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‘Unintended Consequences’: Former Bain Exec Sparks Controversy Over Income Inequality

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In, Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You've Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong, Edward Conard sets out to provide "a prescription for how to grow the economy."

Thanks to a recent NY Times Magazine article, and because he worked closely with GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney at Bain Capital, Conard has become a lightning rod for controversy -- described by some as a champion of income inequality.

There are elements of this in Conard's book -- such as when he argues the societal benefits of economic competition is closer to 20-to-1 -- meaning society gets $20 of value for every $1 an investor earns -- vs. the 5-to-1 level commonly cited. But, in reality, Conard's book is pretty standard conservative economic fare wrapped with a philosophical view that is unique, at least in its public expression.

"Underneath the book is a moral argument," he says. "Talented people have a responsibility to get the training they need to be successful risk takers and go out there to take risks. What I see is surplus of talented people and a shortage of people willing to take the risks."

As a result, policymakers ought to "be cautious about lowering the payouts for successful risk taking," he says. "If we do that, we can slow down the growth rate of the economy."

Given this is an election year — and Conard is raising money for Mitt Romney — these are fighting words and, some say, an insight into how Romney thinks.

Conard stresses that he doesn't speak for the candidate and has no formal role in Romney's campaign. But as you might imagine, he worries about President Obama's promises (or threats) to raise taxes on the wealthy.

"Europe and Japan have been very unsuccessful producing the kind of innovation we have produced," he said. "I caution against heading in that direction."

Indeed, it's hard to a imagine any nation other than America spawning a company like Facebook — much less a company like Instragram being acquired (by Facebook, ironically) for $1 billion less than two years after its founding.

What's true for companies is also true of individuals; actor Will Smith made a similar observation in a recent interview on French TV. "I'm a black man who didn't go to college and yet I get to travel around the world and sell my movies," he said. "I believe very firmly America is the only place on earth that I could exist."

What's lost in much of the discussion about Conard's book is the difference between true risk-takers and wealthy people. While I agree society should reward risk-takers, I'm not sure the same applies to people who've already amassed great wealth.

Most entrepreneurs aren't wealthy, especially when they start out. In our "Driven" series for Yahoo! News, I met many Americans who are true risk-takers; people either gave up solid jobs to pursue their dreams or folks who literally had nothing to lose, so they took their shots.

Then there are people who have already achieved great wealth, either through their own talents and labor or thanks to the success of their predecessors. Typically speaking, these people are not prone to take great risks, in part because they have so much to lose.

But Conard doesn't make a big distinction, suggesting there are people who take "career risks" by leaving their jobs to start a company, and people who take "financial risk" by supporting those entrepreneurs.

About the only time he was at a loss for words is when I asked him if Mitt Romney is still taking risks and thus deserves to pay a tax rate based on the carried interest tax deduction paid by private equity funds, or whether that rate itself is fair.

"I try not to delve too deep into policy," he says. "We have made a decision in our economy to lower taxes on successful risk-taking and have been very successful relative to Europe and Japan."

While that's undoubtedly true, we've also got a society that's increasingly broken into the "haves" and the "have nots" and Conard seems much more concerned about the former vs. the latter.

Aaron Task is the host of The Daily Ticker. You can follow him on Twitter at @aarontask or email him at altask@yahoo.com

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