I got a little excited when I read the headline of David Brooks’s column this morning — “The Capitalism Debate.”
It’s not that I thought Brooks had read my post on this yesterday; it’s that I thought that Brooks independently had, well, joined the debate: What kind of capitalism should we have?
Brooks is actually in high dudgeon over President Obama’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital:
Instead of defending the policies of the last four years, the campaign has begun a series of attacks on the things people don’t like about modern capitalism.
They don’t like the way unsuccessful firms go bust. Obama hit that with ads about a steel plant closure a few months ago. They don’t like C.E.O. salaries. President Obama hits that regularly. They don’t like financial shenanigans. Obama hits that. They don’t like outsourcing and offshoring. This week, Obama has been hitting that.
This shift of focus has been audacious. Over the years of his presidency, Obama has not been a critic of globalization. There’s no real evidence that, when he’s off the campaign trail, he has any problem with outsourcing and offshoring. He has lavishly praised people like Steve Jobs who were prominent practitioners. He has hired people like Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, whose company embodies the upsides of globalization. His economic advisers have generally touted the benefits of globalization even as they worked to help those who are hurt by its downsides.
But, politically, this aggressive tactic has worked. It has shifted the focus of the race from being about big government, which Obama represents, to being about capitalism, which Romney represents.
At Slate, the increasingly pro-market Matthew Yglesias makes a similar point — with an all-important caveat:
Over the long run, we’re all going to be more prosperous if we live in a world where firms are allowed to locate work where it’s most efficient to locate it. This is exactly why, despite some tough ads, the Obama administration has not proposed any policies to restrict firms’ freedom to shift work across state or national boundaries.
Romney’s unwillingness to make the case for outsourcing reflects, in part, political timidity. But more broadly, it underscores that although he’s been an eager participant in contemporary capitalism, he’s not willing to mount a policy response to its vicissitudes [emphasis mine].
That last clause is where the action of this “debate” lies.
It’s true that Obama is being disingenuous. He probably doesn’t have a philosophical problem with offshoring; like Clinton before him, he accepts that the dynamism of markets inevitably causes pain, displacement, attrition. In response to that is the New Democrat bevy of measures to soften the short-term blow as well as create long-term “ladders of opportunity”: job training programs for displaced workers; investment in early and higher education; near-universal health insurance, etc.
Up until about five minutes ago, Romney and Obama were both committed to the proposition that, as David Frum put in in a tweet, “the right response to global competition is a thicker system of social provision inside the US, eg Romneycare.”
But because Republicans — and, reluctantly, the milquetoast Romney himself — have branded almost all such efforts with the hammer-and-sickle logo, Obama is taking this aggressive new line. The thinking is as follows: If you’re not going to try to make this system work for everyone, then here comes my full-frontal assault.
It would be nice if we could have an open debate that (in Brooks’s words) “challenges the entire logic capitalism as it has existed over several decades.”
Instead we’re having a mutually dishonest debate between two figures who privately agree more than they disagree.