Battling Over Bain: Jobs, Free Enterprise, and Morality

In New Hampshire and South Carolina, we are now witnessing the economic equivalent of conservatives attacking a pro-life colleague using Planned Parenthood talking points. Let’s be clear about what’s happening here: Acting out of personal frustration and political desperation, three leading conservative politicians are faking outrage about Mitt Romney’s business practices and in so doing are actively selling poisonous moral and economic ideas to the American people.  The language of the Occupy movement is infecting Republican rhetoric.

My concern is not so much for the twists and turns of any given political week but instead the larger, emerging meta-narrative that these Republicans are now feeding.  The Occupy world sees a job as a right, not a privilege.  The Occupy world tells Americans that their hard work is futile, and they can never achieve their dreams so long as the malicious 1% grow wealthier.  The Occupy world sees ordinary Americans as victims.  This is a narrative that is not only false but eats away at the soul of the American people.

Rebutting this narrative may be one of the great moral tasks of our time, and in rebutting that narrative we will not only reverse American decline but we will rescue millions of Americans from lives dominated by purposelessness, defeat, and dependency.

Here is the core truth about jobs, corporations, and personal responsibility:  An employer does not exist to create jobs, rather a job exists to help an employer thrive.  In other words, rational companies hire workers not simply because they can (hey, the money’s there, why not?) but because that worker will materially contribute to the company’s success.  This arrangement provides a profound mutual benefit: the employer gets the fruit of the worker’s effort, and the worker not only gets a salary but also the great benefit of purposeful work.

Struggling companies and unions often lose sight of this social compact.  Unions (and non-union employees) often see the employer as simply a source of jobs, not an enterprise to be sustained and nurtured.  Employers will sometimes grow too attached to their employees and watch the enterprise flounder as too many people — or the wrong people — dominate the payroll.  Employers will also fail by not providing sufficient compensation and treatment for the efforts they demand, leading to high turnover and constant employee discontent.

What do we do when a company struggles?  What should be our priority?  The answer is simple: seek a turnaround.  Is it rational to look at falling sales, rising costs, and aging equipment and say, “No matter what, we will not cut jobs”?  Businesses cannot possibly make such a vow.  Even if it’s a goal, it can’t possibly be a promise.

What did Mitt Romney do?  He invested in startups and struggling companies (the riskiest and most dangerous investments one can make — but also among the most crucial for the health of a free enterprise system) not with the goal of “creating jobs” but with the goal of making money.  In other words, he had the same goal as virtually every rational business owner.  But in the miracle of the free enterprise system, if he succeeded in turning around a failing company or in creating a successful new corporation, people got jobs — real jobs, purposeful jobs.  Staples has gone from one store to more than 2,000 worldwide.  Do you think that created jobs?  Similar stories can be told of other Bain investments, like Domino’s Pizza or Sports Authority.

Of course not all investments worked.  Not all businesses can survive.  Then what do you do?  You take what value you can and then give it another try, with another business at another location.  The value you take becomes part of the investment in the next enterprise.  This process is at the core of the free enterprise system.

To be sure, it is not at all painless.  And in that pain comes political opportunity, as sometimes well-meaning and (more frequently) opportunistic politicians tell suffering people that they are experiencing an injustice, that they are helpless in their plight, and that only the intervention of the government can give them the security they crave.  The South, plagued for generations with poor education, systemic racism, and simmering class resentments, has historically been particularly fertile ground for “people versus powerful” populism, and it’s hardly a coincidence that the attacks on Mitt are reaching a crescendo as we head towards South Carolina.

Ironically, we are now facing a primary campaign that is a virtual dry run for the general election, with the Republican front-runner getting hammered from the left by hysterical populist rhetoric.  Perhaps this fight will serve to toughen Mitt Romney for the general election.

But there could be a more ominous outcome.  Perhaps the attacks will work, and the Republican party will have lost the free enterprise argument by arguing against itself, and we’ll be left with two candidates — one from each party — who seek to attain power by pandering to the feelings dependence, powerlessness, and hopelessness of an increasingly economically ignorant population.


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