A Matter of Life and Debt

By MARGARET ATWOOD, Op-Ed Contributor, New York Times, October 22, 2008

Excerpt

…we’re deluding ourselves if we assume that we can recover from the crisis of 2008 so quickly and easily simply by watching the Dow creep upward. The wounds go deeper than that. To heal them, we must repair the broken moral balance that let this chaos loose.

Debt — who owes what to whom, or to what, and how that debt gets paid — is a subject much larger than money. It has to do with our basic sense of fairness, a sense that is embedded in all of our exchanges with our fellow human beings.

But at some point we stopped seeing debt as a simple personal relationship. The human factor became diminished…The whole edifice rests on a few fundamental principles that are inherent in us.

We are social creatures who must interact for mutual benefit

Is there any bright side to this? Perhaps we’ll have some breathing room — a chance to re-evaluate our goals and to take stock of our relationship to the living planet from which we derive all our nourishment, and without which debt finally won’t matter.

Full text

THIS week, credit has begun to loosen, stock markets have been encouraged enough to reclaim lost ground (at least for now) and there is a collective sigh of hope that lenders will begin to trust in the financial system again.

But we’re deluding ourselves if we assume that we can recover from the crisis of 2008 so quickly and easily simply by watching the Dow creep upward. The wounds go deeper than that. To heal them, we must repair the broken moral balance that let this chaos loose.

Debt — who owes what to whom, or to what, and how that debt gets paid — is a subject much larger than money. It has to do with our basic sense of fairness, a sense that is embedded in all of our exchanges with our fellow human beings.

But at some point we stopped seeing debt as a simple personal relationship. The human factor became diminished. Maybe it had something to do with the sheer volume of transactions that computers have enabled. But what we seem to have forgotten is that the debtor is only one twin in a joined-at-the-hip pair, the other twin being the creditor. The whole edifice rests on a few fundamental principles that are inherent in us.

We are social creatures who must interact for mutual benefit, and — the negative version — who harbor grudges when we feel we’ve been treated unfairly. Without a sense of fairness and also a level of trust, without a system of reciprocal altruism and tit-for-tat — one good turn deserves another, and so does one bad turn — no one would ever lend anything, as there would be no expectation of being paid back. And people would lie, cheat and steal with abandon, as there would be no punishments for such behavior.

Children begin saying, “That’s not fair!” long before they start figuring out money; they exchange favors, toys and punches early in life, setting their own exchange rates. Almost every human interaction involves debts incurred — debts that are either paid, in which case balance is restored, or else not, in which case people feel angry. A simple example: You’re in your car, and you let someone else go ahead of you, and the driver doesn’t nod, wave or honk. How do you feel?

Once you start looking at life through these spectacles, debtor-creditor relationships play out in fascinating ways. In many religions, for instance. The version of the Lord’s Prayer I memorized as a child included the line, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” In Aramaic, the language that Jesus himself spoke, the word for “debt” and the word for “sin” are the same. And although many people assume that “debts” in these contexts refer to spiritual debts or trespasses, debts are also considered sins. If you don’t pay back what’s owed, you cause harm to others.

The fairness essential to debt and redemption is reflected in the afterlives of many religions, in which crimes unpunished in this world get their comeuppance in the next. For instance, hell, in Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” is the place where absolutely everything is remembered by those in torment, whereas in heaven you forget your personal self and who still owes you five bucks and instead turn to the contemplation of selfless Being.

Debtor-creditor bonds are also central to the plots of many novels — especially those from the 19th century, when the boom-and-bust cycles of manufacturing and no-holds-barred capitalism were new and frightening phenomena, and ruined many. Such stories tell what happens when you don’t pay, won’t pay or can’t pay, and when official punishments ranged from debtors’ prisons to debt slavery.

In “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” for example, human beings are sold to pay off the rashly contracted debts. In “Madame Bovary,” a provincial wife takes not only to love and extramarital sex as an escape from boredom, but also — more dangerously — to overspending. She poisons herself when her unpaid creditor threatens to expose her double life. Had Emma Bovary but learned double-entry bookkeeping and drawn up a budget, she could easily have gone on with her hobby of adultery.

For her part, Lily Bart in “The House of Mirth” fails to see that if a man lends you money and charges no interest, he’s going to want payment of some other kind.

As for what will happen to us next, I have no safe answers. If fair regulations are established and credibility is restored, people will stop walking around in a daze, roll up their sleeves and start picking up the pieces. Things unconnected with money will be valued more — friends, family, a walk in the woods. “I” will be spoken less, “we” will return, as people recognize that there is such a thing as the common good.

On the other hand, if fair regulations are not established and rebuilding seems impossible, we could have social unrest on a scale we haven’t seen for years.

Is there any bright side to this? Perhaps we’ll have some breathing room — a chance to re-evaluate our goals and to take stock of our relationship to the living planet from which we derive all our nourishment, and without which debt finally won’t matter.

Margaret Atwood is the author of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and, most recently, “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/22/opinion/22atwood.html?_r=0

Four Deformations of the Apocalypse

By DAVID STOCKMAN, New York Times, July 31, 2010

IF there were such a thing as Chapter 11 for politicians, the Republican push to extend the unaffordable Bush tax cuts would amount to a bankruptcy filing. The nation’s public debt — if honestly reckoned to include municipal bonds and the $7 trillion of new deficits baked into the cake through 2015 — will soon reach $18 trillion. That’s a Greece-scale 120 percent of gross domestic product, and fairly screams out for austerity and sacrifice. It is therefore unseemly for the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, to insist that the nation’s wealthiest taxpayers be spared even a three-percentage-point rate increase.

More fundamentally, Mr. McConnell’s stand puts the lie to the Republican pretense that its new monetarist and supply-side doctrines are rooted in its traditional financial philosophy. Republicans used to believe that prosperity depended upon the regular balancing of accounts — in government, in international trade, on the ledgers of central banks and in the financial affairs of private households and businesses, too. But the new catechism, as practiced by Republican policymakers for decades now, has amounted to little more than money printing and deficit finance — vulgar Keynesianism robed in the ideological vestments of the prosperous classes.

This approach has not simply made a mockery of traditional party ideals. It has also led to the serial financial bubbles and Wall Street depredations that have crippled our economy. More specifically, the new policy doctrines have caused four great deformations of the national economy, and modern Republicans have turned a blind eye to each one.

The first of these started when the Nixon administration defaulted on American obligations under the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement to balance our accounts with the world. Now, since we have lived beyond our means as a nation for nearly 40 years, our cumulative current-account deficit — the combined shortfall on our trade in goods, services and income — has reached nearly $8 trillion. That’s borrowed prosperity on an epic scale.

It is also an outcome that Milton Friedman said could never happen when, in 1971, he persuaded President Nixon to unleash on the world paper dollars no longer redeemable in gold or other fixed monetary reserves. Just let the free market set currency exchange rates, he said, and trade deficits will self-correct.

It may be true that governments, because they intervene in foreign exchange markets, have never completely allowed their currencies to float freely. But that does not absolve Friedman’s $8 trillion error. Once relieved of the discipline of defending a fixed value for their currencies, politicians the world over were free to cheapen their money and disregard their neighbors.

In fact, since chronic current-account deficits result from a nation spending more than it earns, stringent domestic belt-tightening is the only cure. When the dollar was tied to fixed exchange rates, politicians were willing to administer the needed castor oil, because the alternative was to make up for the trade shortfall by paying out reserves, and this would cause immediate economic pain — from high interest rates, for example. But now there is no discipline, only global monetary chaos as foreign central banks run their own printing presses at ever faster speeds to sop up the tidal wave of dollars coming from the Federal Reserve.

The second unhappy change in the American economy has been the extraordinary growth of our public debt. In 1970 it was just 40 percent of gross domestic product, or about $425 billion. When it reaches $18 trillion, it will be 40 times greater than in 1970. This debt explosion has resulted not from big spending by the Democrats, but instead the Republican Party’s embrace, about three decades ago, of the insidious doctrine that deficits don’t matter if they result from tax cuts.

