Rob St. Amant

Rob St. Amant
December 31
My roots are in San Francisco and later Baltimore, where I went to high school and college. I stayed on the move, living for a while in Texas, several years in a small town in Germany, and then several more in Massachusetts, working on a Ph.D. in computer science. I'm now a professor at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. My book, Computing for Ordinary Mortals, will appear this fall from Oxford University Press.


JUNE 2, 2012 11:41AM

Unemployment: Obama vs Romney

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Glen Kessler, on his Washington Post Fact Checker blog, compares the job creation records of President Obama and Governor Romney over their times in office. His conclusion:

The similarities are actually more striking than the differences. 

Coincidentally, I've been looking at unemployment data from the same source, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and I've found the same thing. Let's start with some historical context. The plot at the top of this post shows monthly (seasonally adjusted) unemployment, as a percentage, for the entire U.S. from 1970 through the present. The blue line shows Obama's tenure. (Unemployment isn't a perfect measure of the jobs picture, because it's measured against those people actually looking for work, but it's a useful indicator.) It should be clear that Obama started out deep in a hole, with rising unemployment that didn't turn around for several months (with help from the stimulus plan).

Here's another plot of the same data, on the shorter time scale of 2003 through the present. (The patterns in the black and blue lines are simply stretched out a bit.) I've added a red line to show unemployment data for Massachusetts during the period that Romney was governor. You'll notice that the Massachusetts line tracks the national line fairly closely: there's a peak about halfway into 2003, then a slow decline through 2007. Massachusetts does slightly better than the national average for most of this period, rising above the average only in 2006. 


Now let's fiddle with the time scale a bit more. What would happen instead of looking at years along the horizontal axis, we looked at the number of months that Obama and Romney were (or have been, for Obama) in office? We get this.


Do you see huge differences? Except for where the lines start on the vertical axis, I'm not seeing very much. The Massachusetts slump ends within the first 12 months, with unemployment gradually falling. The national unemployment line doesn't start to descend until about 12 months in. On average the recoveries look to be very close in shape.

I'm not going to dig into the whys of the two situations I'm comparing, except to say that governors and presidents have different amounts of influence on their respective economies, and they're helped or hampered in different ways by their legislatures. I'll focus on a simpler question.

If there's little difference between the two candidates with respect to their records in job creation and reduction of unemployment, what does this mean? One answer is that if we want to choose between them, we look at what they say they'll do in the future. What plans have the candidates and their respective parties put forward?

(To be continued, maybe.)






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Rob, thanks for this fascinating analysis of the two candidate's records in this area! I guessed Obama's numbers would have been much higher, but apparently not to the degree I had in mind now that I see your info on this.
Romney had to deal with a Democratic legislature with veto-proof majorities. There was little he could do about anything except propose a budget every year, which the legislature would tell him was dead on arrival except for things they liked--like higher user fees and universal health care. The rest of his proposals went straight into the wastebasket.
Romney was also hampered by the weak Bush ecomomic policy that Mitt wants to return to. Nonetheless, MA was 47 out of 50 states in job creation during Mitt's time. Would we need to plot each state, then compare the dynamic of the respective Governor's party vs. the dominate party in the legislature (per Con's comment)? Then again, here in IL, we have a Dem governor and a Dem legislature, but they don't get along. So nothing useful gets done.
Thanks for the comments!

As an Obama supporter, John, I was hoping to see some bigger difference in his favor, but my very shallow analysis doesn't show it, I don't think. Oh, well--you go with what's there.

Con, I take it that Romney and Obama were in the same boat to some extent, then. That is, we had a Democratic 110th Congress, but Republicans filibustered at record levels, and Democrats don't have the same party discipline as Republicans to handle it.

Stim, I think you're right about what a real analysis would require. The political dynamics across states often turn out to be similar, as you point out.
Numbers don't lie, they leave that to politicians.
You are making the classic error of assuming that government has - or can - have any real effect on unemployment unless by massive hiring by government itself for work projects, and we know that hasn't been happening. The way that the numbers of unemployed are diddled with makes it impossible to get accurate figures also.

Leaving out the government's figures, most people know, from personal experience, that the true unemployment rates are much higher - probably double - than the government says it is.

And wait for the new numbers as we slide into the second 'dip' of this recession! With the government so busy trying to save the wealth of mega-corporations and banks, it sure as hell isn't going to be concerned about unemployment even if it could do something about it.

I've never understood just what, and how, any government is supposed to affect the hiring of private industry unless it gives industry huge financial rewards - which we pay - to hire unneeded help.

Professional economists, including Paul Krugman (Nobel laureate), do believe that government stimulus improves employment. I'm not an economist, of course, but some basic tactics seem clear: provide funding for infrastructure projects, like highways; offer tax incentives to businesses for hiring veterans; increase research funding; extend unemployment insurance; etc. Basically, inject more money into the economy through channels that the government already supplies. This may not be the most direct way of reducing unemployment, but it does create jobs.

