American Culture

Mitt Romney, finance guy

So just what is it about Mitt Romney, who seems a devoted family man who loves his wife and clearly wouldn’t go around beating small children about the head, that makes him so tone-deaf? Once again, he’s in trouble for saying things that most of us find remarkably insensitive even for a politician, or just as a human being, if not downright stupid. So this time he’s on about the 47% of the country who think of themselves as victims. Before it was an extraordinarily insensitive and comically badly timed set of comments about Obama’s apology tour, or whatever, when the Village was in a state of shock over one of their own—a US Ambassador, no less. And before that it was lord knows. There have been so many of them that we’ve all lost count. And this doesn’t even include the outright lying—the mendacity of the campaign ads, the total fabrications about Obama, events that have or haven’t occurred, even about his own life. Is he mildly Aspergers? Is he a tool of the devil? What’s going on?

It’s actually simple. Romney is a finance guy. He’s one of the new breed of finance guy that business schools started turning out in the 1970s and 1980s, people whose connection to the economic reality that most of us inhabit has become more and more tenuous over time. Trading floors and private equity firms and investment banks are full of these people. I work with them on a daily basis, and have for nearly three decades. Companies, too, but the concentration is in the finance industry, which has shown substantial growth over the past several decades in the US (and here in London as well) as other industries have withered. Not every MBA in Finance, and not every CFA (Chartered financial Analyst), is a scumbag. Many are quite nice, and intelligent, and reasonable—they’re as worried about global warming and income inequality as the rest of us—and many of them donate lots of money to organizations that attempt to deal with these issues. But they’re a clear minority.

And the majority? They’re like Mitt. They’ve been trained academically, and may even have a prior disposition to the notion, that externalities don’t matter. Why, they barely exist. You can go through the entire CFA program and not once even hear about the concept of “economic externalities.” The number of courses on the environment and global warming in business schools is rising, and rising rapidly, but it’s a recent development—and for kids going into business schools these days, they’re already sold.

It’s the older guys—and, let’s face it, it’s almost always guys, except for rare birds like Meg Whitman—like Romney and Bush who seem to have an empty space where most of us have empathy, or at least something that makes us appear human to the rest of the world. Guys like Romney don’t care about that. Well, the guy’s got $250 million, or whatever it is. But so does George Soros, who channels an extraordinary amount of money into seeding, growing and preserving democratic movements around the world, particularly Eastern Europe, which can use the help, frankly. Bill Gates never went to business school—in fact, he dropped out of Harvard as an undergraduate. If he had, perhaps he never would have set up the Gates Foundation, although maybe we have Melissa to thank for that. (On the other hand, Steve Jobs, for whom there is no public record of any charitable giving whatsoever, is another story.)

It’s a vicious, feedback driven circle, or has been in business schools, and may still be, for all I know. Certainly in the industry itself I see no significant change in the type of person being hired by investment management firms or investment banks, or, lord knows, hedge funds and PE firms. These are people whose major driver is to make lots of money, as quickly as possible, and as much as they can for as long as they can. And it’s a self-selecting group—they hire junior versions of themselves. And then banks seem surprised when their traders cheat, and cheat en masse, as in the LIBOR scandal. Yes, Barclays has been justifiably dinged by this—but Barclays is just the first of many more to come. This could only have worked if everyone was involved. It’s not that there aren’t honorable and honest individuals in this industry—there just aren’t enough of them. They’re the exception, not the rule.

Mitt would have fit right in with this group. All finance guys are traders at heart, and, yes, we’re told he was good at it, whatever “it” is. He was fortunate to not have to worry about money when he was young, he had his convenient deferment (which didn’t stop him from demonstrating against anti-Vietnam demonstrators, of course, although that may have been a father thing in some weird way). It’s the same mentality that resulted in traders at the Chicago Board of Trade last year put sign in windows attacking and mocking Occupy protestors (“We are the 1%“). In this respect, he also resembles Mike Milken, who before going on to fame and infamy (and a criminal conviction) at Drexel Burnham, spent his time at Haas School of Business at Berkeley untouched by the 1960s social revolutions going on around him. Milken discovered the joys of philanthropy when he was about to be indicted (although, to be fair, he and members of his famly have had cancer). (Milken is now routinely referred to as “Philanthropist Mike Milken,” because he does a lot of philanthropy now—he didn’t then. On the other hand, he’s also into the privatization of education, a really, really bad thing.)

