The Rich Really Are Different
12:00 AM, Jan 24, 2012 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
It’s not clear, however, that Romney’s defense of Bain really gets to the heart of the matter as voters see it. Even if you stipulate that (1) Romney never acted improperly at Bain and (2) However unpleasant outsourcing, layoffs, and debt leveraging are, it was all to the creatively destructive good—you’re still left with two uncomfortable questions for which the candidate has no answer.
First, there’s the notion of how Romney has sold himself: as an entrepreneur who took risks to create success. This vision is true, to a point. Romney did run a company, Bain Capital. But he achieved executive status via a highly unusual pathway. The idea for Bain Capital was not Romney’s (it was the brainchild of Bill Bain). And the startup money behind Bain Capital was not Romney’s (it came from Bill Bain and other partners in his consulting firm). Romney was an employee of Mr. Bain—an incredibly talented and valued employee. And Mr. Bain asked him to run this new venture with an explicit guarantee that if the job didn’t work out he could always have his old position back—and that if he failed, Mr. Bain would be sure to cover up the failure. Here’s how Michael Kranish and Scott Helman tell the story in Vanity Fair:
There are two readings of this story. One is that Romney is a shrewd, skilled negotiator who thinks deliberately and strategically. This would be an excellent quality in a president. The other is that Romney is uncomfortable risking his own personal capital and will only go so far as he can under the cover provided by others. This would be a less desirable quality in a commander-in-chief.
The second question about Romney’s Bain years is the extent to which he can reasonably be thought of as a “job creator.” Romney’s own count of the jobs he created at Bain keeps growing. In Iowa it was 100,000; by South Carolina the total was up to 120,000. Whatever the number, the vast majority of jobs he takes credit for building come from a single source: Staples Inc.
Romney’s association with Staples is worth examining in some detail. Not because anything in it reflects badly on Romney—quite the contrary. The locution he personally uses is usually that he “helped create” 89,000 jobs at Staples. But his campaign is occasionally less careful. Last weekend, for instance, Chris Christie, his most energetic surrogate, said of Staples and another company (Sports Authority) Romney was involved with, “Anyone who goes to work at those places today has Mitt Romney to thank for it.”
Staples was the brainchild of two Boston-area retail rivals, Tom Stemberg and Leo Kahn. Their stories are inspiring. A middle-class kid, Stemberg attended Harvard College on a full scholarship and did well enough there to advance straight to Harvard Business School. After getting his MBA, he went to work for the grocery chain Star Market. There, he learned how to do every job in the store—from cashier to meat cutter—as he worked his way up the company ladder. In 1975, he did something at Star no one had ever tried: Offering store-branded generic products. It revolutionized the grocery business.
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