A Business Contract With America? It’s Not Enough UPDATED

Timothy Dalyrymple is a published author, and a Ph.D. While I was learning to field strip an M-16, he was learning about Kierkegaard. He’s also got more degrees than you can shake a stick at. He’s generally a good guy, means well, wants the best for our country, and on top of it all, he lets a lightweight like me stand up on my wee little soapbox and hold forth on why I am Catholic.

Timothy, managing editor of the Patheos Evangelical portal, has been hanging around lately with the likes of Hugh Hewitt, “a nationally syndicated radio host with Salem; he’s also a brilliant law professor and practicing attorney, an accomplished author, and a true leader in the conservative movement.” When I lived in Southern California, I used to watch Hewitt  on KPBS from time to time.

Anyhoo, Tim and Hugh are very concerned about the Romney campaign having being caught flat-footed by the Supreme Court Decision on healthcare reform. And they sure were, weren’t they? Blindsided is more like it. Over on his blog, Hewitt writes that,

it is clear the GOP doesn’t yet get the enormous, urgent need to lay out a detailed timeline for repeal, one that not only underscores the resolve of the party but which promises accountability.  Governor Romney, Speaker Boehner and Senator McConnell would harness the powerful energy of the grassroots in a way not seen in years if they appeared together in the near future and unveiled just such a plan, one replete with the specifics of how repeal is accomplished and the target dates for getting it done, target dates that don’t accept the “washington way” of doing things but instead convey their collective resolve to act as though the economy really and truly needed repeal.  Such a plan would in essence be a “Contract with America” with only one promise, but the one that matters most right now: Repeal by a date certain, a date that is in black and white and backed up by the pledge of the nominee and the leaders of the party on the Hill, a repeal that would remove the cloud and by necessity be accompanied by budget that tackles the entitlement issues.

These words, and hanging out with Hugh at a conference, inspired Timothy to come up with the idea that the better bet would be to draft  a “Business Contract with America.” I guess the business angle is supposed to give us all warm, fuzzy feelings regarding the benevolent moves of the invisible hand which, in case you missed it, hasn’t been invisible since FDR was president. The late Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., wrote all about this fact in The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. That’s a great book, by the way, and should be required reading for those interested in the history of big business. Of course, that history was written about an America that made things, while nowadays, she tends to just consume things made by others.

Back to the business contract idea, over on his blog Philosophical FragmentsTim writes,

There are advantages to focusing like a laser on this issue (ed. the ACA, aka “Obamacare”).  What I would recommend, though, is a Business Contract with America, where the first point is the kind of detailed commitment to repealing Obamacare that Hugh describes, given the massive burden that Obamacare will place on our national economy in the years to come.  The second part would be Romney’s plan to get the economy humming again, and the third part would be entitlement reform.  One could also include energy and immigration reform as the fourth and fifth parts of the plan, but the Romney campaign and leading Republicans on the Hill (since they would inevitably, regardless of what their plans actually said, be painted as hating brown people and wanting to destroy the planet) may prefer to focus on the first three issues.

Among the advantages of a “Contract” approach are:

  1. That voters get to vote for plans and not just principles.  Keep them simple but specific, with measurable goals and means of accountability.  Voters see something very concrete and pragmatic, as opposed to the gaseous bloviations that too often pass for political speechmaking.
  2. A “Contract” approach, as we saw with Newt in 1994, nationalizes every Congressional race.  When you vote for the candidate who signed the contract, you’re voting now just for that candidate and his local concerns but also for the contract.  It also communicates that merely electing Romney is not enough; one must also win both houses of Congress in order to see the Contract put into action.  In other words, it holds the voters accountable to do everything they can to support Republicans.
  3. It clarifies the issues at stake in the election.  The country feels adrift.  The Obama administration spent its capital and has no real solutions.  Setting forth a plan, agreed upon across the party, puts to rest the “Party of No” accusations and shows the Republicans have clear solutions to offer.

