We are of course putting forth "Bain Capital" as not merely the Romney private-equity house but as the stand-in for the period of American economic history that ran from 1980 to 1989. Back then it was called the Greed Decade, with asset-stripping barbarians at the gate. Virtually everything about this popular stereotype is wrong. Properly understood, the 1980s, including Bain, were the remarkable years when an ever-resilient America found a way to save itself from becoming what Europe is now—a global has-been.
Read through S&P's justification for last week's downgrades of nine European countries. Along with the expected dumping on those countries' fiscal profligacy, one finds as well a blunt recognition of Europe's moribund "fundamentals," meaning their ability to produce "strong and consistent" economic growth.
If not for Bain Capital and the other, bigger players who commenced a decade of leveraged buyouts and hostile takeovers in the 1980s, the odds are that the U.S.'s "fundamentals" would be similarly weak. Instead, the U.S. corporate sector remade itself during the Bain years.
In a comprehensive 2001 re-examination of the buyouts and takeovers of the 1980s, economists made clear that the results were far from the stereotype of zero-sum pillage revived last week by economic historian Newt Gingrich and un-Texan Gov. Rick Perry ("vulture capitalism"), and sure to be promoted in grainy, tear-soaked campaign ads by the Obama team.
"When large-scale hostile takeo vers appeared in the 1980s," Messrs. Holmstrom and Kaplan write, "many voiced the opinion that they were driven by investor greed; the robber barons of Wall Street had returned to raid innocent corporations. Today, it is widely accepted that the takeovers of the 1980s had a beneficial effect on the corporate sector and that efficiency gains, rather than redistributions from stakeholders to shareholders, explain why they appeared."
Singling out this or that Bain case study amid the jostling and bumping is pointless. This was a historic and necessary cleansing of the Augean stables of the American economy. It caused a positive revolution in U.S. management, financial analysis, incentives, governance and market-based discipline. It led directly to the 1990s boom years.