Skip to main content

I have perennial discussions with conservative friends about the proper and improper ways to use statistics.  "I keep trying to teach you, B, charts and figures will never matter if you don't look at the underlying issues."  (What the "underlying issues" is never forthcoming).

Although the saying goes "Figures lie and liars figure"  there is in fact a right way and a wrong way to use numbers.

Below is a chart making the rounds on Facebook that seems to show the President's comprehensive awfulness on the economy.  Follow my point by point analysis below the fold.  

UPDATE: Skim to the bottom for snappy comebacks....

(Warning: Image heavy)

Here's the chart:

Pretty bad, hey?  Things not looking good for Our Hero.

My reply:

Well, the figures are correct but are highly selective, not to say deceptive.  The actual story is far more complicated.

I carry out this analysis as a public service with the foreknowledge that careful analysis of numbers makes no difference whatever amid the grunting of the electoral monkeys.

Maybe someone can use it to score an occasional point here and there.  At the bottom I've made an effort to craft one or two sentence replies.  


1. The first two numbers relate to unemployment. They are basically the same, just unemployment expressed two different ways to pad the chart.

MrConservative's chosen dates are January 2009 (inauguration Day) to January 2012. Let's step back and take a broader look at the unemployment rates of the past several years:

The 6-year low point for unemployment occurred in March, 2007 (4.8%). The financial collapse took place in a series of escalating crises between mid 2007 and late summer, 2008 and the unemployment rate started rising steeply. It coasted straight through the beginning of Obama's term in January 2009 (7.8%) and continued to rise more than linearly to a high point in November, 2010 (10.1%).

It has been falling ever since. Since November of 2010 unemployment has dropped from 10.1% to the current 8.5% ...Still not good but a 1.6% drop instead of a 0.7% rise.

So for his first year in office Obama was dealing with the ongoing consequences of a financial debacle that occurred the summer before the start of his term. The government operated under the Bush FY08 budget until September 09. Obama's first FY began in October, 2010.  


2. Gas prices.

MrConservative's chart correctly shows the rise in gas prices during Obama's term from a low of $1.85 in January 2009 to $3.39 in January 2012.

On the other hand, how about some more data?

What MrConservative's figures fail to show is a previous boom and bust that started in February 2008 ($3.00), shot up to a high in July 2008 ($4.12) and crashed to a $1.61 low in December 2008.

Gas prices over the past six or so years have been wildly volatile, bouncing up and down repeatedly.  The most marked fluctuations have been over the past six years. Suggested causes include various news of unrest in the Middle East and financial manipulation of prices by speculators, but the causes are poorly understood at best, certainly not by me.  I did find this:

The [gas price] model also sheds light on the sharp decline in gasoline prices since mid-2008. While this decline reflects in part a strong unexpected decline in global real economic activity starting in May of 2008, even more importantly it has been associated with traders’ anticipation of an unprecedented and sharp recession because of the financial crisis. This shift in expectations about future economic
prospects caused a sharp drop in the demand for crude oil and for gasoline in late 2008 beyond the dynamics induced by an already slowing global economy
--Explaining Fluctuations in Gasoline Prices: A Joint Model of the Global Crude Oil Market and theU.S. Retail Gasoline Market.  Lutz Kilian, University of Michigan and CEPR September 2, 2009.  WARNING: .pdf

This seems to indicate that it was a combination of a serious drop in demand and speculative traders' anticipation of a recession. In other words: one more effect of the financial meltdown.

Thus Obama's term started at a multi-year low point for the price of gasoline. This low was a momentary deep down spike in a crazy market, not part of a trend, probably yet another effect of the overall meltdown.

There was no place to go but up.  Anyone who wishes to blame Obama for the current rise in gas prices bears the burden of showing why the rise during his term is meaningful and the previous boom and bust is not.


‎3. Federal Debt/debt per person

First of all, like the two unemployment figures these are just two ways of expressing the exact same thing so their repetition is padding.

The numbers themselves are accurate, as such.  On the other hand:

If you take on a debt it doesn't evaporate just because someone else gets custody of the credit card. If you apportion the public debt according to what policies led to what consequences, Bush era policies, spending, and interest accounts for about 4 to 5 trillion of the total and Obama policies for about a trillion and a half, as seen here in this very effective New York Times graphic:

$1.4 trillion in debt is still not great but this shows that in terms of specific policy responsibility the actual numbers are almost exactly inverse to the ones claimed by MrC.


