I'm just trying to be helpful: Does "the 85 of the state population that lacked health insurance" mean "8%"? Wikipedia puts that at 6% (either of which numbers would impress and surprise me; I'd thought it significantly higher).

  2. Thanks, anon - corrected. I guess I got the 8% from Romney, who claimed that 92% were insured before Romneycare, but it sounded familiar.

  3. If the issue were wealth alone, Romney wouldn't have any problems. Americans like rich people, and Michelle and Barack aren't exactly poor. But, you can't, you just can't, scream bloody murder about deficits and spending and need to increase defense spending, and then say that taxes on the rich have to be cut even further, or even that they should stay static. Watching one of the most eloquent and inspiring American politicians ever govern in a time of crisis and arguably unparalleled demagoguery, constantly beset by ridiculous lies that his eloquence can't dispel, incessantly analyzed and criticized and vilified from all corners, we've learned first hand the limits of presidential speechifying. You can't force the tide to retreat, no matter how eloquent you are or how obvious the lies deployed against you.

    But, Mitt and the Repubs are on the wrong side of this tide. Deficit reduction without any tax increases is a ridiculous position; deficit reduction combined with tax cuts on the rich is insane. It doesn't take any particular eloquence to hammer this home, and no one's eloquence, least of all Mitt's, can justify it. As another eloquent president famously said (or is said to have said) "You can fool some the people all of the time ... ." Obama, like most presidents, isn't particularly inspiring when he's playing defense, but he's on offense now. As long as the economy doesn't head south, I'd rather be us than them.