In 1981, traditional Republicans supported tax cuts, matched by spending cuts, to offset the way inflation was pushing many taxpayers into higher brackets and to spur investment. The Reagan administration’s hastily prepared fiscal blueprint, however, was no match for the primordial forces — the welfare state and the warfare state — that drive the federal spending machine.

Soon, the neocons were pushing the military budget skyward. And the Republicans on Capitol Hill who were supposed to cut spending exempted from the knife most of the domestic budget — entitlements, farm subsidies, education, water projects. But in the end it was a new cadre of ideological tax-cutters who killed the Republicans’ fiscal religion.

Through the 1984 election, the old guard earnestly tried to control the deficit, rolling back about 40 percent of the original Reagan tax cuts. But when, in the following years, the Federal Reserve chairman, Paul Volcker, finally crushed inflation, enabling a solid economic rebound, the new tax-cutters not only claimed victory for their supply-side strategy but hooked Republicans for good on the delusion that the economy will outgrow the deficit if plied with enough tax cuts.

By fiscal year 2009, the tax-cutters had reduced federal revenues to 15 percent of gross domestic product, lower than they had been since the 1940s. Then, after rarely vetoing a budget bill and engaging in two unfinanced foreign military adventures, George W. Bush surrendered on domestic spending cuts, too — signing into law $420 billion in non-defense appropriations, a 65 percent gain from the $260 billion he had inherited eight years earlier. Republicans thus joined the Democrats in a shameless embrace of a free-lunch fiscal policy.

The third ominous change in the American economy has been the vast, unproductive expansion of our financial sector. Here, Republicans have been oblivious to the grave danger of flooding financial markets with freely printed money and, at the same time, removing traditional restrictions on leverage and speculation. As a result, the combined assets of conventional banks and the so-called shadow banking system (including investment banks and finance companies) grew from a mere $500 billion in 1970 to $30 trillion by September 2008.

But the trillion-dollar conglomerates that inhabit this new financial world are not free enterprises. They are rather wards of the state, extracting billions from the economy with a lot of pointless speculation in stocks, bonds, commodities and derivatives. They could never have survived, much less thrived, if their deposits had not been government-guaranteed and if they hadn’t been able to obtain virtually free money from the Fed’s discount window to cover their bad bets.

The fourth destructive change has been the hollowing out of the larger American economy. Having lived beyond our means for decades by borrowing heavily from abroad, we have steadily sent jobs and production offshore. In the past decade, the number of high-value jobs in goods production and in service categories like trade, transportation, information technology and the professions has shrunk by 12 percent, to 68 million from 77 million. The only reason we have not experienced a severe reduction in nonfarm payrolls since 2000 is that there has been a gain in low-paying, often part-time positions in places like bars, hotels and nursing homes.

It is not surprising, then, that during the last bubble (from 2002 to 2006) the top 1 percent of Americans — paid mainly from the Wall Street casino — received two-thirds of the gain in national income, while the bottom 90 percent — mainly dependent on Main Street’s shrinking economy — got only 12 percent. This growing wealth gap is not the market’s fault. It’s the decaying fruit of bad economic policy.

The day of national reckoning has arrived. We will not have a conventional business recovery now, but rather a long hangover of debt liquidation and downsizing — as suggested by last week’s news that the national economy grew at an anemic annual rate of 2.4 percent in the second quarter. Under these circumstances, it’s a pity that the modern Republican Party offers the American people an irrelevant platform of recycled Keynesianism when the old approach — balanced budgets, sound money and financial discipline — is needed more than ever.

David Stockman, a director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan, is working on a book about the financial crisis.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/opinion/01stockman.html?_r=3&th&emc=th&

The G.O.P.’s Existential Crisis

By PAUL KRUGMAN, New York Times, December 13, 2012

Excerpt

We are not hav­ing a debt crisis…The U.S. gov­ern­ment is hav­ing no trou­ble bor­row­ing to cover its deficit. In fact, its bor­row­ing costs are near his­toric lows…what we’re hav­ing is a polit­i­cal cri­sis, born of the fact that one of our two great polit­i­cal par­ties has reached the end of a 30-year road. The mod­ern Repub­li­can Party’s grand, rad­i­cal agenda lies in ruins — but the party doesn’t know how to deal with that fail­ure, and it retains enough power to do immense dam­age as it strikes out in frustration…So Repub­li­cans have suf­fered more than an elec­tion defeat, they’ve seen the col­lapse of a decades-long project. And with their grandiose goals now out of reach, they lit­er­ally have no idea what they want — hence their inabil­ity to make spe­cific demands…It’s a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion. The G.O.P. is lost and rud­der­less, bit­ter and angry, but it still con­trols the House and, there­fore, retains the abil­ity to do a lot of harm, as it lashes out in the death throes of the con­ser­v­a­tive dream…

Full text

We are not having a debt crisis.

It’s important to make this point, because I keep seeing articles about the “fiscal cliff” that do, in fact, describe it — often in the headline — as a debt crisis. But it isn’t. The U.S. government is having no trouble borrowing to cover its deficit. In fact, its borrowing costs are near historic lows. And even the confrontation over the debt ceiling that looms a few months from now if we do somehow manage to avoid going over the fiscal cliff isn’t really about debt.

No, what we’re having is a political crisis, born of the fact that one of our two great political parties has reached the end of a 30-year road. The modern Republican Party’s grand, radical agenda lies in ruins — but the party doesn’t know how to deal with that failure, and it retains enough power to do immense damage as it strikes out in frustration.

Before I talk about that reality, a word about the current state of budget “negotiations.”

Why the scare quotes? Because these aren’t normal negotiations in which each side presents specific proposals, and horse-trading proceeds until the two sides converge. By all accounts, Republicans have, so far, offered almost no specifics. They claim that they’re willing to raise $800 billion in revenue by closing loopholes, but they refuse to specify which loopholes they would close; they are demanding large cuts in spending, but the specific cuts they have been willing to lay out wouldn’t come close to delivering the savings they demand.

It’s a very peculiar situation. In effect, Republicans are saying to President Obama, “Come up with something that will make us happy.” He is, understandably, not willing to play that game. And so the talks are stuck.

Why won’t the Republicans get specific? Because they don’t know how. The truth is that, when it comes to spending, they’ve been faking it all along — not just in this election, but for decades. Which brings me to the nature of the current G.O.P. crisis.

Since the 1970s, the Republican Party has fallen increasingly under the influence of radical ideologues, whose goal is nothing less than the elimination of the welfare state — that is, the whole legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society. From the beginning, however, these ideologues have had a big problem: The programs they want to kill are very popular. Americans may nod their heads when you attack big government in the abstract, but they strongly support Social Security, Medicare, and even Medicaid. So what’s a radical to do?

The answer, for a long time, has involved two strategies. One is “starve the beast,” the idea of using tax cuts to reduce government revenue, then using the resulting lack of funds to force cuts in popular social programs. Whenever you see some Republican politician piously denouncing federal red ink, always remember that, for decades, the G.O.P. has seen budget deficits as a feature, not a bug.

Arguably more important in conservative thinking, however, was the notion that the G.O.P. could exploit other sources of strength — white resentment, working-class dislike of social change, tough talk on national security — to build overwhelming political dominance, at which point the dismantling of the welfare state could proceed freely. Just eight years ago, Grover Norquist, the antitax activist, looked forward cheerfully to the days when Democrats would be politically neutered: “Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant, but when they’ve been fixed, then they are happy and sedate.”

O.K., you see the problem: Democrats didn’t go along with the program, and refused to give up. Worse, from the Republican point of view, all of their party’s sources of strength have turned into weaknesses. Democratic dominance among Hispanics has overshadowed Republican dominance among southern whites; women’s rights have trumped the politics of abortion and antigay sentiment; and guess who finally did get Osama bin Laden.

