Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Out of Context

So Mitt Romney said, “I like being able to fire people.” What a nice guy.

Yes, it’s out of context. He didn’t say it as if he meant he likes going in to a company and just firing people (although the case could be made that that’s what Bain Capital was all about). He was talking about reforming health insurance and giving people the right to change their coverage if they didn’t like it. Okay, fair enough, but his fellow Republicans and the DNC jumped on that little quip before the echo died out of the room.

The Romney campaign will certainly claim that the quote was taken out of context, but in doing so, they will show that they have grasped the concept of chutzpah. When the Romney campaign ran an ad against President Obama by taking his words out of context and claiming that, “Well, he did say those actual words,” by any normal standard they should have forfeited their right to complain about taking words out of context.

James Fallows notes that while Mr. Romney was taken out of context, his word choice was unfortunate.

It’s the word fire. I have fired people, and I have been fired — and there is no comparison in how much more excruciating the former process is. I know, agree with, and have even written a book about all the reasons why “flexibility” in the labor force is a good thing for companies and for the overall economy. People need to be held accountable for good or bad performance. Economies need to be able to move from the old — old markets, technologies, regions, emphases — and open up to the new. Companies very often need to “right-size” to survive. We all understand these truths. They are part of America’s strength.

But people with any experience on either side of a firing know that, necessary as it might be, it is hard. Or it should be. It’s wrenching, it’s humiliating, it disrupts families, it creates shame and anger alike — notwithstanding the fact that often it absolutely has to happen. Anyone not troubled by the process — well, there is something wrong with that person. We might want such a person to do dirty work for us. (This might be the point where the Romney campaign wants to take another look at Up In The Air.) We might value him or her as a takeover specialist or at a private equity firm. But as someone we trust, as a leader? No – not any more than you can trust a military leader who is not deeply troubled when his troops are killed.

Here’s a test: If you were making the point about the need for competition, can you imagine yourself saying, “I like being able to fire people…” ?

More than anything, it shows that Mr. Romney is tone-deaf and insensitive to people: he sees them as assets and liabilities on a balance sheet rather than persons with lives and homes and feelings. His famous editorial about letting Detroit go bankrupt may have made some kind of sense in a business plan sort of way, but the devastation it would have wrought in ways that don’t show up in a business model — divorce, substance abuse, domestic violence, and all the other things that come with economic disruption — is just as important a consideration as the dollars and cents.

It’s disturbing that Mr. Romney seems incapable of grasping the human context of work and employment as compared to whether or not a company should succeed or fail because of declining market shares or dwindling return on investments. But then, he thinks corporations are people.