The Man from the Cult of Success

Of course this one’s going to be an interesting election – you knew that. Obama will be urging fairness and everyone playing by the same rules, and everyone, with no exceptions, pitching in for the common good. And Romney will be talking about freedom – where there are few rules, if any, and you get to keep your stuff, all of it if you want, and you can do anything you want, which is what made this country great. Maybe you are your brother’s keeper – maybe we all are – but do you get to decide that, when and if you want on any given day, or will it be written in the tax code and the new laws about healthcare? It’s a matter of deciding to chip in for the common good, which you really might do, or being required to chip in, which you resent. And there is the matter of personal responsibility. Shouldn’t people man-up and take care of their own problems? We don’t want a nation of whiners who think the government will take care of them. Or maybe we want a system in place for those down on their luck and seriously ill, who need some extra support so they can eventually rejoin the Great American Prosperity Machine – and maybe we should assure that all old folks live out their final years with a least a little dignity, and maybe enough to eat. Or maybe that’s not the government’s business. And that’s what this election seems to be coming down to, a referendum on what government is for, on what the heck it’s supposed to do. The contrast has never been quite as defined as it is this time – but it had to happen after the financial collapse of 2008 and the rise of the angry Tea Party, which, oddly, is an army of mostly old white folks on Social Security and Medicare, who seem to have an issue with a young black president who keeps talking about everyone being in this together. They’re not feeling it. And we all have to chip in a lot to dig ourselves out of this economic hole. And why should they pay for anyone else’s health problems and so on and so forth? So, all in all, given these two wildly divergent views of how things should be, it will be a way-cool election. This is about as basic as it gets.

And a key to this is the Affordable Care Act, which even the Obama folks now call Obamacare. That’s the centerpiece, the thing that may symbolize it all. And the Republicans are all about “Repeal and Replace” – it has to go. But, as it’s a fiery election year and thus no one talks much about details, they’ve yet to talk about what they want to replace it with. That’s not what people seem to want to hear at the moment. But sooner or later the question of what’s next, should Obamacare be gone, will come up, and they’d be fools not to have some sort of answer. So, in the Los Angeles Times, Noam Levey reports on Mitt Romney’s current thinking about what will replace Obamacare:

His public statements and interviews with advisors make clear that Romney has embraced a strategy that in crucial ways is more revolutionary – and potentially more disruptive – than the law Obama signed two years ago. The centerpiece of Romney’s plan would overhaul the way most Americans get their health coverage: at work. He would do so by giving Americans a tax break to buy their own health plans. That would give consumers more choices, but also more risk.

And this is a big deal:

Unlike Obama’s healthcare law, Romney’s plan could fundamentally change the rules for the more than 150 million Americans who get insurance through their employers. These workers get a large tax break because their health benefits are not taxed. Businesses that provide insurance also get a break because their contributions to their employees’ health plans aren’t taxed.

In place of that system, Romney would give Americans a tax break to buy their own health plans, regardless of whether their employers offered coverage.

And Kevin Drum considers this:

Team Obama isn’t eager to make healthcare a central topic of the upcoming campaign. Given the continued lukewarm approval ratings of Obamacare, I guess that’s understandable. And yet, if Romney unveils the kind of plan Levey suggests, it’s hard not to think it could be a winning issue. I mean, Romney would be offering a plan that would:

Motivate lots of employers to drop health coverage.

Give dropped families a tax credit that wouldn’t come close to covering the cost of buying health coverage on their own – so most families would end up paying a lot more for health insurance than they do now.

Almost certainly increase the federal deficit, probably by a lot.

But Drum argues it’s even worse than that:

A plan like this plainly doesn’t work unless insurance companies are required to take all comers. After all, you can hardly give employers an incentive to drop group coverage and then just sit back and do nothing while insurance companies refuse to offer policies to half the people who have been dropped. But if you’re going to require insurance companies to take all comers, you also have to regulate the price they can charge. Otherwise they’ll just jack up the price on anyone they don’t want to cover, effectively denying them insurance. But if you do that, then you really need to have some kind of insurance mandate too. Otherwise all the sick people will sign up and the healthy people will remain uninsured, most of them figuring there’s always an emergency room that will take care of them if something goes really wrong.

And of course poor people will require subsidies of some kind. We’re not barbarians, right?