And look at where we are now in terms of the welfare state: far from killing it, Republicans now have to watch as Mr. Obama implements the biggest expansion of social insurance since the creation of Medicare.

So Republicans have suffered more than an election defeat, they’ve seen the collapse of a decades-long project. And with their grandiose goals now out of reach, they literally have no idea what they want — hence their inability to make specific demands.

It’s a dangerous situation. The G.O.P. is lost and rudderless, bitter and angry, but it still controls the House and, therefore, retains the ability to do a lot of harm, as it lashes out in the death throes of the conservative dream.

Our best hope is that business interests will use their influence to limit the damage. But the odds are that the next few years will be very, very ugly.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/14/opinion/krugman-the-gops-existential-crisis.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121214&_r=0

The Biggest Lie in America Today

by  Jeff Freeman | Liberal is Logical, 30 November 2012

Grover Norquist, a conservative lobbyist and founder of Americans for Tax Reform, has made a career by trumpeting the biggest lie in American politics.  The problem is most people don’t know it’s a lie.  By continuing to push the idea that Americans are overtaxed, Mr. Norquist has added to a growing misconception about taxation in the US.

The New York Times Reports that in 1944 when the US was engaged in World War II, in spite of historically high income tax rates, including a 94% tax rate on the highest earners, roughly 90% of all Americans believed their tax rates were fair.  Yet today, as the US remains entrenched in an eleven year war in Afghanistan and with historically low income tax rates including roughly half the country having no income tax liability at all, a shrinking number of Americans still believe their rates are fair.  In fact, it was the perceived threat of higher taxes that eventually gave birth to the conservative Tea Party movement, a group whose very name is an acronym for Taxed Enough Already.

Grover Norquist’s assertion that Americans are overtaxed, an assertion that a growing number of Americans believe, has been the central focus of his work in politics; and make no mistake about it, he makes a very convincing case.  Mr. Norquist can rattle off a series of statistics to support his positions, and while his figures are often taken out of context, his influence should not be dismissed.  After all, he did get 95% of all Congressional Republicans to sign an anti-tax pledge.  Mr. Norquist’s position is not a difficult one to defend.  Honestly, who wouldn’t want to pay less in taxes and it’s an easy argument to fit on a bumper sticker?  But with talks around the fiscal cliff heating up and with every government program with the possible exception of Social Security potentially on the chopping block, a simple question must be asked.  Are Americans really overtaxed?  Getting to the root of this issue is not easy, but it is necessary.

Taxation is a complex issue, so for the purpose of objectivity we will briefly examine three major areas of taxation: individual income tax rates, corporate income tax rates, and tax revenue as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP).  Leaving politics aside, let’s take a look at the numbers and see how they compare both historically and in relation to our peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  First, let’s consider the single biggest provider of federal revenue, the individual income tax.  Income tax rates today are at historically low levels.  Across all income brackets, tax rates are as low as they’ve been since 1930 and are only a third of what they were in the 1940′s and 50′s.[1]

Comparatively speaking, the US has some of the lowest income tax rates of any major economic player in the world.  Ranking only 23rd, America does not come close to breaking into the top 10 nations in terms of income tax rates.  In fact, the income tax rate in the US on the highest earners is a full 15% lower than the rate in Ireland, which has only the 10th highest income tax rates in the world.[2]  Turning to corporate taxes, while the US corporate tax rate at 35% on the highest business incomes seems a bit high, in reality the average US corporate income tax is still below the median effective rate among OECD nations. Finally, in terms of all forms of tax revenue as a percentage of GDP, the US ranks only 31st among OECD nations at 25.1% of GDP, which is a lower percentage share than it had in 1945, 1965, 1985, and 2005.[3]

If you’ve traveled abroad much, particularly to developing nations, you may come to realize just how much the US government provides for its people and how effective and efficient our nation’s government is when compared to the rest of the world.  Certainly there is a lot of wasteful spending and we should always seek to achieve an even more effective and efficient government, but the idea that US citizens are overtaxed is simply not supported by the evidence, neither historically nor relative to other nations.

The premise upon which Grove Norquist has built his entire career is false and in my opinion the biggest lie in American politics today.  Popular as it may be, it is this sort of foolishness that has made it impossible for politicians to address the issue of taxation in any real or meaningful way, and it has played a major role in creating the huge debt and deficits our nation now faces.  There are real debates to be had about what government should and should not invest in, but we would do well to recognize that Americans are not overtaxed.  In fact, as unpopular as it is to say, we’re simply not taxed enough.  And if you’re not an American and happen to be reading this post and are wondering why it didn’t discuss any form of a national consumption tax, commonly known as VAT, it’s because the US doesn’t have one.  That’s right, America is among only a handful of nations that has no national VAT.  On that note I’ll ask again.  Are Americans really overtaxed?  Not likely.

Original article on Liberalislogical.com

http://www.pdamerica.org/news/item/1090-the-biggest-lie-in-america-today

The National Debt and Our Children: How Dumb Does Washington Think We Are?

by Dean Baker, Huffington Post, 10/15/2012

While much of the country is focused on the presidential race, the Wall Street gang is waging a different battle; they are preparing an assault on Social Security and Medicare. This attack is not exactly secret. There have been a number of pieces on this corporate-backed campaign in the media over the last few months, but the drive is nonetheless taking place behind closed doors.

The corporate honchos are not expecting to convince the public that we should support cuts to Social Security and Medicare. They know this is a hopeless task. Huge majorities of people across the political spectrum strongly support these programs.

Instead they hope that they can use their power of persuasion, coupled with the power of campaign contributions and the power of high-paying jobs for defeated members of Congress, to get Congress to approve large cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other key programs. This is the plan for a grand bargain that the corporate chieftains hope can be struck in the lame duck Congress.

Most of the media have been happy to cooperate with the corporate chieftains in this plan. There are two main ways in which they have abandoned objectivity to support the plan for cutting Social Security and Medicare.

First they continually run stories about how the deficit and debt are the biggest problems facing the country. They routinely use phrases like “crisis” and other hyperboles to scare their audience about the risks that the debt poses to the country.

The whole notion of a “fiscal cliff” is an invention that implies an urgency that does not exist. There is almost no consequence to not having a deal in place by the end of 2012. The dire projections of recession and rising unemployment assume that we don’t ever get a deal on the budget.

The fixation on the debt certainly cannot be justified by any objective standard. Clearly the most pressing economic problem facing the country is the tens of millions of people who are unemployed or underemployed as result of the collapse of the housing bubble. These people and their families are seeing their lives ruined due to a monumental failure by policymakers.

Furthermore, it is easy to show that the large budget deficits of recent years are entirely the result of the economic collapse. If the economy were back near full employment, the deficits would be relatively small as was the case before the collapse. Yet it is the deficits and debt that dominate news reporting and debate questions, not the overall state of the economy.

The other way in which the media have been pushing the agenda of the corporate honchos is by refusing to press candidates on their support for the cuts to Social Security that are a likely part of a grand bargain. Does President Obama support reducing Social Security benefits by 3 percent by cutting the annual cost-of-living adjustment? Does he support raising the age of Medicare eligibility to 67? How about your candidates for the Senate or the House?

It’s unlikely that many people know the answers to these questions because the reporters have not been asking them. Yet these policies and other cuts that would likely be part of a grand bargain would have a much more direct impact on most people’s lives that the tax proposals being touting by President Obama and Governor Romney.

To be specific, the reduction in Social Security benefits from the cut in the in the cost-of-living adjustment that is being pushed as part of a grand bargain would have more impact on most future retirees living standards than ending the Bush tax cuts on the richest 2 percent would have on their living standards. While the media have done endless pieces on the impact of this possible tax increase on the wealthy, they have done almost nothing on the impact of cutting the cost-of-living adjustment on the living standards of retirees.

