The great jobs debate

Some of Mitt Romney's Republican opponents charge that his venture capital firm reaped huge profits at the expense of American workers.

It’s no surprise that Republican front-runner Mitt Romney is being compared to the fictional “greed is good” capitalist Gordon Gekko. What’s surprising is that the criticism is coming from members of his own pro-business party.

The “class warfare” debate was supposed to wait for the general election, when whoever is the Republican nominee can be counted on to accuse President Obama of engaging in what is, by GOP standards, such despicable, behavior.

But the Republican also-rans in Iowa and New Hampshire are now attacking Romney as a capitalist job-killer. Whether those attacks work will be known after Saturday’s South Carolina primary. Job losses in the state during the recession have made corporate compensation a sensitive topic.

It’s an excellent subject for debate. While one may question whether free-market advocates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry are being consistent when they criticize Romney’s business success, there’s no denying the value of a discussion of capitalism as it’s practiced in this country today.

It sure seems as if more companies in years past treated their workers like family, making them valued partners in a common enterprise. But today workers complain that they are a disposable commodity, tossed aside whenever needed to boost returns for company stockholders.

Attempting to mine such resentment, Perry called Romney a “vulture capitalist” whose company, Bain Capital, laid off workers to improve the bottom line of some new acquisition. “The Republican Party should be about creating jobs, not creating instant wealth,” said Perry.

Gingrich described Bain as a bunch of “rich people figuring out clever ways to loot a company.” Even Sarah Palin weighed in, saying she didn’t agree with “attacks on free-market capitalism,” but felt Romney needed to provide proof of his claim that he has created thousands more jobs than he has eliminated.

In response, Romney has largely dismissed the criticism as misrepresenting what a venture capitalist does. Yes, some people were downsized out of jobs, he said, but, “It’s a few thousand of reductions compared to well over 100,000 in additions, so the net is over 100,000.” Critics have noted that his job claims rely heavily on growth that came years after Romney left the company.

His explanation may be good enough to keep him on track to win the Republican nomination. But Romney has been opened up to a line of attack that leaves him vulnerable in a general election when so many people are unemployed or underemployed.