For Mitt Romney, the fundamental argument underpinning his presidential candidacy is his experience as a top executive at Bain Capital, the huge Boston-based private equity firm. That is especially true now because he must disown his most important achievement as Massachusetts governor — health care reform — in order to assuage the Tea Party extremists in his own party. But what does his business career tell us about the economic policies that might be pursued by the Republican front-runner — and about his worldview? Much could have been gleaned from the career history of George W. Bush, if only voters had paid closer attention to the unflattering reports of his experience as oilman and baseball team owner that accumulated in 1999 and 2000.
As the stories behind Romney’s success unfold in the coming campaign, the answer is likely to be that Bain Capital has prospered during the past quarter-century promoting a harsher brand of enterprise — one that ruins communities, impoverishes workers, and exports American jobs, all in the name of shareholder “value.”
In the current issue of New York Magazine, reporter Benjamin Wallace-Wells begins the process of unpacking what Romney and his colleagues in management consulting and private equity have wrought upon the U.S. economy. Wallace-Wells opens his narrative with a telling recent anecdote from the campaign trail in Iowa, where Romney lectured a disbelieving crowd on the issue of corporate personhood. When a heckler urged raising taxes on corporations, Romney replied with condescension: “Corporations are people too, my friend….”
Of course in the strictest sense he was right: The management, shareholders, and workers of every corporation are indeed human beings, and it is to those human beings that the money earned by corporations, after taxes, is paid. But as Wallace-Wells discovers, Romney and company have done much to change how those earnings are apportioned, encouraging massive increases in the amount appropriated by management and huge reductions in wages and benefits paid to workers. Creating incentives for managers to maximize stock prices — which would explode their own compensation — simultaneously undermined old-fashioned corporate responsibility toward employees, communities, and the nation as a whole. The deepest implication of the consultant creed that Romney represents is an ugly Darwinism — or so Wallace-Wells suggests.
But as consultants, there was only so much that Romney and the Bain crowd could do to change any corporation. Wanting to put their theories into practice, and sensing that big profits could ensue, they formed Bain Capital, whose record in corporate takeovers and turnarounds became the envy of the industry — and the ruin of thousands of workers and their families unlucky enough to become collateral damage.
The improved efficiency and productivity of private enterprise over the past two decades certainly were not without benefit to society, in lower prices, better technology and even, for a while, higher employment. But the perfect “alignment” of incentives between corporate managers and shareholders, without any regulatory brakes, led to worsening economic inequality, executive recklessness, stock manipulation, and a laser-like focus on the short term — in short, all of the ills that underlie American economic decline. Those same incentives have been trained on the political system to ensure decisions that benefit those same overpaid, seemingly sociopathic bankers and investors — now known as the “one percent.” They could scarcely hope for a more sympathetic candidate than the man from Bain.