To take down Obama, Romney must win Battle of the Bloat

by Jonah Goldberg | January 13, 2012 12:04 am

One thing is clear: At best, Mitt Romney is a work in progress.

Romney is under attack for being a hugely successful private equity banker at Bain Capital. Bain identified distressed companies and found value in them for shareholders, investors and, ultimately, consumers. When things worked right, Romney and his team streamlined firms and injected fresh capital, and helped companies thrive by returning them to their “core competencies.”

He took his turnaround skills to the Winter Olympics (and, he argues, to the governor’s mansion in Massachusetts). When the 2002 games were in utter disarray, he swooped in, cut out all the self-dealing nonsense by consultants and contractors, made the fat cats and moochers pay for their own meals, and got things back on track.

It’s an impressive record, but it doesn’t prove he knows how to “create jobs.” Investors and businessmen don’t search out ways to create jobs. They search out ways to create wealth.

The private equity business came into existence because too many industries had become bloated and lazy by the 1980s, unable to compete with emerging economies around the globe. Most of that bloat is gone. Decades of global competition and the huge productivity gains from the computer and Internet revolutions have seen to that.

Where does bloat keep on a-bloating? I’ll give you one guess.

Contrary to liberal talking points, conservatives don’t oppose government per se. If we did, we wouldn’t glorify the Constitution as much as we do. After all, the one thing the Constitution does is create the federal government.

Conservatives and libertarians believe the federal government should only do those things the federal government should do. Other important things — and there are many — should be taken care of by, yes, state and local governments, but also by individuals, families, churches, charities and so on. In other words, government should get back to its core competencies and pass on the savings to the shareholders: the taxpayers.

If you don’t think government is more bloated than Dom DeLuise with an allergic shellfish reaction, you simply haven’t been paying attention. Yes, regulations hurt the private sector, but they also hamper the public sector, making it impossible for it to do what it should. The government that built the Pentagon in 16 months would probably need at least that long just to get a meeting with the EPA today.

Why did President Obama have to spend billions to discover that there’s no such thing as shovel-ready jobs? Not because there aren’t enough workers eager to pick up shovels and paychecks, but because there aren’t nearly enough bureaucrats willing to put down their clipboards.

A Government Accounting Office study last year found that more than 100 programs deal with surface transportation, 82 monitor teacher quality, 47 manage job-training programs, nearly two dozen offices or programs deal with homelessness, and some 15 agencies or offices handle food safety. Five outfits focus on getting the feds to use less gasoline. Maybe they should carpool?

And those are just redundancies; imagine how many stupid things such programs are doing. According to Sen. Tom Coburn’s “Wastebook,” the list is endless — from subsidizing “pancakes for yuppies” in Washington, D.C., to maintaining a video game preservation center in New York. It’s enough to make a cowboy poet cry. And don’t get me started on Obama’s venture socialism projects.

In nearly every sphere of life not tainted by government involvement, technology and market efficiencies have made things cheaper for the average American. According to American Enterprise Institute economist Mark Perry, color TVs from the 1964 Sears Christmas Catalog cost $750 to $800. In 2011 dollars, that would buy you not just a much better flat-screen TV, but also a refrigerator, microwave oven, washer, dryer, laptop, iPod, GPS device, DVD player and stereo — with money to spare.

Meanwhile, higher education, health care and other services distorted by government interference only get more expensive and bureaucratic. Incompetent teachers can’t be fired; competent ones can’t be rewarded. Unfunded liabilities and entitlements threaten to destroy the country. And so on.

Obviously, cost-cutting is only part of the story. The government meddles in our lives in non-economic ways too. But as Ron Paul would tell you, a government that stops wasting the people’s money by definition stops meddling in our lives.

If Romney were more adept and philosophically grounded, he could make the case that he’s the guy to turn around government. You can hear him trying, but he’s not there yet.

(Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO.)

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