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.

Just Those Silly Women, At It Again (Responding to Badinter)

The Women Fighting for the Breeches, by John S...

The Women Fighting for the Breeches, by John Smith (died 1743). National Portrait Gallery, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saturday’s Wall Street Journal books page included a breathtakingly vicious attack on moms and families that practice more natural approaches to parenting, in the form of a book review for French writer Elisabeth Badinter’s new hatchet job on modern feminism called “The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women.”

Review author Molly Guinness nods inanely along with much of Badinter’s “argument” that, for example, “naturalism” in childbirth, breastfeeding and co-sleeping are problematic because they place too many demands on mothers and render fathers less relevant.

Notably, the book is not yet available in print in the U.S., and few facts are shared in support of this perspective. Yet Guinness deems it even more salient in the U.S., where, she alleges, without irony, that “a vast industry peddling organic baby foods and anxiety is sucking the joy out of motherhood.”

She also points out with patent admiration the “fact-y facts” that French women reportedly feel no compunction in packing their newborns off to daycare right after they’re born, and that this lack of attention to their children renders them sexier, and far more willing to recommence their wifely duties towards their, in turn, more manly, fulfilled husbands. Guinness admiringly calls this “grown-up.” Labeling co-sleeping and “militant” breastfeeding “aggressively antisexual,” she actually praises French doctors who ask new mothers the somewhat creepy question, “Is Monsieur happy?” (IMHO, the only appropriate answer: Well, I just delivered him a baby.)

(Pained side-note: if I read one more fact-deprived paean to the alleged superiority of French parenting skills, I swear that I will make protest art out of a rotten wheel of brie. And send the horrible image around on the Interwebs. I lived in France, and from my sample size of, well, me, I can say with real confidence: they’re not that great. And the men are shaped like cigarettes. And they have lots more financial support and paid leave than we do, including home visits from nurses when they are pregnant. Etc. Duh.)

In some small way, I guess it’s good news that conservatives have evidently dialed from “Freedom Fries” all the way back to just “French.” The title of the review – “Women’s War on Women – makes it all too clear why the Journal is keen to promote Badinter. It even helpfully connects the dots on the recent faux outrage from conservative circles over Hilary Rosen’s unhelpfully disparaging comment about Ann Romney’s lack of qualifications to set economic policy.

Most have moved on from this non-issue. But the Journal persists. If the “War on Women” can be recast as a girl-fight jello wrestling match, the jerky men’s club who rigged an mostly-male Congressional hearing on birth control gets off the hook. Conservatives would obviously like nothing better than for us to reimagine their latest round of attacks on women’s rights as another tragic, contested chapter in the Mommy Wars: just those silly women, at it again.

Amanda Marcotte’s insightful take-down of the right’s false sanctimony about the “hard job” of motherhood is well worth a read. As she also points out, the hypocrisy of conservatives’ reverence for stay-at-home-moms was exposed when Mitt Romney’s statements from recently as January surfaced about the need for low-income women, even those with young children at home, to work outside their home in order to get any access to basic financial supports for their family.

But Guinness is basically on board. She picks up on Badinter’s bizarre argument about contraception, which evidently, because it gives women a choice about having a child, creates an “infinite debt” and leads to “extreme mothering.” Neither of them consider that being able to choose to have a child actually means that women may want (and be able) to make space to value the process of parenting – that volition leads to the urge to be a better mother.

And there’s certainly no mention of the research on child development, summarized nicely in this book, that shows, pretty unequivocally, that healthy brain development in children ages birth to three depends upon their sense of security in the world, their social bonding with parents and caregivers, and the flow of good communication. The science backs up “attachment parenting” theories, but is in no small tension with the fact that, unless you’re the Romneys, most families need two incomes to survive. And those who do choose to stay at home pay a steep price in career advancement as well as income. Badinter thinks that decision is the problem; while I think that penalty is.

Moms who are aware of this, and have to go to work anyway, like me, probably do seek to compensate for their away time by bonding with their child in such crazy, unnatural ways as co-sleeping (like millions of families do around the world). How this harms anyone is beyond me. And rather than pitting me against my husband, he seems rather on board with the whole thing, because, you know, he’s science-y and all.

Here’s a big problem both Badinter and Guinness appear to miss: you know what really “sucks the joy” out of being a mother? Answer: An unwanted, unintended pregnancy. If contraception drives us to extreme mothering, but we’re supposed to remain always ready-to-go for the sake of our husbands, um, we’re all going to have to deal with this one, over and over again. That’s a lot of babies to kinda’ ignore.

Also on my joy-sucking list for motherhood generally: having to worry about hormone-like chemicals inside the lids of ready-to-use formula and baby food jars. Or, say, IQ- and fertility-lowering pollutants in my sofa, nursing pillow and car seat.

I would have to say that it did “suck the joy” out of motherhood, just a bit, for me to have to spend 20 hours or so over the past month researching where to get an affordable, environmentally healthy new sofa given that the chemical companies evidently have purchased a stranglehold on lawmakers in Sacramento, California, 2000 miles or so from my home. So there’s that.

Neither Badinter nor Guinness specifiy whether we’re supposed to just stop buying organic foods, or whether we should actually go ahead and affirmatively sprinkle, say, lawn pesticides, on our children’s Cheerios for added crunch. Of course, Badinter is sitting prettier on this one than we are. France actively bans many genetically modified organisms, and all of Europe has far better chemical standards than we do here. Under a law known as the REACH treaty, many chemicals must be proven to be safe before the chemical companies can put them in our bodies. (Funny story: European lawmakers were so utterly appalled by the hardball lobbying tactics used when REACH was being contemplated that they called us at Public Citizen to help them design some half-decent lobbying and ethics rules. We recognized the insidious tactics they described from, er, basically every regulatory skirmish in the U.S.) I wonder if parental outrage about potential health impacts was a factor in European governments’ choices to make any of these protective decisions…

And I can go on from here. Yes I can. For me, and I’m just speaking for me here, what really sucks the joy out of the so-important job of being a mother is the fact that we have no mandatory maternity leave in this country. That our child care tax credits are so misaligned with the actual costs of childcare it’s laughable. In fact, it’s hilarious.

Or that it took until last year for the federal government to admit breastfeeding equipment is a medical expense that we can pay for with pre-tax dollars, thereby saddling my family with thousands in higher out-of-pocket medical costs. Or, thanks to politicians like Romney, that low-income women don’t get any monetary credit at all for working to care for their children in their own home, even today.

To state the obvious: while we all now expect women to work outside the home, the actual feminist agenda of making society support the multiple roles women are supposed to play never got finished. Instead, the right pays lip service to family values while screwing women in policy and fact, and the left never seems to get around to taking our needs seriously on the big structural questions that impact women’s choices and lives.

Meanwhile, we go to work and come home, and co-sleep with our kids. And, yes, thanks, it does feel like a lot to ask of mothers to balance all these demands on their time. But asking us to care less about our children as a means to get it all done, or to stop worrying about all those pesky pesticides in our water and food, is not exactly a reliable way to restore whatever delusionally “joyful” experience of motherhood supposedly pre-dated the current moment.

Instead, we need a plan to actually support good parenting, one that really delivers for families, so that we can focus on our needs and be less stretched for time and money. Maybe, just for giggles, we should check out all the supports that they supposedly have in France.

Women engaged in the new domesticity, or good parenting, or whatever you want to call it, are not backwards looking. Instead, they’re just trying to make good on unfinished business: the core promise that feminism once made that women should be able to freely choose the values that will determine their lives.