The changing of the seasons has brought with it a heavy blanket of campaign mailers, which seem to grow more shrill as summer and the special election approach. Last week, I got one warning me that "Rob Quist's debts are burning through Montana." It featured a picture of the Democratic candidate next to a dollar bill in the shape of the state with—this is the artistic element—a burning hole in it.
I agree that Quist's financial problems should give voters pause. In 2011, the state filed liens against his ranch after he failed to pay property taxes for three years. Quist blames a series of medical bills stemming from a botched gallbladder operation. But that doesn't explain his failure to pay a Kalispell contractor who did excavation work for him 10 years earlier, in 2001.
It's one thing for Quist to have gotten behind on his taxes, but stiffing a contractor is quite another. As a freelancer with a trick shoulder, I have a lot of sympathy for people who get buried under medical bills. But as a freelancer with certain accounts receivable that I will probably never receive, I have no sympathy for people who hire work done and don't pay. That amounts to stealing, and stealing from someone who works for a living is worse than stealing from the government.
Did no one in the Democratic Party of Montana run a credit check on Quist before they nominated him for Congress? After Amanda Curtis was investigated and found to be a woman, were there no remaining candidates without ready-made opposition files? The Democrats' bizarre failure to anticipate this problem supports my suspicion that all they cared to know about Quist was that he was semi-famous and had never done anything like this before.
But as much as the Democratic Party has embarrassed itself since March, the Republicans are making their own mistakes, too. This "burning through Montana" business dramatically overstates the impact that one man's personal debt can have on the economy. Quist's problems are hardly going to trigger a banking crisis. The mailer seems to be reaching for a public-interest argument to justify demonizing Quist for his private debts. That implies a troubling ignorance of how most people actually live.
Between the contracting bill and the property taxes, Quist's debts came to about $20,000. That's not so much money—especially if you are, for example, a tech entrepreneur who sold your company to Oracle for $1.5 billion. Such a person would have no excuse for not paying his debts immediately. But the median household income in Montana is $49,505. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, average Americans save 5 percent of their income. For half the state, a $20,000 debt represents eight years of savings.
I mention these facts not to excuse Quist, but to warn the GOP. The party is infatuated with millionaires right now, nationally and in Montana. Republicans backed an obvious liar with no record of public service all the way to the presidency, arguing that he would do a good job because he's rich. In the Montana party's estimation, the same attribute qualified Greg Gianforte to be governor. It turns out his record of making a lot of money also makes him the Republicans' best choice for Congress, even though the roles of state executive and U.S. representative are completely different.
The whole conceit of Republican politics in the 21st century is that personal wealth equates to high character and patriotic goodness. Rich people are job creators. Government should run like a business. It seems odd that business, which requires no special expertise beyond the desire to make money, happens to be the one field that qualifies you to do everything else.
You don't hear people saying that government should run like a dentist's office or a school. But teachers and dentists don't donate billions to political parties. The success of the education and dental care industries has not widened the gap between rich and poor to its worst discrepancy in 100 years.
Right now, while we choose between a computer tycoon and an affable deadbeat, America is building an aristocracy. What's surprising is not that it's happening, but that Republicans expect us to identify with the tycoons. Inequality is at the center of our political discourse. If democracy worked the way it should, being wealthy would be a political liability in 2017. But our parties have spent so much time flattering and fundraising that they assume we all think of rich people as our benefactors, too.
In our present socio-economic moment, I'm not sure broke folk singers are the problem. If something is burning a hole in Montana, it probably has more to do with a handful of billionaires than with the millions of debtors it took to create them.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and the inherent goodness of rich people at combatblog.net.