And Drum says this sounds awfully familiar:

It’s not really a whole lot different than Obamacare. If you omit any of it, it really doesn’t work. The reason is that there are some fundamental underpinnings of the health insurance market that just don’t change no matter how liberal or conservative you are. If your plan is based on insurance, then it has to be based on large, inclusive pools of applicants. One way or another, you have to group together random parts of the population in order to provide insurance companies with big, actuarially predictable pools of customers. There’s no way around this unless you’re willing to (a) essentially put insurance companies out of business, or (b) allow lots and lots of people to lose health coverage. Trying to do anything else is like trying to square a circle. It just won’t work.

He thinks the Democrats should pounce on this:

Romney will do his best to fudge this, and it might work if the Obama campaign decides not to press the issue. That might not be wise. No matter how clever Romney is, there are going to be cracks in his plan that can be exploited. They should be.

But Drum may overestimate what people are willing to consider. Any discussion of actuarially predictable pools of customers will only make people angrier. We like our politics simple. Romney is a wise businessman. He’s absurdly rich, isn’t he? That proves it. He says Obama just doesn’t understand how things work in the real world – by which he means the world of big business – so, implicitly, how could Obama understand how the insurance market works?

But you have to understand how Mitt made his money, at Bain Capital. You get rich people – venture capitalists – to give you money, scads of it, with which you buy shaky companies. Then you have those companies you now control borrow impossible amounts of money secured against what assets they may have, burdening them with impossible debt, and you use that borrowed money to pay back your investors, those rich venture capitalists, with interest, insuring them a healthy return on their investment. And then you dismantle the newly debt-ridden company, as it cannot survive given its debt load, and sell off its parts, pocketing all that money yourself, making you very rich. And you do it again and again and again. Yes, thousands of workers will lose their jobs, but this is what they call Creative Destruction. If there’s anything like a company left standing after all that, well, it’s certainly leaner and more efficient and may do well in its new form. That’s just how the game is played, and maybe, just maybe, you can apply this to the healthcare industry. Whatever is left standing, with very few people serving very few people, may well be more efficient. It’s a thought.

But how do you come to think this way, using the money of the rich to make yourself rich, ripping apart going concerns and destroying jobs and whole communities?

Maybe you have to be rich to begin with, which is to be fairly insulated from the destruction and only seeing what you call the creative part. Romney does come from a family of great wealth and power, and that may be another issue in this defining election:

Mitt Romney staunchly defended his family’s wealth yesterday after President Obama asserted that unlike his GOP rival, he wasn’t “born with a silver spoon in my mouth.”

“I’m certainly not going to apologize for my dad and his success in life,” Romney told Fox News in one of the testiest exchanges of a campaign that has already featured angry charges over wealth and status.

“He was born poor. He worked his way to become very successful, despite the fact that he didn’t have a college degree, and one of the things he wanted to do was provide for me and for my brother and sisters,” Romney continued.

“I know the president likes to attack fellow Americans. He’s always looking for a scapegoat, particularly those [who] have been successful like my dad,” Romney fumed.

“I’m not going to rise to that. This is a time for us to solve problems. This is not a time for us to be attacking people – we should be attacking problems.”

Yes, it was Romney’s don’t-hate-me-because-I’m-rich moment. We are supposed to be in awe of him. But Obama was just talking about useful government programs to a group of community college students in job-training programs:

“These investments are not part of some grand scheme to redistribute wealth. They’ve been made by Democrats and Republicans for generations, because they benefit all of us,” the president remarked.

“We created a foundation for those of us to prosper. Somebody gave me an education. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Michelle wasn’t. But somebody gave us a chance.”

And of course Michelle Obama was out and about talking about how her father was a “blue-collar city worker all his life.” And then White House Press Secretary Jay Carney slyly suggested that perhaps Romney was feeling a bit guilty – “Those who think that was a reference to them might be a little over sensitive.” And Carney reminded everyone that Obama has used the same line for years.

But Romney has his stock-line too – “If people think there’s something wrong with being successful in America, then they’d better vote for the other guy, because I’ve been extraordinarily successful, and I want to use that success and that know-how to help the American people.” Only a very rich guy, the son of an even richer guy, knows how things really work, and can show everyone how to get rich.

