Late Tuesday night, a Washington-based blogger for The Economist who covers U.S. politics posted a several-paragraph takedown of Romney’s op-ed published that morning in the Detroit News. I learned of the op-ed yesterday when I read a then-two—day-old entry about it by Matthew Yglesias (not a favorite of mine, but I’ll leave that subject for another post) on Slate’s Moneybox blog. The key paragraphs of the Economist post are:
The purpose of Mr Romney’s op-ed is to clarify his position on the auto bail-out ahead of Michigan’s primary on February 28th. And the piece rivals Cirque du Soleil in its display of contortions. Mr Romney seems loth to gush about the success of the bail-out, noting only the good news that “Chrysler and General Motors are still in business”. He certainly doesn’t mention that 2011 was the best year for America’s carmakers since the financial crisis, with each of the big three turning a solid profit. But he does imply that this achievement is a result of his own advice. “The course I recommended was eventually followed”, Mr Romney writes.
As with much of Mr Romney’s excessive rhetoric, there is some truth to this statement. Following the bail-outs, the president eventually forced Chrysler and GM into bankruptcy, a step Mr Romney thought should occur naturally. And the government oversaw painful restructurings at both companies, which were largely in line with Mr Romney’s broad suggestions. But the course Mr Romney recommended in 2008 began with the government stepping back, and it is unlikely things would’ve turned out so well had this happened.
Free-marketeers that we are, The Economist
agreed with Mr Romney at the time. But we later apologised for that position
. “Had the government not stepped in, GM might have restructured under normal bankruptcy procedures, without putting public money at risk”, we said. But “given the panic that gripped private purse-strings…it is more likely that GM would have been liquidated, sending a cascade of destruction through the supply chain on which its rivals, too, depended.” Even Ford, which avoided bankruptcy, feared the industry would collapse if GM went down. At the time that seemed like a real possibility. The credit markets were bone-dry, making the privately financed bankruptcy that Mr Romney favoured improbable. He conveniently ignores this bit of history in claiming to have been right all along.
But the next paragraph, the final one in the post, begins:
In other areas of his op-ed Mr Romney is more accurate. Unions did win some special favours in the bail-out deals, though they are not as egregious as the candidate claims. For example, a health fund for retired workers was unfairly favoured over secured bondholders at Chrysler.
Forgive me if I’m missing something here, but why, exactly, was it unfair for the Obama administration to force the favoring of a health fund for retired workers over secured bondholders at Chrysler in the government-funded restructuring of that company? Don’t bondholders take the risk of default when they purchase the bonds? Don’t investors risk losing all or part of their investment when they invest? Isn’t that an inherent part of capitalism?
And while it’s true that in bankruptcy proceedings, pension and other retirement-benefit agreements, including those negotiated in labor agreements, can be dissolved or significantly altered, why—considering that retirement benefits are given as deferred payment for the workers’ labor—is it unfair for a government that is funding a “managed” bankruptcy to favor a health fund for retired workers over bondholders?
This strikes me as at the very heart of what Mitt Romney is about: his bald preference for government policy that favors the wealthy over everyone else. Santorum probably will win the primary in Michigan and the primary in Ohio a week later. But what will put him over the top in these rustbelt states is not the social conservatives but instead blue-collar voters whose primary (and general-election) concern (yes, pun intended), is economic policy.