Free Enterprise Is Not On Trial Mitt Romney Is

Bill Scher

Mitt Romney says that anyone who criticizes his record while CEO of Bain Capital is putting “free enterprise on trial.” But this doesn’t make any sense.

I have yet to have seen an argument from anyone on the left or the right criticizing Romney based on the notion that it should be against the law for the owner of a company to be free to try to make a profit by shrinking or closing down businesses.

What’s really on trial here is Mitt Romney. And Mitt Romney put himself on the witness stand.

He’s the one that said his primary qualification to be president is his private sector record, not his public record as governor.

In one the debates last month, Romney compared himself to one of his Republicans rivals as follows:

The real difference, I believe, is our backgrounds. I spent my life in the private sector. I understand how the economy works. And I believe that for Americans to say goodbye to President Obama and elect a Republican, they need to have confidence that the person they’re electing knows how to make this economy work again and create jobs for the American middle class.

That begs the question: what in his “life-long” private sector background tells us about his understanding of the economy?

We know he knows how to make a profit. That’s not nothing. One point for Mitt.

We know he knows how to create a job. But we don’t know he knows how to create net jobs, despite his claims, because his former company won’t tell us its overall record on the net jobs it created or lost.

Now, perhaps it’s not fair to expect him to have created net jobs while running a private equity company. Creating jobs is not their mission. And there are certainly times when a struggling company has to shed jobs to avoid an even worse outcome.

Romney has tried to defend some of the layoffs on his watch by not only making that argument, but adding that his layoffs are was no different than when President Obama laid off workers as part of its successful restructuring of the auto industry.

Putting aside the debate whether Romney is a “vulture capitalist” who aimed to loot companies and not save them, Romney’s making a fair point. But it undercuts his larger case: that he possess some unique knowledge about how the economy works, and President Obama is clueless. One point against Romney.

Furthermore, Romney argued against the initial bailout of the auto industry, which kept it afloat long enough so we wouldn’t sink into a depression, and a restructuring could take place. Seems Obama knew a little bit more about how the economy worked, without ever having run a private equity firm. Two points against Romney.

And even if Romney knows how to create a big-box store chain, we don’t know if Romney knows how to make sure job growth in one area doesn’t kill jobs in another, as what happened when Romney helped create Staples and smaller stationary stores went out of business. Three points against Romney.

Finally, Romney claimed in his New Hampshire victory speech that President Obama “wants to turn America into a European-style social welfare state” while he himself wants to “ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity.”

But knowing when to lay people off in order to make a profit does not show understanding of how to provide opportunity for all. Is there something else in Romney’s private background has taught him about providing opportunity? Was he an example of corporate responsibility? Did he reach out to the people that he laid off, or whose business competitors he ran into ground, and devise ways they could keep paying the bills so they could find new opportunities? Did he offer generous severance packages that included health coverage and funds for job training? Did he reach out to bankrupted small business owners and their employees, many of whom certainly would have relevant skills, and offer them jobs in his enterprises?

Point four against.

Perhaps I could look to his public sector experience to find that he understood the value of providing opportunity for all, since he did pass universal health coverage. Except now he says: “repeal ObamaCare.” Which is the same thing as saying “repeal RomneyCare.”

Point five.

Unless Romney wants to open up more about his private sector experience, all we can know about Romney’s record is that he knows how to make a profit for himself, no matter what the cost is to the rest of the economy.

And he will have every right to continue doing that, if he can’t show the public that he knows any other part about building an economy that actually works for everybody.

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