But Michael Kinsley takes exception to that:

Among the secrets of success that Romney might wish to share is how you arrange to be born to a rich family. Or, to be less vulgar, an intact and loving family that valued education. Or, for that matter, to be born smart. The neocon-controversialist Charles Murray writes books arguing that the second and third factors (family and innate intelligence) are more important than the first (money). You can argue about this all day, but in Romney’s case it doesn’t matter because he had all three factors hard at work, paving his way to success.

Is he even aware of it? Maybe Romney’s not so smart, because he goes on and on about how successful he is in a way that strikes people as obnoxious. “I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success.”

But Kinsley argues there is no “resentment of success” in this country:

I don’t sense it. Certainly you do not need to resent success in order to believe that successful people are, for the most part, adequately rewarded for their success.

And he’s okay with that, but what Romney is saying is nonsense:

Let’s reward success. But the Republicans seem to think that success is self-defining. Anyone who has done well or was born well deserves what he or she has got, and maybe more, because these are society’s “job creators.” Let’s add up just a few of the ways in which this is not necessarily true.

Maybe your success is due to something you got from your parents. This could be money, or good manners. It could even be a quality like determination. Evolutionary psychology is teaching us that huge chunks of personal characteristics, good and bad, derive from our genes. The full implications of this have not sunk in, but one of them surely is that “rewarding success” is more futile and more difficult than previously thought.

Maybe your success is due to something you got from the government, like a broadcast license, or a new freeway through your property, or a special tax break. Maybe it’s due to an education you received at a public university, or financed through federal student loans. Maybe it’s just because you’re an American. The average baker in the U.S. earns more than twice what a baker earns in Poland and five times what a baker earns in China (and I imagine the bread and the working conditions are better, too). What’s true for bakers is true for bankers: operating in a rich country is more lucrative than operating in a poor one. This is for reasons having nothing to do with admirable personal characteristics.

And let’s not forget simple luck. All the factors discussed above boil down to good luck – whom you’re born to, and where, and so on. But the residual, unexplained differences in how people succeed or don’t are also mostly luck.

And here’s the real point:

A society that rewards success is good for the successful, and no doubt good for society as a whole. Romney is right about that. But not everyone can be successful. How many people did Romney have to elbow out of his way on the path to success?

And this is just nasty:

“I’m not ashamed to say I was successful,” Romney says. No one is asking him to be ashamed of his success. What he should be ashamed of is his complacency. It seems absurd to say so, but maybe it will take losing the presidency to teach him a little humility. If he wins, he’ll be really insufferable.

But the message is quite simple. Prosperity equals virtue. I am very rich and so was my father. Ergo, I am wonderful and deserve to be president.

And the message back to Obama is the same. If you’re so smart how come you’re not rich?

But Ed Kilgore carries this further:

Do people who get laid off during an economic downturn through no fault of their own become instantly less “worthy?”

No, of course not, but it’s immensely comforting to the comfortable to believe not only that they have richly earned everything they’ve acquired, but that any diminution of their wealth is an affront to morality that threatens all order and civilization. It’s a sense of entitlement far more powerful and pervasive than the much-denounced expectation of public benefits via a social safety net. And it helps justify indifference to the suffering of others – necessary, of course, to keep the virtue-machine running that is the only real alternative to anarchy – or far worse, the kind of resentment that leads people to express cold fury towards those with underwater mortgages or preexisting medical conditions. All other things being equal, I’d say resentment of other people’s failures is more inscrutable than resentment of other people’s success, since the latter have by definition received their reward and the former their punishment.

Yes, that’s a little complicated, but this isn’t:

The cult of success is so central to conservative ideology in this country that it brooks little or no dissent, particularly in a Republican Party dependent on downscale white voters whose resentment of people poorer or darker or sicker than they are cannot be complicated by any doubt about the morality of markets. It’s no accident that the entire conservative commentariat came down on Newt Gingrich like a ton of bricks the moment he indulged in a producerist attack on Romney as a predatory capitalist. Start accepting fine distinctions like that, and the next thing you know you might be wondering if this banker or that oil executive is virtuous as well!

So Romney’s self-satisfaction and – yes, the word is unavoidable – self-righteousness – is integral to the world-view of the political movement he now hopes to lead to national power.

