Property or Equity?

Three weeks ago, I was at the George Washington estate, Mt. Vernon, in Virginia, with my wife Noreen and the couple Adam and Nepretiri Policastro. Nep is a childhood friend of Noreen, and Adam is an Italian American whose job it is to make scores of millions of dollars every few months for the bank he works for.

The estate, a national landmark awash with local tourists, was once a plantation worked by slaves. Nestled on a bank of the gently flowing Potomac, it’s a neat piece of property with boundaries that were once disputed. It’s also the final resting place of America’s first president, who reputedly could not tell a lie. He is counterpointed today by a presidential candidate who cannot tell the truth. Romney, of course.

Maybe it was because I was in the company of a banker (although a conscientious one) and because the circus that was the US presidential campaign had drained me of my hormones for reverence: my Third-World eye took in the well-trimmed gardens of Mt. Vernon and I felt I had come to the Ajanta Caves of American capitalism. This, I thought, is what the US constitution is all about. What the Tea Party, the anti-government grassroots movement, is all about. And what Ayn Rand, the intellectual muse of the Tea Party, is all about. She preached selfishness as a virtue.

And, finally, this is the only issue that matters in the US presidential election: property!

America’s founding fathers were property owners (among their properties were slaves). At bottom, the revolution of 1776 and the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were property disputes between the plantation moguls of the New World colonies and the feudal lord in England. They yelled, “No taxation without representation!” in assertion of their sacred property rights. Ayn Rand’s Lexicon says, “The right to life is the source of all rights — and the right to property is their only implementation.”

Said Thomas Jefferson, author of the American Declaration of Independence, “The government that governs least, governs best, because the people discipline themselves.” When he said “the people” he wasn’t referring to his slaves. He meant hacendados like himself.

That is the philosophy behind Mitt Romney’s insistence on giving huge tax breaks to millionaires. The plutocrats, he argues, know what to do with their millions: invest them to create jobs and grow the economy.

But that is not how it works. Jefferson lived when globalization was but a fetus in the womb of history. Today globalization allows moneybags to stash their loot in tax havens and ship low-skilled jobs abroad. The global financial mess is a function of the highly leveraged — because unregulated — pursuit of wealth. And income inequality provokes conflict the way the fettering of property rights provoked the American revolution.

So the US election boils down to this: Romney stands for the rich having near-complete dominion over their wealth to create jobs and grow the economy. Obama represents the view that the rich owe it to society to yield part of their wealth to care for those who cannot take care of themselves. One says: the less government the better. The other says: government must deliver.

One is supported by a fundamentalist reading of the American constitution, the other by the better angels of the American social conscience.

If the American electorate choose the first, there’s no guarantee the economy will grow but the social ailments of the country will surely fester. If they choose the latter, Americans who have less in life will have more under the law. And the United States will show the rest of the world that it still believes that the only economic growth worth pursuing is “sustainable growth with equity.”

Property or equity? The American voter must make a choice.

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