A surprising moment of revelation has taken place within this year's bizarre Republican presidential primary contest. It began after journalists investigated candidate Mitt Romney's claim that he created over a hundred thousand jobs as chief of Bain Capital, a very successful private equity firm. They discovered instead that during Romney's tenure at Bain Capital the firm was just as likely to profit by investing in struggling companies and stripping them for parts, allowing the businesses to die and selling off their assets (all the while charging the companies high management fees), as it was to profit by enabling jobs.
Rick Perry (of all people) made a strong point when he called Bain's practices "vulture capitalism", and it was brave of Perry, an otherwise plodding pro-business Reaganite, to make this statement. Newt Gingrich cleverly baited Romney for a full week with questions about Bain and about his own finances, forcing Romney to reveal that as a venture capital investor he has continued to have a luxurious income every year, but has been paying only 15% in taxes, less than half what a typical American pays. The outrage over this has allowed Gingrich to vault himself over Romney in South Carolina's primary this weekend, a stunning upset victory.
It's gratifying to hear conservatives finally join liberals in criticizing the predatory and hyperactive forms of "extreme capitalism" that Bain represents, which are rooted in the same syndrome of reckless misuse of honest finance that caused the crash of 2007/2008. It has been a conservative basic principle to avoid any criticism of free market capitalism, to blame the crash instead on home ownership initiatives, and to characterize even the slightest critique of economic inequity in the USA as "class warfare". The accusation that critics of Wall Street or tax breaks for the wealthy engage in "class warfare" is intoned repeatedly these days by conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. This tends to be a real conversation-killer, since the term carries such ominous historic undertones. It reminds us of the guillotine, the gulag, Mao's terrible starvation farms.
This loaded term has been thrown around wildly, even by Mitt Romney himself. He has previously described the Occupy Wall Street movement as class warfare, and has now used the same incendiary phrase in a weak attempt to defend himself against Gingrich, and against any other Americans who want to know why he pays a lower tax rate than they do.
The hyperbole won't stand. With our government in a terrible budget crisis, we have a right to question the tax breaks that are allowing the wealthy to avoid paying their share. More broadly, we have a right to ponder, pontificate, imagine and philosophize freely about what wealth means in our lives and how it functions within our social fabric, and we do not deserve to be accused of harboring Stalinist or Maoist views for doing so.
The meaning of wealth is a gigantic topic, and we can discuss it on many levels, from the psychological (why are certain people motivated to accumulate and hoard wealth beyond what their families could possibly want or need?) to the functional (can a society remain free and healthy if tax laws and business practices allow the wealthy to keep gathering wealth infinitely, while the living standard of the middle class drops?) to the spiritual (can great wealth actually cause the opposite of happiness? Romney seems to wear his wealth with easy grace, but many others at his level seem to exhibit symptoms of Ebenezer Scrooge syndrome).
In short, this is a job for philosophy. But, as so often occurs when philosophers begin asking truly tough and important questions, we first have to fight for our right to ask the questions. The debate over whether or not we are "allowed" to discuss certain issues is often tougher than the issues themselves.
Class warfare? Nonsense. If you are a professional or amateur ethical philosopher alive today, you'd better be prepared to discuss the meaning and function of wealth in our society at every level. It's a question that matters a lot. The strange television comedy series known as the Republican Presidential Debates has suddenly yielded this big question, and dropped it into the lap of every thinking American. This is a great new trend. I'm sure there are many ways to answer philosophical questions about the meaning of wealth, but the biggest question is whether or not we have the right to discuss it at all. Yes, we do, and we will.