Four Years Ago Today* (Graphs)

“Are you/people better off today than you/they were four years ago?”

It’s funny how the news is sometimes driven by asinine questions (all emphasis in block quotes are mine):

BOB SCHIEFFER: Well, let me–

GOVERNOR MARTIN O’MALLEY: And I think it’s important to remember that.

BOB SCHIEFFER: –let me just ask you that. Can you honestly say that people are better off today than they were four years ago?

GOVERNOR MARTIN O’MALLEY: No, but that’s not the question of this election. The question, without a doubt, we are not as well off as we were before George Bush brought us the Bush job losses, the Bush recession, the Bush deficits, the series of desert wars, charged for the first time to credit cards, the national credit card–

That was yesterday’s edition of CBS’s “Face the Nation.” A similar exchange happened on ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos and Obama campaign advisor David Plouffe:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is he right, can the president argue unequivocally that Americans are better off today than they were four years ago.

PLOUFFE: Listen, George, I think the American people understand that we got into a terrible economic situation, a recession, only that the Great Depression — the only thing the country has ever seen like it. So they know we had a deep hole. It took us a long time to get into that hole, it’s going to take a long time to out of it.

First of all, Governor Romney is offering the same, exactly policies that led to the recession in the first place.

One thing they didn’t do last week in Tampa is explain how huge taxes for wealthy, cutting back regulations on Wall Street is going to lead to economic growth or help the middle class, because the answer is, it’s not.

So what we’re going to lay out this week, is we’re going to explain to the American people and the middle class of this country, how we’re going to continue to recover, but do more than just recover from the recession, to build an economy from the middle out. What Mitt Romney is going to offer America is top-down, trickle-down fairy dust. It didn’t work then, it’s not going to work now. And I don’t think he advanced the ball last week, in convincing people, particularly the middle class in this country, that he would be a president that has them every day in mind as he’s making decisions.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes or no, are Americans better off today than they were four years ago?

Obviously Plouffe had a better response than Gov. O’Malley. For the president’s part in this, there is somewhat of a “rhetorical trap,” as Jonathan Bernstein describes it, in the question:

[…] At the same time that they’ve been pushing the “are you better off?” question, Republicans have also opened up a personal, character-based attack on Obama: claiming he ducks responsibility for his own time in office by constantly blaming George W. Bush for everything.

Got that? Obama is being asked to compare the economy now to what it was like before he took office — but if he says anything bad about how things were four years ago, it’s evidence of a character deficit.

The games just never stop, do they?

Really, though, is the “Are you better off” question a legitimate one? Probably not (for many reasons). It’s subjective enough to mean everything or nothing and thus is seemingly dependent on the day of the week. Yet looking around the web I see that Josh Barro disagrees while Dean Baker considers it an expression of incompetence. Matt Yglesias thinks that it might be “political malpractice” and/or “lame” to answer with a graph. I hope not because I’m about to use some of my own to take a look at the state of the economy four years ago.

Cue the graphs, please (all courtesy of FRED):

Four years ago today we were approaching the proverbial top of the economic roller-coaster before the first stomach-wrenching dive. Today current Gross Domestic Product is at an annualized 1.7 percent growth rate. Tepid, I know, but certainly better than -8.9 percent.

Speaking of roller-coasters:

Four years ago today many people were well on their way to enjoying a substantial increase in free time. Ah, that first employment dive in the recessionary roller-coaster — only for those with strong guts, I suppose. Needless to say those who value their leisure might answer today that they were better off then, given that July’s numbers saw an increase of 163,000 jobs.

For those who weren’t appreciative of their newly opened schedules, the fall offered many opportunities for non-wage work (via the same employment data in percentage change):

Eh, I suppose the consolation prize was not having to ask off work for Thanksgiving or Christmas (if you happen to celebrate either). Glass half full and all that.

I take it as a given that the answer to the “better off” question is yes, but I also recognize that it depends on the particular framing. For many Americans such an answer may be “No, I’m not better off than I was four years ago.” Yet therein lies they asinine nature of the question itself, because framing it in such a way as to be directed towards a particular individual (within the context of the presidential race) kind of implies that the executive branch is responsible for that answer. Is the president personally responsible for my economic state? I would generally think not, given that I recognize that how the economy affects me happens to be made up of many large and small, every-moving parts. Of course this is an interesting critique coming from the right. Not only is the president (and by implication any president, mind you) personally responsible for the macro-economic outcomes occurring in the United States, they are now also complicit in every micro-economic outcome in the country. What a strange position for the ideological defenders of rugged individualism to take. But it is in the political interest of conservatives for the answer to be “No.”

Just for giggles and LOLcats lets presume the different question of whether or not the country is better off than September 2008. Beyond the absurdity of comparing someones record to the state of the economy before they took office, it’s still clear (to me, anyway) that yes, the country is better off now than it was four years ago. My simple test of this assumption is this: If I had the magical ability to transport the country’s economy back to this point four years ago, I wouldn’t hocus-pocus us back there. Maybe Republicans would choose differently, but I can only speak for myself is saying that I don’t ever want to go through a recession like that again.

*Again, on the subjectivity of it all, the answer to whether you (or the country) is better off will change as we move towards the end of the year.



2 responses to “Four Years Ago Today* (Graphs)

    • I’m glad to hear it. I, on the other hand, am not necessarily “better off” than I was four years ago. Yet for many reasons I still consider the question irrelevant as far how I view the presidential election. Things happened, I made choices, and unlike the criticism implies I don’t hold the executive branch responsible for my current socioeconomic condition.

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