Whereupon I get up on my tiny soapbox and note that if Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., CEO of General Motors from 1923 to 1946, were running for President, I might buy into this “business contract” idea. Sloan, too, wrote a book that should be required reading entitled My Years With General Motors.  But before I get excited about any “business contracts” that the Romney campaign comes up with, complete with high sounding, pie-in-the-clear-blue-sky, All-American ideals, I recall that Mr. Sloan is dead, and Romney ain’t his brand of manager. The Romney Business Model, see, is more along the lines of the Michael Milken school of business: buy up companies, split up their parts, send jobs overseas, or eliminate them totally, then sell said companies off to the highest bidder, pocket the proceeds, rinse, repeat. Perhaps it will make a great memoir someday, with the catchy title My Years With Bain Capital, though I doubt it would become the classic that Sloan’s book rightfully is.

Not that President Obama is any better at managing the economy, and he quite possibly may be worse. Look. I’m not a brilliant lawyer, renowned professor, sought after speaker, acclaimed author, talk show buzz generating talking head, nor self-appointed party spinmeister, etc. I’m a simple man. Simple enough to have sworn an oath to defend this country, and her principles, at the risk of life and limb. Simple enough to know that when folks, especially Christians, start drafting platforms for political parties with “business” as the center point, nay, the key selling point, we’ve lost our way. Voting “for plans and not just principles?” Principles are the foundations of plans, and unfortunately for the GOP, there isn’t a hell of a lot of difference between the party platforms of either major party. It’s ludicrous to pretend as though there still is.

To summarize my little soap-box diatribe, full of sound and fury, perhaps signifying nothing, I argue that putting together a “Business Contract With America” may excite the 1% (and I don’t mean the 1% that has served our nation in the military), it may even excite the other top ten percent of the wannabee-on-top-o’ the pyramid types, but I would hazard to say that the rest of us would be completely and utterly underwhelmed. It underwhelms me, for sure.

Appeal to my sense of duty, honor, and country. Stop appealing to my wallet, and how by voting for Romney, I’ll keep more of my greenbacks safe for democracy.  If that’s all there is to entice me, hear me yawn. Because I am the one percent who has been happily, and cheerfully, lugging, and sacrificing, for the principles, not plans, that were drafted eloquently in a document 236 years ago.

Here, my brothers and sisters in arms, GI Joes and Janes, the backbone of this nation, the future leaders, entreprenuers, mothers, fathers, captains of industry, dreamers, writers, etc., who serve this great country of ours for her principles, read such words for us.

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To all political candidates, I would suggest the following: Appeal to our better selves, or fade away.

UPDATE:

Is the ACA the last step towards Belloc’s feared “Servile State?”

In 2008, aides say the “Bain Way” didn’t work.

  • Dcn Scott

    Great post Frank. In my estimation the worst aspect of “conservatism” in the U.S. is to equate it with “capitalism,” as opposed to a better form of free enterprise. I would be hard-pressed to think of a less conservative force on earth. As to it leading to democracy and liberty, I offer the counter-argument of China.

  • http://egregioustwaddle.blogspot.com/ Joanne K McPortland

    Frank, you’re a simple man the way Sam Ervin was “just an ol’ country lawyer.” :)

    • Frank Weathers

      Heh!

  • Timothy Dalrymple

    Thanks for showing this to me, Frank. A couple minor points:

