You know the conservative mantra: government is bad, private enterprise is good, government doesn’t do anything right, free enterprise is path to wealth. So, what do you do when you are the conservative nominees for president and vice-president and your families are up to their butts in government largesse?
First the Romneys: George Romney, Mitt’s dad, made his money the old fashioned way – he earned it as President of American Motors, right? Well, almost. Before AMC, Romney worked extensively in politics and with groups that advised government particularly during World War II. To portray the Romneys as separate from government is disingenuous. His pre-AMC resume was filled with lobbying positions on behalf of industries and industry-related groups. One of his biggest lobbying coups was on behalf of Alcoa Aluminum, when he convinced the government to install aluminum windows in the new U. S. Department of Commerce Building, one of those little infrastructure projects of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. The contract helped jump-start the sale of aluminum windows and storm windows which became immensely lucrative during the post-World War II building boom. Romney’s work for Alcoa brought him to the attention of the Automobile Manufacturers Association and eventually to the management of AMC.
But it was his wife, Lenore LaFount, who really had ties to the government. Her father, Harold Arundel Lafount, made his fortune (the one that made George’s courtship of Lenore a reach way beyond his social class) by manufacturing radio headphones. And who was the greatest user of radio headphones before the 1950s? The military. In fact, there was no real public market for headphones when Harold Lafount was manufacturing them. Besides the military, the only appreciable market was in the recording and film industries.
Ann Davies Romney is the granddaughter of a Welsh coal miner who immigrated to this country and went to work for Ford. Ann’s father, however, did not pursue the blue collar life. After graduating from the General Motors Institute of Technology and spending a stint in the Naval Corps of Engineers, Edward Davies got into inventing and filing patents, including more than a few government contracts like naval landing craft and the Gemini space program. He could have become very rich just off his private sector inventions like window washing equipment for high rise buildings, yacht fin stabilizers, a scuba spear gun, a lawn sprinkler and a high performance golf cart. But those government contracts certainly didn’t hurt. They helped send his kids to private school.
The Ryans aren’t exactly free of government entitlements either. Paul Ryan’s great-grandfather founded Ryan Incorporated General, a hugely successful company that builds roads. Even the super-mega-über rich don’t bother contracting Ryan Inc. for their estate driveways. Ryan Inc. specializes in roads built for governments. Most of the sources of Paul Ryan’s personal wealth, as detailed in his double-digit-paged Congressional financial disclosure, come originally from government contracts.
Janna Little Ryan, for all the talk about what a tiny little Oklahoma town she comes from (population under 4,000), brought to the marriage a pretty hefty portfolio herself. Her parents’ money was pure Oklahoma black gold, derived from real estate that they lease to oil companies. The complexities of our tax system and the sweet deals our government gives to oil companies make the Littles second-tier beneficiaries of our government’s generosity. Is it any wonder, then, that the Ryan budget actually increases government’s support for the oil industry?
So, remember that bit about how wrong President Obama was to suggest that no one builds a business in a vacuum, but as part of a network of government and other businesses? Here are four people whose family fortunes epitomize that idea. All of their parents benefitted from government contracts. All of their family fortunes were grown or established because of ties to government. But, according to them, government only harms and hinders business.
And then there’s the issue of their taxes. Paul Ryan has agreed to release two years of tax returns “the same as Governor Romney” if Romney’s accountants ever get done preparing last year’s return. But Ryan has been filing Congressional financial disclosure forms for 14 years, so his financial records are very accessible. And they tell the same story as Romney’s. The tax code is deeply flawed. It is slanted to benefit the very rich who can manipulate their incomes and expenses to reduce their tax liability. It is loaded down with special interest tax breaks for the wealthy. Huge companies like Cargill and Bechtel, S.C. Johnson and Mars candy can take advantage of tax breaks that are sold to the American public as benefits for “small business” because the companies are privately owned, not publicly traded.
Mitt Romney obviously did not inherit a huge fortune from his parents. He benefitted from their wealth through their ability to send him to private school and help him make the connections that launched his career, just as George W. Bush benefitted from his parents’ connections to open doors in the private sector. Mitt’s greatest debt to our government lies in the tax code and business laws that made what Bain Capital did legally possible. It was the deregulation of banking and financial services that led to our most recent economic collapse (hell, complete lack of regulation led to the Great Depression and deregulation contributed to the savings and loan industry collapse under Reagan), and Romney favors even more deregulation – a return to the unrestrained robber baron days of the 1880s, the era that led to the rise of labor unions and the creation of the laws Romney wants to eliminate. We of the 99% are frustrated to the point of fury over the fact that none of the people who imploded our economy can be prosecuted for what they did because it was all legal. And Romney and Ryan want to strip regulations even more than Dubya did.
One last hypocrisy from the Republicans, while on the subject of parents. Mitt’s dad, Michigan Governor George Romney, was born in the Mormon colonies in Mexico, where George’s grandparents had settled in the late 1880s. But George’s parents were technically American citizens who claimed the Utah territories as their legal residences. This isn’t a birther-thing. It’s an immigration/border thing. Until 9-11, very few people cared about either the Mexican or Canadian borders. From time to time, we dealt with the issue of Mexican and Latin American “illegal immigrants,” but the borders were very porous and cross-borders lives were common. The residents of the Mormon colonies in Mexico were not considered Mexicans, no one questioned George Romney’s eligibility to be President. Mitt’s family history calls for an honest examination of how America has related to the other nations and people who occupy this continent. George Romney’s political career benefitted from the casual attitude America had toward Mexican immigration and cross-border families, something that Romney and Ryan not only refuse to acknowledge, but thoroughly condemn.
Though Joe Biden’s father had been successful in his early career, the family suffered severe economic setbacks during Joe’s childhood and finally stabilized when Joseph Senior became a used car salesman. His first wife, Neila, came from an upper middle class background, and his second wife, Jill, is a physician. The Bidens are comfortably well off today, but not through inheritances.
President Obama is the son of a more-often-than-not single mother, moved around from pillar to post to grandparents while growing up. He probably benefitted from the Affirmative Action guidelines for college admissions, and led a very wild life in college before knuckling down and working his butt off to be personally successful. Mrs. Obama’s family was pure working class, her father a city water plant employee and her mother a secretary. Her brother, Craig Robinson, is a college basketball coach, currently at Oregon State University.
The Obama-Biden/Romney-Ryan match up couldn’t be more 99% vs.1% if the parties had tried to set it up that way. It is the Obamas and Bidens who understand what life is like in the 99%, what the shrinkage of the middle class means, how unions benefit workers and how essential health insurance is on so many levels. The Romneys and Ryans have benefitted from those elements of our government that are tilted to the upper classes, guarantee and protect their wealth, make possible those stay-at-home mothers who never have to worry about how to feed their children nutritious foods on a tight budget or what to do when the washing machine dies and there’s no money to replace and the credit cards are maxed out. It is the Obamas and Bidens who truly understand what it takes to make oneself financially secure and professionally successful. They had nothing handed to them on silver platters and no doors opened by family connections. Affirmative Action could only benefit the Obamas because they had the intellect and ability to function and succeed in college. It may have opened the door, but it didn’t keep them in school or give them the academic awards they achieved. It was precisely the type of “hand up not hand out” the Democrats have envisioned since the Johnson era.
It’s hard to articulate the party vision for our nation’s economic future, especially to a nation woefully uneducated about our economic past. But what is not hard to articulate is where these four people came from and how that shapes their understanding of where most of us are today.