"This is not a distraction, this is what this campaign is going to be about," President Obama said Monday at the NATO summit. The "this" in question is Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital and what it says about Romney's economic vision for the country.
Team Romney should have seen this coming. If Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry were willing to rip Romney for being too capitalistic in the Republican primary, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to expect that Obama and Vice President Joe Biden would happily do the same in the general election.
And Obama has a point. If you are going to campaign on the idea that you were a private-sector job creator, it's certainly fair game for your opponents to investigate the claim. Now, I think the Obama campaign's specific charges and accusations regarding Bain Capital are spurious and unfair -- as did, say, Newark Mayor Corey Booker, before he was forced to recant his heresy.
There are real political dangers for Obama in making himself the attack-dog-in-chief. Not only is it contrary to his admittedly tattered post-partisan brand, but voters may reasonably conclude that the president is focusing on Romney's record to change the subject from his own.
Still, he's not entirely wrong. Nor is Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who hopes the Bain brouhaha will spark a deeper debate about what kind of capitalism we want. Borrowing a term from Germany's Christian Democrats -- one widely accepted across much of Europe -- Dionne says we need to build a "social market" as opposed to what he calls an "anti-social market."
"Social" is one of those loaded terms that sounds pleasant enough but presupposes a very large role for the state in our lives. For instance, "Julia," the fictional Everywoman the Obama campaign is touting as the typical beneficiary of progressive government, lives in a social market. And, therefore, the government heavily influences not just her wages and health care but her career, recreational activities and even her childbearing decisions. "Under President Obama: Julia decides to have a child," one slide explains with a dry creepiness.
It's telling but not remotely surprising that Dionne looks to Europe, home of the cradle-to-grave welfare state, as the inspiration for the kind of capitalism he wants here. European capitalism has things to recommend it, particularly if you have a job -- especially a government job -- and can live your life before the bill for the social market comes due, as it has in, say, Greece.
One microcosm of the social market at work has been Wisconsin's public sector, where the generous perks and benefits of government work have crippled the state's ability to govern. That's why Madison, the spiritual home of the progressive movement, has looked a bit like a modern Greek city-state ever since Gov. Scott Walker took it upon himself to reform the system. The champions of the social market have not only thrown the kitchen sink at him in an effort to protect their ideals and their perks, they've brought in sinks from across the country to rain down upon him. And yet, it looks as if he will triumph next month in the recall effort.
Not entirely by Obama's design, for the last few years America's labor market has looked pretty European. We don't have the mobs of unemployed and unemployable youths loitering in the vain hope that some state worker will die or retire so they can take his place. But we're not that far off either. Workers don't want to leave their jobs because they have no faith they'll find another. Few firms want to create new positions because they don't know if the market will sustain them.
Under normal circumstances, the U.S. economy creates tens of millions of jobs every year and destroys tens of millions, with net new jobs. In a typical year, up to 50 million Americans change jobs, often happily. They get hired away, promoted, etc.
This process partly explains why America's capitalism has been so much more dynamic than Europe's. In the social market, once you have a job, you cling to it because you may never get another. European governments make it much easier to cling to that job by punishing businesses that fire people. The unhappy byproduct of such "compassion" is that businesses are also far more reluctant to hire people because each new hire is a potential long-term liability.
Yes, Romney created jobs while he was creating value and wealth at Bain; he also destroyed jobs. Both are necessary in a dynamic market that improves the prospects for most Americans through economic growth. Some suffer from the process. But I would argue more people suffer under the social market. Which system is better is, indeed, a worthy -- and overdue -- debate.