To fully appreciate how silly the presidential campaign has become, envision a robot doing the job of a displaced U.S. worker instead of the low-wage laborer abroad whom Mitt Romney is accused of employing. The American who loses his job to someone in India or Thailand is out of a job; the American who loses his job to a robot is likewise out of a job. Yet, unless I have missed it, no one has made a political issue out of replacing workers with robots, as is being done all over the country. Robots, for some reason, are good Americans.
Let there be no doubt (at least in my mind) that if Romney did not approve offshoring jobs in companies controlled by his Bain Capital, he certainly would have. His job — his raison d'être, his very heart and soul — was to make money for his investors and himself. He didn't care about a particular company. He only wanted to buy it, wring the profit out of it, and sell it. He was not in the business of creating jobs. He was in the business of creating wealth.
Romney doesn't have any idea how to create jobs. Neither does Barack Obama. The president has been at it for almost four years now, and while the numbers have gone up, they have done so anemically. Manufacturing — all those men and women in overalls turning out the planes and tanks that won World War II in the good old Arsenal of Democracy days — has gone from more than 25 percent of economic activity to about 12 percent in the past 45 years. My Post colleague Zachary A. Goldfarb reports that most of the manufacturing jobs lost in the recent recession have not come back. The jobs are gone; only the workers remain.
Products or services that can be produced more cheaply abroad will be offshored. This is a rule. Products that can be produced by robots will be produced by robots. This, too, is a rule. What is not a rule is that the debate about this has to be conducted on a schoolyard level about when, exactly, Romney was running Bain. It hardly matters who was running Bain when some steelworkers were fired and their jobs sent across the great ocean. If Romney was really in charge, he was doing what he was being paid to do. If Romney was not in charge, others did what he would have done — and he, the record shows, did not complain. He merely deposited the checks. (This is similar to the way Romney conducted his primary campaign, taking no responsibility for what his surrogates were saying.)
In a sense, Romney deserves the Swift-boating he's now getting from the Obama campaign and the president himself. He has repeatedly cited his business experience as making him almost unbearably qualified for the presidency, when, as history shows, no businessman has made a great or even decent president. The truth is that Romney is the ugly face of the free enterprise system. Job creation is a byproduct of wealth creation. When Romney said he liked "being able to fire people," he was not confessing to sadism, just to efficiency. To the workers, being fired probably felt the same either way.
The nation has the jitters. An awful lot of sound and knowledgeable people fear an economic calamity, a movement by the financial markets to impose financial probity. Europe and the euro teeter, China's economy is slowing (and its politics are corrupt, opaque, and repressive), and the United States cannot fashion a deal to raise revenue and cut spending. The lack of political leadership has gone from appalling to frightening.
In the meantime, our great and protracted political debate is concerned with when Romney ran Bain and this matter of outsourcing. The underlying reason for the loss of jobs and for outsourcing is almost never mentioned — an education system that ill-prepares young people for the job market. We turn out unskilled people who can't work as cheaply as someone in India or as skillfully as some robot. Worse yet, we extol a culture that denigrates hard work and study and that insists, as virtually the entire Republican Party does, that somehow the font of all education wisdom is the local school board. It always knows best.
The nanny-nanny-boo-boo quality of this presidential campaign is disheartening. It implies that both candidates hold the voter in contempt, and it ominously suggests further that the smarmy dishonesty of the stump will seep into the Oval Office itself. I have an idea for this campaign: Offshore it. We deserve better.
Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.