Last Wednesday in my "All Politics All the Time" course at Florida International University, we spent a few minutes discussing Mitt Romney's tax return, which he had released just the day before. Not surprisingly, most of students were well versed on how much
Governor Romney earned per year (roughly $20 million), the percentage he paid in taxes (approximately 15%) and the various sources of his vast wealth.
In the midst of our conversation -- for which I had originally allotted no more than ten minutes -- one student asked, "If Romney gets elected, will he be the richest president in American history?"
"That's a fascinating question," I answered slowly, doing a quick "Google search" in my head. "Although I'm not sure," I answered after a few seconds of silence, "al regel achat (Hebrew for while standing on one foot) I would have to say the answer is 'no' -- Mitt Romney would not be our wealthiest president. I think that distinction goes to George Washington, who in addition to being one of the tallest men in the nation (nearly 6'2"), was likely its richest as well." My answer drew a few skeptical head
wags -- about both his height and wealth. I promised the class that I would do some serious research and hopefully have an answer for them by our next class session.
Another student challenged the class with a comment/question: "What does it all mean in the long-run? Just because the man's super-rich does that mean he can't understand people who aren't? Are we going to hold his wealth against him?"
The student was bringing up an intriguing point which, in a time of gross economic disparity, will likely be a major issue lurking just beneath the surface should Governor Romney get the Republican nomination.
As a society, our fascination with the "lifestyles of the rich and famous" is somewhere between widespread and universal. A quick survey of which magazines and tabloids are hawked at virtually every supermarket checkout line in America amply proves the point. How many people who don't even know the name of the family living across the street can give you line and verse about how much famous people earn . . . or the price of their mansions or the "toys" they play? We know so much about people we don't truly know as to become inured to real life. We read or hear so much about other people's wealth that we can actually say of an athlete making $2 million a season that "he's a real bargain." $2 million a bargain? That's $38,461.53 a week!
Sounds pretty outrageous when you break it down by the week -- or the game, at bat or even hour. Consider the following:
- Kobe Bryant makes $307,853.66 per game -- if he plays all 82 games in a season.
- A-Rod makes $50,000 per at bat -- if he comes to the plate 600 per season.
- Tom Brady earns $825,507.50 per game, 16 games a season.
- In 2011, Lady Gaga earned $1,730,770 a week.
- Mitt Romney earns $2,285.00 an hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Don't get me wrong, I am not denigrating anyone making a king's ransom; God bless 'em all I say. But at the same time, you have to wonder if all that money might not create a wall of separation between some seriously wealthy people and the rest of us who don't have a 7 or 8 figure income. Yes indeed, there certainly are very wealthy people who never forgot where they came from; who still have a deep and thorough understanding of what it means to be living on the edge. Take former Representative Alan Grayson who, despite possessing a net worth somewhere north of $30,000,000.00 is one of the wild and woolliest progressives in America. (Check out the essay on Alan in my book, The Jews of Capitol Hill) Then there are Senators Frank Lautenberg and Herb Kohl, two multi-multi millionaires who are at the forefront of those arguing for higher taxes for the wealthy and against cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
And then there's Mitt Romney. The son of former Michigan Governor -- and American Motors CEO -- George Romney, Mitt wasn't exactly born into the middle class. His father earned, on average, more than $300,000 a year during his peak years.
As such, Mitt and his 4 siblings were raised first in the upscale Detroit Palmer Woods neighborhood and then the even more tony Bloomfield Hills, where he prepped at the Cranbrook School. And although Mitt Romney is, without question, a good, decent and charitable man -- he tithes his church -- he acts and sounds like a man who hasn't the slightest idea what it is like to worry over whether one will have enough money to pay the mortgage, health insurance and utility bill, or is barely able to cover the monthly minimum on their credit cards -- despite working two jobs.
A person who is truly in touch with the challenges of daily life would not say -- even as a joke -- "I should tell my story . . . I'm also unemployed," despite earning 54,795.00 a day off of his investments. Who in the real world can blithely afford to challenge someone to a $10,000.00 bet -- as he did with Texas Governor Rick Perry? Then there's Romney's off-the-cuff comment, "I get speakers fees from time to time, but not very much." (In this case, the "not very much" amounted to more than $350,000!)
When a candidate like Mitt Romney -- who in his lifetime has gone from being privileged to richer-than-Croesus -- or Newt Gingrich -- who has gone from lower-middle-class to multimillionaire -- argues for lower taxes for the rich and against, say, collective bargaining rights for union workers, it smacks of being completely out of
touch. When a man like President Barack Obama -- the child of a mixed-race broken home -- who earned more than $5 million writing books -- argues in favor of the rich (which now includes him) paying "their fair share," one gets the sense of a person still in touch with real people living real lives, facing real challenges. With economic disparity looming as the subtext for the 2012 presidential election, one can't help but believe that Mitt Romney is going to be at a decided disadvantage.
Now, as to the question of our wealthiest president: turns out I was correct. According to a fascinating story published on the acclaimed website 24/7 Wall Street.com George Washington was, far and away, our wealthiest Commander in Chief. The editors of 24/7 Wall Street estimate that Washington was worth -- in 2010 dollars -- somewhere in the neighborhood of $525 million. Additionally, he made far, far more than subsequent presidents; his salary was 2% of the total U.S. budget in 1789! Other truly wealthy chief executives include Thomas Jefferson ($212 million), James Madison ($100 million), Andrew Jackson ($119 million), Theodore Roosevelt ($125 million), Herbert Hoover ($70 million), and Lyndon Johnson ($98 million). (Those wondering about JFK should know that had he lived, he stood to inherit more than $1 billion from his father. Such, however, was not to be his fate . . .)
As a society of voyeurs, we are, without question, addicted to the "lifestyles of the rich and famous." One hopes that when it comes to being a society of citizens and voters, we seek out those who, despite having earned -- or not -- great wealth, still have their fingers on the pulse of real people living real lives, facing real challenges.
©2012 Kurt F. Stone