The current maelstrom raging over the legitimacy of President Obama's critique of Bain Capital has focused on whether you can challenge a career in private investment and still believe in capitalism. Of course you can. Republicans and Democrats have both been good for business. The better -- and real -- debate is the role of private equity as a resumé builder for a president, and it goes to a more essential question: what ethic will guide our next president? Will he have a profit-motive or a people-motive?
A profit motive demands creative destruction in pursuit of more money and an allegiance to free markets. A company dedicated to the generation of capital should champion the cause of free enterprise, which may mean that companies are shuttered and jobs slashed. No one who supports capitalism denies this. But maximizing profits cannot be the same as being a job creator. Indeed, any company that sets as its goal creating jobs is probably going to lose its money and yours. A good business enterprise seeks efficiency and stock value increases, not generational workers and pension plans. A profit motive is disconnected from daily concern about creating jobs, and rightly so.
For my money, a president must have at his core a people motive. He is not running a company designed to achieve higher margins at all costs. He is leading U.S.A., Inc., a citizen cooperative where every shareholder has value and every worker has worth. Yes, we have to balance the books, but not at the cost of health care, air quality or employee safety. A people motive promotes thoughtful regulation, disdains the creative destruction of communities because plants close and rejects the dispensability of citizens because mechanized labor is cheaper. A people motive recognizes that what is more efficient is not better. That free enterprise and the free market both come with heavy costs.
Governor Romney properly touts his credentials in the marketplace and in Olympics. In both places, he was called upon not to take care of families but to guarantee a return on investment. He had the obligation to cut jobs and restrict spending in the short-term because that's how money is made. His silence on his time as CEO of Massachusetts is also telling, because therein lies the truth of the limits of a public servant as a private sector master of capital. According to his rhetoric, he prefers the latter.
But a cold, myopic focus on the bottom line is not a prescription for a president. Americans may talk tough about running government like a business, but the reality is that we like a business of the people. Healthy, productive citizens are our product. And they can not be manufactured by ignoring the poor and sidelining the middle class, even if serving them is expensive. The president must have a people motive that seeks the constructive creation of strong families, the building of neighborhoods everywhere and not simply on pricey streets, and the profitability of a good education. U.S.A., Inc. must be a company that strives to be on the cover of Fortune as one of the best places to live, work and play. Doing so isn't cheap, and it isn't easy.
As the firestorm dies down about Bain Capital, the core of the debate must remain. Do we want a president who thinks every day about how to maximize a dollar or will he put his mind to the people who make those dollars mean something? The shareholders of America will make that choice on November 6.
Rep. Stacey Abrams is the Georgia House Minority Leader, the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia General Assembly and the first African-American to lead in the House. She is a graduate of Yale Law School and Spelman College and owns a small business in Atlanta, Georgia.
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