Why You Cannot Say You 'Like' Firing People

As Derek Thompson points out on our site, and as the Romney campaign will be fully justified in reiterating, obviously Mitt Romney did not mean that he enjoys the process of telling people "you're gone!" when he made his infamous "I like being able to fire people" remark in New Hampshire. He is not Mr. Burns of The Simpsons or Mr. Potter of It's a Wonderful Life or Mr. Scrooge of (you get the idea).

He was making a reasonable point about the need for choice and competition -- just as John Kerry was making a reasonable point about the different stages of the legislative process when he said "I actually voted for the $87 billion, before I voted against it." It was completely "unfair" to use that line against Kerry, because if you stopped to listen to his reasoning, the phrase was merely one clumsy out-of-context portion of a larger "sensible" statement about how Congressional politics works. Exactly as with Romney and "firing."

But of course that clip hurt Kerry -- in part because the Bush campaign team immediately rammed it home, and in part because it connected with an existing vulnerability or impression about Kerry. I think this moment from Romney may hurt him too, for all the "unfairness" of criticizing what he said,  because it touches something so emotional and raw.

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..." ?

I don't think this will stop Romney in New Hampshire or in his likely progress to the nomination. It may not make any difference in the general election. But for me, it's a bell difficult to un-ring -- "I like being able to fire people" -- once it has been heard.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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