This, of course, fits the needs of the corporate honchos who are pushing the agenda for cutting Social Security and Medicare. They don’t want these cuts to become an issue before the election because it will make it harder for members of Congress to vote for them.

This is why the reporters covering this election deserve nothing but contempt from the public. It is their job to highlight the issues that will matter to people’s lives, not to help push the agenda of corporate America. But clearly they have decided to do the latter.

Dean Baker is Co-director, CEPR; author, ‘The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive’

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dean-baker/national-debt_b_1968868.html?utm_hp_ref=daily-brief?utm_source=DailyBrief&utm_campaign=101612&utm_medium=email&utm_content=BlogEntry&utm_term=Daily%20Brief

Greed and Debt: The True Story of Mitt Romney and Bain Capital By Matt Taibbi

Rolling Stone, August 29, 2012  

The great criticism of Mitt Romney, from both sides of the aisle, has always been that he doesn’t stand for anything. He’s a flip-flopper, they say, a lightweight, a cardboard opportunist who’ll say anything to get elected.

The critics couldn’t be more wrong. Mitt Romney is no tissue-paper man. He’s closer to being a revolutionary, a backward-world version of Che or Trotsky, with tweezed nostrils instead of a beard, a half-Windsor instead of a leather jerkin. His legendary flip-flops aren’t the lies of a bumbling opportunist – they’re the confident prevarications of a man untroubled by misleading the nonbeliever in pursuit of a single, all-consuming goal. Romney has a vision, and he’s trying for something big: We’ve just been too slow to sort out what it is, just as we’ve been slow to grasp the roots of the radical economic changes that have swept the country in the last generation.

The incredible untold story of the 2012 election so far is that Romney’s run has been a shimmering pearl of perfect political hypocrisy, which he’s somehow managed to keep hidden, even with thousands of cameras following his every move. And the drama of this rhetorical high-wire act was ratcheted up even further when Romney chose his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan ofWisconsin– like himself, a self-righteously anal, thin-lipped, Whitest Kids U Know penny pincher who’d be honored to tell Oliver Twist there’s no more soup left. By selecting Ryan, Romney, the hard-charging, chameleonic champion of a disgraced-yet-defiant Wall Street, officially succeeded in moving the battle lines in the 2012 presidential race.

Like John McCain four years before, Romney desperately needed a vice-presidential pick that would change the game. But where McCain bet on a combustive mix of clueless novelty and suburban sexual tension named Sarah Palin, Romney bet on an idea. He said as much when he unveiled his choice of Ryan, the author of a hair-raising budget-cutting plan best known for its willingness to slash the sacred cows of Medicare and Medicaid. “Paul Ryan has become an intellectual leader of the Republican Party,” Romney told frenzied Republican supporters in Norfolk,Virginia, standing before the reliably jingoistic backdrop of a floating warship. “He understands the fiscal challenges facing America: our exploding deficits and crushing debt.”

Debt, debt, debt. If the Republican Party had a James Carville, this is what he would have said to win Mitt over, in whatever late-night war room session led to the Ryan pick: “It’s the debt, stupid.” This is the way to defeat Barack Obama: to recast the race as a jeremiad against debt, something just about everybody who’s ever gotten a bill in the mail hates on a primal level.

Last May, in a much-touted speech in Iowa, Romney used language that was literally inflammatory to describeAmerica’s federal borrowing. “A prairie fire of debt is sweeping across Iowa and our nation,” he declared. “Every day we fail to act, that fire gets closer to the homes and children we love.” Our collective debt is no ordinary problem: According to Mitt, it’s going to burn our children alive.

And this is where we get to the hypocrisy at the heart of Mitt Romney. Everyone knows that he is fantastically rich, having scored great success, the legend goes, as a “turnaround specialist,” a shrewd financial operator who revived moribund companies as a high-priced consultant for a storied Wall Street private equity firm. But what most voters don’t know is the way Mitt Romney actually made his fortune: by borrowing vast sums of money that other people were forced to pay back. This is the plain, stark reality that has somehow eluded America’s top political journalists for two consecutive presidential campaigns: Mitt Romney is one of the greatest and most irresponsible debt creators of all time. In the past few decades, in fact, Romney has piled more debt onto more unsuspecting companies, written more gigantic checks that other people have to cover, than perhaps all but a handful of people on planet Earth.

By making debt the centerpiece of his campaign, Romney was making a calculated bluff of historic dimensions – placing a massive all-in bet on the rank incompetence of the American press corps. The result has been a brilliant comedy: A man makes a $250 million fortune loading up companies with debt and then extracting million-dollar fees from those same companies, in exchange for the generous service of telling them who needs to be fired in order to finance the debt payments he saddled them with in the first place. That same man then runs for president riding an image of children roasting on flames of debt, choosing as his running mate perhaps the only politician inAmericamore pompous and self-righteous on the subject of the evils of borrowed money than the candidate himself. If Romney pulls off this whopper, you’ll have to tip your hat to him: No one in history has ever successfully run for president riding this big of a lie. It’s almost enough to make you think he really is qualified for the White House.

The unlikeliness of Romney’s gambit isn’t simply a reflection of his own artlessly unapologetic mindset – it stands as an emblem for the resiliency of the entire sociopathic Wall Street set he represents. Four years ago, the Mitt Romneys of the world nearly destroyed the global economy with their greed, shortsightedness and – most notably – wildly irresponsible use of debt in pursuit of personal profit. The sight was so disgusting that people everywhere were ready to drop an H-bomb onLower Manhattanand bayonet the survivors. But today that same insane greed ethos, that same belief in the lunatic pursuit of instant borrowed millions – it’s dusted itself off, it’s had a shave and a shoeshine, and it’s back out there running for president.

Mitt Romney, it turns out, is the perfect frontman for Wall Street’s greed revolution. He’s not a two-bit, shifty-eyed huckster like Lloyd Blankfein. He’s not a sighing, eye-rolling, arrogant jerkwad like Jamie Dimon. But Mitt believes the same things those guys believe: He’s been right with them on the front lines of the financialization revolution, a decades-long campaign in which the old, simple, let’s-make-stuff-and-sell-it manufacturing economy was replaced with a new, highly complex, let’s-take-stuff-and-trash-it financial economy. Instead of cars and airplanes, we built swaps, CDOs and other toxic financial products. Instead of building new companies from the ground up, we took out massive bank loans and used them to acquire existing firms, liquidating every asset in sight and leaving the target companies holding the note. The new borrow-and-conquer economy was morally sanctified by an almost religious faith in the grossly euphemistic concept of “creative destruction,” and amounted to a total abdication of collective responsibility by America’s rich, whose new thing was making assloads of money in ever-shorter campaigns of economic conquest, sending the proceeds offshore, and shrugging as the great towns and factories their parents and grandparents built were shuttered and boarded up, crushed by a true prairie fire of debt.

Mitt Romney – a man whose own father built cars and nurtured communities, and was one of the old-school industrial anachronisms pushed aside by the new generation’s wealth grab – has emerged now to sell this make-nothing, take-everything, screw-everyone ethos to the world. He’s Gordon Gekko, but a new and improved version, with better PR – and a bigger goal. A takeover artist all his life, Romney is now trying to take over America itself. And if his own history is any guide, we’ll all end up paying for the acquisition.

Willard “Mitt” Romney’s background in many ways suggests a man who was born to be president – disgustingly rich from birth, raised in prep schools, no early exposure to minorities outside of maids, a powerful daddy to clean up his missteps, and timely exemptions from military service. In Romney’s bio there are some eerie early-life similarities to other recent presidential figures. (IsAmericareally ready for another Republican president who was a prep-school cheerleader?) And like other great presidential double-talkers such as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Romney has shown particular aptitude in the area of telling multiple factual versions of his own life story.

