The world has known since January that Bain Capital, the private equity firm founded by Mitt Romney, makes millions off the disposal of aborted fetuses. Pro-life Mitt fans consoled themselves with Bain’s assurance that the company didn’t enter the fetus-trashing biz until after Romney left to run the Olympics. (That Romney profited from the deal anyway was, I suppose, shrugged off as a charming quirk of high-roller capitalism. Money does the darndest things!)
Bain’s happy story fell apart this week when Mother Jones got the relevant filings from the SEC and found Romney’s signature all over the paperwork. Romney had, it appeared, negotiated Bain’s acquisition of Stericycle, a $2 billion firm which makes some undisclosed percent of its profits as America’s leading incinerator of dead babies. Bain greeted this news with a new line: That after Romney departed Bain, there was some interregnum during which Romney’s signature was necessary for the company to do certain things. Upon hearing this, I conducted a brief thought experiment, and I urge you to do the same:
Imagine that you are a monstrously wealthy pro-lifer. (In 1999, when the Stericycle deal was inked, Mitt Romney really did claim to be pro-life, though for the benefit of Massachusetts voters he also claimed the government had no business telling women how to run their uteri.) Imagine that you are the nominal head of a successful private equity firm. Imagine you are in the process of transitioning out of that firm for a new career, but you must nevertheless approve of its wheelings and dealings. Imagine that several important executives bring to your attention a looming deal in which you and the firm, already earners of massive profits, may enjoy massiver profits yet - by investing in the continued health of the abortion industry. To secure those profits, all you must do is sign your name.
Under those circumstances, do you:
b) Refuse while explaining to your fellow execs the importance of virtuous capitalism?
c) Refuse while kicking the execs out of your office?
d) Swallow your ethics and sign, understanding that it’s all for the good of the shareholders?
“A” is ethical and meek. “B” demonstrates leadership. “C” evidences bravery. Mitt Romney chose “D,” which is the answer of a moral coward or a moral imbecile.
Note that my thought experiment gives Mitt Romney the benefit of the doubt. It assumes he neither orchestrated the Bain takeover of Stericycle nor had the ability to steer his peers away from the company before a deal was imminent. Mother Jones casts a lot of doubt on those assumptions, most damningly by noting that Mitt Romney was listed as the lone shareholder, chief executive, and probably sole proprietor of a spin-off Bain corporation that invested in Stericycle’s acquisition. Mitt almost certainly wasn’t a hapless signatory, in other words, which means he’s spent the last decade lying about when, where, and how he untangled himself from the company he founded. But let’s disregard that. Many politicians lie about money. Very few pro-life politicians lie about profiting from what they must surely see as infanticide.
Mitt’s pet company, along with three other Bainian tentacles over which Romney had various amounts of control, invested $75 million in Stericycle in 1999. In 2004, they sold off their shares for $88 million. Along the way, they’d earned $50 million in pure profit. How much went into Mitt’s pocket? Mother Jones doesn’t know, and neither do I, though it’s safe to suppose there are seven figures before the decimal. Whatever the amount, Mitt hasn’t publicly regretted a cent of it, nor donated any commensurate sum to a pro-life cause – such as, for example, the Campaign To Stop Stericycle.
Why not apologize? He probably will, when and if the political cost of apologizing is outweighed by the political cost of silent defiance. That’s how Mitt rolls, and always has.
The more interesting question is: Why did Mitt choose to invest in Stericycle in the first place?
It could be that Mitt performed some sort of moral calculus, the results of which convinced him he could avoid enabling the promotion of abortion while still profiting from it. If so, he was wrong. Stericycle has spent $770,000 on lobbying in the last five years, and part of the reason they have so much cash with which to lobby is Bain’s wise stewardship of the company a decade ago.
Or it could be that Mitt’s bought into some warped vision of libertarian virtue. He may believe that profit is the world’s sole irreducible good, and that the rapid movement of capital from place to place is so fabulous for humanity that its facilitation is worth compromising a great many of what other, less business-minded people would consider bedrock principles. This strikes me as likely, and there’s evidence for it. Mitt is probably personally against American joblessness; nevertheless, he was a pioneer of outsourcing. And Mitt Romney is probably personally against totalitarianism and police states; nevertheless, as the New York Times revealed earlier this year, Mitt personally profits from Bain’s acquisition of a company that supplies the Chinese government with cutting-edge technology to spy on political dissidents. Again: Moral imbecility.
There is also a chance that Mitt is simply unable to say no. That he wants to be loved by the people to whom he’s accountable at any given moment, and that he’s willing to tell his business partners one thing, his constituents in Massachusetts something else, and a radically different thing to his would-be constituents in the heartland – that he’ll be a peerless profit-grabber, an ethical businessman, an avatar of American values, a friend of gays, an opponent of marriage equality, the savior of Massachusetts healthcare, the rescuer of America from the dreaded but identical Obamacare – and that he can bring himself to believe in each shift, every hedge, because he, Willard Mitt Romney, is uniquely capable of being all things, to all people, at all times.
If that’s what Mitt’s all about, then he doesn’t believe profit is the world’s sole irreducible good. He believes Willard Mitt Romney is the world’s sole irreducible good; that his imprimatur can turn sin into fiscal sanity, bad ideas into good ones, and vice into virtue. This is the definition of moral cowardice: the childish unwillingness to acknowledge one’s capacity for evil. Many world leaders have demonstrated such infantile unwillingness in the past, though I can think of only one American president. Incidentally, that president, Richard Nixon, once beat Mitt Romney’s father in a presidential primary, and he was able to do so because the elder Romney was unwise enough to admit, when discussing his newfound opposition to the Vietnam War, that he’d been wrong.