Mitt Romney Seems to Think Corporate Accountability is Voluntary

One thing that’s been overlooked in the mystery surrounding Mitt Romney’s 1999-2002 tenure at Bain is that if we take his “My name was on the form, but I wasn’t really in charge” defense at face value, it essentially advocates that no head of a corporation can involuntarily be held responsible for their company’s actions.

For example, imagine that in 2001 Bain had committed a real crime. Let’s say there is no specific evidence about which individuals spearheaded the crime, but that there is incontrovertible evidence that illegal actions were intentionally taken by the company. It seems obvious that in this situation whoever was in charge on paper would be held responsible in the court of public opinion, if not legally. After all, it cannot be proven that anybody besides this person had the final say on what was happening.

But now Romney comes in and says that just because an SEC form makes a person legally in charge, it doesn’t prove they were responsible for their company’s actions. If the person on the form says they weren’t responsible, we should just believe them. Romney’s position is essentially that no CEO can forcibly be held responsible for the actions of their company unless they admit responsibility, or some kind of damning, never-meant-to-be public evidence proves their role. None of this is a big deal now because it appears Romney didn’t play much of a role in the perfectly acceptable activities in question. But what if an analogous situation arises where there is real wrongdoing? Romney seems to think if the documented CEO says he wasn’t involved, that should be the end of it.

Frankly, I’m a little surprised the Obama team hasn’t tried to draw a stronger parallel between Romney’s defense of “I was the CEO, but not in charge or responsible” and those of banking CEOs in the aftermath of the financial crisis. It seems like somebody should be able to splice together some pretty damning video.

View From Nowhere Will Lead Parties to Censor Themselves

Read the following two quotes about Mitt Romney being attacked by his rivals over his time at Bain. The first is from Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight:

When the truth behind a claim is hard to discern, voters sometimes use the heuristic of looking at what partisan actors say. If one side makes one argument, and the other side rebuts it word for word, the public may come to regard it as a typical partisan squabble or conclude that the truth boils down to a matter of opinion.

However, if one side makes its point unambiguously, while the other side hedges and does not seem to have its story straight, the public may conclude that the truth lies on the side of the group that has articulated its case more vigorously. This dynamic may have worked to the Democrats’ disadvantage during the health care debates of 2009 and 2010.

The second quote is in TPM’s election coverage and comes from a “senior Democratic strategist.”

“We were shocked that his rivals went there but nonetheless pleased because now the charges about his status as a corporate raider enjoy the lustre of bipartisan ship.”

Both quotes essentially say the same thing. In a world where objective political truth is rapidly fading away, what matters is not the content of an argument, but the strength with which the argument’s proponents support the argument and refute its critics. You don’t need a professional game theorist to tell you how that ends. Eventually both sides will realize the optimal strategy is to never criticize your own side and always criticize your opposition no matter what. We are already close to that point, but deviations from that strategy appear from time to time (e.g. heatlhcare, Bain, etc.) Once we do get to that point we will live in a political system that has essentially chosen voluntary censorship. The costs of speaking out against your own side will be too high. Nobody will do it.

How did we get to this point? A key factor is that the media neutered itself with what Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere.” By avoiding commentary about the veracity of political statements, the media helped create a world where the only way to judge the value of those statements is look at  the net support or opposition coming from the two political parties. Or as Silver says, to use “the heuristic of looking at what partisan actors say.”

The question then, is whether it is possible to reverse the trend. I think there is a solution, but it will require difficult institutional changes that have long escaped our political and media organizations. The media must transform political journalism by finally taking a stand against the press-release culture that controls the industry. Right now journalists are slaves to political communications departments. When a new issue makes headlines, journalists need a response from John Boehner, and more often than not they are forced to print a piece of whatever vacuous statement his press office puts out. This must stop. When a politician proposes a bill, don’t just print a quote from an opposition press secretary. Make them give a response full of logical arguments. If they can’t do that, don’t print the response.

The idea of not printing something from both sides is anathema to the “view from nowhere” culture, but holding out for substance makes it impossible for every piece of a political party to recite the same vacuous talking points. The result is that if politicians want to be heard, they will be forced to give logical and nuanced statements that most likely will not be a full endorsement of their party or a full rebuttal of the opposition. Eventually this may stem our slide into an area of voluntary censorship, but it won’t happen until journalists first take a stand against the he said-she said, press-release-printing norms that pervade political journalism.