The Wall Street Journal reports that Mitt Romney is in the top .0025% of American income earners. That makes him poorer than Warren Buffett, George Soros, Sheldon Adelson, probably even than Jon Huntsman, the father of the junior Jon Huntsman, who, with all his money and a very decent record, scored virtually nothing in the Republican presidential sweepstakes. So the question about Romney is whether the electorate will resent his wealth or take it as an index of initiative, imagination and hard work. Also, I suppose, a real drive to be rich. No, not just rich, but downright wealthy, super-wealthy. Still, he is not a billionaire and I don't know how many billionaires there are in America. But you can easily count the number in Forbes where, since Romney released his tax returns, the financial magazine has also published a story online about the richest American presidents. George Washington was the wealthiest American of his time. Thomas Jefferson died broke but with lots of fine wines in his cellar. By the way, though there are oodles of American billionaires, my quick scan tells me that there are many more in Russia and China and very disproportionate numbers in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Look for a social crisis some time (but not too soon) in all four of these countries.
So the question is: Will there be some sort of political crisis in the Republican party? It isn't that the G.O.P. delegates or voters are allergic to zillionaires. They may be their heroes. But a large part of the party base is in the working class, unionized and non-unionized, service laborers and folk who toil in the fields, local store tenders, people who work for Walmart or Family Dollar, etc. Many of these people are, to say the least, underemployed or underpaid or both. That is the culture of their toil. They must believe in capitalism even though it hasn't made them rich or comfortable. They also seem to have accepted the truism that capital gains taxes are inimical to national growth, which means inimical to the growth of business, which means inimical to the growth of personal portfolios, and on and on.
I am persuaded by some of this. That is, I am persuaded that people who invest in risky businesses need to have some assurance that, if their investments are successful and have been smartly husbanded, they will retain a goodly share of the profits. And, as the narrative would go, invest some of that in new ventures and enterprises. But a decent society needs an ethos of solidarity between those who "have lots" because they've invested sagely and those who "have not." Frankly, I cannot put myself into the mental set of those who resent subventions to ordinary folk and think it perfectly alright to devise a tax code that protects investors from the vicissitudes of the markets and protects also descendants of the initial investors down to the umpteenth generation.
Now Romney has been a beneficiary of both the lower tax rates on capital gains and the laws that propel his heirs into those rates. I don't know anything about his children. Still, are they worthy of the protections which fell to them as a result of their being his kids?
Romney is a paradigmatic "have lots" candidate. The extremes of what he has managed to keep should at least and at last focus attention on the people who have much much less. If someone's father or grandfather has failed financially or not produced lushly should that someone be penalized forever in the stakes that deliver success or failure? What are the standards of fairness in a democratic society? Is equality a necessary virtue of such a society? I believe it is.
What happens to Mr. Romney or the president himself is less significant than what happens in such a public debate.
There is an intriguing article in Friday's New York Times about public recognition that these issues are especially salient now, not so much because Romney is seen to have gotten away with a huge bundle but that financial institutions and their stewards have been grossly rewarded for all manner of wrongdoing. The article is by Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Council, which has done opinion studies on this and related issues.
Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.