“I longed in many respects to actually be in Vietnam and be representing our country there,” he claimed years after the war. To a different audience, he said, “I was not planning on signing up for the military. It was not my desire to go off and serve inVietnam.”

Like John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush, men whose way into power was smoothed by celebrity fathers but who rebelled against their parental legacy as mature politicians, Mitt Romney’s career has been both a tribute to and a repudiation of his famous father. George Romney in the 1950s became CEO of American Motors Corp., made a modest fortune betting on energy efficiency in an age of gas guzzlers and ended up serving as governor of the state ofMichiganonly two generations removed from the Romney clan’s tradition of polygamy. For Mitt, who grew up worshipping his tall, craggily handsome, politically moderate father, life was less rocky: Cranbrook prep school in suburban Detroit, followed by Stanford in the Sixties, a missionary term in which he spent two and a half years trying (as he said) to persuade the French to “give up your wine,” and Harvard Business School in the Seventies. Then, faced with making a career choice, Mitt chose an odd one: Already married and a father of two, he left Harvard and eschewed both politics and the law to enter the at-the-time unsexy world of financial consulting.

“When you get out of a place like Harvard, you can do anything – at least in the old days you could,” says a prominent corporate lawyer on Wall Street who is familiar with Romney’s career. “But he comes out, he not only has aHarvardBusinessSchooldegree, he’s got a national pedigree with his name. He could have done anything – but what does he do? He says, ‘I’m going to spend my life loading up distressed companies with debt.’ ”

Romney started off at the Boston Consulting Group, where he showed an aptitude for crunching numbers and glad-handing clients. Then, in 1977, he joined a young entrepreneur named Bill Bain at a firm called Bain & Company, where he worked for six years before being handed the reins of a new firm-within-a-firm called Bain Capital.

In Romney’s version of the tale, Bain Capital – which evolved into what is today known as a private equity firm – specialized in turning around moribund companies (Romney even wrote a book called Turnaround that complements his other nauseatingly self-complimentary book, No Apology) and helped create the Staples office-supply chain. On the campaign trail, Romney relentlessly trades on his own self-perpetuated reputation as a kind of altruistic rescuer of failing enterprises, never missing an opportunity to use the word “help” or “helped” in his description of what he and Bain did for companies. He might, for instance, describe himself as having been “deeply involved in helping other businesses” or say he “helped create tens of thousands of jobs.”

The reality is that toward the middle of his career at Bain, Romney made a fateful strategic decision: He moved away from creating companies like Staples through venture capital schemes, and toward a business model that involved borrowing huge sums of money to take over existing firms, then extracting value from them by force. He decided, as he later put it, that “there’s a lot greater risk in a startup than there is in acquiring an existing company.” In the Eighties, when Romney made this move, this form of financial piracy became known as a leveraged buyout, and it achieved iconic status thanks to Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Gekko’s business strategy was essentially identical to the Romney–Bain model, only Gekko called himself a “liberator” of companies instead of a “helper.”

Here’s how Romney would go about “liberating” a company: A private equity firm like Bain typically seeks out floundering businesses with good cash flows. It then puts down a relatively small amount of its own money and runs to a big bank like Goldman Sachs or Citigroup for the rest of the financing. (Most leveraged buyouts are financed with 60 to 90 percent borrowed cash.) The takeover firm then uses that borrowed money to buy a controlling stake in the target company, either with or without its consent. When an LBO is done without the consent of the target, it’s called a hostile takeover; such thrilling acts of corporate piracy were made legend in the Eighties, most notably the 1988 attack by notorious corporate raiders Kohlberg Kravis Roberts against RJR Nabisco, a deal memorialized in the book Barbarians at the Gate.

Romney and Bain avoided the hostile approach, preferring to secure the cooperation of their takeover targets by buying off a company’s management with lucrative bonuses. Once management is on board, the rest is just math. So if the target company is worth $500 million, Bain might put down $20 million of its own cash, then borrow $350 million from an investment bank to take over a controlling stake.

But here’s the catch. When Bain borrows all of that money from the bank, it’s the target company that ends up on the hook for all of the debt.

Now your troubled firm – let’s say you make tricycles in Alabama – has been taken over by a bunch of slick Wall Street dudes who kicked in as little as five percent as a down payment. So in addition to whatever problems you had before, Tricycle Inc. now owes Goldman or Citigroup $350 million. With all that new debt service to pay, the company’s bottom line is suddenly untenable: You almost have to start firing people immediately just to get your costs down to a manageable level.

“That interest,” says Lynn Turner, former chief accountant of the Securities and Exchange Commission, “just sucks the profit out of the company.”

Fortunately, the geniuses at Bain who now run the place are there to help tell you whom to fire. And for the service it performs cutting your company’s costs to help you pay off the massive debt that it, Bain, saddled your company with in the first place, Bain naturally charges a management fee, typically millions of dollars a year. So Tricycle Inc. now has two gigantic new burdens it never had before Bain Capital stepped into the picture: tens of millions in annual debt service, and millions more in “management fees.” Since the initial acquisition of Tricycle Inc. was probably greased by promising the company’s upper management lucrative bonuses, all that pain inevitably comes out of just one place: the benefits and payroll of the hourly workforce.

Once all that debt is added, one of two things can happen. The company can fire workers and slash benefits to pay off all its new obligations to Goldman Sachs and Bain, leaving it ripe to be resold by Bain at a huge profit. Or it can go bankrupt – this happens after about seven percent of all private equity buyouts – leaving behind one or more shuttered factory towns. Either way, Bain wins. By power-sucking cash value from even the most rapidly dying firms, private equity raiders like Bain almost always get their cash out before a target goes belly up.

This business model wasn’t really “helping,” of course – and it wasn’t new. Fans of mob movies will recognize what’s known as the “bust-out,” in which a gangster takes over a restaurant or sporting goods store and then monetizes his investment by running up giant debts on the company’s credit line. (Think Paulie buying all those cases of Cutty Sark in Goodfellas.) When the note comes due, the mobster simply torches the restaurant and collects the insurance money. Reduced to their most basic level, the leveraged buyouts engineered by Romney followed exactly the same business model. “It’s the bust-out,”one Wall Streettrader says with a laugh. “That’s all it is.”

Private equity firms aren’t necessarily evil by definition. There are many stories of successful turnarounds fueled by private equity, often involving multiple floundering businesses that are rolled into a single entity, eliminating duplicative overhead. Experian, the giant credit-rating tyrant, was acquired by Bain in the Nineties and went on to become an industry leader.

But there’s a key difference between private equity firms and the businesses that wereAmerica’s original industrial cornerstones, like the elder Romney’s AMC. Everyone had a stake in the success of those old businesses, which spread prosperity by putting people to work. But even private equity’s most enthusiastic adherents have difficulty explaining its benefit to society. Marc Wolpow, a former Bain colleague of Romney’s, told reporters during Mitt’s first Senate run that Romney erred in trying to sell his business as good for everyone. “I believed he was making a mistake by framing himself as a job creator,” said Wolpow. “That was not his or Bain’s or the industry’s primary objective. The objective of the LBO business is maximizing returns for investors.” When it comes to private equity, American workers – not to mention their families and communities – simply don’t enter into the equation.

Take a typical Bain transaction involving an Indiana-based company called American Pad and Paper. Bain bought Ampad in 1992 for just $5 million, financing the rest of the deal with borrowed cash. Within three years, Ampad was paying $60 million in annual debt payments, plus an additional $7 million in management fees. A year later, Bain led Ampad to go public, cashed out about $50 million in stock for itself and its investors, charged the firm $2 million for arranging the IPO and pocketed another $5 million in “management” fees. Ampad wound up going bankrupt, and hundreds of workers lost their jobs, but Bain and Romney weren’t crying: They’d made more than $100 million on a $5 million investment.

