Home / Elusive Facts, Pervasive Fictions: On Election 2006 and the Horrible/Great Economy

Elusive Facts, Pervasive Fictions: On Election 2006 and the Horrible/Great Economy

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“It’s the economy, stupid,” James Carville is credited with having said, summarizing one of his talking points prior to the Clinton victory in 1992. Despite its overly simplistic explanatory value, it’s become a household phrase. Another piece of popular political wisdom holds that when you have the power to circulate and repeat such a slogan to the point of media saturation, many come to believe it, however true or false the reality to which the slogan refers. Indeed, if it doesn’t immediately refer to reality, it supposedly can sometimes create that reality in its crystallization as belief.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, we find politicians and their pundits struggling to present the economy in a way that will benefit their interests. Of course, when one has no flexibility in perception but becomes an ideological robot that chants the same position on the economy, any economy, anywhere, any time, then it is not even an attempt to misrepresent; it’s just what one believes when his or her team is winning.

This deliberate rhetorical straitjacketing of reality to suit one’s ideological goals or the robotic ideological script deprive serious and concerned citizens of the careful debate they deserve.  

In the spirit of such exchange and debate, I want to take a look at some of the claims that have been circulating on the net and in the mainstream press about the economy as an issue in this fast-approaching election.

Why not begin with the very idea that people vote with their pocket books ("it's the economy stupid")? First, do Americans really always vote based on their perception of the economy? Not according to this Pew study of the last election:

Among those offered the seven-item list, a plurality of 27% selected moral values, followed by 22% who chose Iraq and 21% who selected the economy and jobs. Terrorism was chosen by 14%; education and health care were chosen by 4% each and taxes by 3%….

The responses were significantly different among those who were not offered a fixed list of choices. The war in Iraq was mentioned as the single most important issue by a similar number (25%), but the economy and jobs were mentioned by only 12%; and only 9% mentioned terrorism. Notably, just 9% used the terms "moral values," "morals," or "values." Specific social issues ­ including abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research ­ were volunteered by 3%, while another 2% cited the candidates' morals.

Nevertheless, political talk maintains the common wisdom about the influence of economic perception on election outcomes, which can possibly have a bandwagon opinion effect. Recently, a column in Blogcritics spotlighted Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi’s attempts to contradict President Bush's portrayal of a strong economy and a prosperous America. About Pelosi, the columnist writes:

Rather than many Americans living paycheck to paycheck, savings and investing rates are rising for the first sustained period since 1982, suggesting that more Americans than ever before have excess income…. Her numbers are also fishy on median family income. HUD estimates that median family income has increased by $7100 during the tenure of the Bush administration. Her number for the increase in household costs is not far off, so perhaps she 'accidentally' transposed the 7 and the 1 in the income figure.

The article makes similar claims about recent descriptions of the economy by Howard Dean. Contrary to Dean, Pelosi, and others, income and wages are supposedly up. How can there be such a gross misunderstanding (or diabolically deliberate distortion)? A thing called “inflation-adjusted income” may have something to do with it, more about which in a moment.

Politicians like Pelosi and Dean are accused of dumbing down political discourse by parroting talking points, like the ideological robots I maintain are dangerous for democratic political practices generally. Even more strongly, though, such talking points have been attacked as “half-truths, gibberish and straight-out deceptions,” which people supposedly believe because the news media simply put such claims on a conveyor belt to their audiences.

I agree that these are talking points, as are the points we get from the Bush administration and nearly every person running for office. It's even true of points from people speaking in more open media, such as websites and blogs. This is the style of our political culture, and I hate it. Soundbites are a way of life, encouraged by the price of print space and air time, fear of rational argumentation and embrace of techniques learned from war propaganda, advertising, and public relations.

So the question, I think, is not that talking points hide complexity but whether more developed arguments exist to support those soundbites? Going back to my original framework for thinking about how the economy is used in current political persuasion, one may ask if pundits criticize politicians like Pelosi and Dean for allegedly just not getting it (the facts), or, more seriously still, for deliberately distorting "the facts" for political gain. Everyone (including me) wants to lay claim to facts, but most facts require interpretation; their precise meaning is not obvious. Matters are further complicated when we realize that political marketing is a field that specializes in obfuscation, seduction, and distraction, but it is often difficult to prove that particular communicators are deliberately, ignorantly, or wishfully misrepresenting any number of things.

How does one put information and claims about the state of the American economy like the following into conversation with those already mentioned as a contradiction of Dean and Pelosi? The point in offering the following citations is that different research groups, some quite ideologically motivated, produce different data and then present it with different emphases and appeals.

