fresh voices from the front lines of change







David Corn at Mother Jones has released another Romney video. This one’s from a Bain Capital meeting in 1985 in which Romney says Bain’s business model is to acquire companies and then “harvest them at a significant profit” in five to eight years.

The word “harvest” has a creepy, sci-fi ring to it, which inspired me to make the image you see below. (My more serious policy-minded colleagues were clearly unimpressed.) And it brought back a horrifying scene in a white and sterile laboratory, one I’d seen many years ago and have never been able to forget.

But is this new video important?

On the one hand, that’s how business people talk all the time, which suggests it’s not much of a revelation. On the other hand, that’s how business people talk all the time.

Some progressives have been outraged at this impersonal description of places that provided people with their livelihoods. But Ayn Rand cultists like Romney’s running mate should be even more outraged. After all, it’s a pretty shabby way to talk about enterprises which began as the prized brainchildren of Randian free-market Übermenschen.

What does it mean for society when investors increasingly seek to “harvest” a company for a profitable sale? We looked into Bain’s impact on the health economy in more detail in “Sick Money.”

Here’s how it works: Target companies are fattened up like sacrificial animals on a diet of debt, much of which goes to pay the exorbitant fees charged by companies like Bain. That put intense pressure on their management to pump up short-term earnings by any means necessary. Jobs are lost. Companies go bankrupt. The harvest continues.

There are good investment firms with long-term strategies. Then there are the “harvesters,” whose fast-buck business model has had repercussions throughout the economy. They take whatever they can, drain it, and move on. They have no need for a healthy national economy anymore – no need for roads, bridges, a thriving middle class, or an educated and health population. They can drain an entire economy to a dry husk and then move on.

That’s why from I occasionally compare these new-model financiers to the aliens in Independence Day. Their plan for the Earth was to rip all the natural resources from it and move on, leaving a lifeless husk behind as they headed for the next conquest. So when I saw Corn’s video, I photoshopped this:


This was done for fun, of course. But it’s a serious subject. And admittedly it’s a little over the top to compare Bain Capital to the aliens in Independence Day. In my corporate life I heard people say things like Romney did every day and never thought twice about it. That gets me to that laboratory …

Well, it looked like a laboratory, but it was really a factory. I was seventeen, and had just landed a summer job, writing press releases and employee newsletter pieces for a now-defunct pharmaceutical company. On my first day the boss, a very nice guy, gave me the grand tour.

The company’s grounds held a lot of surprises – a stable with some aging horses, vats that were six stories deep – but the the highest-tech part of the tour began when we put on masks and gowns and entered a large dark room filled with green monkeys. Tubes on the ceiling sent soft breezes of sterile air into the room. Some monkeys stared listlessly into space. Others shrieked and rattled the bars of their cages, which were stacked from the floor to the ceiling.

A small conveyor belt ran from the monkey room into a white, brightly lit sterile room where … well, I won’t go into details, except to say that the last stop on the conveyor belt involved workers with microtomes slicing kidneys into paper thin layers.

Slightly at a loss for words, I muttered something to my new boss about the impressive assembly-line design. “Yep,”he agreed cheerfully, “this is a darned good harvesting operation.” For the process to work properly, the monkeys needed to “harvested” alive.

I still remember the first stop on the conveyor belt, where the monkeys slapped at the plexiglass between us. And stared.

Hey, at least Mitt Romney didn’t vivisect anybody. He just tried to maximize profits. That was his job. That’s why it seems this video isn’t that big a story, I guess. But I keep thinking about those monkeys. I can still see them at the first stop on that conveyor belt, staring at us as they slapped their hands on the plexiglas pane that separated us.

Those monkeys: I’ll never forget their eyes.

The Bain people didn’t talk about these companies or their employees as if they were real. Their dehumanizing language is a natural response to their job duties. Some of them, like my first boss at the pharmaceutical company, are sure to be great folks once you get to know them.

They’re not evil. To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit: They’re not bad, they’re just drawn that way – drawn by the lure of easy money, drawn by the politicians who give them tax breaks and bend the rules for them, drawn by the incentives that society (meaning ‘we’) give them.

The human cost of these “harvests” is pervasive and terrible. But they’re not inevitable, and even in this corrupted democracy the the people behind them aren’t all-powerful.

So don’t fear the reapers. We’re not helpless primates in a science-fiction nightmare. We can take our democracy back, even if we have to wrestle it from the hands of corporatized politicians. We can change the warped incentives in our economic policies and encourage more productive investments – and more responsible business leaders.

At least we can try. And even if we fail, we can do one last thing before they “harvest” our economic future: We can make sure they’ve looked into our eyes.

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