To recap: Romney, who has compared the devilish federal debt to a “nightmare” home mortgage that is “adjustable, no-money down and assigned to our children,” took over Ampad with essentially no money down, saddled the firm with a nightmare debt and assigned the crushing interest payments not to Bain but to the children of Ampad’s workers, who would be left holding the note long after Romney fled the scene. The mortgage analogy is so obvious, in fact, that even Romney himself has made it. He once described Bain’s debt-fueled strategy as “using the equivalent of a mortgage to leverage up our investment.”

Romney has always kept his distance from the real-life consequences of his profiteering. At one point during Bain’s looting of Ampad, a worker named Randy Johnson sent a handwritten letter to Romney, asking him to intervene to save an Ampad factory inMarion,Indiana. In a sterling demonstration of manliness and willingness to face a difficult conversation, Romney, who had just lost his race for the Senate inMassachusetts, wrote Johnson that he was “sorry,” but his lawyers had advised him not to get involved. (So much for the candidate who insists that his way is always to “fight to save every job.”)

This is typical Romney, who consistently adopts a public posture of having been above the fray, with no blood on his hands from any of the deals he personally engineered. “I never actually ran one of our investments,” he says in Turnaround. “That was left to management.”

In reality, though, Romney was unquestionably the decider at Bain. “I insisted on having almost dictatorial powers,” he bragged years after the Ampad deal. Over the years, colleagues would anonymously whisper stories about Mitt the Boss to the press, describing him as cunning, manipulative and a little bit nuts, with “an ability to identify people’s insecurities and exploit them for his own benefit.” One former Bain employee said that Romney would screw around with bonuses in small amounts, just to mess with people: He would give $3 million to one, $3.1 million to another and $2.9 million to a third, just to keep those below him on edge.

The private equity business in the early Nineties was dominated by a handful of takeover firms, from the spooky and politically connected Carlyle Group (a favorite subject of conspiracy-theory lit, with its connections to right-wingers like Donald Rumsfeld and George H.W. Bush) to the equally spooky Democrat-leaning assholes at the Blackstone Group. But even among such a colorful cast of characters, Bain had a reputation on Wall Street for secrecy and extreme weirdness – “the KGB of consulting.” Its employees, known for their Mormonish uniform of white shirts and red power ties, were dubbed “Bainies” by other Wall Streeters, a rip on the fanatical “Moonies.” The firm earned the name thanks to its idiotically adolescent Spy Kids culture, in which these glorified slumlords used code names, didn’t carry business cards and even sang “company songs” to boost morale.

The seemingly religious flavor of Bain’s culture smacks of the generally cultish ethos on Wall Street, in which all sorts of ethically questionable behaviors are justified as being necessary in service of the church of making money. Romney belongs to a true-believer subset within that cult, with a revolutionary’s faith in the wisdom of the pure free market, in which destroying companies and sucking the value out of them for personal gain is part of the greater good, and governments should “stand aside and allow the creative destruction inherent in the free economy.”

That cultlike zeal helps explains why Romney takes such a curiously unapologetic approach to his own flip-flopping. His infamous changes of stance are not little wispy ideological alterations of a few degrees here or there – they are perfect and absolute mathematical reversals, as in “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country” and “I am firmly pro-life.” Yet unlike other politicians, who at least recognize that saying completely contradictory things presents a political problem, Romney seems genuinely puzzled by the public’s insistence that he be consistent. “I’m not going to apologize for having changed my mind,” he likes to say. It’s an attitude that recalls the standard defense offered by Wall Street in the wake of some of its most recent and notorious crimes: Goldman Sachs excused its lying to clients, for example, by insisting that its customers are “sophisticated investors” who should expect to be lied to. “Last time I checked,” former Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack sneered after the same scandal, “we were in business to be profitable.”

Within the cult of Wall Street that forged Mitt Romney, making money justifies any behavior, no matter how venal. The look on Romney’s face when he refuses to apologize says it all: Hey, I’m trying to win an election. We’re all grown-ups here. After the Ampad deal, Romney expressed contempt for critics who lived in “fantasy land.” “This is the real world,” he said, “and in the real world there is nothing wrong with companies trying to compete, trying to stay alive, trying to make money.”

In the old days, making money required sharing the wealth: with assembly-line workers, with middle management, with schools and communities, with investors. Even the Gilded Age robber barons, despite their unapologetic efforts to keep workers from getting any rights at all, builtAmericain spite of themselves, erecting railroads and oil wells and telegraph wires. And from the time the monopolists were reined in with antitrust laws through the days when men like Mitt Romney’s dad exited center stage in our economy, the American social contract was pretty consistent: The rich got to stay rich, often filthy rich, but they paid taxes and a living wage and everyone else rose at least a little bit along with them.

But under Romney’s business model, leveraging other people’s debt means you can carve out big profits for yourself and leave everyone else holding the bag. Despite what Romney claims, the rate of return he provided for Bain’s investors over the years wasn’t all that great. Romney biographer and Wall Street Journal reporter Brett Arends, who analyzed Bain’s performance between 1984 and 1998, concludes that the firm’s returns were likely less than 30 percent per year, which happened to track more or less with the stock market’s average during that time. “That’s how much money you could have made by issuing company bonds and then spending the money picking stocks out of the paper at random,” Arends observes. So for all the destruction Romney wreaked onMiddle Americain the name of “trying to make money,” investors could have just plunked their money into traditional stocks and gotten pretty much the same returns.

The only ones who profited in a big way from all the job-killing debt that Romney leveraged were Mitt and his buddies at Bain, along with Wall Street firms like Goldman and Citigroup. Barry Ritholtz, author of Bailout Nation, says the criticisms of Bain about layoffs and meanness miss a more important point, which is that the firm’s profit-producing record is absurdly mediocre, especially when set against all the trouble and pain its business model causes. “Bain’s fundamental flaw, at least according to the math,” Ritholtz writes, “is that they took lots of risk, use immense leverage and charged enormous fees, for performance that was more or less the same as [stock] indexing.”

‘I’m not a Romney guy, because I’m not a Bain guy,” says Lenny Patnode, in an Irish pub in the factory town ofPittsfield,Massachusetts. “But I’m not an Obama guy, either. Just so you know.”

I feel bad even asking Patnode about Romney. Big and burly, with white hair and the thick forearms of a man who’s stocked a shelf or two in his lifetime, he seems to belong to an era before things like leveraged debt even existed. For 38 years, Patnode worked for a company called KB Toys inPittsfield. He was the longest-serving employee in the company’s history, opening some of the firm’s first mall stores, making some of its canniest product buys (“Tamagotchi pets,” he says, beaming, “and Tech-Decks, too”), traveling all over the world to help build an empire that at its peak included 1,300 stores. “There were times when I worked seven days a week, 16 hours a day,” he says. “I opened three stores in two months once.”

Then in 2000, right before Romney gave up his ownership stake in Bain Capital, the firm targeted KB Toys. The debacle that followed serves as a prime example of the conflict between the old model of American business, built from the ground up with sweat and industry know-how, and the new globalist model, the Romney model, which uses leverage as a weapon of high-speed conquest.

In a typical private-equity fragging, Bain put up a mere $18 million to acquire KB Toys and got big banks to finance the remaining $302 million it needed. Less than a year and a half after the purchase, Bain decided to give itself a gift known as a “dividend recapitalization.” The firm induced KB Toys to redeem $121 million in stock and take out more than $66 million in bank loans – $83 million of which went directly into the pockets of Bain’s owners and investors, including Romney. “The dividend recap is like borrowing someone else’s credit card to take out a cash advance, and then leaving them to pay it off,” says Heather Slavkin Corzo, who monitors private equity takeovers as the senior legal policy adviser for the AFL-CIO.

