Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Homemade Graphs! Now with 25% more context!

This graph from Organizing for America showing monthly job-change since the beginning of the recession has been making its way around the Internet. I think the point is supposed to be that Obama is turning the country in the right direction. Well, maybe he is and maybe he isn't. After all the percentage of home mortgages at least 90 days delinquent was up 2.1% for the year ending Q3 2009. (And the mortgage delinquency problem is not one of those declining-rate-of-decline situations: the Q3 2009 rate was up 5.0% just for the quarter.)

In any event, I have the feeling that one of the lessons we're supposed to take from the OFA graph is something like: "If only Scott Brown voters had seen a graph like this before they went to the polls in January surely they'd never have made the choice they did." I don't know what bothers me more about this: that folks are (still) surprised that reason and fact-based thinking failed to carry the day in the MA special Senate election, or that they think this graph an instance of reason and fact-based thinking.

Anyway, here are a couple graphs that I made myself. (Click on them for full-size versions.) One uses the same BLS data as the OFA graph but gives it some annoying historical context: it goes back to 1946. Each color is a different presidential administration. Looks like Nixon and Reagan had themselves some pretty good years by this measure. Hell, just go back to 2003 and you'll see that Dubya presided over the addition of better than 8 million jobs for a spell. A version of the OFA graph created in January 2008 would have had Bush 43 looking like the King Midas of employment.

And here's one that's about as helpful as the OFA graph in understanding a president's influence over short-term changes in employment conditions. It shows that inflation-adjusted average weekly earnings have gone down since Obama took office (the gold bars) -- after rocketing up in Bush's last half-year.

Maybe this is the one Brown voters saw?


desmoinesdem said...

Good post. Linked at Bleeding Heartland.

ts said...

Nice graphs Jeremy. It's great (and surprising) to see you here.

I don't want to go all negative on your first blog post, but I am a bit confused by the argument you're making. I agree that the OFA graph doesn't tell much of a macro-economic story. If that's your complaint then fine. But if your issue is that fact-based arguments don't win elections, then it's a great graph, isn't it?

You can take it around and say "look here swing voter, things went bad under Bush then Obama came in and turned things around!" The facts that Presidents don't deserve much credit for short-term macroeconomic performance, and monthly employment changes don't tell a comprehensive story are exactly the sort of things that are immaterial to the outcome of elections.

You could make a more meaningful graph that shows why Obama is better for the economy than Republicans by charting counterfactuals about the stimulus, measuring actual jobs lost against projected jobs lost with no stimulus or a tax only stimulus. Or you could show why Obama isn't good enough on the economy by charting actuals against projections for a $1.5 trillion stimulus. Those charts might be more relevant but would be less compelling.

Or, is your point that charts whether compelling or not don't have an impact on elections? To that I'd say that no one thing wins elections. You need a good candidate, gobs and gobs of money, favorable prevailing winds, luck, and yeah some nifty (ideally fact-based) charts wouldn't hurt.

Personally, I can't find too much reason to fault with OFA. They're record on elections is pretty strong. Team Obama's mistake in Massachusetts was neglect. The biggest factors in the outcome were choice of candidate and macroeconomic conditions for which the President neither should take much credit nor be assigned much blame. So, maybe I agree with you?

Jeremy B. Thompson said...

TS: I guess what you take the point of my post to be depends on what you take the point of OFA's graph to be. If OFA is putting up graphs like this in hopes of convincing swing voters, then, as you suggest, it's a pretty good graph. (Although I still have to wonder if it's not ultimately a case of wonks making art for wonks: my guess is that the median voter sees this graph and thinks not how great it is that the rate of job loss is declining but about how many damn jobs have been lost.)

But is, I'm guessing, not a forum for swing voters, and the folks who re-posted this graph are mostly preachers addressing choirs. Many of these preachers are friends of mine, and one has bragged to me about having zero Republican friends. I could be wrong, but if I'm not then it amounts to OFA - Obama's political organization - reassuring its supporters that things are on the right track. And my fear is that these supporters will breathe sighs of relief, post links to Facebook, moan about how Republicans hate the truth, etc etc. The reassurance goes viral, and voilà, Obama has neutralized a threat from his left flank.

Which is fine insofar as Obama and his party almost certainly wouldn't benefit from enacting policy designed specifically to cater to that flank. Not before the midterms, anyway. What's not fine is that for all Obama's insistence on trumpeting the good news of slowing job-loss rates, he appears unwilling to wallow in the anger and lack of hope about the near future that many Americans of all political stripes seem to be experiencing. And where he - and his supporters - don't wallow, Palin, Brown and the Tea Party will.

ts said...

Interesting points. I've got a few things to say on several of them but I don't have the time tonight. For now, I just want to mention that the OFA chart is now available in video form. I don't know how to embed a link in the comments. It's on the internet though, you can find it there.

C - Log said...

ts, I've added instructions on how to embed clickable links in comments. Also tags for bold and italics. Thanks for pointing that out.

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