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Ragged Mitt

How much do you pay in income taxes? I really don’t care, and I’m not sure I need to know how much my president pays either.  But the news that Mitt Romney finally released his most recent tax returns, and that he pay less in taxes than your run-of-the-mill millionaire, or run-of-the-mill American, was interesting fodder for the news pundits in this campaign season. How does he do it? By getting most of his income from investments, which are taxed at a lower rate than earned wages. Of course, his supporters say he earned the money long ago, when Bain Capital made its many deals. Hmm. Needless to say, even some millionaires—you know, the ones who actually work every day for their income and are intellectually honest—know that hedge-fund billionaires and those who live off their capital gains are not paying their fair share.

The other thing that struck me today as I heard the spin on Romney’s taxes: comments from staff and supporters that Romney did indeed earn his money; no trust-fund baby here. No, Romney pulled himself up by his bootstraps and did the work himself. Why, he’s a regular Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story.

OK, nobody actually mentioned Horatio Alger. Remember him? Probably not, unless you too are a History Nerd. More on him later. But let’s put something to rest right here: Mr. I-Earned-My-Wealth-On-My-Own had advantages that few Americans do. Through much of his childhood and adolescence, his father George was president and chairman of the board of American Motors, which at that time was a pretty major corporation, the creature of the largest merger of the era (though its Javelin and Gremlin, perhaps the company’s best-known models today, were still off in the future). Romney the elder then served as governor of Michigan and briefly in Richard Nixon’s first cabinet.

None of this is news, of course. But the corporate success and political power of Romney the elder suggests that  little Mitt did not exactly want for much, hmm? He attended prep school at Cranbrook and grad school at Harvard. And just maybe his dad’s various positions made it easier to forge meaningful business connections that greased the wheel for his success at Bain.

Of course, I don’t know that for a fact. Pure speculation on my part. But I do know Romney is not cut from the same cloth as Ragged Dick, one of the heroes of the Horatio Alger books. At one time, many Americans knew Alger and his creations, and the stirring theme his book stressed—that through pluck and some luck, even a street urchin could achieve financial success. Ronald Reagan touted the Alger story line, or at least the values Alger championed. Only, as I noted in the first published article I ever wrote (almost 30 years ago…), the Alger story was largely a myth. (And one that Mark Twain thought was ripe for parody.) For every near-penniless Andrew Carnegie who made a fortune, most business titans of Alger’s era came from fairly well-off, WASP backgrounds. Kinda like Mitt (ignoring that Mormonism is not really Protestantism. Or Christianity). And one of the great ironies of the Reagan era was that while Ronnie decried the role of government in society, and particularly the economy, Reagan and his family were beneficiaries of the New Deal (documented in Garry Wills’s Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home).

So, will some Romney staffer or supporter trot out Alger as they try to show their candidate’s hard road to riches? Don’t know. But if they do, don’t believe it—or the reality of the rags-to-riches myth.

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