Romney & Bain: Intention versus Method

Yuval, Avik Roy, Ramesh, Michael Walsh and Jonathan Last at The Weekly Standard, among many others, have all written perceptively about the relationship between Mitt Romney’s work at Bain Capital and our political economy.

I think that this paragraph from Jonathan Last gets to the nub of the issue:

Romney’s work at Bain differs in some important ways from how he has characterized it thus far. When Romney says that his goal at Bain was to “create jobs,” that’s not entirely true. As a private equity firm, Bain’s goal was to maximize return on investment (ROI) for a small group of high net worth investors. Sometimes that meant giving seed money to a promising start-up. Sometimes it meant rescuing a company and turning it around. Sometimes it meant finding revenue streams a company hadn’t realized—including government bailouts. Sometimes it meant off-shoring a company’s jobs. And sometimes it meant finding a company whose component parts were worth more than the whole—and dismantling it.

Without respect to the electoral politics and messaging for a moment, the predominant form of “bad” capitalism in contemporary America is created by the joining of a capitalist enterprise with the coercive power of the state, not by the impurity of the motivations of the capitalist. This distinction is crucial for defenders of free enterprise.

This perversion of capitalism normally arises in one of two ways: (1) the crony capitalism of state-backed enterprises, or (2) the implicit violence of lawbreaking by dishonest capitalists. The root problems that need to be addressed in finance in the U.S. are things like Fannie / Freddie, too-big-to-fail, government bailouts of specific companies and so forth, on one side, and Madoff-type scandals, on the other. No real political economy is ever textbook-pure, so there will always be some of both of these, but they ought to be reduced from their current levels.

But requiring that businesspeople make decisions based on some putative idea of altruism, even if such a stricture could be defined and enforced, would be a terrible idea. Capitalists should not be restricted as to intention, but as to method. As a rough-and-ready rule, they should be forbidden from using force. The government may also choose to place additional regulations on them (weights and measures rules, minimum wage laws, non-discrimination laws, etc.). While any given regulation is debatable, some formal regulation is required for real markets, and capitalists should have to obey the law. Further, real markets depend to some extent on informal norms – e.g., general commercial honesty, an ethic of a “deal’s a deal,” and so on. This last point can obviously get somewhat fuzzy, but is still important.

Within these constraints, we should generally want capitalists to pursue their self-interest in business dealings. This is not some falling short of humanity, but the way we grow the material wealth of the society as a whole over time. This is the meaning of Adam Smith’s famous aphorism that:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own neccessities but of their advantages.

The valid criticism of Romney as a capitalist would be that he worked government angles to seek advantage for himself, or broke laws or crucial norms. Seeking to make more money within the rules is a good thing, not a bad thing, for a capitalist to do. That is, Romney’s immediate goal was almost certainly to make money, not to “create jobs.” But the effect of Romney’s actions was to do this – though most of these jobs were created indirectly. This is Adam Smith’s famous “invisible hand.”

Romney was working to “create jobs” only in the sense that if you believe in this, you can have confidence that you are doing your part to increase overall material well-being of society by acting as a self-interested capitalist. More precisely, if all capitalists act this way, then over time, society will advance materially. Tracking your indivudal contribution, or even knowing if it was positive or negative, is a fool’s errand. This is why the very act of trying to count the jobs created at Staples, assessing how many would have been created had Mitt Romney not agreed to take the job running Bain Capital instead of somebody else, estimating how many of these Staples jobs need to be netted against other jobs that therefore were not created at other business supply stores, and so forth is so self-defeating. If we could accurately calculate things like that, we would have much less need for markets in the first place.

The key argument made by critics of “financial capitalism” that can be construed as consistent with all of this relates to the idea of informal norms. In simplified and illustrative terms, this argument would be that by doing something like breaking a norm against laying people off after age 50, these firms create value for themselves, but at the expense of the long-term degradation of society, and therefore the transfer of wealth from almost everyone else to themselves. This is a huge subject that will not be resolved in a blog post, but the key problems that critics of leveraged buyouts seem to point to are layoffs and moving production offshore. Restraining business from doing either of these things is a terrible idea for long-run wealth (and job) creation, and goes to the heart of the creative destruction inherent to real free enterprise.

Obviously there are shades of gray, and as I said all markets require regulation, but we need to be grown-ups about the choices we face. Enjoying the growing wealth created by free markets without the pain, uncertainty and risk that they involve is a fairy tale for an advanced economy.

To end with a word on the politics, I agree with Yuval that this implies that Romney’s work at Bain is only a partial preparation for high political office. On one hand, it would presumably help him to see the economy in a more practical light; but on the other, participating in a capitalist economy is a very different task than regulating it. I have no idea how the politics of this will play out, what is the best way for a Romney campaign to communicate these ideas, or even if they should be communicated at all. But I am convinced that “de-politicizing” our now much politicized economy is very important for America’s future growth and prosperity.

(Cross-posted to The Corner)