Monday, January 23, 2012

Adam Smith, Romney's taxes, and Republican rage

Yesterday I wrote a small note about Newt winning South Carolina by stoking racial resentment -- and my friend Rain left a comment to the effect that Mitt Romney disturbed her the most of the lot.

… I've come to see Romney [as] the scariest …His economic record for what he has helped do to our country is part of the total destruction they have plotted on the Middle Class. …Think about Romney and his taxes where he is trying to not reveal what he has been paying which is probably considerably under 15%. What kind of human being would run for the highest office in the land, would be doing such things probably up until recently, and still say he could be for the every guy. I think I'd rather have my sleaze up front and visible so at least we are forewarned.

There's something to that.

I have my own mantra along those lines: I'd rather have my fascists -- power-hungry stokers of hate -- be greedy and venal rather than charismatic true believers. And though all these guys are appealing to the worst in a section of U.S. citizens -- the section that fears and hates gays, uppity women, people of color and civilizing restraint in human life -- so far at least they all seem just self-seeking liars, not ideologues of hate.

In the wake of his South Carolina defeat, Mitt says he is going to release some abbreviated set of his tax returns. Somehow I don't expect this will appear to most of us as full disclosure; the whole point of rich people's tax returns is to make them seem less rich and hence less liable to taxes. They have armies of accountants and lawyers to make stuff up for that purpose.

The Romney tax return furor reminded me of some fascinating quotes from the oft-cited 18th century father of modern "free market" economics Adam Smith that I grabbed along with commentary from Berkeley professor Bradford DeLong. In the era of the founding of modern economies, economists had to be psychologists as well as numbers and stats guys. Smith mused on why the great masses of people don't feel more resentment of the rich. Here's DeLong's explanation with Smith's words inset.

The first reason applies to the idle rich. According to Smith:

A stranger to human nature, who saw the indifference of men about the misery of their inferiors, and the regret and indignation which they feel for the misfortunes and sufferings of those above them, would be apt to imagine, that pain must be more agonizing, and the convulsions of death more terrible to persons of higher rank, than to those of meaner stations...
We feel this, Smith believes, because we naturally sympathize with others (if he were writing today, he would surely invoke “mirror neurons”). And the more pleasant our thoughts about individuals or groups are, the more we tend to sympathize with them. The fact that the lifestyles of the rich and famous “seem almost the abstract idea of a perfect and happy state” leads us to “pity…that anything should spoil and corrupt so agreeable a situation! We could even wish them immortal...”

The second reason applies to the hard-working rich, the type of person who:
… devotes himself forever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness....With the most unrelenting industry he labors night and day....serves those whom he hates, and is obsequious to those whom he despises....[I]n the last dregs of life, his body wasted with toil and diseases, his mind galled and ruffled by the memory of a thousand injuries and disappointments....he begins at last to find that wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility.... Power and riches....keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much, and sometimes more exposed than before, to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow; to diseases, to danger, and to death...
In short, on the one hand, we don’t wish to disrupt the perfect felicity of the lifestyles of the rich and famous; on the other hand, we don’t wish to add to the burdens of those who have spent their most precious possession – their time and energy – pursuing baubles. These two arguments are not consistent, but that does not matter. They both have a purchase on our thinking.

Mitt is appealing to the enduring hold of these attitudes -- to whatever residue of (mostly unearned) sympathy for and respect for the work (also usually unmerited) attaches to the rich. But he's finding unexpected resistance in a era in which rawer, uglier resentments are trumping such civil emotions. So he has to simulate a hater and though he can mouth the words, he comes across as inauthentic, a rich boy playing a brawler's game. Newt is more the real thing: vicious, grandiose and ready to kick his opponent when when he's down. And that's what a section of the electorate wants against President Obama, someone who can strike out against the Black usurper with the smooth tongue.

Adam Smith's observations seem to derive from a more civilized context than our current election.

1 comment:

Rain said...

What Romney and his ilk did to companies across this country should scare us all if this isn't somehow turned around. Where will it leave people to work? My husband put a link into my political blog about how Steve Jobs operated. It's just how they do and we have to find a way to turn it around but it's not easy to know how.

Romney's taxes won't show anything unless it goes back enough years. The last two won't tell us the manipulations he has likely done. He claims his investments aren't the Cayman Islands for tax purposes. Really? why else? And how does that seem for a man who claims he has the best interests of this country at heart? My concern with Romney is the 'evil' (for wont of a better word) is more hidden and easier to have people vote for it without realizing fully what they are getting. At least with Gingrich, his corruption is all out front. I think either one now guarantee Obama the victory unless something corrupt shows up on his own side (something you can never dismiss where it comes to politicians...)

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