Thursday, September 29, 2011
He is running for President, but refuses corporate contributions and thus far has been shut out of all the televised debates. At times, listening to him was similar to listening to your grandfather meticulously spin out stories and advice as you politely sit in your seat at the table; other times he was darn near Harry Trumanesque in his condemnation of the special interests and politicians who manipulate the economy. As he weaved together his folksy lecture to approximately 40 students, he occasionally reverted to a thick Louisianan accent as he spoke in colorful metaphors more reminiscent of a Baptist preacher than a politician; he compared current efforts at campaign finance reform to merely “trimming a tree” of some scraggly leaves, when was needed was an axe at the roots.
I have to admit that, in spite of my being a political junkie, I was largely unaware of Roemer’s bid for the Presidency. He has spent the last several years as the President and CEO of Business First Bank, a bank which he proudly notes is profitable, focused on entrepreneurship and new business start-ups, and which “…has never taken a cent in bailouts from the federal government.” And he made his disgust with Clinton's deregulation of the financial industry very clear.
Roemer opened by encouraging students to adopt his “Four Fs” of success (Fast, Focused, Flexible, and Friendly) in order to succeed in the global economy. Then he then launched into more political and economic themes.
Roemer is no fan of Free Trade; in fact, one of the few times when he appeared angry was in referring to Congressmen who use that term. A frequent world traveler, Roemer told of the 62 days he spent in China, where he witnessed 6-day work weeks of 12-hour work days. At one plant that manufactured fire trucks in Chichin City, he recalled how one working mother had three children tethered on ropes to her waist so she could watch them while she worked. Roemer believes in strong government action in the marketplace to change these conditions around the world, and his support for tariffs punctuated his talk in numerous places. (At one point, he specifically called for a tariff of $10 to $40/barrel on all imported oil in an effort to wean our reliance on foreign oil. After he left the class, several students quickly noted that the immediate result of such an action would not only be higher prices at the pumps for Americans, but it would also permit domestic oil companies to raise their prices to match the tarriffed oil, thus providing a profit windfall for American Oil companies)
As an economist, I wish he could have addressed the Chinese Government’s manipulation of their currency’s value, which is the prime reason for our imbalance of trade with China and which, if corrected, could result in significant new purchases of American goods by the Chinese.
But Roemer’s most strident criticisms came for the special interests and politicians who allow big money to dictate policy in Washington. He called for an end to “Super-PACs,” limitations on the amount of money that PACs and individuals could contribute, prohibitions on permitting lobbyists to raise funds for candidates, and criminal – not civil –penalties for violations.
Echoing a sentiment I have made many times in the classroom, Roemer admitted that most lobbyists “are not bad people…I’ve worked – and argued – with many of them.” But he does recognize that even good people act in their self-interest, with the result that money dictates too much of what happens in elections – and in government.
I appreciated his passion for entrepreneurship. One of my students stated that she was moved by his passion and love of America. His international travel, and his comfort in being neither “too much” of a Republican or “too much” of a Democrat is a refreshing strength in a hyper-polarized society. But while appreciating his concern for the loss of American manufacturing, I think its too late – and too risky – to recklessly slap tariffs on products. One may think that blacksmiths and horses and Underwood typewriters are nostalgic and wonderful, but the fact is, cars and computers are here and aren’t going away. The same is true of much of our manufacturing base. It is a new era.
In his opening statements, he counseled the students that a good business person is “flexible.” Roemer himself showed this in his bank by putting all loan applications online and refusing to open up branch offices; he might want to apply some of that same innovative, flexible thinking to our current unemployment rate, and simply accept the transfer of much of our industry to India and China as a fait accompli. The trick is how to grow new industries at home, not how to bring back what we've lost.
All in all, it was a pleasant visit by a man who his passionate about his country, its economy, and its political system … and, primarily, the problem of money and lawmaking. And that is always good for young people to witness.
One question I would have loved to ask but didnt have the time for: given his disgust with the deregulation of the financial industry, and his recognition of the role that special interests play in politics, I wonder where he stands on the Occupy Wall Street Protest?