But Chris Lehmann argues that this is really a Mormon thing:

Mormons, unlike adherents of most mainline Protestant denominations, have very little ambivalence about the acquisition of wealth. One scours the endless, incantatory pages of Joseph Smith’s revelation in vain for any suggestion that wealth complicates the spiritual lives of believers. Not for Mormons the queasy business about the camel going through the needle’s eye before a rich man enters the Kingdom of Heaven. Instead, paradise is pretty much set aside for the enterprising rich, whose upward mobility is thought to persist even in the three-tiered scheme of the Mormon afterlife.

These innovations in economic theology have long seemed a bit quaint – akin to the picture-book accounts in LDS scripture of wars and dynasties. But in recent years, and especially with the GOP’s tilt to the right and the rise of the Tea Party, such beliefs no longer appear so fanciful. Indeed, the Mormon infatuation with maximal investor returns and precious metals has shaded steadily into the center of conservative mainstream thought.

And there’s history here:

“Joseph Smith had the poor man’s awe of gold,” writes his biographer Fawn Brodie, “and it crept into his concept of Heaven.” Even by the put-upon standard of upstate New York in the early nineteenth century, Smith’s family was dogged by unique bad fortune. Itinerant farmers who had first gone bust when they tried to export wild ginseng to China, the Smiths were forced to move repeatedly during Joseph’s youth.

By the time they reached the upstate hamlet of Palmyra in 1816, when Smith was eleven, the Second Great Awakening was in full swing. Some frontier revivalists of the day, such as the circuit-riding Methodists of the American South, preached a harsh gospel of individual reward and punishment, which equated a believer’s social station with the condition of his or her soul. More polished evangelical figures, such as the Baptist minister Charles Grandison Finney, spelled out a doctrine of social reform, arguing that the abolition of slavery or the advent of women’s suffrage would pave the way for Christ’s Second Coming.

By Smith’s own account, the intense spiritual ferment of the Second Great Awakening left him bewildered. He wrestled with the question of how all – or any – of the claimants to absolute truth in the Christian tradition could be right. In 1823, however, a revelation led him to the buried gold tablets inscribed, in his account, with a history of the lost tribes of Israel in the New World. He spent much of the next seven years transcribing and translating the plates, often with creditors at his door. And in 1830, with a young wife and with a child on the way, he persuaded one of his early followers to mortgage his farm to pay for the scripture’s publication.

The Book of Mormon neatly resolved distress of both the religious and the mundane variety by emphasizing how perfectly the ideal of prosperity meshed with the divine plan for Creation. Smith’s earliest disciples tended to be small farmers or tradesmen eking out unstable livings on the American frontier. What could be more attractive to them than a theology of New World abundance? And while other sectarian movements promoted austerity or social reform, Mormon scripture stressed the close alignment of wealth and virtue – a neat inversion of the New Testament ethic of self-sacrificing service. The idea is not so much to be a suffering servant, but rather a well-fixed one, who spreads the gospel on roughly the same model as the Kiwanis Club. “Think of your brethren like unto yourselves,” the Book of Mormon counsels, “and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you.”

And that’s Mitt’s message now, grounded in what happened next:

The vast majority of rank-and-file Mormons are not, of course, scions of wealth. Demographic research indicates that the Saints are no more affluent than the members of mainline Protestant denominations. However, the business outlook of the faith is deeply corporatist, reflecting a vision of central economic organization that is again unique among American Protestant sects. This, too, is largely a legacy of the church’s search for a stable outpost on the American frontier.

During the church’s initial forays in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, it was in fact a socialist enterprise. All property was held in common and managed by Smith and his senior lieutenants – one of whom, Sidney Rigdon, was an evangelical socialist.

However, the post-Smith church evolved into a virtual corporation, with elders assembling a number of joint-stock proposals, administered by the Perpetual Emigration Fund, to stake immigrant converts to land holdings in Utah. Under the authoritarian hand of Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, the trademark Mormon rage for order gathered decisive force. In Utah, Young oversaw the creation of a vast business cooperative, known as Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution, which was meant to prevent Eastern enterprises operated by gentiles (as Mormons called all non-Mormons) from gaining a foothold in the territory. The cooperative is said to have dispatched spies to report on Mormon settlers caught trading with outsiders. It also spawned successful livestock, textile, and banking concerns.

This top-down model of economic organization remains firmly in place.

And now we get to vote on that too. So, all in all, this will be a defining election, the second in a row that goes to the core of who and what we think we are. What more could you ask for?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in American Sense of Fair Play, Americans and Wealth, Mitt Romney, Mormonism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s