The presentation of that data can be critically analyzed, but usually there is no conversation between those who have different data and interpretations of it. Keep in mind also during this exposition, please, that I am saying the current U.S. political culture discourages engaging the strongest arguments of one’s opponents, choosing instead to name-call or deliberately misrepresent the opposing arguments. These communication motives to win and govern by any means make serious citizenship all the more difficult. This citations are hardly meant to be exhaustive; rather they might help start to dialogue about why one gets wildly varying statistics and claims about the economy.

Take for example, information on the Economic Policy Institute's Homepage, updated in the last week, which just came up in a quick search I did on the state of the American economy. Compare it to the contrasting information I have quoted above.

The federal minimum wage has not seen an increase since 1997 and its value has dropped by 20% since then. In inflation-adjusted dollars, it is at its lowest value in 50 years. Automatic annual adjustments to the wage, or indexing, has gained increasing support and is becoming more common among the U.S. states that have their own minimum wage laws.

Perhaps those accusing Pelosi and Dean of misunderstanding or misrepresentation disagree with the claims and information just cited? The same research institute claims there are an estimated 14.9 million Americans receiving minimum wages.

On the other hand, the Heritage Foundation claims there are 1.9 million Americans working for the minimum wage. What to make of the discrepancy? Actually there are key words in the presentation of both of these "facts" that point to differently named realities ("estimated" vs. "reported").

The same EPI page continues its "gloom and doom," as Reagan would say: "The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today that the economy added only 51,000 jobs in September, the fewest in nearly a year, with housing continuing to flatten and blue-collar manufacturing suffering its biggest loss of jobs since July 2003."

That doesn't sound like a thriving economy, but is it just misrepresenting the facts?

Two more samples from the same source:

For the fifth year in a row, the number of Americans without health insurance grew significantly. Nearly 46.6 million Americans were uninsured in 2005–up almost 7 million since 2000. From 2000 to 2005, the uninsured share of the total population grew from 14.2% to 15.9%, while the share of those with employer-provided coverage dropped.

Back to rising incomes and inflation-adjusted income.
The "negative trends affecting working families, and second, the way the administration has tried to spin those trends" keep the economy on the issue agenda, says EPI contributor Jared Bernstein in a recent editorial.

Bernstein continues, "When asked recently about why the administration's good news on the economy was failing to reach the public, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson responded 'That's the $64,000 question.'" Bernstein responds that
"Paulson's $64,000 question has a $3,000 answer. That's how much the inflation-adjusted income of the typical working-age household is down since 2000."

Job growth is yet another area where we are bombarded with contrary claims. The Bush Govt. website celebrates job growth under its tenure: “Fact Sheet: Job Creation Continues -More Than 6.6 Million Jobs Created Since August 2003.

"Today, The Government Released New Jobs Figures 51,000 Jobs Created In September, And The Unemployment Rate Dropped To 4.6 Percent. This growth follows the addition of 188,000 jobs in August. The economy has created more than 1.7 million jobs over the past 12 months. Since August 2003, more than 6.6 million jobs have been created more jobs than all the other major industrialized countries combined. This is 810,000 more jobs than previously estimated. Our economy has now added jobs for 37 straight months. "

But what kind of jobs are they? Doesn't say.

A representative of the temp industry itself notes that 2.5 million people each day go to temp jobs. And an article in Slate reminds us, "But temporary employment is highly volatile…. It topped out in spring 2000 and then crashed dramatically. Between April 2000 and April 2003, the number of temporary jobs fell from 2.68 million to 2.13 million. Twenty percent of temp jobs disappeared, compared to only 2 percent of payroll jobs." Thus, when we hear about spikes in the payrolls, we should ask what kind of jobs they are, how long such jobs are usually kept, and how many jobs were lost in the same period.

We could go on and on. I only spend the time here because the talk about the economy is full of “big lies” and non-malicious misunderstandings, and it's not always easy for non-experts to sort through and make sense of it. It doesn't help matters when those presenting the information choose to do so with ad hominems and other self-congratulatory frames, or fake (straw) representations of arguments.

The notorious “Big Lie” is about maliciously repeating the same BS until it is taken as truth (and insuring that the greatest possible number of people hear it). But that can be done with many things and in carefully orchestrated ways (indeed it has been perfected in modern advertising and public relations). How can we be sure that Pelosi and Dean are just whackos crowing about a bad economy that doesn't exist, just to manipulate voters? How can we be sure it’s not the other way around? How can we be sure it’s not a little of both, here and there? If we do not strive to put into dialogue the strongest arguments for and against claims of "fact" do we who write commentaries end up inadvertently allowing ourselves to be coopted by those propagandists who wish to reduce politics to team spirit and consumer branding?