Of course you're right about unemployment numbers being subject to interpretation.

Have you noticed, as I have, that "professional economists" are only "always right" after the event?

Each year a bunch of them become the new gurus by happening to make a few accurate predictions. Then the odds catch up with them and their predictions are not accurate any more; then a new set of gurus appear only to fall by the wayside as their lucky predictions come to an end. Hey, if you've enough economists all predicting a lot of different things, for different reasons, some of them are gonna be right. Just try to figure out, in advance, which ones those will be!

By my reading of the pros, our goose is pretty well cooked. Are they right? Who knows? But government infrastructure employment for a few tens of thousands - if it is ever that much - is a joke when tens of MILLIONS of jobs are needed.

The game now is to try to convince the public that millions of people whose unemployment benefits have run out are "no longer looking for work" - just a bunch of lazy bums sucking up the hard-working tax-payer's money while living luxuriously as "Welfare Kings & Queens" on the public dime.

Yeah. Right.
I don't quite know what to say. That is, I disagree, but it'll take me some time to figure out why. I'll get back to you on this. Thanks for raising interesting questions.
I'll point out that I left Massachusetts during Romney's tenure to find work, thus helping to lower the unemployment rate in Commonwealth. But, not due any job creation that he might have been responsible for.
I guess I just continue to have a problem with people believing that one man (or woman!) can change the "job situation" in America...As long as no one person has ALL of the reins, no one person can fix a darn thing...And there is a reason we have a democracy. Speaking as one unemployed at one time or another in every presidency since I started working, methinks we are on our own in figuring our way out of this "box"... (P.S. I absolutley LOVED the graphics...there's nothing like stats in pictures!)
Thanks, KC. Politics aside, I like graphics, too. For the last little while I've tried to persuade one of my students to take on the task of building a browser plug-in that would let you hover your mouse pointer over a data table and then choose from automatically generated plots of the data. I may have to get my hands dirty and do it myself.
The mistake most Conservatives and some Liberals make is to equate government spending with government hiring. The federal govt may choose to invest in many things -- highways and other infrastructure (as during the Eisenhower administration) or space exploration (as during the Kennedy administration), but the bulk of those expenditures will not create govt jobs, but jobs in the private sector.

This is so obvious it ought not need explanation, but unfortunately that isn't the case. Conservatives -- either ignorantly or with malice aforethought -- like to leave the impression that govt spending takes away from job creation in the private sector, when quite the opposite is true.

Conservatives -- also either ignorantly or with malice aforethought -- like to leave the impression the govt never gets anything right and private enterprise always does. Wrong again.

Take the Hubble telescope. The predictable hue and cry went up from Conservatives about govt failure when it was discovered the mirror was clouded enough to render the Hubble initially useless. But the fact is, it was a private contractor that ground the mirror wrong. But rather than engage in political gamesmanship, NASA and private industry worked together to provide a solution to the problem -- glasses.

As for the other side of the coin, I give you Enron, Worldcom, et al, as well as a handful of banks, that would have -- and in my view should have -- gone out of business had they not been saved by govt intervention -- Conservative govt intervention, I hasten to add -- when they were deemed them too big to fail.

The measure of Conservative hypocrisy was that most, if not all, those who favored bailing out banks were against bailing out auto companies. Bush's SoT Paulsen was ready to bail out out his banking brethren without so much as a real plan or a single demand, but he and Bush cut and ran when it came to GM and Chrysler, and dumped yet another potential catastrophe in Obama's lap. We can all be thankful he had the guts and good sense to deal with that problem.

What is truly foolish in all this is that despite these horrors, we remain the only major industrialized nation I'm aware of without a national industrial policy and a national energy policy. For some unfathomable reason (unfathomable outside of greed) Conservatives continue to speak as if that was somehow a good thing. Leave it all to private industry.

Such a foolish consistency about private industry is childish -- nay, criminal, as in the case of Dick Cheney colluding behind closed doors with industry giants, including the aforementioned corporate criminal enterprise Enron. Let's have this debate out in the open.

Conservative intelligentsia knows all this to be true, but knows equally well that speaking the truth doesn't sit well with the now-addled base of the Republican Party. Thus, a comparison of Romney's actual record with Obama's record is of very little use in determining any one person's vote, since as you point out, in reality they are essentially the same.

No, if Romney wins this election, I'm afraid it will be for reasons much less germane and far more related to dog-whistle politics, since every Republican presidential candidate since Nixon has sunk so low as to resort to the Southern Strategy. Those on the Right will deny that vociferously; but the truth -- as confessed by Lee Atwater -- is plain to see for anyone not willfully blind.
Excellent observations, Tom. Your comment is better than my entire post. Thanks.