When Mitt Romney was talking about his money the other day -- a very rich topic, as it were -- he casually remarked, "I get speakers' fees from time to time, but not very much."
Care to learn how Romney defines "not very much"?
Between February 2010 and February 2011, his speaking gigs totaled $374,327.
This guy clearly dwells in a rarefied realm far removed from the average Joe. What he dismisses as chump change is enough to send seven kids to top-notch colleges. His gig earnings also trump the median American family's annual income, which happens to be $60,088. And while Romney and his fellow one-percenters have raked it in during the last decade, that median family income has barely budged.
Never mind the fact that Romney is a millionaire more than 200 times over, that he pays an effective 15 percent tax rate on his income, and that a chunk of his fortune is stored in offshore accounts. His dissing of 374 grand is sufficient proof that he's not well-suited to discuss income inequality -- a long-simmering issue that has lately catapulted into the top tier of 2012 campaign topics.
At a time when Americans are increasingly focused on the ever-widening chasm that separates the rich from the rest of us, here is Romney's reaction: "I think it's fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms."
Who does he think he is, the Dowager Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey?
Whether Romney likes it or not, this clamorous issue is coming through the front door. Finally. Woe to the candidate who yearns for quietude.
The middle and lower classes have been taking a hit for three decades. While the richest families posted a 278 percent increase in real after-tax income from 1979 to 2007, the middle-class increase was less than 40 percent. Worse yet, the nation's wealth flowed steadily upward during that time. Roughly $1.1 trillion in income shifted to the top 1 percent of families -- each year. The shifted money was greater in sum than all the money that flowed to the bottom 40 percent of households.
As Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, remarked in a Jan. 12 speech (thereby further signaling that President Obama intends to highlight income inequality in the 2012 race): "Not since the Roaring Twenties has the share of income going to the very top reached such high levels. The magnitude of these shifts is mind-boggling."
I'm not suggesting that only the Republicans are at fault. The income gap has widened regardless of which party holds the White House; indeed, the Census Bureau reported in 2000 that every household category below $80,000 lost ground during the Bill Clinton years. When Clinton was stumping for reelection in 1996, I reported in a story for this newspaper that "the typical family is making less than in pre-recessionary 1989, and the gap between rich and poor has widened," and it was clear Clinton had no interest in highlighting an issue that would make him look bad.
Some of the complex factors that have exacerbated income inequality -- technological change, increased globalization -- are arguably beyond the reach of politicians. But one factor is definitely within their power. It's beyond dispute (at least to those of us who still believe in facts) that the Bush tax cuts, which awarded the rich an even bigger slice of the pie, widened the gap so severely that the rich are now paying some of the lowest tax rates in history.
As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, "The average tax rate for the top 400 earners in the U.S. fell to as low as 16.62 percent in 2007, from a recent peak of 29.9 percent in 1995" -- thanks mostly to the Bush tax cuts on capital gains and dividends. In fact, studies show that the Bush cuts on investment income have been a boon for those who make at least $10 million a year; their take-home pay has been boosted by an average $500,000 per household.
Obama, at least, is finally willing to talk about this stuff; he's not an instinctive populist, but he recognizes the political urgency -- and opportunity. He said in a Dec. 6 speech, "Over the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk."
And the political danger, for likely GOP nominee Romney, is that he not only shrinks from talking about this stuff, he exudes patrician disdain for those who bring it up.
He essentially contends that anyone who wants to move the income-inequality issue out of the quiet rooms and into the public eye is simply jealous of people like him. In his words, it's "about envy, it's about class warfare." He says that Obama wants to "divide us with the bitter politics of envy."
I'll go out on a limb here and suggest that a candidate who's rolling in personal dough, a candidate who in previous races has never released his tax returns, a candidate who enjoys a sweetheart tax rate on massive investment income, risks coming off as insensitive when he declares that economic injustice is merely a hobbyhorse for those who "envy" his second-generation wealth.
And as for that tired Republican trope about "class warfare," Warren Buffett slam-dunked it nine years ago when he said, "Well, I'll tell you, if it's 'class warfare,' my class is winning." That war has long been waged from the top down; those on the receiving end are finally fed up. Such is the current mood, as measured this month by the Pew Research Center, which reports that two-thirds of Americans now view the income gap -- for the first time -- as the greatest source of national conflict. The poll attributed this sentiment to "underlying shifts in the distribution of wealth in American society."
Mitt Romney would run a competitive race against the president, but it might be a risk to nominate a one-percenter who's so clearly out of sync with the zeitgeist. I suppose he could begin connecting with the masses on the income-inequality issue by acknowledging that 374 grand is actually decent money, but that's not what he really believes in his heart. He is a man of conviction after all.
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org; blog: http://www.dickpolman.blogspot.com.