‎4. Misery Index (inflation rate plus unemployment rate)

To properly analyzed the Misery index it needs to be broken down into its separate factors and looked at over time:

Date:              Inflation:               Unemployment:                MI:
Jan 06               3.4%                         4.7%                       8.1
Jan 07               2.4%                         4.6%                       7.8
Jan 08               4%                            5%                        11
Jan 09              0.1%                          7.7%                       7.8
Jan 10               2.7%                        10%                        12.7
Jan 11               1.5%                          9.4%                     10.9
Jan 12               3.0%                          8.5%                     11.5

So the Misery Index rose from around 8 to 11 during 2007. It dipped down to 7.8 in January of 2009 for the simple reason that

a. unemployment had been rising steadily for the past 6 months and
b. the financial crisis had killed the economy and no one was buying anything.

As the economy improved (relatively speaking) renewed inflation sent the MI back up to 2008 levels. It should begin to come down slowly if and when unemployment slowly drops.


5. College Tuition and Health Insurance Premiums:

Both the increase in college tuition and that of health insurance premiums are long term trends with many causes and few fluctuations:

As you can see, tuition started rising steadily and faster than inflation from 1978-present (through 5 administrations). The problem is complicated and multi factoral, started long before January 2009 and shows every sign of continuing well past January 2016.

Ditto for health insurance premiums:

The steady-as-a-rock rise in premiums at a rate well above either inflation or the rise in wages over the past 10 years is one of the main reasons why Obama pushed so hard for reforms. The Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") hasn't even been fully put into place so can have had little to no effect on this trend either positive or negative.

In both cases the trends are multi factoral in cause and multi decade in duration.  Blaming Obama, or any one administration,  for this particular little slice of the trendline is like blaming him for the increasing age of the earth.


6. Food stamps/Poverty/Home values:

All these items are up or down, whichever direction is bad,  because we are still in the long, painful aftermath of the financial breakdown of August 2008.

Yes, when unemployment is up there are more poor people and yes, they use more food stamps.

The collapse in home values was notoriously a major cause of the entire mess.

It started before January of 2009 and is a deep, deep hole out of which we are only painfully climbing out.  Only one party has consistently fought for measures to mitigate the suffering. Only one party has done everything it can to increase that suffering.


7. Global Competitiveness Index:

This is fascinating! Whoever put together this little bit of propaganda cannot have actually read this report. (WARNING:: pdf)

The GCI is a yearly international study that looks at the competitiveness and sustainability of national economies using twelve "pillars of competitiveness." It looks more to the long term than to the immediate numbers.

Ironically, many of the reasons the US has dropped in the rankings are ones that conservatives would just really hate.

Some of the more embarrassing reasons given for the US decline include:

The business community continues to be critical toward public and private institutions (39th). In particular, its trust in politicians is not strong (50th). ...  It remains concerned about the government’s ability to maintain arms-length relationships with the private sector (50th)


A lack of macroeconomic stability continues to be the United States’ greatest area of weakness (90th). . . .political brinkmanship over the debt ceiling in the United States
and the ensuing downgrade of the US credit rating by Standard & Poor’s, have raised questions about the sustainability of debt in a number of countries.

Oh, geezeum it really does matter that a sizable minority of the country are rabidly anti-government?  And our national credit rating really does matter?  


FYI: the four countries ranked above the US in the GCI are:


Horrors! Socialism!


In summary:

The figures presented are technically true but chosen in a way to project a deceitful picture due to

1. Failing to recognize that Obama took office several months into a major financial cataclysm not of his making, with ongoing consequences for the country.

2. Padding the list by presenting the same figures twice or three times under different guises

3. Padding the list by presenting multiple figures that are highly correlated with each other and with the ongoing financial emergency.

4. Representing decades-long trends as confined to the Obama years when in fact the same increases have been going on across multiple administrations.

5. Presenting highly volatile numbers that have fluctuated repeatedly for murky causes as somehow confined to the Obama years.

6. Finally, representing the decline in the country's GCI as a negative for this administration when many if not most of the primary reasons for the downgrade are actually consequences of conservative anti-govenrment ideology and Republican intransigence on servicing the public debt.

