Bull In a China Shop

Romney said a Polish leader told him during his visit that his country’s economic philosophy is, “You don’t borrow what you can’t pay back.” The presumptive Republican presidential nominee used the line to draw an implicit contrast with President Obama, saying the world — and, by definition, the United States — should emulate Poland’s economic and societal transformation toward smaller government.

“Rather than heeding the false promise of a government-dominated economy, Poland sought to stimulate innovation, attract investment, expand trade and live within its means,” Romney said. “Your success today is a reminder that the principles of free enterprise can propel an economy and transform a society.”

Well, the big debate among political pundits today is, of course, whether Romney’s bull-in-a-china-shop performance will hurt his election chances, given that, after all, it’s economics issues that will determine the outcome of the election.  The consensus seems to be that it won’t.  I think it will—given that it’s economics issues that will determine the outcome of the election.

The state of the economy, and its immediate prospects, certainly will be a key issue in most voters’ minds.  But so will the apparent competence of Obama’s challenger—and the likely effect of the challenger’s policy proposals on the economy and on the larger panoply of budgetary (taxing and spending) policies on both the near-term economy and on the very nature of American society. 
The supposed raison d’être for Romney’s candidacy, at least as advertised to the general public (if not to, say, the Koch brothers), is his claim that he would be a more competent steward of the economy that Obama has been.  But although most of the public doesn’t yet know it, that claim is based less on his role as a private-equity game player (and stellar tax avoider or evader) and on his role as savior of the Salt Lake City Olympics than on his policy proposals: to significantly increase spending on the proverbial military-industrial complex and dramatically decrease both domestic spending and tax revenue. Contrary to the punditry’s meme, Romney hasn’t been unspecific about his proposals. He spelled them out clearly during the primary season, e.g., in a speech last February to the Detroit Economic Club, leaving only the simple math computations to be completed by the media and the Obama campaign, and some members of the high-profile media finally have begun to complete them.  But Romney has been in successful Etch A Sketch mode since wrapping up the nomination, and thus far has been able to make the public think that what matters is his competence level—and that he’s competent.

No more, I suspect. In the Washington Post article I referenced above, a Romney aide named Stuart Stevens who is traveling with the candidate is quoted as telling reporters, “He has a tendency to speak his mind and to say what he believes, and whenever you do that, there will be those that disagree with you, and there will be those that agree with you.  That’s what he’s done in these situations. I think people like that. I think that this idea that you have to not speak your mind is something that’s not very appealing to people.”

One problem with this is that Romney has a habit of only rarely speaking his mind and, instead, of speaking what he thinks is the mind of the political constituency he’s targeting at the moment—and that on this trip he did both, and both revealed serious incompetence.  People find unappealing this idea that you have to not speak your mind.  But they also find unappealing this idea that you don’t know when it’s inappropriate to speak your mind, and that you don’t consider or don’t even recognize, the potential consequences of what you say and where, and in what context, you say it. 

I suspect that people will find it unappealing that if this candidate appears so lacking in judgment or so utterly self-interested that he either didn’t recognize or didn’t care about the obvious international implications of his comments, he is unlikely to possess the judgment to recognize the consequences of his decisions in economic policy—or to care about the broader consequences for the country.  His interests are narrow and they correspond to those of the Koch brothers and of the private equity set.  And, whether by design or unconcern or simple cluelessness, nothing else will matter to him.

In other words, you don’t borrow what you can’t pay back, except to increase military expenditures—in part to enable the wars that Romney seems to want to get us into or that he may accidentally precipitate, and in part as his preferred version of crony capitalism and Keynesian economics—and to ensure an ever-lower tax rate for the wealthy.  And Poland—which (surely) has a more progressive tax code than the U.S. does (what is Poland’s top tax rate, anyway?), and which probably has national universal health insurance, and which has a strong labor movement and surely more-regulated financial institutions than ours, and which didn’t experience a crazy housing and private-debt boom and bust in the last decade, and whose government likely spends a good deal on infrastructure projects—is a reminder that the principles of free enterprise can propel an economy and transform a society. 

Just like our country was, back in the era that Romney says was anti-free-enterprise.  Those high tax rates, and all that regulation of banks and industry back then, y’know.