    (1) I’m Director of Content at Patheos, although I do also serve as the managing editor of the Evangelical Channel. I love, love, love that we have a variety of voices on the site, especially those that disagree with my own. I don’t give you a soapbox; you’ve earned it, and we all learn together.
    (2) I was in favor of a Business Contract with America (meaning, I trust it’s clear, a contract oriented toward moving the American economy forward) since at least 2008, so it was not prompted by hanging out with Hugh.
    (3) I said “plans and not *just* principles,” not plans *instead of* principles, so your “principles not plans” shtick is a bit misdirected (or at least opportunistic). Principles are critical, of course I agree, but it’s not always clear how principles are best applied on the ground. I grow weary of hearing politicians who are big on airy principles but frustratingly sparse on detailed plans. Do you not agree that it’s helpful to hear what precisely our candidates believe will work? It’s on the level of plans that the differences between the parties often become more clear.
    (4) Your characterization of Mitt’s business experience is extremely limited and tilted. It’s as though you’ve only read the hatchet jobs. Romney’s role was to find where capital would be most productive, which means directing it toward businesses with great growth potential and, sometimes, taking it away from failing enterprises. While it’s sad for those who lose their jobs, sometimes it’s in the best interest of the economy as a whole for money to be taken from one enterprise doomed to failure and directed to another where jobs can be maintained for the long term. But the cases of stripping companies down and selling them for parts are far fewer than the cases — Bain had a truly remarkable track record in this — where they gave capital to companies that wildly expanded and went on to employ tens of thousands of people for decades. Also, contra Milliken, Mitt was renowned in Boston business circles for his integrity, and also in other areas (the LDS church, the Olympics, etc) where he worked. All of this is a bit tangential, though, since the point is that Romney understands the economy far better than his opponent and would be, I believe, the best equipped to drive forward policies that serve businesses.
    (5) It’s a little too easy to minimize this as a “pocketbook” issue. When unemployment is so severe, when our economic contraction is so strong and so perilous, when so many people are desperately struggling to make it by, getting the economy growing again is extremely important. It’s not just a question of how fat their wallet is; it’s a question of keeping the house or putting food on the table. Moreover, without a flourishing economy, we cannot afford all the programs that serve for the general social good, nor can we be as generous nationally and internationally as we would like to be. It has nothing to do with the invisible hand or warm, fuzzy feelings. Even those who rejected the invisible hand philosophy want to get the economy growing again, do they not?
    (6) I deeply appreciate your service in the military — and I note your deft rhetoric opposing the guy studying Kierkegaard with the guy learning to field-strip an M-16, or the highfallutin’ businessman with the guy who’s “simple” enough to be willing to die for his country, etc. You might bear in might that just because one does not enter the military, it does not follow that one is not willing to die for his country. I’ve inquired twice about entering the military and been rebuffed because I broke my neck in a gymnastics accident in college. And others have less dramatic stories, but they may have thoroughly valid reasons. Of course, Mitt has a very high support rating amongst the military, so if the measure is what military members want, then we should elect Mitt. Besides, many military folks go on to be small business owners, or the employees of businesses, so we’re all in this together. Small business owners, (former or present) military or not, are also the “backbone of this country.”
    (7) Finally, why can a Christian not recommend a “Business Contract with America” approach? Of course Romney already has fleshed out his policies on many other issues, and of course the platform emerging from the national convention would include many other issues. I’ve also, on my blog, spelled out many other ways in which I think Romney should speak to social and cultural issues. Christians can be political advisors as well, even armchair ones, and even when they think a plan that centers on the rejuvenation of American businesses is a critical element of the message the candidate requires.
    Anyway, I’ll stop there. But thanks for the good-natured conversation, and thanks again for the head’s up. God bless.

    • Frank Weathers

      Thanks for your comment Tim. I knew you had something to do with content here at Patheos, though I’m still not sure how I slipped into the program. Thanks for letting me come aboard.

      Also, I like Hugh Hewitt, but it mystifies me as to how he thinks that the one issue that must be focused on is the ACA. One issue candidates don’t get the job done, though preaching to the choir about it will appear to be wildly successful at the convention. Remember all the love last time for “drill, baby, drill?” *crickets chirping*

      Regarding Mr. Romney’s success at Bain Capital, let’s be honest and agree that though it was wildly successful for himself, his partners, and the small number of companies that were turned around, it didn’t make much of a dent in the big scheme of things. The facts are that Mr. Romney founded Bain and ran it during a very favorable time in the U.S. economy: the years 1984 through 1999. A time, I might add, when going global was the hip thing to do, as was outsourcing jobs to emerging markets. Favorable timing also has something to do with his record there. How do I know? Because there were plenty of managers of funds through that time period that look like geniuses too. In fact, just owning the unmanaged S&P 500 Index during that time period made folks with the ability to bear risk seem like they had the golden touch. The index ended 1983 at 164.93, and by the end of 1999, it stood at 1469.25. There was only one negative year in that entire series (-3.11% in 1990). Not bad, huh? After including dividends, the total return effect is even more impressive.

