Vulture Capitalism or Populist Demagoguery?
January 17, 2012 - 5:52 AM
So Rick Perry colorfully characterized the private equity firm Bain Capital, once run by Mitt Romney.
How did Bain prosper? Says Perry:
"These companies ... come in and loot the people's jobs, loot their pensions (and) loot their ability to take care of their families."
Behind this depiction is a 28-minute documentary, "King of Bain," being aired in South Carolina by a super political action committee that supports Newt Gingrich and is financed by Vegas-Macau casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
The truth, however, turns out to be less colorful, as The Washington Post has awarded the documentary four Pinocchios for "manipulative interviews" and a "highly misleading portrayal of Romney's years at Bain Capital."
Seems that two of the companies Bain allegedly looted were not acquired until after Mitt left the firm, and the closure of a third plant in Gaffney, S.C., was no communal disaster.
No one in Gaffney, writes The New York Times, seems to recall the company, and the local paper did not even report its demise.
"King of Bain" is a hit piece, a malicious libel full of so many errors and lies that even Newt said it must be corrected or pulled down.
Yet if Romney is nominated, we will see this avenue of attack pursued by the Democrats. For populist assaults on capitalists and capitalism, dating back to William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech to the 1896 Democratic National Convention, have a long and venerable history.
Moreover, the hysteria of Beltway Republicans and their Chamber of Commerce allies over the Newt-Perry attacks on Mitt "the predator" and Mitt "the vulture capitalist" testifies to the power of the narrative and Republicans' fear of it. And they would do well to be fearful.
To many Americans, the period from the Civil War to World War I, when U.S. production grew from half of what Britain produced to twice what Britain produced, was a legendary era of growth and prosperity.
To others, however, this was the Gilded Age of Jim Fisk and James Gould, of robber barons and the Pullman strike, of the Haymarket Massacre and the Homestead strike at Carnegie Steel, where armed Pinkertons came up the river in barges to break the strike, only to be shot, disarmed and beaten by strikers and their families.
In 1904, Ida Tarbell wrote "The History of the Standard Oil Company," painting oil magnate John D. Rockefeller as a capitalist without conscience, a "money-mad ... hypocrite." "Our national life is on every side distinctly poorer, uglier, meaner, for the kind of influence he exercises."
In 1906, Upton Sinclair penned "The Jungle," a novel depicting the horrors of the stockyards and meat-packing plants of Chicago.
Teddy Roosevelt said of these reformers, "The men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society, but only if they know when to stop raking the muck."
Yet T.R. himself took up the role of trustbuster. When J.P. Morgan wrote to him to protest Justice Department moves against one of his trusts — "Just send your man to my man and we can fix it up" — T.R.'s man at Justice retorted, "We don't want to fix it up; we want to stop it."
Teddy Roosevelt savaged the "malefactors of great wealth," and his cousin Franklin would echo him on taking office, denouncing "the money changers ... in the temple of our civilization."
They hate me, exulted FDR, "and I welcome their hatred!" He went on to crush and almost wipe out the Republican Party in 1936.
At the end of the Reagan era, which the left had decried, "Barbarians at the Gate" was published, portraying the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts as a manifestation of colossal greed.
Michael Lewis — author of "Liar's Poker," about the fall of Salomon Brothers, and "The Big Short" — has built a successful career describing the amorality at the apex of corporate America.
Today, President Barack Obama, with his Osawatomie, Kan., attack on "breathtaking greed," channeling T.R., seeks to insert himself in that populist tradition.
Undeniably, Americans cherish their economic freedom and respect the men who helped make America great, inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison and industrialists such as Henry Ford.
But they do not revere the men who make millions and billions at the big casinos of capitalism. They do not admire a George Soros for winning his billion-dollar bet shorting the British pound.
They believe that a man's professional, as well as private, life should be guided by a conscience. And because they recoil from the teachings of Karl Marx does not mean they embrace the values of Ayn Rand.
Let-the-devil-take-the-hindmost capitalism, economic Darwinism, is neither conservatism nor Americanism.
Should Mitt Romney be nominated, he will need to make a national address defending his career at Bain Capital with the same conviction and passion with which he defended his faith in the campaign of 2008.