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About Jayson Harsin

  • There’s a lot to intellectually digest here Jayson, but an interesting and informative read.

    Good Job

  • Thanks, Jet. I honestly, as I try to say, don’t know the answers about claims of economic fact half the time. But there are careful techniques we can use to analyze public argument–fallacies of logic, statistical tricks. The problem is that we have to construct the argument ourselves, since writers rarely do.

  • Clavos

    But there are careful techniques we can use to analyze public argument–fallacies of logic, statistical tricks.

    One other thing to consider is the bias or political position of the entity publishing and/or disseminating the data.

    In presenting examples from the Economic Policy Institute and the Heritage Foundation in your article, you picked two excellent examples of organizations with opposing viewpoints “massaging” the same data, resulting in diametrically opposite conclusions.

    Good presentation!

  • Yes, thanks, Clavos. Good point. The only problem is that most of these research institutes and economists are already perceived by the political machines as being “liberal” or “conservative,” since both parties and their multiple front-group minions are ever out identify threats to their branding strategies. So when EPI or Heritage Foundation appears, depending on one’s political identity, red flags and incredulity go up. What’s more, one may not even read it. But as I said, most of these groups are already commissioned by partisan interests and then PR types frame it in easily digestible ways–read: it fits right in with the brand. Yay, politics as Pavlovian operant conditioning.

  • JustOneMan

    Great article…we democrats have to educate these poor working slobs who are enjoying the benefits of Bush’s foolish tax cuts. So dont get used to them cause once we Dems win – we are gonna roll em back and raise them!

    And the poor and underemployed! How long could the endure the lowest unemployment in 15 years! And did they really think that just because minority home ownnership is at all time high that they believe we Dems are going to give them that much personal empowerment! No way ..first its home ownership next thing it accumulation of wealth and before you know it they’ll start voting for Republicans!

    Wake up people…the sky is falling the sky is falling! And if we get our way this election so much sky is gonna fall that the Ozone layer will be at thing of the past!

    From The Left…JustOneMan

    Remember Boy & Girls – Never let facts and reality get in the way of a good article!

  • Yes, let’s give more tax cuts to everyone. Heck, let’s do away with them altogether. That will allow us, while keeping deficits in a tight and endless headlock, to operate a first-rate security state and an extremely socially harmonious democracy, with equal opportunity for all God’s children. Our government will be able to respond to the natural disasters like Katrina in the most efficient and admirable of ways, making us all proud to lay down our lives for our fellow citizens who respect one another like a band of brothers. Better yet, let’s get rid of government altogether and become anarchists. Then we’ll be able to live the great free life we deserve, making the benevolent market and corporations handmaidens to the good life. And all the loco globalwarming scaremongers can be shipped off to the North Pole and live on the ice that we all know is getting thicker and thicker by the day.
    From the Right,

  • Fantastic piece, Jason, one that I’ll probably end up having to read a couple times to truly absorb completely. Nonetheless, the examples offered do an excellent job of illustrating your point.

  • RedTard

    Not only is the analysis suspect, but the statistics themselves are completely useless.

    Minimum wage workers = number of college kids getting $10+/hr in tips working as waitstaff. .

    No Health Insurance = Number of ignorant young singles who think they’re invincible or forgot that dropping out of college also drops them from mommy and daddy’s insurance plan. I get good insurance for around $60/month (was $57 until I hit the last age cutoff). I’d love to see the number of those uninsured who have cable.

    Jobs numbers = How many people work big corporate and government jobs. Small businesses and contract work where new economic growth often begins is mostly off the radar.

    Most of the rest are equally as useless. I hear all the time how families are worse off and median incomes are falling, blah, blah, blah.

    Anyone that tells you that the middle class has less purchasing power than they used to is a lying piece of shit. Open your eyes and look around. Most new houses, and they’re going up everywhere now, would have been considered a mansion 20 years ago. Many households seem to have more vehicles than licensed drivers. Figuring out how to feed the kids doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem as how to keep them from eating too much. People showing off the clothes they made from patterns they got at Gibson’s 20 years ago have been replaced by those showing off designer clothes from the local boutique. Kitchen’s are fast becoming a quaint reminder of the old day’s when people couldn’t afford to go out every meal. The medical systems success rate at quadruple bypasses and heart and liver transplants has become so high as to make them seem routine rather than risky. We may now have the obesity epidemic but at least I won’t lose my arm to polio or suffer with tuberculosis or mumps or measles or just about any of the old killers.

