By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — My daughter has not yet reached her ninth birthday, but I already have her pegged for a job at Bain Capital.
My evidence for this is the ease with which she has embraced “Tiny Tower,” a business-simulation game that millions of people are using their iPhones and tablets to play capitalist, attempting to build ever larger towers with ever more businesses that generate ever more coins and “tower bux.”
My daughter’s 12 businesses include a casino, a bank, a doughnut shop and a soda brewery. But in this game it doesn’t matter what type of business she operates — only that she operates it with maximum efficiency, firing and evicting her “bitizens” at will and benefiting from the help of “VIPs” to bring her more business and accelerate construction.
The game is devoid of business ethics; the goal is to maximize value by boosting output. Tiny Tower functions, in other words, strikingly like Bain Capital did under Mitt Romney.
I thought of the similarity as I read a powerful report by Bloomberg News this week on Romney’s adventure with Bain in the Italian yellow-pages business. The news service revisited Bain’s experience in the privatization of the Italian phone directory Seat Pagine Gialle SpA, which generated $1 billion in profits for Bain (and $50 million to $60 million for Romney) when Bain’s investment group sold the company for about 25 times the original purchase price two years after buying it.
That’s a lot of tower bux.
According to the Bloomberg account, Bain invested 36 million euros as part of a group that bought a majority of Seat for 853 million euros in late 1997. In February 2000, during the dot-com bubble, Telecom Italia bought back the Seat shares it didn’t own for 14.6 billion euros — generating a windfall for Bain.
Three years later, according to the report, Seat’s value had collapsed to 3.7 billion euros, and today it’s worth just 57 million. The plunge didn’t matter to Bain, however; it had moved its profits into subsidiaries in Luxembourg, avoiding taxes in Italy.
More troubling than the Bain windfall were the responses to Bloomberg from Bain and the Romney campaign. Bain noted that it was “in full compliance with all tax and reporting requirements.” A spokeswoman for the Romney campaign argued that Romney and Bain “partnered with a new management team to transform this company, and grow it into a tremendous success.”
A tremendous success that quickly toppled, like a child’s tower.
Both responses relied on Tiny Tower-style ethics: Romney and Bain followed the rules of the game, and the business grew, so all’s fair. That may have been true, at least in the short run, but it gets at Romney’s larger problem with Bain and his personal income taxes: The question is not whether he did well, or whether he did it legally, but whether he did it with any sense of ethics.
Romney almost certainly didn’t break the law by putting his money in Switzerland or the Caymans, or by paying an income tax rate of 15 percent. He didn’t necessarily break any laws by creating a $100 million 401(k).
The question is whether such things are fair, or whether Romney has exploited a system that allows rich people like him to get richer at the expense of less wealthy taxpayers — Italian, in the most recent case, or American, in other cases. Of more concern is that, as president, Romney would further expand the advantages of fellow rich people.
Romney encouraged that worry on Tuesday, when he announced at a campaign stop that he would be tough on welfare — “we will end the culture of dependency and restore a culture of good hard work” — and then went to a pair of fundraisers where high-rolling donors paid as much as $75,000 for access to him.
In that sense, Romney seems to be playing a real-life version of Tiny Tower. By day, he warns the bitizens that they must work harder and produce more. By night, he courts the VIPs, whose support brings him more coins. Tiny Tower players are not concerned about the very poor, and they like being able to fire people.
Like Bain, Tiny Tower nods to corporate responsibility: You improve your efficiency if you place bitizens in their “dream jobs.” But savvy players have discovered that you generate more tower bux if you fire people from their dream jobs and evict them from the tower after their birthdays pass.
Cold and heartless, yes, but within the rules — and in Tiny Tower, that’s enough. In real life, other considerations should apply.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.