It’s not often that I find myself to the right of Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry. But here we are: Gingrich, Perry and their allies are attacking Mitt Romney for the fact that Bain Capital laid off workers and closed businesses when he was in charge of it.
Gingrich invented the attack in December in response to Romney’s suggestion that Gingrich return the millions of dollars Freddie Mac paid him. “I would just say that if Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he’s earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain, that I would be glad to then listen to him,” Gingrich said. In recent weeks he has sharpened the attack, which his affiliated Super PAC Winning Our Future lays out in detail in a twenty-eight-minute propaganda film, “When Mitt Romney Came to Town.” The movie shows cigar-smoking capitalists counting money while laid-off workers from companies Bain owned, such as the Ampad paper company and UniMac washing machines, complain of the hardships they’ve endured. The “documentary” makes xenophobic accusations that Romney took “foreign seed money from Latin America” and twice shows him speaking French. The Washington Post’s Fact-Checker column gave the movie four Pinocchios for the various misleading ways it has played fast and loose with the factual details. Now Gingrich is calling on Winning Our Future to correct the film or pull it off the airwaves. But Gingrich hasn’t retracted his argument that Romney is somehow different from, and worse than, most entreprenuers, whom Republicans such as Gingrich typically lionize.
The other Republican candidates have been repeating Gingrich’s argument. Jon Huntsman, whose campaign’s obsessive hatred of Romney seems to border on pathological, made the absurd claim that “Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs.” Texas Governor Rick Perry, who like Huntsman and Gingrich is normally a champion of capitalism and free enterprise, attacks Romney with the meaningless distinction between “venture capitalism and vulture capitalism.”
To say that there is something inherently wrong with Bain laying people off or closing factories to increase its profits is not a persuasive political argument in and of itself. But what anyone—Democrat or Republican—should note is that it contradicts the central rationale of Romney’s campaign. Romney has made his business background the chief selling point for his candidacy. He constantly blames President for the unemployment rate and argues that Obama’s lack of private-sector experience is the underlying culprit. Romney says that his business experience will imbue him with magical powers to lower the unemployment rate despite his poor record on employment as Governor of Massachusetts. “This president doesn’t understand how the economy works, it’s time to get a president who does,” says Romney in his stump speech.
Romney claims to have created 100,000 jobs while at Bain. This requires a lot of what George W. Bush would have called “fuzzy Washington math,” mainly because Romney takes credit for jobs that were created by businesses in which Bain was a partial investor years after the investment ended. If you used the same approach to tallying up all the job losses from companies Bain invested in and subtracted the losses from the additions, you wouldn’t find anywhere near a 100,000 net job increase. That’s why the Washington Post dubs Romney’s 100,000 jobs claim “an untenable figure.”
The other context in which it is appropriate to criticize layoffs under Bain ownership is to note that Romney opposes paying his fair share in taxes to social programs that would ameliorate the suffering he caused. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to say that one company, chosen at random, should not lay people off. That’s no way to ensure everyone in America has his or her basic needs met. Rather, it is best to allow capitalism to create the maximum wealth possible, but to impose progressive taxes to provide for people who are not adequately cared for in the free market. This, however, is a valid argument only when it comes from liberals who believe in such a system. Conservatives who advocate for low, regressive tax rates and eliminating the social safety net can’t make that argument. So instead they just attack Romney for laying people off as if that were a bad thing. It’s intellectually dishonest.
“Criticizing one businessman for one set of practices is not an assault on capitalism,” says Gingrich. But it is. And Perry’s dichotomy is false. As Matthew Yglesias explains in Slate, the entrepreneurs who start a business and add jobs to the economy are often responsible for job losses at the companies they out-compete. For every iPad designer employed by Apple, there might be someone getting laid off from a company that manufactures CDs. Ultimately, Romney was no more a force for good or ill than any other capitalist who seeks simply to create wealth. Gingrich and Perry are being opportunistic and hypocritical. That’s why Ron Paul, the only Republican candidate with consistent intellectual integrity, has called them out for betraying their supposed beliefs. “The principle of restructuring is a good thing in the marketplace,” said Paul.
Liberals, on the other hand, should raise this issue, but not merely in and of itself. Complaining that Romney was responsible for some people losing their jobs is an anti-capitalist trope that is at odds with liberal values. Liberals don’t believe there is anything wrong with companies seeking to be efficient and profitable. Rather they believe that those companies and their owners should be regulated and taxed to benefit the public good. Romney’s behavior is relevant only insofar as one is also noting that he does not couple his massive wealth creation with a sense of social obligation in public policy.
