10/18/2012 11:07 am ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

Why President Obama Doesn't Watch His Pension

Mitt Romney asked three times in the second debate: "Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?" before the president admitted he had not done so. What President Obama didn't say is why he doesn't monitor his pension, so I'll tell you. It's too boring.

Monitoring the Obama family's pension would be as exciting as logging on to the Iowa website that aims a camera at a corn field for an entire season to allow displaced Iowans to keep up with the news. Some of us former Iowans do that, but it's not for everyone.

Investors like Governor Romney get to monitor an exciting pension supported by an income of $20.9 million-and-change in 2011. That makes for thrilling pension spectatorship, especially during a recession.

Unlike his father who released full tax returns when he was a candidate, Mitt Romney declines to release returns other than those in 2010 and 2011. Instead, his prior ten tax returns have been "summarized" for voters by Price-Waterhouse-Cooper. They show that he gave slightly over 13 percent to Mormon charities and he has never paid more than 13.66 percent in federal income taxes, the low figure because his earnings are mainly from capital gains on investments, as opposed to a salary or speaking engagements.

The Romneys' net worth has been estimated as somewhere between $169 million and $257 million. Wherever this money is held (in America? abroad?) and whatever they're invested in, the summary doesn't tell. Still, it's gotta be exciting for Mitt Romney to watch his corn shoot up at the rate of over $1 million a month. We're talking way over the "knee-high by the fourth of July" of an Iowa corn field equivalent, looking down from the stratosphere on the Obamas' puny yield.

The Obamas have released every tax return since 2000. The bulk of their earnings came after his 2004 convention speech which triggered an offer from Random House for The Audacity of Hope, with a $1.9 million advance and percentages of book sales. The president also gets 10 percent of sales of his audiobook CD, for which he won a Grammy. Success of this book triggered reprint of his earlier Dreams of my Father, written right after law school.

Until then, their pension was worth between $50,000-$100,000. The bulk was and still is invested in U.S. Treasury Notes. Their sole stock holding is one mutual fund: Vanguard's Social Index fund. The Vanguard fund family is favored by penny-pinchers: the Social Index fund's annual expenses are 77 percent lower than the average mutual fund holding similar American companies.

Vanguard describes these customers as people "who choose investments based on socially conscious and personal beliefs." The fund's benchmark (FTSE4Good) screens companies to invest only in firms that meet criteria in "working towards environmental sustainability; up-holding and supporting universal human rights; ensuring good supply chain labour standards; and countering bribery." The Obamas' current estimated net worth in these investments is between $2.8 to $11.8 million. In addition to their pension, the Obamas have set up college funds for their two daughters.

Another financial windfall came in 2009 when Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. He directed all of that money to be wired directly to charities: $250,000 went to Fisher House (free housing to veterans and military families who need medical treatment); $200,000 to the Clinton-Bush Fund for rebuilding Haiti (this was right after that country's devastating earthquake); and from $100,000 to $125,000 each to funds providing scholarships for Native, Hispanic and African Americans, and to a fund benefiting girls in Asia.

The bottom line is that the Obamas put their money where their mouth is, but watching their investments in U.S. Treasuries and a stock index fund is always boring, more so during a recession. These are investments for people who don't want to think about money. This president has better things to do.