Monday, January 9, 2012

Rick Perry’s Moral Incoherence

I’m as astonished as the next guy that Rick Perry has campaigned so ineptly for the Republican presidential nomination. It never occurred to me five months ago that the nation’s longest-serving governor, presiding over the state with far and away the nation’s best record of job-creation at a time when job-creation is the most important thing on voters' minds, could make such a hash of things. It isn’t just a matter of how much trouble Perry has thinking on his feet—his “Oops moment” was an extreme case, but not an isolated one. The really shocking thing is the moral incoherence of some of his well-scripted utterances on the campaign trail. Perry has trouble making sense even when he knows exactly what he wants to say.

Recall how Perry countered Mitt Romney’s accusation that, as Governor of Texas, Perry had abetted illegal immigration by permitting undocumented aliens to qualify for in-state tuition rates at post-secondary educational institutions. It’s not that he was obliged to defend an indefensible policy.  If you’re going to have illegal immigrants in your state anyway do you really want them to be less productive than they have to be? Yet Perry countered, not by defending his own policy on its merits, but by reminding voters that Romney had once hired a contractor who employed undocumented aliens to do yard work at one of his houses—as if it were the responsibility of people buying services from independent contractors to monitor their compliance with federal immigration law. The most revealing thing about Perry is that he and his brain trust actually thought that he’d put points on the board by blaming Romney for something for which he clearly had no moral responsibility.

This isn't an isolated instance of moral incoherence on Perry's part.  Consider what he’s now saying in South Carolina about Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital. Apparently, under Romney’s direction, Bain invested in, and secured huge fees from, companies that closed a South Carolina photo-processing plant and a Kansas City steel mill, laying-off hundreds of workers in the process. Here, according to ABC News, is the inference that Perry would have the Republican primary voters draw (my emphasis):
“There is something inherently wrong when getting rich off failure and sticking it to someone else is how you do your business and I happen to think that’s indefensible,” said Perry. “If you’re a victim of Bain Capital’s downsizing, it’s the ultimate insult for Mitt Romney to come to South Carolina and tell you he feels your pain, because he caused it.”
The italicized phrases, I submit, are nonsense. If it has any content at all, “X caused Y” implies that, "But for X, Y wouldn’t have happened." Does anyone really believe that the workers in obviously dying industries like photo-processing in the age of digital cameras and American steel production would still have their jobs but for Bain Capital's investment and management strategies? You only have to ask that question to answer it.

So Perry’s trying to ingratiate himself to South Carolina Republicans, once again, by telling them to hold  Romney morally responsible for things that plainly aren’t his moral responsibility. Indeed, he’s urging South Carolinians to blame Romney for not violating the fiduciary duty he had to Bain investors and the shareholders of the enterprises he was managing by conferring a benefit on South Carolina workers at the investors' and shareholders' expense.

Granted, there was a time when it often made more sense to hold the owners and managers of private enterprises morally responsible for throwing people out of work or not compensating them fairly for the work they performed.  When capital markets were a lot less efficient than they are today, owners of profit-making enterprises often had a lot of leeway in deciding how to divide their profits with labor and other stakeholders in a local enterprise. But nowadays capital markets aren't sticky enough to keep capital from flowing to wherever it's likely to realize the highest rate of return for very long, whatever the consequences for workers and local communities.  When he was running Bain Capital, Romney was the personification of modern capital-market efficiency.

When Democrats say the sort of things about Romney that Perry’s now saying, you can see their point as long as you’re willing to grant them a little poetic license. Romney may not be morally responsible for the suffering associated with layoffs at Bain-controlled enterprises. But when he was running Bain Capital, he personified a social state of affairs that liberals deplore, and want to ameliorate through political regulation of the marketplace. Moreover, in his latest incarnation as a center-right presidential candidate, Romney wants to punch holes in the social safety net that mitigates workers' exposure to the vicissitudes of impersonal market forces from which he once profited enormously. So when Romney touts his own private-sector experience as his principal qualification for the presidency, you can’t blame Democrats for pointing out that the combination of it and Romney’s readiness to dismantle the social safety net ought, if anything, to be disqualifying.  Whether you agree or not, there's a morally coherent worldview hiding behind the Democrats' loose rhetoric.

Yet Romney's leadership of Bain Capital personified a social process (aka capitalistic “creative destruction”) that Perry, and the Republican Party he proposes to lead, celebrate as the one and only American way. So what’s Perry’s excuse?

No comments: