Edward Conard is more than a supporter. He is one of the campaign's largest donors and worked with Romney at Bain Capital. He retired a few years ago at 51, has a net worth that's probably in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and believes that the so-called 99 percent should consider themselves damn lucky to have the 1 percent. Specifically, Conard argues in a new book that the system is not rigged in favor of the rich - that it's a sign the economy is working. Adam Davidson, who profiles Conard in the NYT magazine this Sunday, says it "could be the most hated book of the year," and I'd have to concur (though Conard does make plenty of valid points). Not helping Conard's case is that he comes off as sort of a jerk - the kind of guy who applies mathematical analysis to the selection of a mate and who denigrates anyone unwilling to work zillion hours a week.
Conard understands that many believe that the U.S. economy currently serves the rich at the expense of everyone else. He contends that this is largely because most Americans don't know how the economy really works -- that the superrich spend only a small portion of their wealth on personal comforts; most of their money is invested in productive businesses that make life better for everyone. "Most citizens are consumers, not investors," he told me during one of our long, occasionally contentious conversations. "They don't recognize the benefits to consumers that come from investment."
This is the usual defense of the 1 percent. Conard, however, has laid out a tightly argued case for just how much consumers actually benefit from the wealthy. Take computers, for example. A small number of innovators and investors may have earned disproportionate billions as the I.T. industry grew, but they got that money by competing to constantly improve their products and simultaneously lower prices. Their work has helped everyone get a lot more value. Cheap, improved computing helps us do our jobs more effectively and, often, earn more money. Countless other industries (travel, telecom, entertainment) use that computing power to lower their prices and enhance their products. This generally makes life more efficient and helps the economy grow.
"Unintended Consequences" only mentions Romney by name once (and in the acknowledgments, at that), but Conard hopes that the arguments detailed in his book will help readers understand why it's so crucial that his former boss -- who believes the government should help the investor class -- win this November. As I read "Unintended Consequences," though, I wondered if the book would have the opposite effect. Even staunch Republicans and many members of the Tea Party might bristle at a worldview that celebrates the coastal elite and says many talented people in the middle class aren't pulling their weight. Was Conard saddling his old boss with another example of how out of touch those with car elevators and multiple Cadillacs can be? In this time of overheated arguments between opponents who rarely listen to one another, here was a rare member of the 1 percent openly trying to make his case. How convincing is it?