Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Citizen Bain

There is a film about a ruthless, wealthy man who just wanted to be loved. The man bought up everything that caught his eye, but it was not enough. All he really yearned for was his childhood sled.

Replace “his childhood sled” with “the presidency of the United States” and you have the gist of a new movie about Mitt Romney’s career in venture capital, which this column calls, “Citizen Bain.”

The actual, considerably less-catchy, almost yuletide title is, “When Mitt Romney Came to Town” and viewers might be surprised that the 28-minute film is the work of supposedly rightist Republicans, rather than seething, class-warrior Democrats (though the latter are reportedly working on a sequel, to be released during the general election).

Sponsored by supporters of Newt Gingrich, and produced on a Super-PAC basis at arm’s length from the former Speaker (Super-PACs being yet another absurdity of America’s campaign finance laws, requiring candidates to have no official involvement in, and to feign implausible ignorance of, the actions of some of their most heavily invested advocates), the movie is meant to document Romney’s career at Bain Capital.

Four companies are highlighted, ostensibly representing thousands of jobs lost to Romney’s personal greed. That is, by taking over entities that were not viable and selling off their assets, Romney made himself unspeakably wealthy by putting vulnerable people out of work. Counting his money with one hand while twirling his Snidely Whiplash moustache with the other, Mitt supposedly went about the country seeking out simple lives to destroy.

Bollocks on stilts, it says here.

Forces for and against Romney’s candidacy, as well as neutral observers (to the extent those truly exist in this age of ubiquitous politics), have analyzed his Bain career to determine whether he was a net creator, or eliminator, of jobs. Results have varied, but none of this is the point. Jobs are important, as are the lives and livelihoods of individuals, but even those of us who are sharp critics of Romney must recognize that when it comes to wealth creation and contribution to the economy, Mitt is very much on the happy side of par.

Josef Schumpeter observed that capitalism is incomprehensible without understanding the role of the entrepreneur. Specifically, absent individuals with ideas and courage, combined with people who can pony up the money to turn those ideas into reality, nothing would get invented, produced, bought or sold. At Bain Capital, Romney was part of that second group, selecting nascent enterprises for investment, and he was very, very good at it.

Venture capital, like any number of investment fields, requires a highly specific skill set, and you can come in for an intergalactic hosing if you don’t know what you’re doing. Indeed, this column has a monsoon of respect for Mitt’s acumen when it comes to picking companies, and for what he was able to accomplish in the private sector. Newt Gingrich should, too.

Simply put, without men like Mitt, able to identify opportunities and provide the capital to make them successful, our economy would not work. Conversely, the free market can trundle along just fine without Gingrich being compensated by government agencies to the tune of $1.6 million for his services as a “historian” (which, as George Will points out, is a heckuva lot more than anyone ever paid Herodotus).

Of course, we are talking business here, and in that arena, Mitt trumps Newt every day of the week and twice on Sundays. In matters of public policy, however, and in terms of a record of fostering limited government, Gingrich wins going away.

To wit, much as I may admire Mitt’s business skills, I still don’t think he should be president, unless and until he smartens up – starting with his tax plan, which the Wall Street Journal and others have correctly called, “timid.”

While the film’s faux-populist silly-bears may scare off some potential Romney voters, it is perhaps likelier to entrench his current supporters. More than anything, though, it reveals a disappointing side to Gingrich – one which we hoped he would keep under wraps until near the end of his first term as president.

Our disappointment in Newt is informed by the fact that he has a responsibility to present an alternative on Romney’s right. For all the story-ginning excitement among those who sell news for a living, none of the other Republican candidates has much chance of surpassing the former Massachusetts governor.

With successive strong finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Ron Paul seems to be getting weirder, if that were possible, cackling through speeches like Dwight Schrute at the Dunder-Mifflin sales conference. As for Rick Santorum, politically interested people who for years have been spraining their fingers on the mute button whenever he appears on a news program already know what new voters will soon discover – he does not wear well. Santorum’s trouble isn’t his unwavering social conservatism, or that he lost his last Senate race by 17 points, it’s that he’s even less likeable than Romney.

One assumes Rick Perry is simply giving his donors their money’s worth, giving a conspicuous best effort before repairing to his successful governorship of Texas and shootin’ coyotes full-time. Finally, this column sheds no tears for Jon Huntsman who, we have every confidence, will emerge from this race to find no shortage of audiences to which to deliver his special brand of squinting, stern lectures.

Our support of Gingrich is not born of some notion that he is the best possible person to lead America. Rather, he is the best among the candidates who are currently on offer (seriously, Jeb Bush, please do call your office – you have about 300 million urgent messages).

Newt presents the boldest course on the economy, with a phenomenal, pro-growth tax plan that would restore America to preeminence in global markets. This is the contrast Gingrich should draw. “Citizen Bain” does not become him.

Theo Caldwell, an international investor and broadcaster, has been a member of the New York Stock Exchange, the Chicago Board Options Exchange, the American Stock Exchange, and the Kansas City Board of Trade. He can be reached at