When I was five years old, my grandfather Irving Rosenthal, who lived in the Bronx, came out to California to visit us. One morning I asked him for a dollar. I can’t remember why I wanted a dollar, but he told me he’d work on it and I went off to do whatever it is I did at that age and when I returned he handed me a dollar bill he’d drawn lovingly with an orange ball-point pen.
I looked at it in disgust. “No,” I said. “I want a real dollar bill.”
This is the same grandfather who was a member of the Communist Party for most of his life, who believed that the bounty created by human industry should be divided based not on lineage or talent or temperament, but on need. I can’t imagine how sad that moment must have been for him. To stare into the face of so much childish want. It must have been like staring into the entire futile history of his life.
Here’s another image that’s been haunting me recently:
The funny this is, this photo wasn’t even supposed to exist. It was just one of those things that happens when you’re young and full of beans, when you’ve raised $37 million of other people’s money, and when you plan to use that money to make even more money because, well, money is the whole point. It’s how you decide what matters. It’s the language you speak: value, security, worth.
And so there you are posing with the rest of the guys at your new company, and after they finish the official portrait for the official Bain Capital brochure, where everyone has to stand around looking responsible, looking like guys who can be trusted with surplus assets, someone (not you, one of the other guys) suggests that the photographer take some more informal shots.
There are seven of you, clean young executives with dark eyes and white grins, trying to figure how to let your hair down, how to show the world the souls beneath your suits. When the twenties come out, you go with it. Some of the other guys get a little overzealous. They line their collars and pockets. They take the bills into their mouths and grin rakishly. Why the hell not? It’s not against the law. This is 1984. Reagan’s in the White House. The Dow looks poised for a bull run. Gordon Gekko doesn’t even exist yet.
A week ago, Joe Biden told a crowd in Youngstown, Ohio that Mitt Romney didn’t understand them. “My mother and my father believed that if my brother or sister wanted to be a millionaire, they could be a millionaire. My mother and father dreamed as much as any rich guy dreams. They don’t get us,” he bellowed. “They don’t get who we are.”
Biden was hailed for delivering such a rousing populist speech. But look at what he was saying: that the American dream resides in having a child who might someday be a millionaire.
Isn’t that exactly what Mitt Romney is saying? Isn’t that the underlying premise of a photo in which adult men eat money?
Back in 1984, companies like Bain Capital were known as Leveraged Buy Out firms. Here, in brief, is how they made money. They got other people to give them money, which they used to buy “undervalued” companies. They made these companies more valuable by cutting costs. These efficiency measures included firing American workers and hiring cheaper foreign labor, and cutting worker benefits. They also used the companies as collateral to borrow money and issue a special dividend to repay their investors. Bain then sold the company at a profit. Whether or not these businesses survived (some did, some did not) the Bain guys made a profit. And because these millions were classified as “capital gains” they were taxed at fifteen percent.
In the words of one known Communist, Bain Capital was “a small group of rich people manipulating the lives of thousands of people and taking all the money.”
A simpler way of putting this would be to say that Romney was very good at capitalism, which, in its purest form acts like a centrifuge, concentrating wealth at the top of the economic test tube.
The reason Bain Capital is now called a Private Equity firm, by the way, is because the term “Leveraged Buy Out” got a bad rep. It was associated with swindlers such as the junk bond dealer Michael Milken, who raised money for Bain and other LBO firms. Also, back in the recession of the early nineties, a whole bunch of leveraged firms went bankrupt. A couple of books came out exposing the inner workings of the LBO world. It was a branding problem. So they changed the name.
Private equity. Much classier.
In a rare burst of cogency, President Obama had this to say about his opponent’s experiences at Bain: “The reason this is relevant to the campaign is because my opponent, Gov. Romney, his main calling card for why he thinks he should be president is his business experience. He is not touting his experience in Massachusetts. He is saying he is a business guy, and this is his business.
“When you are president as opposed to the head of a private equity firm, then your job is not simply to maximize profits. Your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot. Your job is to think about those workers who get laid off and how are we paying for their retraining.
“If your main argument for how to grow in the economy is, ‘I knew how to make a lot of money for investors,’ then you are missing what this job is about.”
Let me now, via the magic of the Internet, kiss Barrack Obama on the mouth.
But look: greed has always existed. The desire to have more than your neighbor. We’re needy and rapacious creatures. Ask the rest of the species. Before humans hoarded bills and coins, we hoarded pelts and beads and wives and land. The Old Testament is, among other things, a long and rambling poem about the virtues of wealth: birthright, military might, desirable real estate. To quote the prophet Sting: get your harlots for nothing and your slaves for free.
My own sweet daughter, who is five years old, has collected money obsessively since she was three. She understands what it represents: autonomy, status, power. There’s a dark magic in abundance. We have only to gaze into our loyal screens, where the worship of wealth has replaced religion as a path to redemption.
In this sense, Mitt Romney has offered us a consistent and admirably candid vision of his worldview. Corporations are people. Worth should be defined in material terms and coveted. Efficiently managed greed is the essential engine of our republic.
Still, I keep thinking about that damn photo.
I keep wondering: How would people react to that image if the people in it were young African-Americans in saggy pants and chunky gold jewelry? What assumptions would we make about their values? About the means by which they acquired their prosperity? Or if the figures looked like Paulie Walnuts, with slicked back hair and pinkie rings and tracksuits?
Capitalism wears many uniforms. But it’s designed to select for psychopathic behaviors. You don’t get ahead by doing the right thing, by being kind.
Asking Mitt Romney to help poor people is like asking a hammer to help a nail.
There are times, usually late at night, when my mind replays that moment with my grandfather. I keep telling him I don’t want his lousy fake dollar bill. I want real money. What am I trying to tell him, really?
A few years later, my twin brother Mike and I accompanied our grandpa to the airport. We were supposed to be saying goodbye because he was going back to the Bronx and we wouldn’t see him for a long time. But all we cared about was checking the little change compartments at the bottom of the pay phones for coins. We ran around the airport in a kind of frenzy.
It must have broken his heart that we spent our final moments with him dashing around after money, that his love wasn’t enough. But he was our grandpa. After a few minutes, he called us over and suggested that we check the two pay phones closest to him. He had left in each of them a single shining dime.
We knew he’d put them in there for us, but we never said thank you, because we had to pretend it was just luck.
We were children. The world was about us, our foolish wants. We knew almost nothing about our grandpa back then. I still know very little, because his life was really two lives: the safe, public version in which he worked for an insurance company and fought his way into the middle class and supported a motley cast of relatives. And the secret life, as a member of The Party who wrote articles under a pseudonym and watched his wife surrender her job as a elementary school principal in Harlem to avoid naming names, who dreamed of a workers’ paradise.
Years later, in the months before cancer took him under, I visited him in his small co-op apartment in the Bronx. I could see that he was in tremendous physical pain and so I sat across from him in the dusk and tried to think of how I might apologize, whether it was too late.
Somehow, for us, for humans, love is never enough.
Honestly, you think you’re eating the money.
But it’s the other way. The money’s eating you.