Jonathan Cohn

Gingrich, Romney, and the Morality of Capitalism

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I finally got around to watching “When Mitt Romney Came to Town,” the propaganda film about Romney’s work at Bain Capital. It’s even more remarkable than advertised. The film, paid for by the Super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich, doesn't merely stake out territory that's to the left of the Republican mainstream. It also stakes out territory that's to the left of the Democratic mainstream.

At the risk of simplifying things a bit, a rough consensus about the economy has prevailed among both Democrats and Republicans for some time. It's the idea that, fundamentally, capitalism works – that, except in cases of obvious market failure like health care or environmental degradation, we’re all better off if the free market is allowed to operate without substantial interference. Capital should flow to the most profitable investments, labor should be flexible to allow the greatest efficiency, and so on. That’s the way to create the most wealth for society and, ultimately, creating the most wealth will benefit the most people – even if, in the process, some people lose their jobs or struggle in other ways.

Within this consensus, the major debate has been over treatment of the victims of this “creative destruction.” Should government intervene extensively, as Democrats prefer, by redistributing income through the tax code and building a strong safety net? Or should government do the absolute minimum, as Republicans prefer, on the theory that taxes and public programs only hold back the market's wealth-creating abilities. In other words, the focus was on dealing with the by-products of capitalism, rather than tinkering with the machinery itself.

“When Mitt Romney Came to Town” pretends, very early on, to affirm that consensus: Its first line is "Capitalism made America great." The implication is that the film is an attack on Romney's work at Bain, not capitalism itself. But the rest of the movie telegraphs a rather different message. It never grapples with the question of whether Bain’s actions made the economy more efficient (which, by the way, they may have) because it doesn't appear to consider that question relevant. Instead, it focuses on a purely moral issue: Is it fair to make huge profits by downsizing and outsourcing, as Romney and Bain frequently did.

The film's answer is apparent in many places, among them  a montage of quotes from from displaced workers:

“It all ends up back at greed.”

“No matter how much they already had, they could never get enough money.”

“What do you get out of treating people like this?”

“He is there for the almighty dollar.”

Once upon a time, arguments like that were pretty common in conventional American politics. Liberals, particularly those in and around the labor movement, openly questioned the morality of business practices. Although (mostly) they didn't want to end capitalism, they were not shy about trying to control and redirect it. But with the decline of the labor movement and centrist reorientation of the Democratic Party, that language and that message have largely fallen out of style, with only outliers like Michael Moore making it loudly and consistently.

Perhaps that's starting to change, thanks in no small part to Occupy Wall Street and, now, supporters of Newt Gingrich. Yes, that's an ironic development. It's also an overdue one. The lefty critique may have flaws, but it also improves our political conversation.

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