Watching two intellectually challenged Ken dolls with “executive-style hair” — Mitt Romney and Rick Perry — preparing to fight it out reminds me how much I miss Dan Quayle.
Oddly enough, just before I heard about Romney’s latest blooper, I was reading about a study by psychologist Dacher Keltner. The life experience of the rich, he says, makes them less empathetic and more selfish than ordinary people. Part of this is willful obtuseness; legitimizing ideologies not only inure the exploited to getting the shaft, but enable the expoiters to sleep at night by reassuring themselves that the poor really deserve it.
The rich justify their relations with other social classes with the help of the Americanist ideology, whereby they exaggerate their own perceived rugged individualism and see their wealth as the result of character: “They think that economic success and political outcomes, and personal outcomes, have to do with individual behavior, a good work ethic …”
In other words, fake “free market” ideology — as opposed to the real thing — is the opiate of the elites. It frees them from guilt over their privilege and makes their existence bearable. The neoliberal ideology — as it appears on the CNBC talking head shows, the WSJ editorial page, and puff pieces from FreedomWorks — defends the existing model of corporate capitalism and its great concentrations of wealth as if they resulted from superior virtue in a competitive market (“that’s how our free market system works”). It deliberately obscures the central role of government intervention — artificial scarcities, artificial property rights, subsidies — in the current distribution of wealth and economic power.
Back to Romney: In response to a heckler, he quipped that “Corporations are people. … Everything that corporations earn also goes to people.” Faced with audience laughter, he asked “Where do you think it goes?” “Into their pockets!” replied the heckler. “Whose pockets?” Romney came back. “People’s pockets! Human beings, my friend.”
That’s technically true, of course. The money a corporation makes at the expense of consumers and workers through state-enforced unequal exchange is all distributed to people.
But so what? Unless David Icke’s right and we’re secretly ruled by alien lizard invaders, every system of class exploitation in human history has served the interests of some group of human beings. In every society in history, no matter how brutally exploitative, of course the ill-gotten gain was consumed by “people.” Roman patricians who lived off the sweat of slaves were people, and so were feudal landlords who gouged rents from the peasantry. I suspect it was “people” — evil people — who profited from the gold teeth extracted at Auschwitz.
The question is, which people? To whom does the wealth of monopoly corporations disproportionately flow? To the same people the profits of slave labor and the rents of feudalism went to, the people described by Adam Smith: “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”
Fortunately for them, the masters have the mythology of “people’s capitalism” — in which corporate profits all go to 401k’s and pension funds and the economy’s owned by regular folks day-trading on the Internet — to reassure themselves they’re really not overgrown tapeworms at all. All that talk about injustice and unearned wealth is just “class warfare,” the “politics of envy.” Or as Romney sniffed, “There was a time in this country when we didn’t attack people based on their success.”
Romney’s own success bears some looking into. He’s running as the former CEO who — unlike Obama — understands “how the economy works.” See, he knows firsthand about the needs of the heroic businessmen who “create jobs.”
But in reality, Romney did everything by the same MBA playbook as Chainsaw Al and Bob Nardelli: Gut human capital, strip assets, hollow out long-term productive capacity to goose this quarter’s numbers and jack up share prices, then game your own executive compensation and dump the hollowed-out shell on some other scavenger. Romney, as an executive, was to downsizing what Typhoid Mary was to typhoid.
It’s natural that Romney should clutch at any pretext to see himself as something besides just another upper class twit who was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. Thanks to the gospel of Success, Achievement and Prosperity, the vile masters of mankind can keep telling themselves they’re not parasites after all; they’re just getting their due.