How Low Can You Go?

How to Zero Out the Debt

J. Fife Symington III, the Republican governor of Arizona, is so conservative that he has sought to abolish the state's Depart ment of Education. But, poor fellow, he's broke, as the Economist recently reported. When he was elected in 1991, Symington said he was worth $10 million. Three months later, he claimed his net worth dropped to a negative $23 million. These things happen. This past fall, in an unprecedented step for a sitting governor, Symington filed for bank ruptcy protection under Chapter 7, which allows him to stiff his creditors and get a fresh start in life.

Now this is an imaginative new idea in state fiscal policy. Many conservatives say they are opposed to debt; only Symington has shown how to get rid of it entirely. We all sometimes need a fresh start, governments included. And Symington is doing it in a way that demonstrates personal responsibility by protecting home and family. His home is in his wife's name, and her fortune is beyond the reach of creditors, who also cannot touch Symington's family trust funds (he is a direct descendant of Henry Clay Frick). A property developer, Symington explains that all 13 of his projects failed because the market collapsed in the late '80s. Hey, it wasn't his fault. He was just an innocent victim. Which is how a lot of Arizonans must feel.

Moral: If you're just plain poor and broke, you have no right to expect help, certainly not in self-reliant Arizona. To get public sym pathy and government protection, you need to lose millions.

More Sympathy for the Rich

How the rich suffer! The headline on the cover of Forbes's 1995 issue on the 400 Richest People in America is "Rich But Broke," the story of the Robinson family of Hawaii. The Robinsons, it turns out, have land holdings (including an entire island) worth half a billion dollars but claim to face problems paying estate taxes because profits from their sugar plantation are down. Here they are, decent, simple Americans living in their private paradise with a small native Hawaiian population totally dependent on them, when along comes the evil tax collector. It's enough to make you want to be sure that Steve Forbes is the Republican candidate for president in 1996.

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Tight Fittings

The same issue of Forbes carries the story of secretive billionaire Fred Lennon, chairman of Crawford Fitting Co. If you've never heard of him or it, there may be a reason. Lennon cultivates obscurity. Forbes explains that he has "broken his empire into dozens of separate firms . . . many [of his factories] don't have signs. When Lennon buys a factory from another company, he sometimes leaves the old sign up as a decoy." Like Vladimir Ilyich, this Lennon follows the pattern of "underground political organizations" by keeping managers informed only about their own cells—that is, their divisions.

Politics may have something to do with the secrecy. Lennon is one of the largest personal funders of the Republican Party, though Richard Nixon was too much of a liberal for him. According to Forbes, he requires each of the company's salesmen (whom he hires and fires at will) to contribute to his hand-picked political candidates, and he verifies the contributions by collecting the checks himself.

Republicans have lately been denouncing the voluntary one-dollar checkoff for presidential campaigns on the federal income tax form as an undue intrusion. But privately extracted political money, like Lennon's, is just fine. In the upside-down world of the right, private impositions are freedom, while attempts to use government to lessen dependency on private power are always an imposition.

—Paul Starr

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