Bill Johnson is a man for our times. With an inspiring display of entrepreneurial spirit, Johnson recently became CEO of Duke Energy, then resigned one day later, taking with him a payout worth $44 million. Folks like Johnson, Republicans have long told us, are job creators, the admirable sorts whose success we can't punish by raising the capital gains tax. Should Johnson decide to run for office one day, he'll no doubt explain that as a businessman, not a politician, he knows how the economy works. He certainly knows how to get his, and is there much of a difference anymore?
Which is just the question we ought to be asking about Mitt Romney's finances, and what they tell us about the world he comes from and the places our country has gone to. Don't get me wrong—I don't think Romney has done anything illegal as he has moved his considerable wealth around. He has no doubt employed an army of accountants and tax lawyers to make sure he stays within the limits of the law. But it's pretty clear that when it comes to money, Romney has always been devoted to the singular goal of getting whatever he can. This applies to the sometimes brutal world of private equity in which he thrived, and to the taxes he remits to the government. As he said in a primary debate in January, "I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more. I don't think you want someone as the candidate for president who pays more taxes than he owes."
It was a strange thing to say, but quite revealing—far more so than other comments of Romney's that got much more attention. Apparently, Romney feels that if you don't hire lawyers to help you take advantage of every hidden provision and loophole that might lower your tax bill, you're some kind of contemptible sucker unworthy of high office.
Though Romney's finances remain clouded in mystery, it's clear that he leaves few stones unturned in that effort. Last week, a Vanity Fair investigation revealed the intricate web of accounts and investment vehicles through which Romney spreads his wealth. The staggeringly complex network includes a variety of offshore accounts in places like Switzerland, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands. That may explain why Romney's 2010 tax return, which he released during the primary campaign, ran to a remarkable 203 pages.
Romney's glob-trotting finances don't actually reveal a lack of love for his country, as Democrats are insinuating, and Romney's representatives say that he paid as much in taxes on the funds in these accounts as he would have if they were held in the U.S. But it's fair to say that his 25 years in business seem to have led him to perfectly reflect the prevailing ethos of 21st-century American capitalism: That profits are the only measure that matters. The time when we expected corporations to treat their employees with respect or care about the communities they exist in has long passed. When Bain Capital shut down a factory, it was only fulfilling its obligation to its investors, because it had no other obligation. And when we hear that a profitable corporation pays no taxes or that a spectacularly rich individual like Mitt Romney has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep every dollar he can from the government, we aren't the least bit surprised.
That's why if we're going to elevate representatives of contemporary American business to high office, we should acknowledge that they didn't get where they are by being selfless. Mitt Romney's success came because he learned how to get his. He can't pretend otherwise, and neither should anyone else.
Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines.