Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Working Rich and And Chinese Factory Girls From Romney's 47% Speech

As I wrote the title of this post, I realized "the 47% speech" might be as linked in history to Romney as Gettysburg address and Lincoln are linked.  But that's not what this post is about.

Jamie left a comment on my post that raised questions about whether Romney had Asperger Syndrome symptoms.  In the comments other readers declared Romney a sociopath.  Jamie wrote (in part):
What I find more disconcerting is how Romney represents to so many The Real American®™ by exhibiting said traits that also define a sociopath, in other words, he exemplifies the model businessman.
Case in point is the hand-waving over that “47%” secret recording of the talk he gave to wealthy elite donors. But what’s most disgusting of all (and a most telling symptom that reveals more of our own culture) is how virtually nobody is focusing on his off-the-cuff recounting during that speech of his visit to the Chinese factory. This where the women workers were corralled and treated like cattle, even kept from escaping their barracks by barbed wire and guards.
Romney never morally flinched, didn’t even think of them (or for that matter anybody poor today) as actual, live human beings, they were just assets, cogs in the machine he was buying. Ethically no different than the one-time revered pillars of society that upheld everything from the days of the robber barons to the horrors of institutionalized slavery in our own not-too distant national history.

Jamie raises a whole slew of issues.  But my first reaction was, "What Chinese factory comments?"  I'm afraid the 47% part was significant enough and I confess I didn't go looking for the rest of the speech.  Well, it's up and probably worth listening to.  Mother Jones has highlighted some parts they thought significant.

But I had to read the text to find the Chinese factory part Jamie referred to.  Jamie's point was that (I'm taking some liberties here, but you can see Jamie's words above)  the Romney model of a capitalist businessman (yes, man), is quite a bit like the heroes of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.   They apply principles of efficiency and no other values need be considered.  They work hard and deserve the wealth that inevitably comes from it.

In fact here's a comment from an audience member at the infamous speech:
Romney: Yeah, yeah.
Audience member: My question to you is, Why don't you stick up for yourself? To me, you should be so proud of your wealth. That's what we all aspire to be—we kill ourselves, we don't work a nine to five. We're away from our families five days a week. I'm away from my four girls five days a week and my wife. Why not stick up for yourself and say, "Why is it bad to be, to aspire to be wealthy and successful? You know, why is it bad to kill yourself? And why is it bad to cut 30 jobs that protect 300?" And, when people talk about you cutting jobs, you save companies that were failing...[unintelligible]. So my question is, when does that stand up…[unintelligible].

Let's see.  The important things in life are:
  • being wealthy and 'successful' 
  • killing yourself working
  • not seeing your kids and wife five days a week?
Actually, this is vaguely the American ideal.  To work hard and 'succeed' by getting rich. In some families this macho capitalism, demonstrated by millions of dollars, and mansions and yachts, is the definition of success.  We can see it in HBO's Mad Men and many other portrayals.  This was the ethics-free creed that caused people in the home financing business to make loans that they knew could not be repaid, because they got their hefty cut upfront.  That creates multi-million bonuses for bankers while people are losing their houses because of those bankers.

Our military are away from their families for months at a time, shouldn't they have a cool million on separation from the military?  Instead those millions go to oil companies to pay for fuel, food suppliers, the weapons manufacturers, and a whole host of contracted companies that in turn pay hefty salaries to contract workers from first world countries (if you're from Bangladesh, your contract pay only looks good to your family back home who compare it to local salaries.) And our soldiers fight with the VA to get help with the war souvenirs in their heads.

And there are lots of poor folks whose work life is killing them with long days too, but it's not by choice.  They get up early to feed the kids and take long bus rides across town to clean the houses of better off folks.  They work as service people in various retail establishments often without health insurance or much hope of increasing their salaries. 

I was lucky to have a family that modeled being a good human being over being a rich human being and gave me the opportunities to choose a career that added value to human beings and our society and gave me a comfortable, but by no means luxurious, life.  And gave me time to spend with my family every day.  Some of that came from choices we made such as living a five minute walk from my work so I didn't spend my time or money on transportation to and from work.  Some of it was the luck of coming into the job market at a favorable time.   Some was not coveting more than I could afford.  My point here is that being wealthy, in and of itself, is not, in my mind, a noble life goal.

But let's look at the Chinese factory part of Romney's talk that Jamie cited:
And I remember going to—sorry just to bore you with stories—but I was, when I was back in my private equity days, we went to China to buy a factory there, employed about 20,000 people, and they were almost all young women between the ages of about 18 and 22 or 23. They were saving for potentially becoming married, and they worked in these huge factories, they made various small appliances, and as we were walking through this facility, seeing them work, the number of hours they worked per day, the pittance they earned, living in dormitories with little bathrooms at the end with maybe ten rooms. And the rooms, they had 12 girls per room, three bunk beds on top of each other. You've seen them.
Audience member: Oh, yeah.
Romney: And around this factory was a fence, a huge fence with barbed wire, and guard towers. And we said, "Gosh, I can't believe that you, you know, you keep these girls in." They said, "No, no, no—this is to keep other people from coming in. Because people want so badly to come work in this factory that we have to keep them out, or they'll just come in here and start working and try and get compensated. So, we—this is to keep people out." And they said, "Actually, Chinese New Year, is the girls go home, sometimes they decide they've saved enough money and they don't come back to the factory." And he said, "And so on the weekend after Chinese New Year, there'll be a line of people hundreds long outside the factory, hoping that some girls haven't come back and they can come to the factory. And so, as we were experiencing this for the first time, for me to see a factory like this in China some years ago, the Bain partner I was with turned to me and said, "You know, 95 percent of life is settled if you're born in America." This is an amazing land. And what we have is unique, and fortunately it is so special we're sharing it with the world.
Jamie's point, as I understand it, is that Romney looks at these terrible conditions and is easily persuaded that these conditions are so good that people have to be fenced out.  And he's more than happy to have work done for 'a pittance' in China under terrible conditions, because it will improve his bottom line, because he will make millions from the labor of these young Chinese women.  And he's actually doing them a favor because they'll earn enough money to get married.  And Americans are sharing our amazingly blessed life with these people by giving them a chance to work in these wretched factories.  While American factories are shut down and Americans lose their jobs and saw their American dream disappear.  But these, for Romney, are all problems caused by Obama's oppressive regulations on business.

This is the model of the American businessman that Jamie is disgusted with and I can't say I disagree with him.  If you watch the videos, you wonder what the waiters who walk back and forth in front of the camera were thinking.  To the wealthy, these servers are invisible, and they can comfortably talk about the problems of being misunderstood because of their wealth in front of them without considering their lives or what they are thinking.

Here are some links to see or read more of what was said at this event:

Mother Jones piece with highlight clips from the talk, including:
  • Mitt Romney on Obama voters
  • Mitt Romney on treating Obama gingerly
  • Mitt Romney on his consultants
  • Mitt Romney on what wins an election (money from his listeners)
  • Mitt Romney on the economy
Mother Jones second piece with highlight clips including:
  • Mitt Romney on the Mideast Conflict
  • Mitt Romney on Iran's Nuclear Program
  • Mitt Romney on Obama's Foreign Policy
Mother Jones complete transcript of the speech.

Romney might even be right on some of the topics.  But it's his certainty that he is right about everything that is so distressing.  These are not things that anyone can be certain about.  And one might be skeptical that this is, in fact, what Romney really thinks, since he seems to tailor his comments to his audiences.  Except this seems to be an audience of his economic peers, so he may think that what they want to hear is what he truly believes.

Another interesting exchange began with a question about whether there might be an opportunity like Reagan had with the Iran hostage situation that faced Jimmy Carter. (Reagan is alleged to have worked out a secret agreement with the Iranians to keep the hostages through the election and as it happened, the hostages were freed immediately after Reagan's inauguration.)

Audience member: If you get the call as president, and you had hostages…Ronald Reagan was able to make a statement, even before he became, was actually sworn in—
Romney: Yeah—
Audience member: the hostages were released—
Romney: on the day of his inauguration, yeah.
Audience member: So my question is, really, how can you sort of duplicate that scenario?
Romney: Ohhhh. [A few chuckles in audience.] I'm gonna ask you, how do I duplicate that scenario.
Audience member: I think that had to do with the fact that the Iranians perceived Reagan would do something to really get them out. In other words [unintelligible]…and that's why I'm suggesting that something that you say over the next few months gets the Iranians to understand that their pursuit of the bomb is something that you would predict and I think that's something that could possibly resonate very well with American Republican voters.
Romney: I appreciate the idea. I can't—one of the other things that's frustrating to me is that at a typical day like this, when I do three or four events like this, the number of foreign policy questions that I get are between zero and one. And the American people are not concentrated at all on China, on Russia, Iran, Iraq. This president's failure to put in place a status forces agreement allowing 10-20,000 troops to stay in Iraq? Unthinkable! And yet, in that election, in the Jimmy Carter election, the fact that we have hostages in Iran, I mean, that was all we talked about. And we had the two helicopters crash in the desert, I mean that's—that was—that was the focus, and so him solving that made all the difference in the world. I'm afraid today if you said, "We got Iran to agree to stand down a nuclear weapon," they'd go hold on. It's really a, but…by the way, if something of that nature presents itself, I will work to find a way to take advantage of the opportunity.
Is this why Romney jumped to condemn Obama when he first learned about the Egyptians attacking the US embassy in Cairo?  So many things to think about.


  1. I had read that Romney Chinese factory story a while back. It is disgusting, and I bet few of those girls were even close to 18. To not even feel one iota of guilt that these girls worked in a sweat shop in the 21st century, but to wish that he could get such cheap labor in the US is beyond disgusting. The man is cruel. And to hope for a foreign policy disaster to make himself look good is pathetic. This man should spend some time working for pennies, but it will never happen. Oh no, Richie Rich is too good for that. He's 'entitled' to be President even though he ruined Massachusetts, took almost two billion of OUR money to fund his Mormon cronies at the Olympics, and never served a day fort his nation. Plus he cheats on his taxes...legally of course.
    I will never vote for anyo0ne so despicable.

  2. I hate to say this but Romney's Chinese worker comments are not all that far off of what most Americans feel about people from other cultures. There is a reason we are called "ugly Americans" when we go over seas and make assholes out of ourselves. We come off as so damned entitled to respect because of our accident of birth place.
    I wish his was an outlier attitude but it is not.

  3. Except most politicians are interested in human rights. And they at least give lip service to the plight of poor uneducated girls in sweat shops. Romney's cold heart does not even recognize that these are people, created by God. A person wanting to be President, who quotes that stupid Reagan "shining city" meme as often as Palin, should at least have some track record of caring whether the company he buys uses slave labor. He is unqualified in so many ways it is mind-boggling.

  4. @ Sally -- That isn't how I read Romney's comments. Rather, I heard him as saying that he is glad he was born in the U.S. so that he doesn't have to work in conditions like that.

    What makes this sentiment remarkable, as you note, is the complete lack of acknowledgement of the historical context:

    1) Unions, government regulations, and socially conscious business owners worked hard to establish current U.S worker conditions;

    2) these conditions are currently being undermined in the U.S., and working conditions are regressing; (See, e.g., "I was a warehouse slave"

    3) as New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg has said, U.S. consumers and business people, such as Romney (and me and probably you), are directly encouraging, enabling, and benefiting from these working conditions.

    4) and we (and especially Romney!) have the power to change these conditions, and we aren't doing it.

    Romney seems to think that we are exporting good working conditions ("This is an amazing land. And what we have is unique, and fortunately it is so special we're sharing it with the world."), but the reality is that these conditions are improving very slowly, if at all.

    In a recent article on sweatshops in Bangladesh, Jim Yardley wrote:

    "Workers in five factories making products for Nike, Puma and Adidas were paid less than the minimum wage and complained of workplace abuse and sexual harassment. …

    Julia K. Hughes, president … a trade group in Washington [said] “No company is arguing that wages should not rise in Bangladesh....”

    But many factory owners are skeptical that buyers are truly willing to pay higher prices. One owner, Shawkat Ali Bhuiyan, said he had stopped working with companies like Walmart and Target because his profit margin was almost nonexistent."

    From "As Bangladesh Becomes Export Powerhouse, Labor Strife Erupts" By JIM YARDLEY, NYT August 23, 2012


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