The highlight of the Republican national convention last night was Ann Romney’s emphatic proclamation that “this man will not fail!” It was preceded by a littany of candidate Mitt Romney’s many successes in life, both in the private and public sectors – his business success and his success in cutting spending and balancing the budget as governor of Massachusetts. And her proclamation was also a swipe at President Obama’s obvious failures to restore the economy, bring down unemployment and rein in the exploding debt.
But past successes are no guarantee of success as president of the United States. First of all, regarding Romney’s success in balancing Massachusetts’ budget: of course he was successful. Nearly every governor is successful at balancing the budget of his or her state because nearly every state’s constitution requires that the budget be balanced. The governor and his legislature were duty-bound to agree on some combination of spending cuts and revenue increases in order to achieve a balance. They can’t go home until they do. And, let’s not forget, governors’ jobs are much easier than the president’s job in that regard because the states have a big sugar-daddy – the federal government – to pick up the slack.
As president, Romney will have no such luxuries. Our constitution doesn’t require a balanced budget because our founding fathers never imagined that our leaders would be so stupid as to create such a fiscal mess. So there is no driving force for Congress to compromise and reach a consensus. Under President Romney, Republicans will be just as adamant about not raising taxes and Democrats, smarting from four years of Republicans’ stone-walling efforts to reach a compromise each time we bumped our heads against the debt ceiling, will now be even less willing to cut spending. It’s highly unlikely that Romney will be any more effective in breaking the gridlock in Washington.
And success in the business world is no predictor whatsoever of success running the federal government. The objectives of each are polar opposites. There is only one goal in the business world. It’s not creating jobs. It’s not helping the overall economy. It’s not improving the lives of people. It’s not the high-minded, almost-philanthropic slogans that each corporation proclaims in their image-building ads on TV. It’s none of these. The only goal of business is making money – as much as possible – in any way legally possible. The interests of employees are of no concern at all (at least to the extent that the business is able to retain a minimum of highly productive employees), much less the interest of the common good. For business leaders, the business is the master that all others in the organization serve.
That’s not a criticism. It’s the way things must be in a society that utilizes capitalism as its economic model. If such an economy is to succeed, profit must be the first priority of its business leaders.
But the role of government is the polar opposite. The common good is the chief objective. While it’s in the interest of the government of a capitalistic society to maintain a business-friendly atmosphere, the role of government is to assure that capitalism functions as our servant, and not our master. It’s role is to establish boundaries that prevent businesses from heading down a path that’s not in the interest of the common good. That requires some empathy for others.
My wife and I had an interesting discussion the other day with our son who is working on his Phd in psychology. For some reason, we got into a discussion about sociopaths vs. psychopaths, and what the distinction might be. We were aware that a sociopath is a person who is virtually devoid of empathy, incapable of having sympathy for others. Our son pointed out that there really is no difference; they’re terms that are used almost interchangeably, but the term “psychopath” is generally applied to those whose lack of empathy has resulted in some violent crime. Sociopaths are not necessarily violent. There are plenty of sociopaths who function normally in society. These are kown as “functioning sociopaths,” my son explained. While sociopaths are lacking in empathy, they also are fully capapble of recognizing others’ emotions and feelings and are able to manipulate them to their advantage.
I remarked that a sociopath may be well-suited to being a CEO of a corporation, since the job so often requires decisions that may negatively impact a lot of people. He replied that, in fact, in psychology texts, corporate CEOs are often cited as examples of “functioning sociopaths” – making them ideally suited to making decisions that hurt many people without giving it a second thought. They go home and sleep soundly.
While sociopathic qualities may serve a business leader well, it’s a quality that makes one poorly suited to serving the common good. I’m not saying that Romney is such a person, but stories I’ve heard make me wonder if he lacks empathy. Even last night, following an emotional speech by his wife and the thunderous applause of admiring thousands, his reaction seemed to be little more than a rehearsed smile.
His wife, Ann, is wrong. If elected, Romney will fail, but not for any of the reasons I discussed above. He will fail because, challenged with reviving the economy and reining in the debt, he faces only three choices:
- Cut the federal budget deficit in a meaningful way, most likely through deep spending cuts (but don’t be surprised if some tax increases are included) in the belief that reining in spending will somehow boost the economy. This will placate those whose biggest concern is our exploding national debt.
- Make only token cuts, but otherwise continue to run budget deficits of close to a trillion dollars per year in order to avoid a recession.
- Address our failed trade policy to bring millions of manufacturing jobs back home.
Those are the only three choices he has. The only one that would have any meaningful impact on restoring the economy – the last – is one he will clearly not choose. He has already promised a huge new, all-encompassing free trade deal. Our trade deficit will likely get worse. There’s no hope that it would improve.
That leaves the first two options. The first would surely drive the economy into recession. He knows that. His economic advisors know that. They know that anything that takes money out of the economy – like taxes – hurts the economy. And they know that anything that puts money back in the economy – like federal spending – helps the economy. So he won’t do it. They may shift spending from social programs to defense spending, but there won’t be any real reduction in the deficit. You can take that to the bank.
Which means that he will default to continuing the status quo – running huge budget deficits to stoke the economy with money that is drained away by the trade deficit – kicking the can down the road. In all likelihood, it will be in the guise of a budget that predicts less spending and more revenue in the future, when the economy is mysteriously healed and the macroeconomy is inexplicably growing again at 4-5% per year. Probably the time frame will be about 8-10 years out so that he never has to explain why we never really arrived there.
Romney will fail because his economists will continue to rely upon growth, including population growth, to cure economic problems that have been caused by growth itself and by attempting to grow through free trade with nations where growth-induced economic problems are even worse. How can he possibly succeed when the field of economics that he will reply upon for economic advice is itself a complete and utter failure?