Bain ended up earning a return of at least 370 percent on the deal, while KB Toys fell into bankruptcy, saddled with millions in debt. KB’s former parent company, Big Lots, alleged in bankruptcy court that Bain’s “unjustified” return on the dividend recap was actually “900 percent in a mere 16 months.” Patnode, by contrast, was fired in December 2008, after almost four decades on the job. Like other employees, he didn’t get a single day’s severance.

I ask Slavkin Corzo what Bain’s justification was for the giant dividend recapitalization in the KB Toys acquisition. The question throws her, as though she’s surprised anyone would ask for a reason a company like Bain would loot a firm like KB Toys. “It wasn’t like, ‘Yay, we did a good job, we get a dividend,’” she says with a laugh. “It was like, ‘We can do this, so we will.’ ”

At the time of the KB Toys deal, Romney was a Bain investor and owner, making him a mere beneficiary of the raping and pillaging, rather than its direct organizer. Moreover, KB’s demise was hastened by a host of genuine market forces, including competition from video games and cellphones. But there’s absolutely no way to look at what Bain did at KB and see anything but a cash grab – one that followed the business model laid out by Romney. Rather than cutting costs and tightening belts, Bain added $300 million in debt to the firm’s bottom line while taking out more than $120 million in cash – an outright looting that creditors later described in a lawsuit as “breaking open the piggy bank.” What’s more, Bain smoothed the deal in typical fashion by giving huge bonuses to the company’s top managers as the firm headed toward bankruptcy. CEO Michael Glazer got an incredible $18.4 million, while CFO Robert Feldman received $4.8 million and senior VP Thomas Alfonsi took home $3.3 million.

And what did Bain bring to the table in return for its massive, outsize payout? KB Toys had built a small empire by targeting middle-class buyers with value-priced products. It succeeded mainly because the firm’s leaders had a great instinct for what they were making and selling. These were people who had been in the specialty toy business since 1922; collectively, they had millions of man-hours of knowledge about how the industry works and how toy customers behave. KB’s president in the Eighties, the late Saul Rubenstein, used to carry around a giant computer printout of the company’s inventory, and would fall asleep reading it on the weekends, the pages clasped to his chest. “He knew the name and number of all those toys,” his widow, Shirley, says proudly. “He loved toys.”

Bain’s experience in the toy industry, by contrast, was precisely bupkus. They didn’t know a damn thing about the business they had taken over – and they never cared to learn. The firm’s entire contribution was $18 million in cash and a huge mound of borrowed money that gave it the power to pull the levers. “The people who came in after – they were never toy people,” says Shirley Rubenstein. To make matters worse, former employees say, Bain deluged them with requests for paperwork and reports, forcing them to worry more about the whims of their new bosses than the demands of their customers. “We took our eye off the ball,” Patnode says. “And if you take your eye off the ball, you strike out.”

In the end, Bain never bothered to come up with a plan for how KB Toys could meet the 21st-century challenges of video games and cellphone gadgets that were the company’s ostensible downfall. And that’s where Romney’s self-touted reputation as a turnaround specialist is a myth. In the Bain model, the actual turnaround isn’t necessary. It’s just a cover story. It’s nice for the private equity firm if it happens, because it makes the acquired company more attractive for resale or an IPO. But it’s mostly irrelevant to the success of the takeover model, where huge cash returns are extracted whether the captured firm thrives or not.

“The thing about it is, nobody gets hurt,” says Patnode. “Except the people who worked here.”

Romney was a prime mover in the radical social and political transformation that was cooked up by Wall Street beginning in the 1980s. In fact, you can trace the whole history of the modern age of financialization just by following the highly specific corner of the economic universe inhabited by the leveraged buyout business, where Mitt Romney thrived. If you look at the number of leveraged buyouts dating back two or three decades, you see a clear pattern: Takeovers rose sharply with each of Wall Street’s great easy-money schemes, then plummeted just as sharply after each of those scams crashed and burned, leaving the rest of us with the bill.

In the Eighties, when Romney and Bain were cutting their teeth in the LBO business, the primary magic trick involved the junk bonds pioneered by convicted felon Mike Milken, which allowed firms like Bain to find easy financing for takeovers by using wildly overpriced distressed corporate bonds as collateral. Junk bonds gave the Gordon Gekkos of the world sudden primacy over old-school industrial titans like the Fords and the Rockefellers: For the first time, the ability to make deals became more valuable than the ability to make stuff, and the ability to instantly engineer billions in illusory financing trumped the comparatively slow process of making and selling products for gradual returns.

Romney was right in the middle of this radical change. In fact, according to The Boston Globe – whose in-depth reporting on Romney and Bain has spanned three decades – one of Romney’s first LBO deals, and one of his most profitable, involved Mike Milken himself. Bain put down $10 million in cash, got $300 million in financing from Milken and bought a pair of department-store chains, Bealls Brothers and Palais Royal. In what should by now be a familiar outcome, the two chains – which Bain merged into a single outfit called Stage Stores – filed for bankruptcy protection in 2000 under the weight of more than $444 million in debt. As always, Bain took no responsibility for the company’s demise. (If you search the public record, you will not find a single instance of Mitt Romney taking responsibility for a company’s failure.) Instead, Bain blamed Stage’s collapse on “operating problems” that took place three years after Bain cashed out, finishing with a $175 million return on its initial investment of $10 million.

But here’s the interesting twist: Romney made the Bealls-Palais deal just as the federal government was launching charges of massive manipulation and insider trading against Milken and his firm, Drexel Burnham Lambert. After what must have been a lengthy and agonizing period of moral soul-searching, however, Romney decided not to kill the deal, despite its shady financing. “We did not say, ‘Oh, my goodness, Drexel has been accused of something, not been found guilty,’ ” Romney told reporters years after the deal. “Should we basically stop the transaction and blow the whole thing up?”

In an even more incredible disregard for basic morality, Romney forged ahead with the deal even though Milken’s case was being heard by a federal district judge named Milton Pollack, whose wife,Moselle, happened to be the chairwoman of none other than Palais Royal. In short, one of Romney’s first takeover deals was financed by dirty money – and one of the corporate chiefs about to receive a big payout from Bain was married to the judge hearing the case. Although the SEC took no formal action, it issued a sharp criticism, complaining that Romney was allowing Milken’s money to have a possible influence over “the administration of justice.”

After Milken and his junk bond scheme crashed in the late Eighties, Romney and other takeover artists moved on to Wall Street’s next get-rich-quick scheme: the tech-Internet stock bubble. By 1997 and 1998, there were nearly $400 billion in leveraged buyouts a year, as easy money once again gave these financial piracy firms the ammunition they needed to raid companies like KB Toys. Firms like Bain even have a colorful pirate name for the pools of takeover money they raise in advance from pension funds, university endowments and other institutional investors. “They call it dry powder,” says Slavkin Corzo, the union adviser.

After the Internet bubble burst and private equity started cashing in on Wall Street’s mortgage scam, LBO deals ballooned to almost $900 billion in 2006. Once again, storied companies with long histories and deep regional ties were descended upon by Bain and other pirates, saddled with hundreds of millions in debt, forced to pay huge management fees and “dividend recapitalizations,” and ridden into bankruptcy amid waves of layoffs. Established firms like Del Monte, Hertz and Dollar General were all taken over in a “prairie fire of debt” – one even more destructive than the government borrowing that Romney is flogging on the campaign trial. When Hertz was conquered in 2005 by a trio of private equity firms, including the Carlyle Group, the interest payments on its debt soared by a monstrous 80 percent, forcing the company to eliminate a third of its 32,000 jobs.

In 2010, a year after the last round of Hertz layoffs, Carlyle teamed up with Bain to take $500 million out of another takeover target: the parent company of Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins. Dunkin’ had to take out a $1.25 billion loan to pay a dividend to its new private equity owners. So think of this the next time you go to Dunkin’ Donuts for a cup of coffee: A small cup of joe costs about $1.69 in most outlets, which means that for years to come, Dunkin’ Donuts will have to sell about 2,011,834 small coffees every month – about $3.4 million – just to meet the interest payments on the loan it took out to pay Bain and Carlyle their little one-time dividend. And that doesn’t include the principal on the loan, or the additional millions in debt that Dunkin’ has to pay every year to get out from under the $2.4 billion in debt it’s now saddled with after having the privilege of being taken over – with borrowed money – by the firm that Romney built.

