Friday, January 13, 2012

Money, Morality and Mittens

I've been following some of the back and forth in the MSM and the blogosphere about Mitt Romney, what did or did not happen with Bain and what it tells - or fails to tell - us about the Mittster. The crude analysis is that Bain robbed a certain company blind in the 90s and this tells us Romney is a Bad Guy, a vulture capitalist. OMG even Newt tells us it's true!!!!!

To me, it's another round of reducing political judgment to matters of morality.

Since the City of San Diego has done much the same with its own pension fund, the decision to underfund having been made by union heads and politicians of both parties, the assault on worker pensions and retirement funds can't simply be laid at the feet of rapacious Republicans, though they can claim the lion's share of the responsibility. Here are three posts of mine from a few years back discussing how Democrats have worked very hard to assist with dismantling the legacy of FDR, Truman and LBJ. That's not the interesting part of the hand-wringing over Mittens, at least not to me.

What piques my interest is how determinedly the loudest voices on the Left want to make this a moral judgment rather than to address it politically. The focus is on the particulars of the case and what it says about Romney's character. Kevin Drum talks about the contrast between Bain making money and factory workers losing their pensions and whether voters will be more upset by the latter than Romney was, while Paul Krugman directly questions Romney's ethics and capacity for compassion, his moral imagination, if you will. Bob Somerby goes after Rachel Maddow in "The Big Stupid Wins" for not even getting that interested and choosing to make the long-suffering Seamus and his bout of diarrhea the paradigm by which we unwashed masses should comprehend the Mittster.

Substituting morality (He abuses his pet! He laughs at the little people!) for politics (What are his policies on healthcare? How did he handle corporate regulation when governor?) reduces the scope and scale of public scrutiny, asking people to respond viscerally and with antipathy/euphoria towards a particular political actor rather than step back and ask questions about a larger policy and approach to governance. It's a method that can win elections but won't have much power for building and sustaining coalitions. It is also by its very nature more amenable to politics of resentment (You threaten me, you're The Other, you're an enemy, you must be eradicated) which in turn favors the forces of reaction, whether restorative or redemptive.

Let me be clear that I'm not opposed to the use of moral (or ethical) claims in political arguments. I pass plenty of judgements. Good thinkers, such as Krugman and Somerby, use moral arguments to bolster their very fact-based claims, giving their analyses another method by which to persuade their readers. Sadly, the bulk of the commentariat will pull a Maddow and will not be able to rise above the merely moralistic. When dealing with politics-as-cocktail-party writers (Collins, Dowd), we'll be lucky if we can escape the realm of taste (Oh, those awful earth-tone sweaters!) and attain a moral stance, no matter how shallow.

