By now, you surely have heard the Republicans trying to channel Ronald Reagan with his inane, economically (wildly) oversimplified, yet politically memorable "are you better off now..." line (was it effective? who really knows, but let's assume that it was, for the purposes of this discussion) from the 1980 Reagan-Carter presidential debates. What Republicans would have you believe this time around, just as they wanted you to believe in 1980, are at least two highly questionable assumptions:
False Assumption #1: That the President - not Congress, not what's happening around the world, not structural forces years in the making, not whatever the President inherited, not what he realistically could have accomplished given the alignment of political forces, etc, etc, - is responsible for everything that happens to the economy on his "watch." If the economy booms, then he's a competent genius. If the economy busts, then he's an incompetent idiot. Yes, it's utterly brain dead, lacking in even the most rudimentary understanding of how the economy really works, but nonetheless, that's the first implicit assumption in this whole "Are you better off now..." line. (In fairness, it's just as idiotic when it's used the other way around: I presided over xx million new jobs and a booming economy, ergo I deserve all the credit and should be reelected.)
False Assumption #2: That the proper period of measurement is exactly 4 years, apparently dating from...not sure, actually, but these days it seems like Republicans are referring to 4 years ago TODAY, which of course ignores the fact that George W. Bush, not Barack Obama, was President then. Details, details, I know. Of course, if you date the "4 years" line from late January 2009, when President Obama took office, then there's just one minor problem, which is that we're not AT 4 years yet. Again, details details. Finally, as even Romney himself has admitted, we need to give a new President 6 months to a year for his/her policies to kick in, before even beginning to judge his/her record. Which means, even if you want to use the "Are you better off...?" line of argument, then it shouldn't start until July 2009 or January/February 2010 -- at least according to Romney's logic, with which I generally agree in this case.
The bottom line is that this "Are you better off...?" line may be memorable and catchy, but it's essentially meaningless, worthless from an economics perspective, thus of course the imbecile media laps it up and spews it right back out. Ugh.
Just to illustrate how brain dead this line of "argument" really is, let's apply it to the Republicans' ultimate icon, Ronald Reagan himself. Check out these monthly unemployment rate numbers, and see what you notice from the period 1980-1984, when Carter was up for reelection through Reagan's first term until he himself was up for reelection, and people could have thrown Reagan's "Are you better off..." question right back at him.
What jumps out here is fascinating, although not at all in line with the Republican "4 years" narrative. First off, note that the unemployment rate as Americans went to the polls in early November 1980 was 7.5%, down from 7.7% four years earlier. By Republican logic, I guess Jimmy Carter should have been reelected, since we were "better off" than 4 year earlier. Hmmmm.
Second, note that after The Great Reagan took office in January 1981, unemployment rose sharply, hitting a staggering 10.8% (!!!) in November/December 1982, and remaining at 8% or higher (one of this year's favorite Republican attack lines) through January 1984 (that's three straight years over 8% unemployment for St. Ronnie)! In the election year of 1984 itself, unemployment continued slowly falling, reaching a still-not-great 7.4% in October, essentially identical (down 0.1 percentage points) from exactly 4 years earlier. Meanwhile, for the vast majority of Reagan's first term, things were bad - very, very bad, far worse than they've been the past 3 years or so - yet Reagan was reelected in a landslide. What's THAT all about, exactly? Uh oh, looks like the "Are you better off...?" theory fails again.
Third, note that Ronald Reagan's policies had essentially NOTHING to do with the horrible recession of the early 1980s. In fact, that recession was caused by events almost completely outside the control of any U.S. President: the oil price spikes of the 1970s (during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations), culminating in the 1979 Iranian revolution and start of the Iran-Iraq war; and the Federal Reserve cranking up interest rates (as high as 21.5%!!!! in June 1982) to kill inflation (an astoundingly high 13.5%!!! in 1980), but also killing millions of jobs in the process. Remember, the Federal Reserve is independent, which of course means that the President's control over it is minimal at best. So why does the President get credit, or blame, for economic conditions caused by the Fed, reacting to an exogenous shock (e.g., the Iranian Revolution)? For that, I point you to the idiot media, and to a public which puts far, far, far too much emphasis on the presidency, as opposed to all the other actors, branches of government, and all the other forces - domestic and international - out there.
The bottom line here: by Republican "logic," their great hero Ronald Reagan himself should have been booted out of office in November 1984, because by almost any metric, we weren't "better off" than we were from "four years ago." Of course, that's not what happened; perhaps the public was smarter than Republicans give them credit for, realizing that most of the economic problems the country faced weren't really Reagan's fault, that he was doing the best he could to turn things around, etc. Sort of like...uh, yeah, that Barack Obama dude, 38 years later, and 4 years after the economy had entered into the "free fall" phase, with job losses running to the hundreds of thousands per month, Wall Street collapsing, massive deficits mounting ever higher, and fears of Great Depression Part II widespread - NONE of it caused in any way, shape or form by Barack Obama. Sound familiar?
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