Soylent Green, My Friend, Is People

by Bob Schwartz

Mother Jones has already changed the trajectory of the Presidential campaign with the “47%” video. It’s latest video find may not have the same effect, but it is still revealing.

It comes from a promotional Bain Capital CD-ROM from 1998. Along with other artifacts of the Bain culture at the time, it includes a video of Mitt Romney from 1985 explaining the Bain business model:

Bain Capital is an investment partnership which was formed to invest in startup companies and ongoing companies, then to take an active hand in managing them and hopefully, five to eight years later, to harvest them at a significant profit…The fund was formed on September 30th of last year. It’s been about 10 months then. It was formed with $37 million in invested cash. An additional $50 million or so of what I’ll call a call pool, which is money that we can call upon if the deals are large enough that they require more than a $2 or $3 million dollar initial investment. Why in the world did Bain and Company get involved in this kind of a business? We’re not particularly noted for having years and years of experience in financing. Three reasons. We recognized that we had the potential to develop a significant and proprietary flow of business opportunities. Secondly, we had concepts and experience which would allow us to identify potential value and hidden value in a particular investment candidate. And third, we had the consulting resources and management skills and management resources to become actively involved in the companies we invested in to help them realize their potential value.

It’s the “harvest” line that is getting the most attention, presumably because it suggests to some that the companies are viewed primarily as abstract opportunities that are optimized for profit, rather than enterprises that make particular things and where particular people work and build their lives.

Fans of sci-fi movies are burdened by seeing the “real” world through the lens of those films. So this line flashed two iconic and unforgettable scenes.

One is from The Matrix (1999), when we first see the humans being used as living batteries to power the world of the Matrix.

The other is from Soylent Green (1973). In 2022, the desperate population of overcrowded New York City is being kept alive by the nutritional drink Soylent Green. At the end, we learn the dark secret of Soylent Corporation, as screamed by Charlton Heston (spoiler alert): “Soylent Green is people!” Yes, it is processed from the oversupply of corpses.

All this probably has nothing to do with Bain Capital harvesting companies. Somehow, though, “Corporations, my friend, are people!” just got mixed up with “Soylent Green is people!”, Charleston Heston got mixed up with Clint Eastwood and Mitt Romney.

As noted in a post a few days ago, this campaign may not just be threatening to drive us—candidates and voters—mad. It may have done that already.