Adam Ash

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Perhaps it would be better to know what our presidential candidates spend their money on than what they earn

Do you want a receipt with that?
Americans might take a lesson from the French presidential campaign: Instead of 1040s, perhaps our candidates should submit their expenses.
By Sasha Issenberg/Boston Globe

When French voters go to the polls later this month to pick a president, they will do so armed with a new type of information: a vision of Ségolène Royal's apartment in the Parisian suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. For months last year, a rumor had floated among Internauts -- as the political class refers to its bloggers -- that the presidential candidate had used accounting tricks to avoid paying the country's controversial "wealth tax," which would have been a shamefully bourgeois transgression for the Socialist standard-bearer. Royal was left in January with little option but to release her tax returns to rebut the charge.

It turned out that Royal and her longtime companion, Socialist Party chief Francois Hollande, held shares of the suburban apartment and a house on the Riviera, in addition to owning a house in Melle, the small market town in western France that she represents in the National Assembly, for a combined worth of 355,000 francs, or only $460,000. The couple, the documents revealed, had duly paid the $1,000 they owed under the wealth tax. The cameras, however, were less interested in the paperwork than in the buildings' facades.

In the United States, the responsible voters of our responsible democracy demand reams of paperwork from their candidates, and then promptly ignore its contents. Indeed the 1040 documents only the previous year's earnings, which in the case of political figures tend to be similar, and mundane -- government salaries, speaking fees, consulting gigs, corporate-board per diems, and personal investments. Accordingly, Americans have come to see the ritual 1040 disclosure, with its itemized airing of potential conflicts of interest, as little more than a hedge against corruption and not an opportunity to better understand who our politicians really are.

Yet as a stateside cavalcade of newly minted presidential hopefuls put images of their 1040s on websites for public scrutiny, there might be something Americans can learn from a French media seemingly as interested in the aesthetics of Royal's domestic arrangements as in their propriety. We might find that you can learn a lot more about people by what they consume than what they produce.

After all, we already seem to judge the worth of candidates based on the rare glimpses we have into their lifestyle decisions. John Kerry goes on windsurfing vacations? Bill Clinton gets $200 haircuts? John Boehner smokes two packs a day? So instead of tax returns, why don't we ask candidates to disclose their personal spending every year? Normal expense-account rules apply: all spending over $10 must be itemized, along with receipts.

Such a standard would bring transparency where we need it: away from "gotcha" politics and toward "what have you got?" politics. Only by tracking their spending can voters examine the choices politicians make, as people, as citizens, as consumers. (The only judgment displayed on a 1040 is in charitable giving.) Being able to audit the day-to-day consumer decisions of politicians would threaten some of their favorite photo-op fictions: The legislator who eats tamales only on Cinco de Mayo or cruises around in a Chevy pickup on parade day but keeps a late-model Saab in the garage at home. Any candidate can study up on the price of a gallon of milk or a dozen eggs, but isn't the point of asking that we want to know whether our next chief executive has actually pushed a cart down a supermarket aisle?

We are beginning to see the makings of voluntary consumer disclosure as politicians who ask citizens to make lifestyle adjustments with the environment in mind show that they are willing to do so with their own dollars. Al Gore talks about driving a Prius with the ease of a product-placement veteran, and on their recent book tour John and Teresa Heinz Kerry trumpeted their three hybrid cars (three times as energy-efficient). When challenged last week at a New Hampshire town-hall meeting about his new $6 million, 29,000-square foot house outside Chapel Hill, N.C., John Edwards responded by focusing on the solar panels that adorn the mansion. He may be a ridiculously wealthy populist, Edwards seemed to concede, but at least he's an eco-conscious one.

Candidates have long been happy to play up the misery of past consumer options while obscuring their present lifestyle. Edwards is the grandson of a sharecropper, Tom Vilsack a foundling left on the steps of an orphanage, Orrin Hatch a former chicken-coop resident, and Dennis Kucinich a child inhabitant of 21 homes, including two cars. Having politicians disclose their spending might temper the my-mother-washed-more-floors-than-yours nostalgia that is an inevitable element of the candidate self-introduction.

Those who boast about their Dickensian childhoods could be held to the standard of living a Dickensian adulthood, as well. In France, the hard-right candidate Philippe de Villiers, floundering around the margin of error in polls, used the wealth-tax affair to celebrate his own perpetual poverty. "I am the son of a French soldier who was himself a war orphan. I come from a family that wasn't rich," de Villiers told reporters. "I don't live between crystal vases and canvases of the grand masters. I am not subjected to the wealth tax."

And those who boast falsely about their modest means might be exposed. "I have always lived humbly. I do not have money," said Hervé Gaymard, a former finance minister, when it was revealed in 2005 that he had been living in a taxpayer-financed $18,500-per-month apartment off the Champs Elysées. "Obviously if I wasn't the son of a shoemaker, if I was a member of the bourgeoisie, I wouldn't have any housing problem. I would own my own apartment and we wouldn't have this affair." It emerged quickly that Gaymard in fact owned several residences at the time, a disclosure that forced his resignation.

(Sasha Issenberg's first book, "The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy," will be published next month by Gotham Books.)


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