During this week's vice presidential debate, Paul Ryan reprised a line Republicans have used repeatedly in making the case for a Romney presidency.
"Mitt Romney -- his experience, his ideas, his solutions -- is uniquely qualified to get this job done," Ryan said in his closing statement. "At a time when we have a jobs crisis in America, wouldn't it be nice to have a job-creator in the White House?"
The central argument at the heart of Romney's candidacy is that he knows how to create jobs and President Obama doesn't. To buttress that claim, Romney points to his career in the private sector, as a Wall Street buyout specialist and venture capitalist at the firm Bain Capital. Bain Capital, of course, specialized mostly in leveraged buyouts -- debt-financed investments in companies that often resulted in bankruptcy, off-shoring and layoffs.
Since those aspects of Romney's business career are less politically palatable, he focuses instead on the few start-ups he helped provide seed funding for -- brands we all recognize, like Sports Authority and Staples.
The problem, however, with spotlighting those businesses is that their success hinges fundamentally on a premise that is perhaps just as unpalatable as the worst excesses of private equity. Those large retail chains exploit the efficiencies of scale to offer the same goods and services that much smaller businesses do, but at much lower costs.
Large chains like Staples also keep their labor costs low by offering low-wage sales associate jobs that pay, in the case of Staples, an average of $8.54 an hour, according to Glassdoor.com. Retail sales jobs -- among the occupations with the largest projected growth over the next ten years -- pay a median annual salary of just $20,670, which isn't even enough to sustain a family of four above the federal poverty line, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By contrast, the median annual salary of the jobs with the largest growth over the next 10 years is $33,840.
Forty-one percent of the Staples workforce are part-time employees, according to the company's annual report, which describes its workforce this way: "Many of our associates, particularly in retail stores, are in entry-level or part-time positions with historically high rates of turnover." In July, the National Employment Law Project listed Staples as one of the 50 largest low-wage employers in the country.
So the question is this: When Romney champions his success at Staples as one of his main qualifications for the presidency, is he claiming that those kinds of jobs -- part-time, low-wage sales associate jobs that can't even keep a family of four above the poverty line -- are the kinds of jobs he'll create as president?
There is also an inherent tension in the economic prescriptions of Republican candidates like Romney when it comes to small businesses. On the one hand, Republicans contend that small businesses are the engines of our economy. On the other, they believe that whoever can more cheaply and efficiently deliver goods and services to consumers should win in the open market.
In the case of Staples, the number of office-supply stores in the U.S. decreased by about 50 percent in the first ten years after Staples was founded, suggesting that the large retail chain put a lot of smaller mom-and-pop stores out of business. The market share of those smaller and medium-sized stores plunged from 20 percent when Staples was founded in 1986 to just 4 percent in 1998.
:: Sal Gentile (@salgentile) is a segment & digital producer for Up w/ Chris Hayes ::