Who’s a Moocher, Really?

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts,...

Mooch much?

Romney’s revealing slip at a private fundraiser has already occasioned a lot of commentary, including a piece by David Brooks bemoaning his campaign’s “incompetence.”

Brooks straightforwardly addresses some of Romney’s errant notions. First, the idea that those who get government money mainly vote for Democrats is false of course, as progressives often bemoan: instead, many are veterans and working class whites who tend to vote Republican. And he points out that these alleged “moochers” also includes millions of retirees. Gosh, vets, old people and poor people – why are you guys always on the take?

Brooks generously says that this is not the real Romney, but a gussied-up campaign version of a Romney-bot. But it seems to me that Romney’s comments instead reveal how uncritically he’s consumed the GOP’s “job creator” Kool-Aid.

One undercurrent of his comments is that unlike the “moocher” class, he and any other people rich enough to attend a big-money Republican fundraiser earned their extraordinary wealth, with bootstraps or otherwise. Of course, Romney perpetually appears not to notice that he was born on third base, which is one of the reasons he keeps committing the same gaffe over and over and over again, like hari kari inflicted with a sharpened silver spoon.

But even beyond his lamentable personal arrogance, the suggestion that he deserves what he has is worth examining. As a governor’s son, handed any opportunity in the world, Romney chose the easiest and most lucrative, but heartless, way to make lots of moola: private equity. This says something at least about his character, in a way that makes Brooks’ assessment look overly generous.

What is private equity, anyway, and is it something of real value, such that someone like Romney is morally better than a moocher? The basic model for private equity firms is to buy a company, in order to “fix” and sell it. The catch? “Fixing” it generally means you have to do one or both of two things: increase revenues or cut costs. To increase revenues is hard, requiring great management and long-term investment. So private equity firms cut costs – providing a short-term answer for investors wanting high, fast returns.

The upshot is that most private equity deals take advantage of tax writeoffs for corporate debt, leveraging a company and risking its health to improve profits for the equity firm. The focus on quick returns almost guarantees this approach. Does this add value? Perhaps sometimes, but more times than not it mainly pads the pockets of investors.

Does it generate “efficiencies”? Who can say, really? Efficiencies for whom and for what purpose? The received wisdom is that anything that makes someone a dollar expresses value, but in societal or moral terms that’s often far from the truth.

As Mother Jones has since revealed, the video in question was filmed at a $50,000-per-plate fundraiser at private equity manager Rick Leder’s house. Here’s what the New York Times had to say about Leder and his financial value-added:

Mr. Leder personifies the debates now swirling around this lucrative corner of finance. To his critics, he represents everything that’s wrong with this setup. In recent years, a large number of the companies that Sun Capital has acquired have run into serious trouble, eliminated jobs or both. Since 2008, some 25 of its companies—roughly one of every five it owns—have filed for bankruptcy. Among the losers was Friendly’s, the restaurant chain known for its Jim Dandy sundaes and Fribble shakes. (Sun Capital was accused by a federal agency of pushing Friendly’s into bankruptcy last year to avoid paying pensions to the chain’s employees; Sun disputes that contention.) Another company that sank into bankruptcy was Real Mex, owner of the Chevy’s restaurant chain. In that case, Mr. Leder lost money for his investors not once, but twice.

And Leder evidently also throws racy parties that require a lot of chlorine for the pool (yawn). So there’s that.

But even setting aside for a moment, if we can, this seedy world of hilariously cliched corporate raiders, why should we treat Republican’s moral assumption that corporate earnings are real, earned, and genuine as sacrosanct?

Obama got in some hot water a little earlier in the summer and was much-derided at the Republican convention for an honest and unremarkable statement about how the money earned by businesses depends on social investments by the government — i.e., all of us — for success. Really, this is fact, and not particularly controversial.

As Obama would know, it’s black letter law that companies may be sued wherever they do business because they “avail” themselves of roads, bridges, and the mail. In addition to the obvious examples Obama was describing, every time an uninsured low-income worker gets sick, and goes to a hospital for charity care, we all subsidize their care (an issue that “Obamacare” will help address by giving that person real insurance at last).

Every time the federal government makes college more affordable for students, or helps low-income families through Healthy Start, the workers of tomorrow become better equipped for a challenging future. Every family that gets a (ridiculously paltry) childcare tax credit is a family that can better afford to work. And every time a government safety or health rule saves a worker from being injured, that person can go to work tomorrow.

