Rapacious capitalists ain’t what they used to be. “Law? What do I care about the law?” the shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt (1794-1877) famously bellowed (in legend, if not in fact). “Hain’t I got the power?” His son William (1821-1885) demonstrated a similar indifference to public opinion when he said, “The public be damned.... I don’t take any stock in this silly nonsense about working for anybody’s good but our own, because we are not.” The banking tycoon J.P. Morgan (1837-1913) held the same view, and didn’t hesitate to articulate it. “I owe the public nothing,” he said. “Men owning property should do what they like with it.” None of these men pretended to reconcile their acquisition of wealth with the common good, or even with the law as it applied to lesser men. This attitude posed certain problems, but it left them with what, in retrospect, seems a refreshing unconcern about what people said about them. Being rich, they understood, made it unlikely they would be loved.
It’s different with Mitt Romney. Unbelievably, Romney is continuing to complain that it’s somehow off-base for President Obama to attack his record of layoffs and outsourcing while running Bain Capital (a record Romney emphasizes in his own campaign, partly to avoid discussing a record as Massachusetts governor that his fellow Republicans deem insufficiently conservative). Now Romney’s got Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, his likeliest-seeming choice for the number-two slot, doing it, too! They’re both crying foul after Chicago Mayor (and former Obama Chief of Staff) Rahm Emanuel gleefully tore into Romney for this crybaby routine. “What are you going to do when the Chinese leader says something to you, or Putin says something to you?” Emanuel asked. “Stop whining.... If you want to claim Bain Capital as your calling card to the White House, then defend what happened to Bain Capital.”
Emanuel, it should be noted, doesn’t really want Romney to stop whining, any more than I do. The more Romney whines, the worse he looks, so if you’re rooting for President Obama to win re-election you should hope Romney never stops whining. (Observe Obama’s inability to suppress a delighted smile when asked today, yet again, why he won’t be apologizing for attacking Romney’s stewardship of Bain. This is a question he will never tire of.) The mystery is why Romney’s campaign aides allow him to continue being such a crybaby.
The issue became Page One news after campaign spokesperson Stephanie Cutter pointed out that Romney’s claim not to have been responsible for what Bain did after 1999, when he left Bain to run the Salt Lake City Olympics (and when much—though not all—of the criticized company actions took place), was not consistent with SEC filings that continued to list Romney as the company’s owner and chairman. Either Romney was being dishonest now, Cutter said, or he’d committed a felony back then by misrepresenting his role to the SEC. This comment prompted much hysteria within the Romney camp, and even some miss-ish tut-tutting by the New York Times editorial page (“did go too far, perhaps”) that it was over the line for the Obama campaign to suggest Romney was a felon. Oh, please. Cutter never suggested that Romney was a felon. She said he was logically either a phony or a felon, with the clear meaning that he was pretty unavoidably a phony—that even though he’d given up day-to-day supervision of the company, Bain remained his company during this period, and he remained legally (and therefore morally) responsible for whatever it did. I doubt even Cutter ever dared hope the Romney campaign would be dumb enough to echo Richard Nixon in asserting, in effect, “I am not a crook.” (The tactic also calls to mind the 1974 press conference that the late Sen. William Scott, R.-Va., called to deny a report in New Times magazine identifying him as the dumbest person in Congress. Thereafter no one had cause to question that assessment, and in short order Scott was replaced by Republican Sen. John Warner.)
What would the Commodore say? I think he’d say something like this.
“Yes, Bain Capital laid off people working at the companies that we purchased; yes, we outsourced jobs; we even offshored people. This wasn’t a damned employment agency! We were trying to squeeze every last dime out of overhead so Bain could take these companies public and make as much money as possible. Making money—that’s what we were in business to do!”
“Sometimes our actions turned out to be a good thing for the company. Sometimes, not. We didn’t really care, because we weren’t going to stick around anyway. We didn’t even care that much whether these companies went bust before we had a chance to take them public, because we still did a pretty nice business milking them for fees. Heads we win, tails you lose. Beats taking a lot of damn fool risks with Bain’s money, wouldn’t you say?”
“That’s what the leveraged—ahem, the private equity business, that’s what we had to start calling it after Michael Milken landed in the slammer—that’s what private equity is all about, son. We tried our hand at venture capital, and sure, it gave me a nice story to tell about building the Staples office-supplies empire up from the ground. But we figured out pretty quick that the trouble with taking risks on new ventures, creating wealth out of thin air, is, well ... it’s risky. Maybe you get rich, maybe you don’t. We decided—hell, I decided—I was the boss, you know—that it was a damned sight easier to get rich when you take the risk out of it.”
Granted, Commodore Vanderbilt never wanted to be president. To be president, you need to be loved, and saying things like this may not be the best way to get there. But bawling about how mean the president is being about how you made your fortune, it seems to me, is quite a bit worse.