01/12/2012 04:31 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2012

Romney a Nobody Among the Ultra-Wealthy, But Rich Enough to Stick Out as President

If Mitt Romney is elected in 2012, he will be the richest American president since George Washington, who owned 300 slaves and vast tracts of land. Romney is ten times richer than the patrician George Bush and fifty times richer than Barack Obama.

Although Romney is a nobody among the ultra-wealthy in the U.S., his fortune is still big enough to stand out among sitting American presidents over the last 200 years.

The gap separating Romney from the average voter is far larger. With a net worth of about $250 million, Romney has roughly 1,800 times the wealth of the average American household.

Even invested conservatively, his fortune is big enough to generate a steady income of over $1 million a month after taxes. That means every three days, Romney earns a return on his wealth roughly equal to the total net worth of the average American household.

Wealth on this scale definitely qualifies Romney as an American oligarch, although he is not a truly big fish when it comes to wealth concentration. Among American oligarchs he ranks in the middle of the pack. This is because wealth is concentrated to a mind-boggling degree at the top.

The net worth of the richest 500 to 1,000 oligarchs in the U.S. is about 20,000 times that of the average American household in the bottom 90 percent. That's twice the wealth concentration of the senators of imperial Rome, who were only 10,000 times richer than the average small farmer or slave who populated the empire.

When comparing prosperity, Americans typically pay attention to how they rank within their own economic class. Much of their pride derives from the superiority they feel over those immediately below them, and their envy is focused mostly on those a rung or two above them on the socio-economic ladder.

The same applies to Romney. The wealth ratio of 1,800 to 1 that separates him from the average citizen is simply too enormous to register in a meaningful way for him. Meantime, Romney likely feels dwarfed by the major oligarchs in his economic class, who are ten or a hundred times richer than he is.

Leading hedge fund managers can earn $3 to $4 billion in a single year. It is not uncommon for tax professionals to engineer annual tax savings for individual oligarchs at the top that are equal to Romney's entire fortune. The same army of professionals and lobbyists are paid handsome fees to ensure hedge fund managers pay only 15% in taxes on their staggering earnings.

Does it matter that Romney would be the biggest oligarch in the White House since George Washington?

It is probably something American oligarchs ought to think over carefully. For several generations, it has served American oligarchs well to stay away from the glare of direct political rule. Figures like Mayor Bloomberg of New York, who is worth over $18 billion, are exceptions rather than the rule. And when they have used their personal riches to fund campaigns for office, it has been more for vanity than to pursue an oligarchic agenda.

Having oligarchs remain behind the scenes and out of public view has played a key role in winning oligarchic outcomes in America. The instrument of choice for fighting political battles is the Wealth Defense Industry. Composed of many thousands of highly paid lawyers, accountants, tax specialists, lobbyists, and wealth management professionals (few of whom are oligarchs themselves), the Wealth Defense Industry toils around the clock and around the world to guard the core interests America's ultra-rich. It is a proactive service sector that not only does the bidding of oligarchs, but anticipates their needs and alerts them to threats and issues they may not see coming.

The recent role of the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson represents a more direct and brazen approach by some American oligarchs. By charging into the open and using their enormous money-power to intervene directly in a broad range of political battles, they have stirred up popular resentment long kept dormant by the anonymous and mostly invisible Wealth Defense Industry.

In a similar way, having a sizeable oligarch like Romney in the oval office -- one far richer than any president in five or six generations -- exposes all oligarchs in America and heightens their political risks. Americans tend to expect the appearance if not always the substance of political equality in their democracy.

The political risks are compounded by a Great Recession that continues to deliver all the pain to the economically weak, all the gains to the economically strong, while relentlessly eroding the middle. The irony of the last three years is that it is the Obama administration that has served the wealth interests of American oligarchs best by pursuing pro-rich policies while simultaneously providing the ultra-wealthy with a modicum of popular political cover.

It is a fundamental misreading of American politics to view the Democratic party as hostile to oligarchs. The evidence is overwhelming that both parties aggressively court the nation's oligarchs. They just do it with different levels of gusto. The Republican party might best be summed up as organized selfishness, while the Democratic party is organized selfishness with guilt.

The enthusiasm of oligarchs for Romney has not been dampened by the dangers and exposure his presidency could trigger. It would not be the first time in history the rich were shortsighted.

Politically sophisticated oligarchs would do well to consider backing Obama. Of course, many already do. Like all Democratic administrations since Johnson, Obama's policies have defended oligarchs and increased wealth inequality under the cover of a personal presidential profile that passes as "of the people," combined with a populist rhetoric aimed at the struggling majority.

A solid defense of the rich few while tossing a confusing mix of words and scraps to the non-rich majority comes close to the conservative formula Aristotle recommended almost 2400 years ago: blend oligarchy and democracy so elegantly, he advised, so that "there should appear to be both elements and yet neither." A Romney presidency risks shifting the appearances toward the oligarchic element.

(Jeffrey A. Winters is the author of Oligarchy (2011) and a professor of politics at Northwestern University in Chicago.