From all evidence, the issue of economic justice isn't going away. Break the news gently to Mitt Romney, who seems apoplectic that the whole "rich get richer, poor get poorer" thing is being discussed out loud. In front of the children, for goodness sake.
"You know I think it's fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms," he told the "Today" show's Matt Lauer. "But the president has made this part of his campaign rally. Everywhere he goes we hear him talking about millionaires and billionaires and executives and Wall Street. It's a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach."
Actually, those blasts weren't coming from President Obama. That was Romney's competition for the Republican nomination, sounding like a speakers' lineup at an Occupy Wall Street rally.
Now, I predict, will come a furious attempt by the GOP to unring the economic justice bell. Damage control efforts began with Newt Gingrich backing away from his sharp-fanged criticism of Romney's record at Bain Capital, the investment firm he led. Don't attack the GOP front-runner for being a ruthless, heartless corporate raider, Gingrich announced, but rather for not being conservative enough.
This admonition came as a pro-Gingrich political action committee continued to blast Romney as a ruthless, heartless corporate raider. Inconsistency, thy name is Newt.
By most accounts, Bain was a relative laggard in the ruthlessness department. Other private-equity firms were far more brazen in the way they bought troubled companies, laid off workers, stripped away assets and fattened investors' bank accounts. While Romney's claim to have created 100,000 jobs looks like a gross exaggeration, it's true that Bain stuck with companies such as Staples and Sports Authority and helped them grow.
But as for heartlessness, well, it comes with the turf, right? Bain was just serving as an instrument of "creative destruction," and if workers lost their jobs, if they had to raid their children's college funds to pay their mortgages, if perhaps that money ran out and they ended up losing their homes, in the long run they'll still be better off. Or the country will be better off. Or something.
In any event, capitalism means never having to say you're sorry. Perish the thought that anyone would critically examine this ethos except in a "quiet room."
But to the horror of radical free-market ideologues, the myth of no-fault capitalism is under scrutiny. No one is arguing against markets, which are indeed the best way to create wealth and thus the best weapon against poverty. No one is arguing that investors who risk their capital in a company should not be able to reap rewards. What the ideologues ignore, however, is that workers also have "capital" at risk -- in the form of mind and muscle, creativity, loyalty, years of service. Why is this investment so casually dismissed?
The first of the Republican candidates to raise the fairness issue was Rick Santorum, who spoke in debates of the pain many families were suffering because of economic dislocation. This was before his strong showing in Iowa, so no one was paying attention.
Then Gingrich and Rick Perry picked up the theme in an attempt to slow Romney's march to the nomination. Whether they meant what they said or were just being tactical, the effect was to open a discussion of economic fairness and justice that will be hard to squelch.
The next logical step is to look at the results being produced by the radically deregulated, no-fault capitalism that has been practiced in this country since the Reagan revolution. Overall, we've had tremendous growth and low inflation. But we've also seen rising inequality and falling mobility. Middle-class incomes have stagnated, while upper-class incomes have skyrocketed.
Government has played a huge role in guiding the nation through previous economic upheavals -- after World War II with the GI Bill, for example. It can and should play such a role now.