If You Have $250 Million, You Shouldn’t Be President

by Matt B. on October 24, 2012

Just for a moment, let’s put aside questions of economic policy. Let’s also put aside questions about how Mitt Romney made his money, or about the moral legitimacy of the system that allowed him to make money in the ways that he did. For just a second, let’s focus on the money itself and what it might mean.

Mitt Romney has a quarter of a billion dollars.

If you have that much money and you’re doing anything other than giving it away  or thinking about how to give it away, then you have been overrun with greed and self-absorption.

I don’t say this in order to bash Mitt Romney. We all have our weaknesses, and I suspect that the greed and insecurity that drive him are at least as painful, somewhere deep down, as many other forms of suffering. But that doesn’t mean that he’s ready to be president, either. Because with this kind of greed and self-absorption comes a weakened capacity to see the world around you. If you have $250 million and you’re doing anything other than giving it away or thinking about how to give it away, then it’s hard to see how you could have the compassion and concern for your fellow human beings that is the starting point of a decent presidency.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan Kahn October 24, 2012 at 8:00 pm

Sorry Matt, but this argument is silly. While I agree that *Mitt Romney* shouldn’t be president I can’t see why his money should be a disqualifier as opposed to something we take into account with the rest of his candidacy.

Many of our presidents have been fabulously wealthy, but that didn’t limit their ability to relate to the common person or to think about what was best for the nation as a whole. Can you imagine where we’d be today if not for FDR? According to this graph he was worth around $60 million in today’s dollars:
http://www.time.com/time/interactive/0,31813,2106519,00.html

Other really rich presidents include Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, Tyler, Teddy Roosevelt, Hoover, JFK, LBJ…

Dan October 25, 2012 at 12:08 am

Bill Gates maintains a cash position of well over 250 million, and although he has plans to deploy a huge percentage of his wealth, let’s say he intends to keep a few bill(ion) in the bank waiting for a nice project to come along… some projects require that kind of juice, and they aren’t all greed. Do a few examples of un-greedy people with cash positions over 250mil change your argument? Or do you feel like they are on and the same? Guys like Romney could in theory (and often do) start a new energy company… e.g. Elon Musk who started Tesla with his own nut… your argument seems to rely on an assumption that there is a reasonable amount of money to hang on to… say enough to have a nice house and pay the rent? but what about folks like Gates who might have bigger projects on their minds.

Matt October 25, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Thanks for this, Dan K. The graph in particular is really helpful.

I think we could have a really meaningful conversation about how devoted most of those men were to the wellbeing of their fellow citizens (and others). I suspect that the answer would be a lot fewer than our national mythology leads us to believe.

I realize that other qualities are required to make a good president besides just compassion. Still, I would ask you: what do you make of a person who hordes such fabulous wealth and claims that he will work to improve the lives of the poor? If he truly cares, might we not ask why he isn’t already doing so in a more meaningful way?

Matt October 25, 2012 at 1:23 pm

That’s why I added the caveat about folks who are thinking about how to give their money away; we might frame that more generally as “thinking about how to do good in the world with that money.” If this is truly the motivation for hanging onto such wealth, okay. But I would be wary of “waiting for a nice project to come along.” My sense is that if you are truly looking for a project that will relieve human suffering, you won’t have to wait for very long.

Chris October 25, 2012 at 10:51 pm

There are some interesting questions about blame for past behavior and predictions of future behavior here.

For his entire working career before retirement, Gates showed (as far as I can see) no interest in philanthropy, and that includes a decade spent as the world’s richest man. Any criticism we can make of Romney today should surely be multiplied by orders of magnitude before being appropriate to describe Gates’ moral crimes back then.

Yet today we see Gates as a hero and the greatest philanthropist. So how can we criticize Romney now, if we don’t criticize Gates now? Put another way: don’t we need to wait until we see all of Romney’s life actions before we can decide whether his attitude to money disqualifies him from a position, if we’re willing to wipe the slate clean for Gates?

I tend to think that Gates deserves all the praise we can give him, but it’s still an unsatisfying answer for there to be no consequences from his earlier unethical behavior.

And there’s also some relativism being applied here: Gates spent $30M to buy the Codex Leicester, which by the standards of http://www.raikoth.net/deadchild.html suggests that there are literally thirty thousand dead children in the world because Bill Gates decided he’d rather buy a book. You’d call the person who made this exchange a psychopath, if it were anyone else.

(Some of these ideas are mentioned in Peter Singer’s _The Life You Can Save_, I think.)

Chris October 25, 2012 at 11:00 pm

> If he truly cares, might we not ask why he isn’t already doing so in a more meaningful way?

I liked your post and hope Romney doesn’t win, but can’t resist playing devil’s advocate:

Maybe he believes that the economic policies he would enact as President will do more to help poor people than simply giving away his $250M? I think I might agree with that, in theory — that the power a US President holds to affect the well-being of US citizens is “worth more” than $250M.

Here’s the rationale: in 2011 alone, $6.3T was wiped off the US economy. If you’re willing to blame George Bush for that (i.e. you think that if Gore had been President instead of Bush, this wouldn’t have happened), you agree that assuming the position of President is the “more meaningful” way to act than donating $250M.

(Of course, the problem we’re left with is that our best evidence suggests that Romney is fundamentally mistaken about the prediction that his economic policies would help most people; that’s why he shouldn’t be President.)

Matt October 26, 2012 at 4:01 pm

But we don’t have to choose, do we? There’s nothing stopping him from running for president and acting compassionately with his millions.

Matt October 26, 2012 at 4:03 pm

I don’t think I’m really interested in ranking people in this way. That said, I think you make a good point – I’m glad Bill Gates is giving way as much as he is now, but it would have been nicer if he had expressed more compassion for others’ suffering earlier in his career. (And we should certainly encourage other people in his position to do so.) That said, I’ll take what I can get. The trouble is, Romney isn’t giving much.

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