In 1886, a scientist named Franz Boas traveled to British Columbia to live among the Kwakwaka’wakw Indians and document their tradition of potlatching, which was widely practiced throughout the Pacific Northwest.
If a Kwakwaka’wakw chief amassed riches by fishing or trapping or trading with white settlers, he threw a fantastic feast — a potlatch — at which he gave almost all of his wealth away.
And he didn’t just give to his friends. He gave to his enemies. Potlatches were competitions, akin to warfare. You gave your enemies heaps of dried fish and blankets to illustrate your own greatness. When it was over, your competitors were under pressure to throw an bigger potlatch and give even better gifts to you and your family.
“You were measured by your ability to go above fairness,” said Christopher Bracken, whose book “The Potlatch Papers” details the Canadian government’s efforts to stamp out the “savage” practice.
I’ve been thinking a lot about potlatches lately, because of Mitt Romney. Like the Kwakwaka’wakw, Romney’s claim to leadership rests on his business success — which is evident in a personal fortune larger than almost everybody else’s. Yet, unlike the Indians, Romney doesn’t want to make details of his wealth public. He has declined to release a tax return from before 2010. And he has an army of advisers to help him avoid paying more into the common pot than he has to. “I pay all the taxes that are legally required,” Romney asserted earlier this year, “and not a dollar more.”
Which raises a philosophical question: Do the wealthiest people deserve our respect, regardless of how much they contribute to the common good?
To the Kwakwaka’wakw, wealth was only respected if it was given away. That belief system may have cut down on war: Why attack a man for his possessions when he was going to share them anyway? Or maybe it evolved because, in a land without freezers, you couldn’t hoard all that fish and deer meat for yourself.
But today, it is possible for one man to accumulate more wealth that he will ever use in a lifetime, and keep it far from public view. If he lives to be 100, Romney could blow through $18,000 every day until his last breath, and still have money left over. (That’s not counting the $100 million he has already set aside for his kids.)
But there is one way that Romney is a little bit like the Kwakwaka’wakw. In that Indian society, everyone joined in the ceremony of giving and receiving, because that was how you got your place in society’s pecking order. The Mormon Church follows a similar ethos. Mormons must give at least 10 percent of their income. That money is collected in Salt Lake City and redistributed to congregations around the world. If you don’t contribute to the community, you can’t be a Mormon in good standing.
Instead of tithing the minimum — “and not a dollar more” — Romney has given over and above what his church requires. Last year, he donated 12.4 percent of his income of $21 million. In addition, he gave $500,000 to his family foundation, the Tyler Foundation, which has given three-quarters of its funds over the years to the Mormon church or Brigham Young University.
It’s admirable and appropriate for a wealthy man to give more than the minimum to a community that is so central to his identity. And it makes all the sense in the world for that community to respect him more in return for his generosity.
But Mitt Romney is running to be head of the United States, not the Mormon Church. Shouldn’t he also be judged on how much he has contributed to the federal government that he hopes to lead? If we discover that he has gone far out of his way to avoid contributing, shouldn’t we respect him a little less as a leader? You don’t have to be a Kwakwaka’wakw to think so.
Mitt Romney knows that. Which, I suspect, is why we won’t see those tax returns anytime soon.
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