Lies and Truth

Comment on Economics                                     

By Maarten de Kadt


It seems very much like the calm before the storm. The debates are over. The New York Times CBS poll showed Pres. Obama had a slight lead in the October 16th debate. The CBS News poll of undecided voters who watched the October 22 debate favored Obama (Obama 53%, Romney 23%, the rest undecided). An October 23rd New York Times average of the CBS News, CNN and Google polls favors Obama by 16 percentage points. Many of us are wondering how so many people in this country could be making the wrong choice when the choice seems so obvious. Mendacity versus veracity issues abound.

I am reminded of one of my favorite primers on the use of math: the 1954 How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff. It seems as though the candidates have read this book carefully. Here are 2 examples.

Between 2000 and 2003, gasoline prices were hovering around $2 and at one point below $1.50. By 2008 they had shot up to over $4. Then they took a dramatic drop to under $2 again. Currently they again hover in the $4 range. If you only look at the time Pres. Obama has been in office it seems as though gasoline prices have more than doubled. But when you look back and include the Bush years you see that they doubled over that period as well. Talking about gasoline price increases only in the Obama years is clearly a lie. The much more complicated picture requires a deeper examination over a longer time period.

When Pres. Obama took office at the beginning of 2009 the economy was in a free-fall. Nearly 8,000,000 jobs disappeared between the beginning of 2008 and the beginning of 2010, straddling the beginning of the Obama years. More than 4 million jobs were lost in the 1st year of Obama’s term. And then, after too small an economic stimulus, the very slow increase of jobs began. The Obama administration can claim the addition of almost 5,000,000 jobs. But too many people are still unemployed. What Obama’s opponent should be saying is that the president’s administration did not offer a large enough stimulus to bring jobs back online. They won’t do that, of course, because government stimuli are not part of their philosophy. Slow job growth under the Obama administration is a result of both the devastating economic policies of the Bush administration and the inadequate economic stimulus of the Obama administration. Job growth too requires an examination that goes beyond sound bites.

The need to delve under the misleading use of statistics by both candidates may explain why so many people are confused at this juncture of the presidential campaign. Clearly reducing taxes for the rich and hoping the extra money they have will be used to create jobs, capturing what Paul Krugman calls “the confidence fairy,” represents the emptiness of the Republican platform. But not finding a way to explain the complexity of the situation in simple language represents the Democrats’ own lack of clarity about their policy needing stronger economic stimulus. As labor activist Ed Ott commented, “The Democrats don’t have a policy.” The president has done a lot of good in his 4 years, but team Obama, dumbing down how to speak about their program hoping to capture the swing votes, has not figured out how to speak clearly to all of us.

The president only has days to change that before the election.

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