As Newt Gingrich lashes out at "liberal elites," Mitt Romney is casting the 2012 campaign as "free enterprise on trial" -- and Mr. Romney defines free enterprise as achieving success through "risk-taking." U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donahue, defending Mr. Romney, explains that "this economy is about risk. If you don't take risk, you can't have success."
But who do they think is bearing the economic risks? The higher you go in today's economy, the easier it is to make a pile of money without taking any personal financial risk at all. The lower you go, the bigger the risks and the smaller the rewards.
Partners in private-equity firms like Romney's Bain Capital don't risk their own money. They invest other people's money and pocket 20 percent of any upside gains. They then pay taxes on only 15 percent on their incomes -- a lower rate than paid by many middle-class Americans -- because of a loophole that treats that income as capital gains.
Wall Street as a whole seeks to maximize personal gains and minimize personal risks. If you're high enough on the economic ladder, you can screw up royally and walk away like royalty. And if the bottom falls out, don't worry. Taxpayers will bail you out.
Citigroup's stock fell 44 percent in 2011, but its CEO, Vikram Pandit, got at least $5.45 million on top of a retention bonus of $16.7 million. (The firm will reveal the rest of his pay in March.) The stock of JPMorgan Chase fell almost 22 percent, but its CEO, Jamie Dimon, was awarded a package worth $17 million.
At the top of the American economy, you can walk away with a bundle even if you've driven your company into the ground. The swankiest golf courses in America are festooned with former CEOs who have almost sunk their companies but have been handsomely rewarded nonetheless.
Thomas E. Freston lasted just nine months as CEO of Viacom before being terminated and walking away with an exit package of $101 million. William D. McGuire was forced to resign as CEO of UnitedHealth over a stock-options scandal, but he left with a pay package worth $286 million.
Yet as economic risks are vanishing at the top and the rewards keep growing, the risks are rising drastically on almost everyone below, where the rewards keep shrinking.
Full-time workers who put in decades with a company can now find themselves without a job overnight -- with no parachute, no help finding another job, and no health insurance. More than 20 percent of the American workforce is now "contingent" -- temporary workers, contractors, independent consultants -- with no security at all.
Most families face the mounting risk of receiving giant hospital bills with no way to pay them. Fewer and fewer large and medium-sized companies offer their workers full health care coverage -- 74 percent did in 1980, while less than 10 percent do today. As a result, health insurance premiums, co-payments and deductibles are soaring.
Most people also face increasing risk of not having enough to retire on. Three decades ago, more than 80 percent of large and medium-sized firms gave their workers "defined-benefit" pensions that guaranteed a fixed amount of money every month after they retired. Now it's under 10 percent. Instead, they offer "defined contribution" plans where the risk is on the workers. When the stock market tanks, as it did in 2008, 401(k) plans tank along with it.
Meanwhile, people at the top are socking away tens of millions for their retirements while paying little or no taxes -- in effect, enjoying a huge government subsidy. Mitt Romney's IRA is worth between $20 million and $100 million, including Bain Capital holdings in offshore havens like the Cayman Islands.
Mr. Romney is right: Free enterprise is on trial. But he's wrong about the question at issue. It's not whether America will continue to reward risk-taking. It's whether an economic system can survive when the real risks are so disconnected from the rewards.
Americans are starting to feel the game is rigged against them, which may be why Newt Gingrich's bombastic attacks on "elites" are gaining traction. Workers feel cynical when those at the top get giant rewards no matter how badly they screw up, while the rest of us get screwed no matter how hard we work.
Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future." He blogs at www.robertreich.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun