In many ways, this year's presidential election may come down to a question of wealth ... and, more specifically, a question of Mitt Romney's wealth, as the GOP candidate's holdings have become the subject of considerable discussion.
Democratic pundits have argued that Romney is a child of privilege, and out of touch with average Americans, while his campaign has pointed to his considerable business success as a demonstration of his economic acumen. Late last week, the political mill acquired some fresh grist when Romney released his public financial disclosure report, a key requirement forpresidential candidates.
Romney has been quick to highlight his years with Bain Capital, but he has also been quiet about how much money he actually raked in at the private equity firm. And, while Friday's filing gives a better look at the candidate's finances, it's still unclear how much money he actually has. Romney's campaign has claimed that he is worth between $190 million and $250 million, but, according to the filing, the true figure could be as high as $255 million.
Indeed, despite the filing, the picture of Romney's finances is still maddeningly opaque, particularly when it comes to his investments. For example, the report notes, his 2011 income from his Bain Capital holdings netted him somewhere between a relatively modest $720,000 and a stunning $6.26 million. Similarly, his holdings in Goldman Sachs (GS) yielded upwards of $1.1 million, but there's no way to know exactly how much money Romney has in the investment house -- nor how handsomely that investment has paid off.
In addition to making it hard to gauge the full value of the House of Romney, the vagueness may obscure a significant part of the candidate's decision-making process. Where Romney puts his money -- and just as importantly, where he doesn't -- could reveal a great deal about his priorities.
While his investments are hard to determine, some aspects of Romney's income are much clearer. For example, royalties from his book No Apology: Believe in America totaled somewhere between $50,001 and $100,000, and -- his campaign announced -- were given to charity. Similarly, his seat on the board of hotel chain Marriott International netted him $260,389.74 in stock. Meanwhile, his speaking fees brought in $189,975 in 2011.
When it comes to analyzing Romney's wealth, getting hold of a figure is just the first problem; the second is putting his holdings into context. In the past, many commentators -- myself included -- have drawn comparisons between Romney's cash and the average U.S. household income or Barack Obama's more modest net worth, noting that Romney makes more in a year than the average household will make in a lifetime, and his assets are more than 30 times those of the President.
On Monday, though, Bloomberg TV celebrated Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee by analyzing the Queen's income and holdings. Initially, it would appear that Romney and the Queen share little in common: He's the scion of a political dynasty that stretches back a measly couple of decades, while she's the scion of a royal line that stretches back for centuries. He's a political candidate, while she's a relic of an earlier form of government. She's an institution, while he's running on a platform based in political change. Then again, like the queen, Romney got his start with the help of a major boost from inherited wealth -- and, like her, his finances are somewhat mysterious.
The vast majority of Elizabeth II's holdings -- roughly $11.2 billion -- are tied up in the Crown Estate, a collection of artifacts and real estate that British sovereigns can use, but can't sell. On the bright side, she essentially lives rent-free. But, while Buckingham Palace is sure to impress the neighbors, it's not like she can trade up. Then again, the queen recently fired the crown jeweler after 160 years of service, suggesting that she may have some leeway in matters of style.
Queen Elizabeth's personal wealth of approximately $461 million is a fair bit more than Romney's, but the two of them occupy a similar space in the wealth hierarchy: Romney lands somewhere between ordinary rich people and stratospherically superwealthy people like Bill Gates and Carlos Slim. Similarly, the Queen lands somewhere between lower-rent royals like Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and epically wealthy monarchs like the Sultan of Brunei or King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
And, like Romney, Queen Elizabeth pays most of her bills out of a comparatively modest yearly income, comprised of a $21 million yearly stipend, investment income, and profits from her estates. By comparison, Romney took in $21.6 million in 2010.
The Richest and Poorest U.S. Presidents
What Mitt Romney and Queen Elizabeth II Have in Common
Like his fifth cousin Teddy, FDR got most of his money through family holdings. Worth $60 million (in today's dollars) at his peak, he had residences in New York, Maine and Georgia. Then again, he didn't own his famous New York estate until after his mother died in 1941.
Hoover made his money as a mining company executive: After putting 17 years into the business, he ended up with a $75 million fortune -- and extensive holdings in various mining companies.
Few presidents came from more modest origins than LBJ, but his investments in broadcasting, cattle and private aviation left him with a net worth that topped $98 million.
Madison's 5,000-acre farm was worth a lot, but much of his money derived from his positions as secretary of state and president. And while his fortune at one point reached $101 million, he ended up losing much of it as his farm became less profitable.
JFK had little personal money, but the value of the Kennedy family fortune has been estimated at as much as $1 billion. As one of the nine Kennedy children, JFK's portion would have made him the fifth richest U.S. president in history -- had he lived to inherit it.
Andrew Jackson made his money the old fashioned way: He married into it. Between his 1,500-acre estate and his extensive slave holdings, his fortune topped out at an estimated $119 million.
Teddy Roosevelt inherited an estimated $125 million trust fund, then lost much of it on a failed land venture. Still, his earnings from his writings and his 235-acre estate on Long Island left him in good shape.
Thomas Jefferson was also land-rich: Among other holdings, he owned 5,000 acres at Monticello. But his fortune -- which topped out at an estimated $212 million -- had plummeted by the time he died, and his family had to sell much of his property to pay off his debts.
The Father of his Country was also its richest president: Estimates of his wealth range as high as $525 million. Among other things, he owned 8,000 acres of prime real estate on the banks of the Potomac River -- as well as 300 slaves.
(Wealth is relatively easy to measure: Who's poorest -- that's a tougher thing to gauge. The following presidents are in the bottom tier. But we won't try to rank them in order.)
It's well known that before he went into politics, Truman was a haberdasher, but his men's clothing store nearly went bankrupt. His 18 years in Washington didn't net him a lot of money either, but he saved carefully and was able to live comfortably after he left office. He and his wife, Bess, were the two first recipients of Medicare.
"Silent" Cal Coolidge was not known for his flamboyance. After his presidency, he made a solid living as a newspaper columnist and memoirist, but most of his money was tied up in his home in Northampton, Mass.
Education isn't a particularly lucrative occupation, and Wilson's tenure at Princeton didn't leave him a wealthy man -- even though he was for a time the president of the university. Neither, for that matter, did his stints in the New Jersey governor's mansion and the White House.
Although Chester Arthur made a reasonable amount of money as a lawyer and politician, he died with less than $1 million in net worth, putting him among the less affluent ex-presidents.
A log cabin president like Lincoln, James Garfield spent much of his life in public service. In his case, it didn't pay very well: When he was assassinated in 1881, he was more or less penniless.
One of the most colorful men to occupy the White House, Grant lost his fortune when his son's business partner, Ferdinand Ward, defrauded his investors -- among them, the former president.
Andrew Johnson started out as a tailor before rising to become a mayor, a Tennessee state legislator, a governor, a senator and a president. Along the way, he made a small fortune, but lost half of it when his bank failed.
Abraham Lincoln was famously honest, which helps explain why he took on the debts of a deadbeat business partner. The decision left him deeply in debt -- a situation that was later somewhat rectified by his successful legal career.
James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln's predecessor, was also born in a log cabin. Unlike earlier presidents, he only benefited modestly from his years in public service: Estimates of his personal fortune place it at less than $1 million.
But when it comes to comparing the British monarch and the Massachusetts mogul, Queen Elizabeth II's vast holdings could also serve as a cautionary tale. Romney's inheritance was sufficient to provide him a good education and a healthy head start, but -- as he's often pointed out -- the majority of his fortune was the result of his own efforts. It takes little more than a glance at the collection of dilettantes and tabloid fodder cluttering the Queen's family tree to illustrate the dangers of raising a child who has a firm expectation of vast inherited wealth. If Romney wants to find examples a little closer to home, he might take a peek at the Hilton family, the Kardashian clan, the Gettys and the Grubmans.
As for Romney's five sons, his campaign recently revealed that the candidate has created a trust fund of "roughly $100 million" for them. And, given that he campaigned against the estate tax, it would appear that he wants his boys -- and other wealthy children -- to enjoy the full, personality-corroding effect of their inherited wealth. As he progresses down the campaign trail, it might be a good idea for Romney to occasionally spare a thought to the cautionary tales provided by Prince Charles -- or Kim Kardashian, for that matter.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at@bruce1971.