      Regarding Mr. Romney’s tenure at Bain, there has been some interesting information brought up recently via the folks at FactCheck.org. Perhaps they too are an impure source, but they have corraborating information from other sources, including Bain Capital itself, and the Wall Street Journal, noting that lately the returns Governor Romney has been credited with extend to the entire time Bain Capital has been in existence, and not just the 1984-1999 timeframe in which he was actively running the company. Have a look at the information. So, whether Mr. Romney was a fabulously successful coin flipper, or he was just riding the same secular trend that propelled many to success in finance, before the Internet Bubble burst, is something that voters with have to decide for themselves.

      Plans are good, and plans are important, but the principles and ideals that underlie the plans, are much more important. That you believe that Mr. Romney is the more principled of the two candidates is an act of faith, faith that experience does not warrant, I’m afraid. Also, the hope you expressed of gaining majorities in both the House, the Senate, while also taking the White House, belies the fact that bipartisan votes amongst all of our representatives have occurred (see the NDAA bill votes especially) where the constitutional rights of citizens have been legislated away for the interests of our “safety” in the war on terror. When 96 of 100 Senators vote for suspension of rights of habeas corpus, and trial by jury for citizens, indefinite detention, etc., the idea that crosses my mind is to vote all of these folks out of office, no matter what party they represent. They are no better than the British whom the Declaration addressed in the list of grievances.

      I’m not the only one to notice that Romney’s campaign has appeared becalmed and in the doldrums. The folks at the Wall Street Journal have lit into him, saying “the campaign looks confused in addition to being politically dumb.” As I said in my post, if it’s just “the economy, stupid,” than there needs to be more meat. But how is it that 7 days in the doldrums have occurred following the ACA ruling? Good planning would have addressed the three possible scenarios that would have emerged, yet there has been no coherent message from Candidate Romney? It doesn’t bode well for the strategy that either you or Mr. Hewitt are calling for, and it’s an unrealistic strategy because the ACA will not be repealed. If Mr. Romney does gain the White House, then realistically he’ll be cherry picking and adjusting the ACA, not repealing it.

      Here’s the thing, as John Courtney Murray, SJ, wrote 50 years ago,

      Within the problematic of a Christian humanism the question here is whether this concept of the people in their relation to the temporal power can and ought to be accepted. Can the human value in the statement that the people shall judge the prince and the legislative act—as well as elect him, limit his powers, and direct the manner of their exercise—be affirmed? Can all its implications be loyally accepted? Nature has made the statement. Is the work of grace one of contradiction, or of transformation?

      These are the questions the American experiment faces now. These are the principles that must be reaffirmed, and they point to the plans that need to be made, pointing like an arrow towards the policies that need to be implemented. The current administration, and the current Congress, have both given our history and our legacy of liberty short shrift. That is why I say a “business contract,” made by the consumate breakers of contracts, is not enough for the electorate. What is needed is a covenant, an unbreakable bond between generations past, present, and future. Anything less is politics as usual, with the requisite results.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Any “business contract with America” has to somehow recognize the reality that the business practices of our modern world are not the business practices of classical capitalism, or even of the golden age of robber barons. Say what you will about Carnegie, Gould, Mellon, Vanderbilt, etc, but they a) made their money in America, 2) mostly kept it in America, 3) created millions of American jobs in the process, 4) gave millions of dollars back to America for the civic good. In the end, they made our country a better place for everyone.