So Romney is not unusual. I know people like to think he was some sort of financial innovator, but he was just following a model already pioneered by other Private Equity or LBO (Leveraged Buy-Out) investors—Milken (the great facilitator in the 1980s), Thomas Lee, Ted Forstmann, KKR and about a dozen others. This looks like a laundry list of Paul Ryan’s heroes. That he was good at it is well understood—whether it was a good thing to do, as we all know, is another question. But he did it early enough to make himself a tidy bundle. But the finance mind-set is so ingrained in banks and investment firms that it will be another generation before it’s eclipsed by whatever new model of the world is going to come along.

And perhaps not even then—these people keep hiring each other. And many of them do believe that people who don’t work are unworthy of the support they’re given, so Romney was actually spot on in his most recent comments. These were made, remember, at a fund-raiser in the home of a Private Equity guy. It should not come as a surprise that this is also a guy who seems to have wild sex parties—that fits right in with the perpetual adolescent mind-set that characterizes modern finance.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that Mitt turns out to be tone-deaf to, say, nuance. Most of us go through life accommodating each other. Finance guys don’t do that—it’s eat or be eaten, as a rule (I have to say that the traders at my current firm often prove to be the exception—but their clients!) And Mitt’s personality obviously fits this mold—that’s why he was good at it. What he hasn’t figured out yet, because it’s a subtle learning process and these guys aren’t given to subtlety, is that politics requires some nuance. Mitt thought bombast was the way to go—hey, it won him the primaries. But now it’s backfired. Who knew?

2 replies »

  1. The references to Mike Milken are far off the mark. Where do you get the idea that Milken was “untouched by the 1960s social revolutions”? At Berkeley, he was close to Mario Savio, the leader of the Free Speech movement. More important, the 1965 Watts riot in Los Angeles changed his life and convinced him to change his major from science to business as a way to expand access to capital for those who had previously been denied. (Details of this part of his life are at http://www.mikemilken.com/articles.taf?page=9.) His philanthropy started in 1972, when he first became involved in supporting medical research. After focusing in the areas of breast cancer, epilepsy and melanoma in the 1970s, he expanded and formalized his philanthropy in 1982 by establishing the Milken Family Foundation to support a wide range of initiatives in both medical research and education. All this was long before the press took notice of him because of his later legal problems with the government. Finally, he is not “into the privatization of education” — he has been a vocal (and financial) supporter of improving public education for three decades. Yes, he owns stock in some for-profit educational ventures that have been successful, but this in no way diminishes his constant efforts to recognize public school teachers and principals and improve the institutions to which they are dedicated. You may want to read his views on education in the article “Where’s Sputnik?” that he is in the process of expanding to book length. See http://www.wheressputnik.com.

  2. Well, this isn’t what the post was about, but since you raised the point, this all seems a bit revisionist–it’s taken from his autobiography, right? Which you seem to be relying on here, and not much else. On what are you basing your statement that he was “close to Mario Savio?” And he majored in business out of social conscience? Sorry, I’m not buying that. Every account of Milken’s life that I’ve come across speaks about his diligence in studying high yield bonds while he was at Berkeley while everyone else was outside protesting something. Yes, has has been philanthropic in medicine–but, being extraordinarily rich and having several family members, including himself, afflicted by cancer I would hope would make one philanthropic in medicine. As far as education goes, see here: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/11_24/b4232076996440.htm
    I would no more take Milken’s views on education seriously than I would take Paul Ryan’s views on federal spending. It’s amazing that there are all these people out there concerned about improving public education who somehow never find time to actually run for a school board.

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