Growing up in a family with ties to founders of the Mormon Church, at an early age I learned a little about the church's teachings. I read Mormon comic books for children that claimed humans in the Garden of Eden used to live to the age of 900 or so. I learned that God, in his wrath, had turned Cain black for killing Abel, which is why, until 1978, the church banned those of black African descent from the Mormon priesthood. I also learned that when you die, if you had lived a righteous life, you got your own planet to rule in celestial bliss.
I must admit that last idea did have some appeal to me as a ten-year-old. I personally wanted to take over Mars, but figured some Mormon insider had probably long ago claimed the red planet for his own. Fortunately, my sanity was saved by the fact that my exposure to these ideas was cursory, as my father was the only one in my immediate family who was Mormon, and he was not an active one.
This family history translated into a rather lackadaisical religious upbringing, which certainly made it easier to later reject organized religion as an encumbrance on critical, independent thinking and everything else I saw as useful in life.
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God Bless America – and Private Equity
Admittedly, I feel the same way about the two-party system. But at least one useful byproduct of the primary system is the opportunity it offers the candidates to occasionally tell the truth about each other.
Indeed, there's a certain pleasure in watching former House speaker Newt Gingrich – a man who himself knows something about lucrative consulting contracts – target Mitt Romney's predatory business career as a venture capitalist. Gingrich's criticism of Romney's investment firm, Bain Capital, as a looter of companies for its own aggrandizement is a right and obvious one. It's also a strategy Gingrich played to great benefit in in his decisive South Carolina primary victory, tapping into the sort of raw disaffection for moneyed America that percolates among the Tea Party crowd. These days, apparently even faux Occupy Wall Street protests are capable of a certain vigor.
Romney's firm often just cannibalized companies, using venture capital to take over other companies, which in turn became leverage for other takeovers, all the while reaping millions for Bain Capital in stock sales and management fees. Bain Capital's $5 million investment in American Pad & Paper (Ampad), for example, translated in seven years (1992-1999) into a $100 million-plus revenue goldmine for the firm's partners and investors. However, Ampad was left saddled with debts and bankrupt, its stock valueless and hundreds of workers out of jobs. Apparently, even “losing” is a win for todays puppet masters of private equity.
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The strategic formula Romney brought to Bain Capital he learned from Bruce Henderson, a one-time Bible salesman and founder of the Boston Consulting Group. As a consultant, Henderson preached a kind of modern-day Taylorism, touting “scientific management” principles based on what the editors of the Harvard Business Review call “sharp-penciled analytics” geared to reducing costs and increasing efficiency.
The Henderson cost-cutting model routinely translated into, among other things, firing “excess” workers. The idea was that, after a few years, these restructured companies could then be sold at great profit. Rather than working as hired outside advisers, as most management consultants had traditionally done, Romney also promoted the idea of consulting firms simply taking a controlling interest in companies. Hence the era of the “corporate raider,” or, as some more accurately describe the phenomenon, “vulture capitalism.”
Stay Calm – It's Just Business as Usual
In his zeal to portray Romney's business career as less than stellar, Gingrich was not out to attack the integrity of the “free enterprise” system, but that was exactly how Romney and fellow Republicans took Gingrich's criticisms. And that makes sense: to Romney and fellow Republicans, capitalism is sacrosanct. What better defense of their world of avarice than to say it was all just business as usual?
“If you have 'creative destruction' in capitalism, which has always been a part of capitalism, it becomes a little disingenuous to take on Bain Capital,” said former Utah governor – and fellow Mormon son of a silver spoon family – Jon Huntsman.
It's always easy to wax philosophical when you're one of the winners. (If you eat a Big Mac from McDonald's, thank the Huntsman's and their global chemical corporation for the container it's packaged in.) For Romney, of course, son of a major automaker CEO and Michigan governor, class privilege has reared its sainted head at his life's every juncture.
Ironically, while Tea Party conservatives criticize Romney for the blatant opportunism of his shifting political views, at another level, Romney is the most consistent of politicians, at least when it comes to serving his class.
Give him credit for that. As a college freshman at Stanford, the young Romney felt compelled to protest campus anti-draft activists. Of course, that didn't prevent him from later seeking a religious deferment as a Mormon missionary to France. In Paris, Romney got to experience firsthand the events of May 1968, when millions of French workers and students rose up against the De Gaulle regime. True to his upper-class roots, Romney remained unresponsive to the struggles of the French working class, whose “anti-Americanism” over the Vietnam War annoyed him. Instead, he spent his days dutifully going door to door, trying to interest the locals in the Book of Mormon (give him credit for that, too!).
As a famous author, Jack London had the opportunity to meet many of the “captains of industry” of his day. He famously wrote of them as people whose intellect in the business sense was often abnormally developed, but whose morality in business and politics was basically nil. He was not impressed.
Nor should we be with Romney. The elite business culture he inhabits is a world where thoughts about social injustice ultimately remain abstract and calculated. It is a culture inhabited by insulated country club sensibilities and attitudes of social entitlement taken as grants from the heavens. In this world, extreme wealth seems to bestow rights, as in the right to acquire political power, unto themselves. In this world, politics is a kind of gentlemen's game, one only the privileged and connected are qualified to play.
Predictably, Romney views such talk about class as “divisive.” But it is Romney who is the divider, separated as he is from average folks by a career devoted to the fanatical pursuit of wealth. Yet, as an elite investor, he has produced nothing (there's no such thing as venture capitalists whose job is to create jobs), beyond, of course, a long trail of financial deals and a smokescreen of justifications that this rigged financial system is somehow right and fair.
At a time when the Occupy Wall Street movement has put a spotlight on class inequality, the theatrics of American electoral politics are being shown up for the stage-managed game they are. Wall Street interests are all over this election, whether as White House insiders or as advisers to the current crop of right-wing millionaires aspiring to the Republican nomination. In the case of Romney, “Mr. .01 percent,” he offers Americans the chance to cut out the political middlemen and put a corporate plutocrat directly in power.
“The imposing edifice of society above my head holds no delights for me,” concluded London in his famous essay of a century ago, “What Life Means To Me.”
“It is the foundation of the edifice that interests me. There I am content to labor, crowbar in hand, shoulder to shoulder with intellectuals, idealists, and class-conscious workingmen, getting a solid pry now and again and setting the whole edifice rocking. Some day, when we get a few more hands and crowbars to work, we'll topple it over, along with all its rotten life and unburied dead, its monstrous selfishness and sodden materialism.”
That's a sentiment I can ascribe to. Forget “Rock the Vote”; let's rock the edifice in 2012. After a groundbreaking 2011 – the “year of the protester,” as Time magazine called it – I hope we can look forward to all that last year held, and more, in 2012.