The debate over Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital has been a series of cul-de-sacs and rabbit-holes. When the Republican primary contest was roiled by an argument over how many jobs Bain’s companies had created or destroyed, factcheckers and other journalists dutifully debunked the risible claims made by Romney and his rivals before settling into a rough consensus that private equity was never about job creation in the first place—and that any full accounting of Bain’s impact on employment is necessarily imprecise, because many of the effects are indirect or even unknowable. (The leading academic study found net job losses of less than 1 percent at companies taken over by private equity firms.)
More recently, political media have been dominated by an argument over when Romney left Bain, and what responsibility he bears for actions, like offshoring jobs, taken by Bain’s companies after 1999. As an exercise in journalistic factchecking and scrutiny of what the campaigns are saying, this debate has been worth having—but it still feels vaguely spurious, because while both Romney and President Obama now pretend to believe that sending jobs overseas is a cardinal sin, based on their records there’s little reason to take them at their word.
If the abundant discussion about Romney and Bain has been often unsatisfying, however, there is an important angle that demands more attention, from both elite national media and local reporters out along the trail: How, exactly, would the lessons of Romney’s business career inform the policy course he charts in the White House?
Romney’s campaign rhetoric mostly consists of criticizing Obama. But to the extent that he offers a case for himself, it is rooted in his career at Bain. In the introduction to his economic plan, he writes, “I know what it means to meet a payroll. I know why businesses hire people, and why they become forced to lay them off.” In a recent interview with National Review, he said, “The 25 years I spent in business gave me an understanding of how business decisions are made, as well as an understanding of the actions that are destructive to job creation and the actions that encourage job creation.” And in his stump speech, he has said that this business career taught him “about the transforming power of our great free enterprise system”—and that this understanding is at the heart of his differences with Obama.
When it comes to how that transforming power actually works, though, Romney is characteristically vague. He frequently calls for leaner regulations and lower taxes. But that is boilerplate embraced by every Republican (and some Democrats)—one hardly needs to be an extremely successful private-sector innovator to see virtue in those things.
And there is no dispute that Romney was an extremely successful private-sector innovator, even if there is plenty of disagreement about just what distinguished the line of work that he pioneered at Bain Capital. Critics of the private-equity model see it as little but financial engineering—a strategy for exploiting the tax code’s encouragement of debt that “privatized the gains and socialized the losses,” as a recent Bloomberg View column put it.
But that’s not the only perspective on Bain’s work. Benjamin Wallace-Wells, in a New York magazine cover story from last October that should be required reading for anyone interested in Romney’s career, writes:
The leveraged-buyout industry in its early days functioned as a laboratory for reinventing business. Most of the promising firms were based in New York and specialized in financial innovation—reengineering a balance sheet or making use of new tools like junk bonds. Romney’s team in Boston looked down on them as “just deal guys,” and at financial engineering as a “commodity product.” Bain Capital focused instead on the way a business runs.