If you haven’t heard much about how takeover deals like Dunkin’ and KB Toys work, that’s because Mitt Romney and his private equity brethren don’t want you to. The new owners of American industry are the polar opposites of the Milton Hersheys and Andrew Carnegies who built this country, commercial titans who longed to leave visible legacies of their accomplishments, erecting hospitals and schools and libraries, sometimes leaving behind thriving towns that bore their names.

The men of the private equity generation want no such thing. “We try to hide religiously,” explained Steven Feinberg, the CEO of a takeover firm called Cerberus Capital Management that recently drove one of its targets into bankruptcy after saddling it with $2.3 billion in debt. “If anyone at Cerberus has his picture in the paper and a picture of his apartment, we will do more than fire that person,” Feinberg told shareholders in 2007. “We will kill him. The jail sentence will be worth it.”

Which brings us to another aspect of Romney’s business career that has largely been hidden from voters: His personal fortune would not have been possible without the direct assistance of theU.S.government. The taxpayer-funded subsidies that Romney has received go well beyond the humdrum, backdoor, welfare-sucking that all supposedly self-made free marketeers inevitably indulge in. Not that Romney hasn’t done just fine at milking the government when it suits his purposes, the most obvious instance being the incredible $1.5 billion in aid he siphoned out of the U.S. Treasury as head of the 2002 Winter Olympics inSaltLake– a sum greater than all federal spending for the previous sevenU.S.Olympic games combined. Romney, the supposed fiscal conservative, blew through an average of $625,000 in taxpayer money per athlete – an astounding increase of 5,582 percent over the $11,000 average at the 1984 games inLos Angeles. In 1993, right as he was preparing to run for the Senate, Romney also engineered a government deal worth at least $10 million for Bain’s consulting firm, when it was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. (See “The Federal Bailout That Saved Romney,” page 52.)

But the way Romney most directly owes his success to the government is through the structure of the tax code. The entire business of leveraged buyouts wouldn’t be possible without a provision in the federal code that allows companies like Bain to deduct the interest on the debt they use to acquire and loot their targets. This is the same universally beloved tax deduction you can use to write off your mortgage interest payments, so tampering with it is considered political suicide – it’s been called the “third rail of tax reform.” So the Romney who routinely rails against the national debt as some kind of child-killing “mortgage” is the same man who spent decades exploiting a tax deduction specifically designed for mortgage holders in order to bilk every dollar he could out of U.S. businesses before burning them to the ground.

Because minus that tax break, Romney’s debt-based takeovers would have been unsustainably expensive. Before Lynn Turner became chief accountant of the SEC, where he reviewed filings on takeover deals, he crunched the numbers on leveraged buyouts as an accountant at a Big Four auditing firm. “In the majority of these deals,” Turner says, “the tax deduction has a big enough impact on the bottom line that the takeover wouldn’t work without it.”

Thanks to the tax deduction, in other words, the government actually incentivizes the kind of leverage-based takeovers that Romney built his fortune on. Romney the businessman built his career on two things that Romney the candidate decries: massive debt and dumb federal giveaways. “I don’t know what Romney would be doing but for debt and its tax-advantaged position in the tax code,” says a prominent Wall Street lawyer, “but he wouldn’t be fabulously wealthy.”

Adding to the hypocrisy, the money that Romney personally pocketed on Bain’s takeover deals was usually taxed not as income, but either as capital gains or as “carried interest,” both of which are capped at a maximum rate of 15 percent. In addition, reporters have uncovered plenty of evidence that Romney takes full advantage of offshore tax havens: He has an interest in at least 12 Bain funds, worth a total of $30 million, that are based in the Cayman Islands; he has reportedly used a squirrelly tax shelter known as a “blocker corporation” that cheats taxpayers out of some $100 million a year; and his wife, Ann, had a Swiss bank account worth $3 million. As a private equity pirate, Romney pays less than half the tax rate of most American executives – less, even, than teachers, firefighters, cops and nurses. Asked about the fact that he paid a tax rate of only 13.9 percent on income of $21.7 million in 2010, Romney responded testily that the massive windfall he enjoys from exploiting the tax code is “entirely legal and fair.”

Essentially, Romney got rich in a business that couldn’t exist without a perverse tax break, and he got to keep double his earnings because of another loophole – a pair of bureaucratic accidents that have not only teamed up to threaten us with a Mitt Romney presidency but that make future Romneys far more likely. “Those two tax rules distort the economics of private equity investments, making them much more lucrative than they should be,” says Rebecca Wilkins, senior counsel at the Center for Tax Justice. “So we get more of that activity than the market would support on its own.”

Listen to Mitt Romney speak, and see if you can notice what’s missing. This is a man who grew up inMichigan, went to college inCalifornia, walked door to door through the streets of southernFranceas a missionary and was a governor ofMassachusetts, the home of perhaps the most instantly recognizable, heavily accented English this side ofEdinburgh. Yet not a trace of any of these places is detectable in Romney’s diction. None of the people in any of those places bled in and left a mark on the man.

Romney is a man from nowhere. In his post-regional attitude, he shares something with his campaign opponent, Barack Obama, whose background is a similarly jumbled pastiche of regionally nonspecific non-identity. But in the way he bounced around the world as a half-orphaned child, Obama was more like an involuntary passenger in the demographic revolution reshaping the planet than one of its leaders.

Romney, on the other hand, is a perfect representative of one side of the ominous cultural divide that will define the next generation, not just here inAmericabut all over the world. Forget about the Southern strategy, blue versus red, swing states and swing voters – all of those political cliches are quaint relics of a less threatening era that is now part of our past, or soon will be. The next conflict defining us all is much more unnerving.

That conflict will be between people who live somewhere, and people who live nowhere. It will be between people who consider themselves citizens of actual countries, to which they have patriotic allegiance, and people to whom nations are meaningless, who live in a stateless global archipelago of privilege – a collection of private schools, tax havens and gated residential communities with little or no connection to the outside world.

Mitt Romney isn’t blue or red. He’s an archipelago man. That’s a big reason that voters have been slow to warm up to him. From LBJ to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Sarah Palin, Americans like their politicians to sound like they’re from somewhere, to be human symbols of our love affair with small towns, the girl next door, the little pink houses of Mellencamp myth. Most of those mythical American towns grew up around factories – think chocolate bars from Hershey, baseball bats fromLouisville, cereals fromBattle Creek. Deep down, what scares voters in both parties the most is the thought that these unique and vital places are vanishing or eroding – overrun by immigrants or the forces of globalism or both, with giant Walmarts descending like spaceships to replace the corner grocer, the family barber and the local hardware store, and 1,000 cable channels replacing the school dance and the gossip at the local diner.

Obama ran on “change” in 2008, but Mitt Romney represents a far more real and seismic shift in the American landscape. Romney is the frontman and apostle of an economic revolution, in which transactions are manufactured instead of products, wealth is generated without accompanying prosperity, andCayman Islandspartnerships are lovingly erected and nurtured while American communities fall apart. The entire purpose of the business model that Romney helped pioneer is to move money into the archipelago from the places outside it, using massive amounts of taxpayer-subsidized debt to enrich a handful of billionaires. It’s a vision of society that’s crazy, vicious and almost unbelievably selfish, yet it’s running for president, and it has a chance of winning. Perhaps that change is coming whether we like it or not. Perhaps Mitt Romney is the best man to manage the transition. But it seems a little early to vote for that kind of wholesale surrender.

This story is from the September 13, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

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