The debate over Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital has moved through a number of phases, from "Did Mitt Romney do awful things at Bain Capital?" to "Should the Obama campaign be criticizing Mitt Romney for what he did at Bain Capital?" and now, "Is private equity a good thing or a bad thing?" Shockingly, people in the private equity business think the answer to the last is that it's quite good. The predominant opinion from other people is that it's sometimes good and sometimes bad, which from what I can tell it's a pretty good summation of Romney's PE career. At times, he helped start companies that went on to thrive, or helped companies perform better and survive. And at other times, he acted as what Rick Perry called a "vulture capitalist."
But while it may be an interesting discussion for economists and economic writers to mull over, "Is private equity good or bad?" really isn't a question we need to answer in the context of this presidential campaign. The question we need to answer is, "Does running a successful private equity firm mean you'll be a successful president?" Mitt Romney's answer to this question is, "Yes, because running a successful private equity firm means you know how to create jobs." Barack Obama's answer to this question is, "No, because being president is nothing like running a private equity firm. And also, Mitt Romney is a jerk for profiting while all those people got pink slips."
It would actually help us understand this better if Mitt Romney talked more specifically about what exactly he learned at Bain that he'll bring to the Oval Office. Unfortunately, he doesn't get into much detail about his time there. If you asked him the question, he'd almost certainly say he learned that taxes should be cut and regulations should be scaled back, and that will create jobs. In other words, he'd repeat the standard Republican economic arguments, which really tells us nothing. But maybe I'm not giving him enough credit. Maybe there are some surprising insights about the working of the economy that he could only have gleaned at Bain. If there are, he hasn't shared them yet.
And that's really the rub. President Obama is right when he says that the presidency is a very different job from being a private equity CEO. Just when it comes to the economy, creating the right conditions for widely shared growth is not only a matter of wanting to do the correct things, it's also about being able to accomplish them–convincing Congress to go along with your agenda, insuring that it's implemented properly, balancing the competing interests that press on a president, and so on. Romney says he knows what to do because of his time at Bain (even if the substance of what he wants to do is the standard Republican wish list) but he hasn't explained how his time at Bain taught him how to do it. He might argue that he learned that being governor of Massachusetts. But he almost never talks about his time as governor—it's his time in the private sector that he says is the reason he can be a good president. And that's not even mentioning all the other aspects of the presidency, like foreign policy, that I assume not even he would claim you prepare for by buying and selling companies.
Chances are slim that Romney is going to get too far into the details of what a private equity firm like Bain does, because the picture is mixed. Yes, he can point to some successes, companies Bain helped build or saved from decline. But that means he'll also be asked about the failures. And as Tim Noah explains, the whole genius of private equity is that guys like Mitt Romney win either way. If the company they buy succeeds, they'll get spectacularly rich. But if the company fails, they'll still get rich, because the money they used to buy it was borrowed, and they were raking in huge management fees all along the way. That's a story Romney would rather not tell. So he'll stick to simple assertions, like "I know how the economy works." Which leave us not knowing what he really knows, or doesn't.