    Does that same impulse really rule the business world today? Are we to believe that ethics and morality, which have collapsed across all sectors of modern life, have somehow remained pure as the driven snow in the realm of business? If so, then may I have some of that Kool-Aid? If not, then we may need a different way forward than Hayek or the Austrians. Our economic system, like our constitution, was “made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

    At this point I’ll add that I spent a good decade thinking the opposite, and was a dues-paying member of the Libertarian Party. I’ve seen, however, that bigness is the enemy, in either government OR business. The people need to act as a check on the government, and the government needs to act as a check on the tendency of money to gather in fewer and fewer hands. The “capitalism uber alles” faction of the right has not protected our interests in the past, and I’d like to know what Romney and the current leadership think is a valid vision. Remember when both parties mocked Ross Perot’s prediction of a “giant sucking sound” from NAFTA? Good times, good times, because we all know that never happened. Oh, wait…

    Similarly, I’d need to know if Romney thinks TARP was good or bad. If he would have done the same, then we have a serious problem, because rewarding reckless behavior in the financial sector will inevitably lead to more reckless behavior in the future. If capitalism is to function at all, then the risk must remain part of the equation. You can’t address risk with socialistic principles and reward with capitalistic principles.

    Finally, what exactly will the response be to “ACA”? The Republicans had 8 years to address a serious issue with healthcare, and didn’t. Repeal is nice, but what will you offer in its place? We need a solution to opening healthcare to everyone, as I wrote about here http://www.patheos.com/blogs/godandthemachine/2012/06/just-another-obamacare-post/. What is Romney’s solution?

    Any business contract with America needs more EF Schumacher and less Milton Freidman. We need “an economics as is people mattered.” I don’t pretend that our tiny faction of quixotic Distributists could ever carry the day, but if the brain trust of the modern conservative movement (which, sadly, is yoked to the Republican Party) takes these issues seriously, they need to at least pay attention to the ideas and concerns at the heart of Distributism. Too much of modern Republican economic thought is utilitarian in nature, and that has nothing to do with true conservatism. The family is the central organizing element of civilization, and modern capitalism seems as hell-bent on destroying it as modern socialism does.

    Actual conservatives—people who value the work of writers like Kirk and Eliot and Chesterton and Belloc—neither like nor trust the modern Republican Party. We see minimal differences between the two dominant parties, with the Democrats lining up to embrace a suffocating all-powerful State and Republicans lining up to embrace a suffocating all-powerful Business. Frankly, I usually, reluctantly choose the “business” side of that equation, since they don’t have guns or jails or the IRS, and they actually tend to produce things. Don’t mistake that reluctant support, however, for a support of unfettered and unrestrained capitalism. We need a better choice, and if Christian voices are at the table where policies are being crafted, we need a voice that embraces Gospel values and a capitalism tempered by Christian principles.

  • http://www.thewordinc.org Kevin O’Brien

    It seems, unless I’m reading this wrong, that Mr. Dalrymple is aruging that a specific “contract” focuses the attention of the electorate on the specifics behind the principles, such as a timetable for repeal, etc. Mr. Weathers is countering not so much with a rebuttal of that contention, as he is with attacking a foundational assumption in Dalrymple’s approach – the assumption that any of these people can be trusted, or that any of them gives a fig about the good of the U.S.A. Thus Frank says principles matter more than plans, and Timothy says you can’t have one without the other. Clearly they’re both right as far as that goes, but clearly the underlying issue – can we trust these guys? – is not resolved.

    I personally think the proof will be in the pudding. Romney will shy away from any “contract” or any bold proposal for repeal of Obamacare, as he and his handlers seem scared of taking such a stance. Why would this be? Any sane American knows that this is the issue to win or lose on in the November elections. But then again, any sane American knew that Bob Dole and John McCain were, to take just two examples, the last people in the world who would be elected president. Why is there this disconnect between the voters and the parties? Why do paid campaign advisers not see the obvious strategy in front of their eyes – a strategy that you’d hear in any bar room in America?

    The only answer is that there’s more at stake here than the interests of the American people. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats will repeals Obamacare; not because both parties recognize the need for some form of universal health care, but because big insurance and big pharm are running the show, not the voters – except in so far that the voters want something for nothing.

    This is the Unholy Family – Big Business Daddy married to Big Government Mommy, raising a spoiled electorate Brat they refuse to wean from a teat that gives make-believe milk.

  • Frank Weathers

    Eugene Robinson, writing in the Washington Post, also notes “the political risks of Mitt Romney’s financial skills.” Which is short-hand for what I’ve been saying here. Robinson’s piece, and other interesting articles that are similar in nature, may be found here.


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