Editor's note: Howell Raines is an author and former executive editor of The New York Times. He is working on a novel set during the Civil War.
(CNN) -- With the last presidential debate a few days away, perhaps it's time to pay more attention to Mitt Romney's economic radicalism. He's not hiding his vision of a society organized around the needs of corporate America and Wall Street. We're just not listening closely enough to what he's saying about an America that has a financial oligarchy and a mercy-free social contract.
This scion of the old industrial elite would have us believe that history's most enlightened empire cannot afford to educate its children, treat its sick, protect its elderly -- all while allowing the middle class an expanded share of national wealth.
And he's right if, like him, the rest of us base our expectations on the mysterious "numbers" that Paul Ryan apparently found buried under Ayn Rand's tombstone and refuses to reveal, even to a friendly inquisitor like Fox's Chris Wallace.
By inventing the myth of the "fiscal cliff," Romney and his fledgling economic czar are betting they can put middle America in a sleeper hold that will last through November 6 -- and they're pretty close to succeeding.
And, yes, "myth" is the right term, because the "cliff" is being depicted as a permanent hazard of the economy, one that will inevitably wreck the government. In fact, like any budgetary problem, it can be fixed, adjusted, or forestalled by a mix of spending decreases and revenue increases. In Romneynomics, of course, that latter step is forbidden because it would involve marginal expense for Those Who May Not Be Taxed Another Penny.
President Obama has resumed, none too soon, his campaign's national teach-in about Romney's vision for institutionalizing the advantages of the haves at the permanent expense of the have-nots. In an admittedly spotty sampling of the post-debate commentary, I saw only my friend and former colleague Tom Friedman make one essential point. The government does have a spending problem that will require a reining-in of debt from the welfare state. But the government also has a massive revenue problem that can only cured by higher taxes on selected sectors of the economy.
Romney is masking his who-has-to-pay regimen with bland boosterism. So let's look at who doesn't have to pay more, according to his debate presentation: all corporations, recipients of capital-gains income, beneficiaries of offshore tax shelters, holders of inherited wealth, the top 5% in income, people like himself who can game the top tax rates down to, say, 14%.
If I hear him correctly, he says it would be immoral to alter that scheme, and higher taxes on the exempted classes wouldn't really change our revenue picture. If that were true, any mention of an equitable taxation policy wouldn't put that hint of hysteria into Paul Ryan's voice.
This is radical stuff. Romney can't quite think of which loopholes the deserving rich would have to give up. But he has a formula for limiting working-class couples to a $25,000 "basket" of deductions. One thing they might have to toss out of their basket is the home-mortgage deduction. Apparently we can't alter top tax rates, but it's moral now to deprive the housing industry, already flattened by financial-market whizzes of Romney's ilk, of a major sales tool. It's "moral" now to take away one of the middle class's main methods for creating a retirement nest egg through home ownership.
No wonder Romney won't show his tax returns. They would provide an arresting picture of how his economic cohort preserves wealth from the expenses that afflict the rest of us.
What Romney is describing is a world of frozen riches in which the social and financial mobility that have been central to American life become practical impossibilities. That's a high price for a striving society to pay, but at least it can be measured in dollars and cents over time. Not so, the radical alterations that Romney's oligarch-protection program must inevitably bring to the American social contract.
Let's get right to it. In a world where increased taxes from the rich are unthinkable and social expenditures for a growing population are capped below current levels, a caring society cannot exist. Thus, basing public policy on the myth of the fiscal cliff becomes a tool for ending those pesky debates about the obligations of a civilized people toward the least, the lowest and the lost.
In Randian terms, it's a beautifully symmetrical resolution about expenses run up by, let us say, 47% of the people. But one can still pose the questions of what's best for a two-income household making the median income of about $74,000, or a single-earner household making the median of around $50,000.
For example, how far does Ryan's unspecified health care voucher go in covering the expenses of one of these households suddenly faced with an Alzheimer's diagnosis for a 65-year-old parent who will requires full custodial care, or a 4-year-old with a brain tumor? Or in less traumatic circumstances, where does such a family turn for tuition to send a child to the best college for his or her gifts? Sure, these are typical bleeding-heart questions, but they are also real-life situations that an economic radical doesn't have to confront with family-friendly solutions.
Personally I find it hard to believe that at the peak of one of our nation's periodic revivals, Americans want to eliminate mercy and generosity as typical American political values.
You have to hand it to Mitt. He's confronted us with a straight up-or-down vote on the quality of caring. To be sure, Romney and Ryan will be invoking Ronald Reagan during the coming days, but what they are saying is an insult to the Gipper, who compromised on Social Security, raised taxes to meet rational revenue needs, and understood FDR's war on economic "royalists." What's on offer this year is Reaganism run amok.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howell Raines.