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When Empire Turns on Itself

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The tipping point of the 2012 presidential election may have been the unauthorized release of Mitt Romney's "47 percent" speech. Preaching to a closed and select group of the well-heeled, Romney complained that 47 percent of Americans "are dependent upon government," "believe that they are victims," "believe that government has a responsibility to care for them," "believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing," and, perhaps worst of all, "pay no income tax."

Filmed surreptitiously and released to Mother Jones, Romney's uncensored characterization of half of the American populace as irresponsible exposed a callousness from which much of America instinctively recoiled. Romney's political fortunes stalled thereafter.

In the wake of the disclosure, politicians, pundits, and reporters scrambled to determine who the 47 percent are. The results didn't help Romney's case. Although 46.4 percent of Americans indeed pay no income tax, virtually every adult contributes to public coffers through some combination of state, local, personal property, and sales taxes. Moreover, among the 46 percent paying no income tax are children, college students, elderly who have worked their entire lives but still must subsist on Social Security in retirement, military personnel on active duty in war zones, and the working poor whose one or more jobs at minimum wage bring in an income below the federal poverty level. The hullabaloo kicked up a lot of dust and a lot of debate but left a fundamental question unaddressed:

Should the value of a human being be determined solely by what he or she contributes to the economy?

Before turning to the core question, however, let's dig a little deeper into Romney's thesis that roughly half of the populace are makers and the other half are takers. If so, Romney is a taker extraordinaire. Romney made his fortune at Bain Capital, whose practices Newt Gingrich called "vulture capitalism."

Gingrich was being charitable. Vultures serve a valuable purpose to the ecosystem by cleaning up what is dead. Bain Capital raked in much of its wealth by what should more accurately be called capitalistic cannibalism. As its modus operandi, it bought up healthy companies, saddled them with debt, waited for them to go under, and then "harvested" the assets. Bain's practice was analogous to a wayward physician who makes his patient sick so that, when the patient dies, the organs can be harvested for sale. How much of Romney's vast wealth has come from taking from others: their jobs, their pensions, and their livelihoods?

Such practices should be taboo in a healthy society. Ours is not. Time's Dec. 16, 2013, cover celebrated as "master of the universe" corporate raider Carl Icahn, who flew iconic Trans World Airlines (TWA) into the ground in 1985 to harvest its assets. Corporate raiders, according to Time, have rebranded themselves as "shareholder activists." Frankly, they should be considered economic predators who prey upon their own kind simply because they can get away with it.

"We have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality," writes Pope Francis in his recent encyclical. "Such an economy kills." He is not being metaphorical. Our brand of merciless, predatory capitalism does kill, as surely as Icahn killed TWA.

Wall Street's methods and values are antithetical to the nation's long-term economic viability. The health of the economy should be measured by what it contributes to the well-being of individuals, families, and communities -- not the other way around.

I am privileged to know several individuals who contribute little to the economy in conventional terms but contribute immeasurably to the lives of those around them by their humor, knowledge, kindness, and wisdom. They're not takers; they're givers whose greatest gift is the gift of self.

What a dreary world it would be without poetry and art, yet many poets and artists go un- or underappreciated during their lives, eking out the barest of existences. Think Van Gogh, for example.

And then there's Jesus. For the last three years of his life, he contributed nothing to the economy as an itinerant preacher subsisting on the generosity of others. In the worldview that divides us into the 47 percent and the 53 percent, Jesus Christ himself would be classified as an irresponsible freeloader.

God help us if that's what we truly believe.