In one of Peter Sellers’ memorable Pink Panther films, a wild-eyed Clousseau clad in tattered, smoking clothes rushes into Chief Inspector Dreyfus’s office declaiming, “Infamous powers are at work!” The scene follows one in which Clousseau has absent-mindedly mishandled a bomb sent by an assassin. It’s obvious that it’s a bomb to all but Clousseau. “Were you expecting a bömb?” – Clousseau’s witless question to a shop owner – thus entered the American Lexicon of Silly Sayings as a permanent entry.
During his interview with the chief inspector, Clousseau’s smoldering clothes ignite some papers in the office. He stuffs them into a waste-can and slinks away as the cry of “Fire!” rings through the building.
I love those scenes because I love slapstick – in the movies, that is. In real life it’s not as funny. But during the past week, Republican presidential candidates have engaged in slapstick worthy of Inspector Clousseau himself. Scene 1 showed leading contender Mitt Romney talking about giving individuals the flexibility to change health insurance providers as they see fit, instead of being chained to one provider.
“I like being able to fire people who provide me services,” said the former venture-capitalist/governor.
It was a perfectly sensible comment, but reporters immediately pounced on it as an “aha” moment – slyly shortening the quote to “I like firing people,” to imply that Mr. Romney enjoyed putting people out of work during his business career of salvaging companies. (That line of work often involves layoffs to improve a company’s efficiency.) This created a media feeding-frenzy over whether Mr. Romney’s business career was more about ending employment than furnishing employment for people – all of it, of course, taken grossly out of context from Mr. Romney’s original meaning of dismissing providers of a service who aren’t doing the job.
But that was only Scene 1. In Scene 2, some of Mr. Romney’s GOP opponents sprang off the “firing people” comment and ran with the idea that Mr. Romney was not a venture capitalist at all, but a kind of “vulture capitalist.” Mr. Huntsman piously declared that he liked putting people to work, not firing them. Mr. Perry – desperately trying to revive his flagging candidacy by playing to the fears of working people in South Carolina – said he “loved capitalism” and understood how it “needs to work.” (He didn’t exactly spell that out, but implied that what Mr. Romney did certainly wasn’t how it was supposed to be.) Newt Gingrich darkly referred to Mr. Romney having made money by picking over the bones of companies he had raided. “That’s not real capitalism,” he said.
During all of this sturm und drang, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum distinguished themselves by refusing to pile on Mr. Romney’s “firing” comment or his work with Bain Capital. In Scene 3 – speaking of Mr. Romney’s critics – Mr. Paul said, “I think they’re wrong. I think they’re totally misunderstanding the way the market works… They are either just demagoguing or they don’t have the vaguest idea how the market works.” Mr. Paul went on to say –
“I think they’re unfairly attacking him on that issue because he never really literally said that. They’ve taken him way out of context. … He wants to fire companies [not people]. I think they’re way overboard on saying that he wants to fire people, he doesn’t care… You save companies, you save jobs when you reorganize companies that are going to go bankrupt. And they don’t understand that.”
To his credit, Mr. Santorum also declined to dissect the intricacies of venture capitalism and restructuring companies. He merely said Mr. Romney’s choice of words was unfortunate and probably would not resonate with people who might be out of work or afraid of losing work. He declined to criticize his opponent’s business activities, noting that the Romney family “is of great service to our country, and have done a lot of good things.”
In an interview with ABC news, Mr. Santorum was clearly more interested in pushing his own life experiences – i.e., growing up in a working-class family – as more relevant and attractive to voters, than in talking about Mr. Romney. Regarding the “firing” comment he said, “…I am not going to make a big issue of that, I understand what he meant, we all say things a little left-handily.”
This was not just a one-act drama, however. Act II featured Mr. Gingrich ramping up his attacks with radio and TV ads that rode the vulture-capitalism and firing issues until Republican voters started taking notice – although not necessarily favorably to Mr. Gingrich. Instead, both voters and conservative commentators began to question whether Mr. Gingrich understood business at all, or was a true capitalist.
Voters noticed that Mr. Gingrich had no real business experience outside of areas like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, where the business operates hand-in-glove with government and receives federal money. Lifelong academics and civil servants like Mr. Gingrich have little conversation with cutting costs and paring back the payroll of a failing business so it can get on its feet.
Indeed, the criticisms leveled at Mr. Romney by several of his GOP competitors rotated the spotlight in their direction. Voters saw that the critics didn’t understand the true purpose of business. Lifelong politicians who lack real-world experience tend to think that purpose is to provide jobs for workers. But the true purpose, as any child hawking sidewalk lemonade can tell you, is to make money for the business’s owners. Jobs are a byproduct of a successful business, not its purpose.
As Mr. Gingrich’s attacks on Mr. Romney – accusing him of being a bogus (or vulture) capitalist – have increased, his fraction of GOP support has steadily diminished. Accordingly, he has echoed Clousseau’s dramatic line, claiming that “infamous powers” were working to damage his candidacy. But just like Clousseau’s clumsy mishandling of the bomb, Mr. Gingrich is the cause of his own ruin. He has wrecked his own candidacy. Fiscally conservative voters are unlikely to hand the presidential nomination to a man who (A) has conducted a scorched earth campaign against a GOP rival who might actually be the nominee, and (B) now looks suspiciously like a Democrat in his attitudes toward capitalism.
Capitalism is not itself a founding principle of the American Republic, but it is the business model which best expresses a principle that is foundational. That principle is the right to security in one's private ownership of property. The Constitution does not permit property to be seized by another individual, nor by any arm of the government except via lawful procedure involving a warrant, statement of probable cause, and sworn affirmations. Indeed, all this has been said better than I could do it: i.e.,
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” (U. S. Constitution, Amendment IV)
Americans of every political stripe (except anarchy) should get on their knees every night and thank God that the Founders included that amendment, and the rights it guarantees, in our seminal document. Imagine trying to conduct business if buyers and sellers could not be sure of delivery or payment, or if workers could not count on getting their rightful wages, or if mortgagers of a business could not be sure they would receive promised interest or repayment of the funds they lent – with no legal redress for default in operation. It would be a gangster economy, with only the strong and well-armed able to make their way via coercion or violence.
Secure ownership of property enables orderly conduct of business. Orderly business allows owners to market products and services at a profit – controlled by what the market is willing to pay. And profit-making business is what we know as “capitalism.” Without this construct, America would be a shadow of what it is. Sophists who believe they know “a better way” to conduct business should be regarded with extreme suspicion, bordering on distrust. They are the “infamous powers.” We already have one in the presidency. Let’s not elect another.