There’s been a lot of press about Mitt Romney’s comments in a private fundraiser about how 47% of Americans are parasites living off productive members of society (like him).
But I’m more interested in another part of the same speech, one that’s gotten less play. Here’s Romney:
“[W]hen I was back in my private equity days, we went to China to buy a factory there, employed about 20,000 people, and they were almost all young women between the ages of about 18 and 22 or 23. They were saving for potentially becoming married, and they worked in these huge factories, they made various small appliances, and as we were walking through this facility, seeing them work, the number of hours they worked per day, the pittance they earned, living in dormitories with little bathrooms at the end with maybe ten rooms. And the rooms, they had 12 girls per room, three bunk beds on top of each other. You’ve seen them.
“And around this factory was a fence, a huge fence with barbed wire, and guard towers. And we said, “Gosh, I can’t believe that you, you know, you keep these girls in.” They said, “No, no, no—this is to keep other people from coming in. Because people want so badly to come work in this factory that we have to keep them out, or they’ll just come in here and start working and try and get compensated. So, we—this is to keep people out.”
Now: The Chinese were clearly lying here. If the unemployed are trying to sneak onto your premises and work, just on the off-chance you might mistakenly pay them, would you build and staff freaking guard towers, at great expense? Or would you a) hire a better accountant, or b) cut your workers’ pay until nobody’s sneaking in anymore?
In fact, it’s hard to imagine that the Chinese wanted to be believed; if they had really been paying workers so ridiculously much more than they had to, wouldn’t they expect Bain, which never put loyalty above the bottom line, to do business with someone who paid (and therefore charged) less?
Now: The idea that someone would tell a lie and not expect to be believed may seem odd. But I’ve spent two years in China, and Chinese lie like that all the time. Before you call me a bigot, let me explain:
In China, a lie is often a way to avoid an unpleasant or pointless confrontation; both the teller and the hearer understand this.
An American parallel would be when a beggar asks you for change. You don’t say, “Why yes, I have change, but I’m not going to give you any.” You say, “Sorry, I don’t have any.” And even if the beggar just saw you put change in your pocket, he doesn’t contradict you. He understands that the lie is a form of politeness, and that pretending to believe it allows you both to avoid an unpleasant truth.
In Chinese culture, this sort of polite lie is acceptable in more cases. And that’s what seems to have happened at Romney’s factory. Romney oafishly brought up something uncomfortable, and the Chinese responded with a lie intended to do no more than allow Romney to drop the subject.
Of course, it can be hard for Westerners to get used to this cultural difference; back in the 1980s, it would drive me mad when store clerks would say they didn’t have something when I could see it right there on the freaking shelf. It took me some time to realize that I was simply in the position of a beggar in America; the clerks didn’t want to bother serving me (and, back when China really was communist, didn’t have to), and “We don’t have it” was the polite way to let me know.
But it’s not like I ever believed that the thing wasn’t there. While the intention behind a given lie can be hard for Westerners to discern, the simple fact that you’re being lied to is hard to miss.
Unless, apparently, you’re Mitt Romney.
This doesn’t mean that Romney is okay as long as he doesn’t go to China. Fact is, there’s another place where people will lie to your face: Washington. And they’re much better at it there. You have to have a good bullshit detector to be a decent President in that atmosphere.
Romney seems to have no bullshit detector whatsoever; in China, he wholeheartedly swallowed an implausible whopper, one that even the teller didn’t expect him to believe. Even now that he’s had years to think about it, he doesn’t seem to have even the slightest suspicion.
In the not-yet-impossible case that Romney is elected (or becomes President through fraud), how many months will he survive in Washington before he retreats into a fantasy world where he only hears what flatterers tell him, while the country outside his bubble falls apart? It’s happened to better men than him.