Back in the 1960s, the rich were different. Top CEOs then earned about 30 times more than the average worker. Today they earn about 300 times more, and the wealth gap between the rich and the rest of us is the biggest in history, comparable only to that of the Roaring Twenties.
When a plutocrat like George Romney ran for office in the 1960s he was modest about his good fortune and careful to disclose the details to voters. Romney released 12 years of tax returns to the media.
Today's rich don't feel they owe the public any such disclosures. George's son Mitt Romney has released one year's tax return and an estimate of the next year's. But Eric Hovde, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin, has refused to release any tax return.
On the one hand, Romney and Hovde claim their success in business makes them uniquely qualified to serve in government. On the other hand, they won't let us see the details of how that money was made. Both Romney and Hovde have major investments in an offshore tax haven like the Cayman Islands, but refuse to allow any scrutiny of the deals.
The information Hovde has released could hardly be more vague. The Senate disclosure form he was required to fill out shows his assets range anywhere from $58 million to $240 million, with holdings in myriad stocks, banks and real estate. Either figure puts him among the top 1% of wealthy Americans and probably among the top .001 percent.
Hovde holds himself up as an example of the American Dream who built his wealth through hard work and skill. But he came from a wealthy Madison real estate family and became CEO of Hovde Properties, originally founded by his grandfather. Few Americans start with such an advantage.
Hovde says he spent his life in the private sector, "creating jobs." But he made most of his money as manager of a hedge fund, Hovde Capital Advisors, with just nine employees. The Republicans' transformation of wealthy people into "job creators" has apparently become so complete that the actual number of jobs created no longer matters.
Hovde is a fierce critic of the bank bailout, but appears to be the classic Wall Street insider. As Politico has reported, Hovde Capital made more than $180 million in investments in financial companies that took federal bailouts. Hovde doesn't deny this, but says his own companies weren't bailed out.
Hovde has proposed lowering corporate taxes from 35% to 25%; he concedes this would help his companies. Of course, since he hasn't shared his tax returns, there's no way to evaluate the payoff - probably many millions of dollars - this would gain him.
It's the no-shame school of campaigning. Increasingly, you have wealthy candidates like Romney and Hovde who oppose Warren Buffett's proposed tax hike for the wealthy, while declining to disclose what they would gain personally.
Hovde's sense of entitlement is suggested by his complaint that the media are always writing a "sob story" about "oh, the person [who] couldn't get, you know, their food stamps," as opposed to "what's happening to the country as a whole." But what's happening to the country is the worst recession since the Great Depression. Among those hardest hit are some 45 million people - one in seven Americans - forced to rely on food stamps. Many are workers who earn so little they must depend on such assistance
Back in the 1960s, when the federal government had launched a War on Poverty, you weren't likely to hear a wealthy candidate for office dismiss the plight of the poor as a sob story. We have reached a point where the rich not only seem removed from such concerns, but glory in their ability to accumulate wealth and avoid taxes.
Lindsey Graham, the Republican Senator from South Carolina, has declared that Mitt Romney shouldn't be criticized for using offshore tax havens because "it's really American to avoid paying taxes, legally." Of course, it's typically the wealthy who can afford the investments and legal advice to fully exploit such tax loopholes.
Hovde has clearly modeled his campaign after that of Ron Johnson, even using the same consultant to do his ads. (The prospect of Wisconsin having two multimillionaire businessmen as senators likely has Bob La Follette rolling over in his grave.) Like Johnson, Hovde has quickly spiked his standing the polls by bankrolling his campaign, spending $4 million in TV and radio ads and booking another $1.5 million in future ad buys.
It is his personal fortune that makes this strategy possible. And that fortune, when you come down to it, is Hovde's main qualification for office. Vote for me because I'm rich, the message seems to be, but don't dare ask how I got so wealthy.
Former Milwaukee Magazine editor Bruce Murphy is now editor of UrbanMilwaukee.com.