But it’s deeper than that as well. Guess who uses our court system, mostly? Businesses, suing other businesses. Without the power to enforce contracts, these arrangements would be enforced at the end of a gun, as in many less tenable economies around the world. A transparent, accountable marketplace is the sine qua non for a productive and stable economy.

And on the other side of the equation, it’s clear that corporations are good at producing stuff, and that a vibrant business economy is good for workers and companies. But there’s also a lot that’s wrong with the way corporate incentives are currently structured. This should be a much bigger part of the debate about the contributions of the so-called “job creators.”

Due to our shareholder incentive structure and a lack of meaningful rules for corporate charters, a corporation’s current job is to squeeze a dollar until it hurts (somebody else). This drive towards the bottom line often produces great suffering for workers, especially low-income workers in punishing, poorly regulated jobs like those in slaughterhouses or on farms.

There’s widespread financial predation as well – the Department of Justice and Attorneys’ General landmark settlement against the banks earlier this summer, though enormous, was the tip of the iceberg compared to the devastation in the housing market from no-document loans, robo-signing and other schemes, and from a derivatives economy that was – and is still – structured to produce careless profit-taking by Wall Street.

And of course there’s environmental harm – the “externalities” that businesses wish we would just clean up instead of them. And sometimes they dirty it up on purpose. In the case of chemical flame retardants, for example, the industry basically invented a need and poisoned every living room and public space in America with cancer-causing toxins, just to sell more pounds of their stuff.

Then there’s the corporate capture of lawmakers through campaign contributions, which puts decisions by government in hoc to the wealthy. The big dollars flow to the committee chairs who preside over issues of interest to companies: most of the same Republicans who mouth off against big government apparently see no problem when these companies attempt to purchase that government for a price.

My point isn’t that corporations are evil. They are structured to be profit-maximizing. But the equation of that with the high moral ground is puzzling, given the dubious mix of activities in which companies often engage. And what often gets lost in the debate about government funding versus corporate freedom is the hypocrisy: corporations readily exploit government money, lands and resources whenever they can, while criticizing any attempt to balance their often-rapacious activities with the common good.

Yet corporations, more than almost anything actually, are mere creatures of the state and governing law. The tax incentives that reward debt and leverage, and the policies that are keeping borrowed money cheap basically forever? Those are government policies, of course. The outrageous, anti-American and anti-middle class policy that capital gains are taxed lower than income? Government again. A system of tax loopholes so porous that the top 10 most profitable U.S. companies paid an average federal tax rate of just 9 percent last year? We built that too.

I don’t really expect that most businesses will have much of a social conscience, because we (unfortunately) haven’t asked them to, by and large. And most people are just doing what it takes to get by, within the rules they were handed. But if you want to claim a kind of moral superiority, well, then forgive me for asking a few questions about how you came by that dollar. If you did it on the backs of workers, through fraud and predation, or by poisoning people or the planet, um, not so much.

And if you chose the private equity route – leveraging companies, gutting assets like workers’ pension funds, and often driving them out of business and pocketing the barely taxed proceeds, then I’m sorry, smug and superior are off the table for you. In fact, you have some explaining to do.

The posturing about the specialness of corporate-earned wealth comes from politicians’ clubby intimacy with the uber-class of the one-percenters – political donors, Wall Street barons, and ultra-rich. And Romney’s comments make clear not just his “incompetence,” but the narrowness of his version of who is righteous in America, and who is not.

In contrast, old-timey conservatives used to routinely acknowledge a role for even strong government in creating the rules and social conditions for businesses to thrive. But this new-fangled GOP doesn’t want to talk about grounding a strong economy in transparency and accountability — they seem only to know a particularly mean-spirited version of us versus them. As Clinton pointed out, this inability to compromise or see the whole picture makes for broken politics and political decision-making.

So we have to fix it. We should use this moment to call into question the thoughtless sanctimony of the discourse around the value of the corporation. We created these things, and if they really are “people,” then the least we can do is require them to act like decent citizens.

Show me a business that cleans up after itself, treats its workers fairly, gives back to the community, is transparent and accountable in its dealings, and creates a well-made, environmentally sound product, and I’ll happily nominate its owners for the moral high ground. Or for political office, because we need more folks with backbone in those jobs.

If that’s not you, though, please step down off that soapbox — …slowly…slowly... — and do try to keep a lid on it about how much mooching the rest of us really do.

6 thoughts on “Who’s a Moocher, Really?

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