In marked distinction from the moralistic tone of most Bain-focused posts, there is a dispassionate analysis of the matter, both in its particulars and on its wider political meaning in this post on Sic Semper Tyrannis, "Mitt Romney and Bain Capital: Understanding the Reality" by Robert Lifton. Lifton spends the bulk of the article talking about what private equity funds do and why. He neither approves nor disapproves of these organizations, he just explains them. After this, he directs his attention to Romney (my emphasis):
So what does all of that tell us about Mitt Romney. Certainly, his success in founding the Bain equity fund and operating it very successfully for a number of years speaks to his initiative and intelligence, his commitment to hard work, his ability to pull together a team of talented people and work closely with them. It also tells us that he is willing to take risks and to take action required to achieve his goals irrespective of whether that action helps or hurts people affected by it – in this case employees of the acquired companies. It also tells us that he is flexible – he could not accomplish what he did without being adaptable, willing to “go with the flow” and accommodate his views to his business interests and those of his investors and lenders. We have already seen much of that flexibility in his willingness as a candidate to change his political positions to accommodate the demands of the constituency whose support he is seeking. It also tells us that what he says now on the stump is not necessarily what he will do if he is elected president to accomplish his goals.
It also should be evident that “turning around” a business has little relationship with trying to change the direction of a country. The objectives of Bain were clear-cut: increase the profits from the business at whatever cost to employees or suppliers. The objectives of a nation are rarely clear-cut and reflect the balancing of interests  of different constituencies with different, often conflicting, desires and aims. The ability to change an acquired company’s direction lay within the power of Bain management. By contrast, the power of a President is diffuse and depends on political circumstances beyond the President’s control, like which party is in power in which branch of government. Leading a nation in a particular direction in those circumstances is very difficult if not impossible, and requires political talents of the highest order to bring the nation with him.
And therein lies the rub. Mitt Romney of Bain Capital was a good businessman.  The selection process of choosing the Republican candidate and later the President calls for a different valuation based on other criteria: choosing a political leader whose values conform to those of the voter making the choice. A person whose emotional make-up allows him to handle the crushing burdens of office and gut wrenching decisions such as sending troops off to war. Mitt Romney’s business activities at Bain tell us very little about those important values and what he would seek to do as President.  And unfortunately, Mitt Romney’s career as a politician and now as a candidate tell us little more than that he can be all things to all people.  We have to look elsewhere than Bain Capital to make a well-reasoned decision about Romney’s qualifications for the job of President.
This bigger picture is the political story that needs to be told and the political question(s) that must be asked. Shouting about the morality of how Bain dealt with the acquired company will not stick, particularly if the words are coming from Newt Gingrich. (Warning to left wing analysts - if you are agreeing with Newt, you'd better wonder what's going wrong in your argument.) Talking about the poor treatment of blue collar workers doesn't work in this country. It hasn't since Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. People don't want to show solidarity with the unemployed lest their employers decide they should join those ranks.They may dislike what Bain as a company does, but they can be persuaded that Romney was simply acting in the interests of his company, that he earned that return from the investment.

What Lifton's argument does is show the qualities that made Romney successful in the business world are not going to serve well in politics, and he never has to make a claim that there is something morally deficient about Mittens. Two different kinds of work, two different kinds of skills. On this you can build a critical analysis. You can give someone their due, not demonize them, and still pull the rug out from under their feet.

Of course, there is the question of The Big Stupid (thank you, Incomparable One, for adding yet another marvelous phrase to my political invectives collection), which says "So what? Moralizing means more viewers, more page views, more entertainment. You want talking heads? Go watch C-Span." Morality sells, as any good televangelist can attest, and, perhaps, in our degraded discourse, only antipathy/euphoria can make a big enough impression to move people to action.

When there's not much euphoria to be had, antipathy rules. Will the voters hate Mittens with his mitts on the workers' money more than the incumbent with his bail out of Wall Street? I'm not holding my breath.



Joyce L. Arnold said...

I'm so glad you're writing about this.

A focus on "morality" is so much easier than on political abilities and policies.

quixote said...

You've articulated an uneasiness I've been feeling about the Mittbot discussion for a while now. The closest I've come is, "Talk about what he did as Governor!" But what you said is what I mean.

redscott said...

I generally agree with the post. As Somerby notes, the Big Stupid usually revolves around small-bore, titillating questions about whether or not Politician A is a Bad Person, regardless of the policies at stake. (Like Somerby, I don't want to hear one more time about what Romney did or didn't do in transporting his dog cross-country.) Still, setting aside whether or not his work at Bain could or should be used in a political campaign, it is interesting to me, and disturbing, and Lifton pointed it out, what a successful business today now means - liquidating the workers and dislocating the local community in search of short-term profit. Henry Ford certainly wasn't A Good Man, but he did put out a tangible, socially useful product and paid his workers enough so they could afford it. To me, Bain and private equity firms (which wouldn't exist except for favorable tax treatment 30 years ago) are interesting because they're reflective of where we've turned - toward an economy not based on profit through some kind of at least nominally productive activity, but pure rent seeking. The more interesting question then isn't whether Romney=Evil but whether this is the kind of economy we want. I wish we could talk about that.