On his MSNBC program Wednesday night, Lawrence O’Donnell attempted to demonstrate the supposed distinction between Romney’s behavior and that of a virtuous capitalist by way of analogy. Even Republicans, argued O’Donnell, would agree that a stripper’s earnings are not of the same moral value as a nurse’s. But Romney was neither a stripper nor a nurse. Presumably O’Donnell would agree that running a paper company is neither good, like nursing, nor bad, like stripping, since paper is morally neutral. (That is, of course, if like O’Donnell you object to stripping: I personally think there’s nothing immoral about stripping.)
If Romney’s companies were making products that are morally neutral the question is simply about jobs. Should he have allowed inefficiencies that would reduce his profit margin? Perhaps it would have been nice of him to do so. But laying them off doesn’t make him a bad person.
“Mitt Romney fired people to make profits… massive profits,” intoned O’Donnell. That may sound unpleasant, but to argue that such behavior is immoral is to argue that capitalism itself is as well. If he didn’t fire people his competitors may have, and that would leave him with no choice but to do the same to stay competitive.
Gingrich suggests that Romney’s behavior might have been “exploitative.” Herman Cain led the National Restaurant Association (NRA), a trade group that represents the interests of the fast food industry in Washington. These companies pay their workers minimum wage or just above it, typically without benefits such as health insurance. The NRA lobbies Congress to keep the minimum wage low to keep profits high. Neither Gingrich nor Perry criticized Cain for that, because it is the nature of capitalism that companies will typically exploit workers as much as they legally can.
And that’s what gives the criticism of Romney some legitimacy, not from conservatives like Gingrich and Perry, but from liberals like O’Donnell.
It is the duty of government to protect and care for workers, to prevent exploitation and ameliorate its effects. That means allowing unions to provide a counterweight to corporate profit motives. It means imposing progressive taxes with high rates on the massive profits and of firms like Bain Capital and the large compensation packages of its top employees. And then it means using that government revenue to provide a basic social safety net. That is both a humanitarian obligation and wise investment in our labor force and future economic growth. Such a safety net would consist of affordable universal health insurance, good free public schools, adequate retirement insurance and subsidies for housing and food, among other things. That would have helped the workers in the film who complain of having lost their health insurance and their home and even skipped meals to feed their children. Unfortunately, Romney opposes this entire agenda. He wants to kneecap the National Labor Relations Board, repeal the Affordable Care Act, cut funding for Medicaid, food stamps and welfare, privatize Medicare and cut Social Security. It is this agenda that shows Romney to be greedy and heartless, not the way he made his living.
This is the essential difference between liberals and conservatives. “When Mitt Romney Came to Town” demagogues Romney’s large house, as if making money and living well is immoral. It isn’t, as liberal defenders of John Edwards pointed out when he was mocked and criticized for building a huge mansion and getting expensive haircuts. Nor was it fair for Republicans to impugn Edwards’ wealth as an ill-gotten gain because he earned it as a trial lawyer. As Republicans are so fond of arguing when it is to their political advantage, America has become such a prosperous and powerful nation precisely because we allow enterprising individuals—be they attorneys or private equity executives—to work hard and succeed.
The test of whether a wealthy person would make a good president is not whether he takes lower profits from his company to keep extra workers employed. Some commentators accused Edwards of hypocrisy because his huge house would not be energy efficient while he advocated a cap-and-trade program to limit greenhouse gas emissions. That was a stupid complaint. One rich person building a smaller house would not have appreciably slowed the rate of global warming. The entire United States accepting a cost for emitting carbon would, because the higher cost of energy would cause millions of Americans to reduce their energy consumption. But there would still be some people so rich that they would pay the cost without it affecting their behavior. Edwards was willing to pay more for energy in his house that would consume so much of it. That reflects a public spirit, not hypocrisy.
So it is fair to criticize Romney’s behavior at Bain in the context of his plutocratic policies. But since Gingrich and Perry share those policies, they are not doing so. When Rick Perry says, “When people can point to where you made a quick profit and kicked people out of their jobs, that is an issue that’s got to be addressed,” he is spouting nonsense. Of course people being unemployed and left without health insurance is a problem, but Perry, like Romney, has no plan to address it.
Correction: This article originally stated that Gingrich consulted for Fannie Mae as well as Freddie Mac. He only worked for Freddie Mac.