In Chicago yesterday, President Obama described the essence of his campaign against Mitt Romney. Asked during a press conference about his campaign ads criticizing Romney’s record at Bain Capital in the 1980s and ’90s, Obama disagreed with fellow Democrats’ advice to focus on other issues:
[T]his is not a distraction. This is what this campaign is going to be about — is what is a strategy for us to move this country forward in a way where everybody can succeed?
Well, now. That’s just completely different from every other presidential campaign in history…
Some commentary has focused on what Obama said just before that: his description of the job of president vs. the job of a private equity CEO. And with good reason. There is plenty to address: from his assertion that the president should be involved in helping individual communities plan their economic development, to the obvious conclusion that the job, as he’s described it, is not one he’s done particularly well given the persistent sluggishness of the job market and the economy more broadly.
But what interested me was his summary of private equity:
Now, I think my view of private equity is that it is set up to maximize profits. And that’s a healthy part of the free market. That’s part of the role of a lot of business people. That’s not unique to private equity. And as I think my representatives have said repeatedly, and I will say today, I think there are folks who do good work in that area. And there are times where they identify the capacity for the economy to create new jobs or new industries, but understand that their priority is to maximize profits. And that’s not always going to be good for communities or businesses or workers.
Contra Cory Booker, Harold Ford Jr. and Steve Rattner — who are among the Obama supporters who cautioned him against demonizing private equity — the best reason for Obama to avoid the topic is that he sounds wholly uncomfortable on such foreign terrain.
His dissection of the place of profits in an economy supposedly based on free enterprise comes off like the remarks of an anthropologist recently returned from spending a year among some exotic, savage tribe. But profitability is a concept that comes naturally to most Americans because, unlike Obama, most of us have worked for for-profit enterprises.
Instead, Obama says “maximize profits” as if it’s one element among many when it comes to business (it’s just “part of the role of a lot of business people,” with the others ostensibly at liberty to ignore revenues and expenses), as if he grudgingly acknowledges some possibility that profits can co-exist with a healthy economy.
Wrong. Profits are indispensable to a healthy economy.
If a company is not trying to “maximize profits,” it is not a) trying to satisfy the most customers and thereby earn their business; b) recruiting and retaining the work force needed to deliver appealing products or services; or c) creating or freeing up the capital needed to expand its business.
Oh, and because we know Obama puts a premium on higher tax revenues: “Maximized profits” also mean more earnings for government to tax.
This is the story of America’s economic power. We are not the world’s most important economy, and the most prosperous people, because there are business people for whom “maximizing profits” is not “part of their role.” On the contrary. It’s because the profit motive — and, importantly, the greater freedom from government that our enterprises historically have had to pursue it — has ensured we have gotten the most out of our scarce resources.
Profits are not something to be merely tolerated as long as everything turns out OK for everyone else. They are the best motivation known to man to put as many people and resources as possible to productive work.
And creating new industries, with new jobs, is not incidental to free enterprise. Delivering novel products or services is not the only way to make money, but it is a time-tested way to do so.
This also happens to be the story of Bain Capital. Yes, it invested in businesses that couldn’t be turned around — that is, made profitable — and which had to be closed. But it also found great success in other ventures, some of which still employ tens of thousands of Americans.
Obama wants you to think the exceptions are the rule, at least where Romney and Bain are concerned. In doing so, he betrays his lack of familiarity with the very economy he claims to be trying to shepherd.
– By Kyle Wingfield