Why the Conard Interview Matters— or, Why the Democrats Need Karl Rove

I mentioned earlier that last night's Daily Show interview with Edward Conard, former managing director of Bain Capital, was important as a particularly stark (and non-self-aware) presentation of a politically significant kind of reasoning.

COnardClip.pngIn the interview Conard took something about America that is important and true, and linked it to an explanation that (in my view) is profoundly destructive and false.

The important and true point is that America remains uniquely favorable as an environment in which the Microsofts, Apples, Googles, and Facebooks of the world continue to arise. Plus the Disneys, the NBAs, the Harvards, the FedExes, and whatever example you choose. Our ability to foster the creative parts of "creative destruction" is fundamental to our prosperity and influence. Therefore America must be very careful to preserve the environment that makes such continued innovation possible.

The destructive and false part was his assertion that the only causal factors worth talking about are tax rates and income share for people at the top of the economic distribution.

I think any fair-minded observation of the world shows that other factors matter more in America's pro-entrepreneurial climate. My list would start with: openness to immigration and outside talent; strong university-based research systems; world's largest domestic market as incubator; rule-of-law and culture of venture capital (as opposed to absolute income share for venture capitalists); supportive "innovation in a garage can lead to glory" concepts and the related ideal of mobility and opportunity; and so on. A lot of my recent writing has been about why China, in particular, will have trouble matching this range of advantages -- and why America will be at risk if we neglect or throw away the pillars of our ongoing wealth.

Moreover: there is no plausible evidence that income inequality like today's is necessary for this creative climate. How could it be, if most of the success stories on Conard's list -- Microsoft, Apple, Google -- in fact got their start when tax rates were higher and income inequality was lower than today's levels? Does any sane person think that Bill Gates and Paul Allen would not have started Microsoft if Gates had thought he would end up with $20-some billion rather than $50-some billion? That Steve Jobs was driven mainly by money? That Sergey Brin and Larry Page would have given up on Google if they thought they'd end up as only minor rather than major billionaires? That Mark Zuckerberg is quitting Facebook because the IPO is making him a lot less rich than he might have hoped?

A reader sent in a note just now that extends the argument, based on viewing the Stewart-Conard exchange. Emphasis added:

It was an excellent interview, and if you could tolerate the long windy trek to the pivotal moments, you realized that Conard has no clothes. But that's the problem.  It took a long windy trek, and even after the pivotal moments were spotlighted and admitted to, he receded into his global "encourage growth, encourage the innovators, don't stifle the innovation" bloviation.

For someone who really wants to do it right; who really cares about the result; who really wants to understand the mechanics and the physics of what's going on, it's so frustrating to hear one side of the argument totally dedicated to unsupported and unsubstantiated assertions. It's a kind of economic creationism:  we can't possible have an economy if we don't totally focus on growth and innovation, to the utter ignorance of sustainability, stability and the survivability of those whose lives don't happen to involve innovation.

The most frustrating thing that Stewart let pass is that every single one of the examples of innovation Conard raised: Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook; each and every one of them were started by geeky high school and college students in the garage doing their nerd thing. Nothing Conard mentioned would have affected their desire or ability to have succeeded with their innovation.  His examples of people leaving Google to innovate were examples of people wanting to INVEST in the innovations of others.  Investment capital is different from innovation, and he refused to acknowledge that difference.  The whole argument isn't even built on sand. It's built on nothing...

I have this inescapable feeling that the economic arguments being made on the Right are so ... cynically married to illusions and glib aphorisims ("job creators") that there ought to be a simple, deft and undeniable coup de grace that could be effortlessly and mercifully delivered, puncturing the huge bag of hot air, allowing it to flit off into nothingness.

And unfortunately, I also have this inescapable feeling that the only person on the planet with the skill, artistry and ability to deliver such coup de grace is Karl Rove.