Here's a non-controversial question: are voters really as simple-minded about economics as politicians and pundits appear to think they are? Conversation on the sports page, by way of comparison, tends to be considerably more sophisticated.
Suppose I said that LeBron James and the Miami Heat execute poorly on offense at the end of big games. (Not a particularly controversial opinion outside Miami, but I'm making a point here.) Fans who disagreed might point to LeBron's big three-pointer sending Game 4 against the Celtics into overtime. I'd counter that the Heat scored exactly two points in the five-minute extra period.
Serious fans might study game film to see how that happened. Former NBA players Magic Johnson and Jon Barry had a pungent conversation about the issue on ESPN.
What nobody would say, however, is that by criticizing Miami, I'd impugned all NBA players and condemned the sport of basketball. I wouldn't find myself compelled to issue clarifications or write a column praising the Celtics' Paul Pierce, currently my favorite pro athlete. People might say I was biased toward Boston, but it's understood that everybody's got an angle.
Most would agree it's a question the Miami Heat need to answer — and may well have done before you read this column.
Compare what happened when the Obama campaign ran two tough ads regarding Mitt Romney's career at Bain Capital, the private equity firm that earned him roughly $250 million. The ads showcased embittered workers at a Kansas City steel manufacturer and an Indiana office supply company — both acquired by Bain and driven into bankruptcy, leaving longtime employees to the tender mercies of the Pension Benefits Guarantee Corporation, a federal agency.
In the case of Ampad, Bain managers fired every single worker at a Marion, Indiana plant the first day of the takeover. They were allowed to reapply for their old jobs at lower wages. Ultimately, Bain realized $107 million profit on its $5 million investment — a good deal for its investors, not so hot for Ampad workers, since the newly indebted company soon ceased to exist.
"To me," said one embittered worker, "Mitt Romney takes from the poor, the middle class, and gives to the rich. It is the opposite of Robin Hood."
The silence was deafening among the chattering classes. Romney whined that the ads were an attack on his character. A Washington Post fact-checker conceded that the ad was 100% accurate but somewhat unfair because it was "out of context" of Romney's entire career.
Prominent Democrats agreed. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, then Bill Clinton, said it was wrong to criticize private equity firms generally. Of course, the ad hadn't done that. Clinton's words to guest host (and Hollywood producer) Harvey Weinstein on CNN were telling.
"You and I have friends here who invest in companies," he said. "You can invest in a company, run up the debt, loot it, sell all the assets, and force all the people to lose their retirement and fire them.
"Or you can go into a company, have cutbacks, [and] try to make it more productive with the purpose of saving it. And when you try, like anything else you try, you don't always succeed. So I don't think that we ought to get into the position where we say this is bad work. This is good work."
So which was it, Mr. President? Loot or create?
Evidently, Clinton thinks we really shouldn't ask such questions of the GOP nominee — seemingly because other big, swinging Mitts on Wall Street might get their little feelings hurt. (Remember when the Rolling Stones played that Manhattan birthday concert for Clinton? Who do you suppose was in the audience?)
Maybe Clinton, a shrewd tactician, thinks voters simply aren't as smart about the economy as NBA fans are about basketball. The Dick & Jane distinction between "bad work" and "good work" is all they can handle.
Look Dick. Look Jane. See Mitt run. Run, Mitt run.
The same unspoken understanding greeted Romney's odd conversion to Keynesian economics. Time asked if President Romney would eliminate the budget deficit in 2013. Heavens no.
"If you take a trillion dollars...out of the first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5 percent," Romney said. "That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression."
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman couldn't have put it better. "Austerity," as the Europeans call it, makes economic recessions far worse. So is that Romney's sly way of slipping one past the Tea Party while hinting he's a sensible "moderate"?
Would a newly-elected President Romney explain that with interest rates at record lows, the U.S. should emulate Bain Capital: using leverage (i.e. debt) to stimulate the economy through tax cuts for Big Swinging Mitts and shiny new weapons systems for the Pentagon?
Maybe so. But it doesn't fit the script, so nobody's asking.