Yet even as Americans admire those who give it away, a consistent majority of the public remains suspicious of estate taxes, believing that if you make a lot of money, you ought to be able to give it to your children. “There’s a double standard in our psyche that hasn’t changed through our history,” says Arizona State University law professor Marjorie Kornhauser, who has written about how U.S. tax policies reflect our confusion over the morality of money. “We have very mixed attitudes toward the rich.”
Romney’s wealth is “ambiguous,” she says. “It’s not 100 percent clear to most people whether he created jobs or destroyed them, and he actually created some and lost some.”
Mitt Romney defended his tax returns at the Republican presidential debate Monday night, before the documents were to be released. (Jan. 23)
Read the full text of Mitt Romney's tax documents.
One of the most radical ideas in the American Revolution was to take power from inheritors of wealth and focus instead on equality of opportunity. The founders were determined to dismantle the practices of monarchy — “its hierarchy, its inequality, its devotion to kinship,” historian Gordon Wood wrote in his 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” (which Gingrich has praised lavishly).
The new country would not guarantee equality of income, but rather equality in the sense that “no one was really better than anyone else,” Wood wrote.
Americans become more sensitive to that point during periods of high unemployment and severe income inequality, McCall’s research has found.
“I’m finding that what matters most is the context of wealth,” she says. “Romney is a victim of being seen as out of touch in a time when there are questions about whether the rich have been contributing productively to the welfare of the country.”
In the mid-1990s, when the country experienced a relatively jobless recovery similar to today’s, the popular culture was full of depictions of investment bankers and hedge fund executives as greedy, destructive forces. “That was also the time of Ross Perot’s popularity and a focus on the plight of the middle class,” McCall notes.
Later in the ’90s, by contrast, the rich were celebrated as the economy grew and unemployment dropped to 4 percent.
As real estate tycoon Donald Trump put it in a 2009 interview with Fox News, during hard times, “it is open season” on the rich. “But I think it will straighten out, and, ultimately, people want to be rich. And that’s part of the American way.”
Staff writers Philip Rucker and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report