When it comes to changing Mitt Romney’s image as a rich guy who’s out of touch with the economic realities of the lives of middle- and working-class Americans, the Romney’s — Mitt, who doesn’t follow NASCAR, but has friends who own NASCAR teams; and Ann, who drives a couple of Cadillacs but doesn’t think of herself as rich — haven’t been doing themselves any favors. Recent comments from hedge fund billionaire and Romney campaign shareholder Ken Griffin probably won’t do much to help Romney connect with those voters.
Griffin, who’s given $150,000 to Romney’s super PAC, and $2,500 to Romney personally, sat down with the Chicago Tribune’s Melissa Harris that rich guys like him have “insufficient influence” on government.
Q. I’m going to come back to this. But I want to touch on two more areas first. What do you think in general about the influence of people with your means on the political process? You said shame on the politicians for listening to the CEOs. Do you think the ultrawealthy have an inordinate or inappropriate amount of influence on the political process?
A. I think they actually have an insufficient influence. Those who have enjoyed the benefits of our system more than ever now owe a duty to protect the system that has created the greatest nation on this planet. And so I hope that other individuals who have really enjoyed growing up in a country that believes in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and economic freedom is part of the pursuit of happiness – (I hope they realize) they have a duty now to step up and protect that. Not for themselves, but for their kids and for their grandchildren and for the person down the street that they don’t even know …
At this moment in time, these values are under attack. This belief that a larger government is what creates prosperity, that a larger government is what creates good (is wrong). We’ve seen that experiment. The Soviet Union collapsed. China has run away from its state-controlled system over the last 20 years and has pulled more people up from poverty by doing so than we’ve ever seen in the history of humanity. Why the U.S. is drifting toward a direction that has been the failed of experiment of the last century, I don’t understand. I don’t understand.
I started my career with myself, two employees and a one-room office. Nothing was given to me per se, except for a great education — my college degree — and a country that allows somebody to just go for it. (Griffin’s grandmother paid his way through Harvard University.)
Griffin’s comments reveal a couple of things. First, Griffin is clearly a guy who believes in his own “self-made” mythology. His spiel about “starting his career himself” in a “one-room office” has the markings of a story worthy Horatio Alger. (Even conservative columnist David Frum acknowledges that kind of story is more of a fiction today than ever.) At least he amends his “nothing was given to me” speech to acknowledge that the one thing that probably helped him become a hedge fund billionaire — his ivy league education — was given to him, by his grandma.
Griffin’s answer to Harris can also be read as the flip-side of Elizabeth Warren’s famous answer to cries of “class warfare” from the right, in which she opens by declaring “There is nobody in this country that got rich on his own — nobody,” and finishes with a vigorous defense of the social contract worthy of Adam Smith himself.
Warren’s “Pay It Forward” message is pretty straightforward: those who have benefitted from the system have an obligation to give back, and ensure not only that it’s there for next generation, but better and stronger than you found it. It’s reminiscent of “The Bridge Builder,” Will Allen Dromgoole’s famous poem about of the old man who crosses a river, and upon reaching the other side begins constructing a bridge across it. Asked by a traveler why he’s bothering to bridge a chasm he’s already crossed, the old man answers that there is another who must pass the way he has come. “I am building this bridge for him,” he says.
Griffin’s answer, on the other hand, seems to believe that those who have benefited from the system have the right to run it as they see fit. It sounds like the usual perversion of “The Golden Rule”: He who has the gold makes the rules.
Warren and Griffin aren’t defending, or even talking about, the same system. The system Griffin wants to protect isn’t the one that created and sustained the middle class, made upward mobility possible for the working class, and put the American Dream within reach for millions. That’s the system he and other wealthy GOP super PAC donors are investing millions of dollars in destroying. Griffin was one of 300 of the wealthiest .0000063 percent who attended a well-guarded, Koch-sponsored conference in Palm Springs. Other attendees included Foster Friess (Santorum’s sugar daddy) and Sheldon Adelson (Gingrich’s sugar daddy) Those gathered pledged $100 million ($40 million of which came from the Koch brothers themselves) to fund what David Koch called “the mother of all wars,” against Barak Obama’s re-election campaign.
The system Griffin and the rest are are defending is the one that not only made his wealth possible, but makes him even wealthier, and makes sure that his wealth has less and less to do with the fates and fortunes of working class Americans. Thus, it makes sense that he and the other big money donors give promiscuously to nearly all the major GOP candidates’ super PACs.
For the past couple of months I’ve been writing that people like Griffin, Friess, Adelson and the rest are not mere “donors.” They are investors. Now, I’m thinking of promoting them to shareholders — that is owners.
Griffin’s interview reminded me that these guys are not just donors but, as the New York Times put it, “donors with agendas,” taking advantage of what Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer called “a huge opportunity to purchase influence with a candidate if the candidate wins.” Romney’s donors, more than half of whom are hedgies like Griffin, stand to gain a lot if Romney should win the presidential election.
If their guy wins, they can look forward to lower taxes income taxes, lower taxes on investment income, and a rollback of regulations that Griffin says places the financial sector “under Washington’s thumb.” If Obama wins, they could face higher taxes on the wealthy, the tightening of the “carried interest loopholes” that save them billions every year. So, their contributions — their investments — are well placed.
But, I think they’re not so much investing as they are buying shares. Grover Nordquist says the right-wing just needs a president to sign what conservatives in Congress pass. Jonah Goldberg writes that “A president who owes you is better than one who owns you.” Griffin and his ilk aren’t looking for a president who owes them, so much as a president in whom they own a controlling interest, and who will perform as shareholders expect him to.