    Although it’s debatable whether all that shit makes one’s life any better it simply retarded to pretend that we don’t have more and better things and more convenient and comfortable lives than ever before. How that measures out in inflation, median income, and purchasing power graphs I don’t know.

  • Nice points, REdtard. I’m sure you must be right. Great of you to clear up the confusion.

  • RedTard

    Thanks Jayson, I really appreciate it.

  • JustOneMan

    Wow ..Jayson your last post #6, made so much sense…your makin me think maybe we are better off with right wingers in control!

    Now I am really confused..

    From The Left…JustOneMan

  • Oh,Justoneman, I’m sure you will rediscover your conviction. Good Democrats like you are one in a million–and that’s not easy for me to admit as a Rightwinger and all. Plus, you’re on the verge of convincing me to devote my life to the Democratic way. Truth be told, I’m not a great fan of parties or wings, but we have plenty of time. I’m hopeful you can teach me and others here as you’ve been doing. Keep up the great work. You’re an inspiration to us all.

  • In presenting examples from the Economic Policy Institute and the Heritage Foundation in your article, you picked two excellent examples of organizations with opposing viewpoints “massaging” the same data, resulting in diametrically opposite conclusions.

    This is exactly why when writing on topics like this I restrict my sources as much as possible to genuinely neutral sources and government research. Even if I find some interesting tidbit in an article from a biased source, I go looking for the original data rather than just taking their word for it.


  • But Dave, in your piece (“Big LIe”) you contradicted Dean and Pelosi. I’m not sure what their sources were; you stopped at their talking points, which is fine to make your argument, but as I say above, it doesn’t help us much to sort these issues out if the implication is that their sources are biased and wrong. Besides which, a source may be partisan, but that doesn’t mean its always wrong! Sorry if I”m not remembering correctly, but the link I remember you giving for your counter-claim (to Dean and Pelosi)was a U.S. Govt source. It was referring to average incomes.

    That source doesn’t help us at all by itself. We have to interpret the language of its analysis. Perhaps you weren’t implying otherwise just above, but were simply saying that some sources are more biased than others, in which case I apologize for “going off.” Still, we should probably note that increasingly scholars are finding that citizens find sources they trust and they just believe what those sources say (selective perception,etc). Politics and its news and research sources as branding, even a kind of religion. Thus, if you, I or anyone else just uses what we consider to be un-biased sources, it will not necessarily make a dent on the outlooks of some out there (even some of our regular readers) unless we put those sources in conversation with their own “biased” ones. Only then will they have to face the discrepancy, and if one doesn’t value logic and rational-critical argumentation, then it still won’t work. Yay, politics as branding. Yay, look at the world through an ideological prism of Democrats, Republicans, Conservatism, socialism, libertarianism, feminism, environmentalism,left-wing, right-wing, etc. even though many of them have no coherent, unchanging platform. They work like consumer branding in that they associate their label with a few values and fantasies they know appeal to their demographic. Perhaps exactly why George Washington warned against parties in his farewell address.They give us simplistic, cultish formulas for understanding reality.

  • Martin Lav

    Great article Jayson!

    It’s beautiful that all the right-wingers and wanna be democrats (JoM) jump in and help to illustrate your point. Perfectly….

    You must excuse Dave in post # 13 he can’t help to explain why his article about the “big lie” is more truthful than yours.

    This reminds me of a pretty good analogy …. I think anyway …. didn’t Bush say we have more tree’s now than ever ….. counting peoples yards and planter boxes ….. and so there’s no reason we can’t cut and strip the forest as they are a renewable product?

    Something along those lines…..

  • pleasexcusetheinterruption12

    Excellent article. Much more effective at presenting the problem than Dave’s method of providing shallow counterpoints to the original talking points, which as my responses to his article showed (if anyone read them properly), are perhaps even farther from reality than the talking points.

  • jayson

    Looking back over this I’m embarrassed that I did not point out the problem in the questionnaire from the Pew study, which I talk about first. By breaking questions into moral issues, social issues, and economic issues, the questionnaire is possibly misleading for some subjects. For some people, economic issues are already moral issues and social issues. Indeed, it is a ruse, some would say, to claim otherwise. Not that anyone will read this again…(besides me, that is)