Respectully submitted,


UPDATE: Snappy comebacks to bogus numbers
Snappy comebacks are best put in the form of a question:

1. Unemployment figures:

Why are you willing to notice the 2% rise in unemployment at the START of Obama's term, but not the 3% rise at the END of Bush's?  What about the latest drop from 10% to 8.5?

2. Gasoline Prices:

A two-dollar rise in gasoline prices is sure bad.  It happened under Obama and also under Bush.  Why not just face the fact that presidents have little to no control over gas prices?

3. Federal Debt;  

Who is responsible for running up a credit card, the one who used the card or the one stuck with the bill?  (Bush 5 trillion, Obama 1.4 trillion).

4. Misery Index:

The Misery Index is inflation plus unemployment. Remember that Christmas when NO ONE was buying ANYTHING?  When was that? Was that GOOD NEWS?

5. College Tuition and Health Insurance:

College Tuition and Health Insurance have been rising like a skyrocket for the past thirty years.  So you are saying that Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, AND Obama were ALL economic incompetents?

6. Food Stamps, Poverty, Home Values:

Sounds like you are blaming the doctor for the disease.

7. Global Competitiveness Index:

Have you even read the thing?  Three of the four countries who have moved ahead of the US are Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland.  Sounds like we need more socialism not less.

The report specifically mentions anti-government attitudes and failure to raise the debt limit as reasons for the downgrade.

6:18 PM PT: Minor erratum:   the six year low point for unemployment occurred in  March, 2007 not march 2008


Shall we blame Obama for the pernicious increase in universal entropy?

5%1 votes
52%10 votes
26%5 votes
15%3 votes

| 19 votes | Vote | Results

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (11+ / 0-)

    We are the principled ones, remember? We don't get to use the black hats' tricks even when it would benefit us. Political Compass: -6.88, -6.41

    by bmcphail on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 06:12:20 PM PST

  •  I've got a bunch to get done tonight (0+ / 0-)

    ...and I've procrastinated successfully by writing this diary.  I need to play catchup for a few hours but I will return to field comments.


    We are the principled ones, remember? We don't get to use the black hats' tricks even when it would benefit us. Political Compass: -6.88, -6.41

    by bmcphail on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 06:32:08 PM PST

  •  this illustrates why it is so hard to assess (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bmcphail, smokeymonkey

    the relative quality of a single term president when many presidents enjoy two terms and their successors are their own party members.  In other words, mega-policy takes decades for its effects to be seen so it is only today we are able to assess the long term effects of Reagan's Revolution for example.  The full effect of GWB's tenure is still being assessed.  The chart your friend produced is a snapshot and like a snapshot, only shows a single moment in time.  It is impossible to deduce trends from a single photo the same as an accurate narrative from a single photo is difficult.
    Your friend would profit by a couple of basic Economics courses

    •  Well, the chart was brought to my attention (0+ / 0-)

      by a conservative friend but he didn't assemble it.

      I suspect that whoever did would profit not at all from a couple of basic economics courses because the chart was assembled with malice aforethought.


      We are the principled ones, remember? We don't get to use the black hats' tricks even when it would benefit us. Political Compass: -6.88, -6.41

      by bmcphail on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 06:35:46 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Thanks for this, I was working on my own after a conservative facebook friend posted this under the comment "This should be easy for liberals to understand."

    Too bad it is so hard for conservatives to understand history.

    We're all just monkeys burning in hell.

    by smokeymonkey on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 07:42:13 PM PST

  •  Nice diary. nt (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bmcphail, Calamity Jean

    Republicans are like alligators. All mouth and no ears.

    by Ohiodem1 on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 08:13:23 PM PST

  •  "It's the economy stupid" (0+ / 0-)

    With those words, Bill Clinton defeated Bush 41.  People vote with  their pocketbooks, which the Clinton campaign managers figured out.  

    The way most voters look at the economy is, since Jan.20, 2009 has the economy improved? If so, by how much? Polls consistently show most voters believe the economy is not better or marginally better than when this administration took office.

    One can argue, for instance, the gas prices suffered a momentary market dip just prior to Obama's term; or that a $17+billion deficit is not all his fault; or that the misery index was lower, etc. etc. etc.  Yes, you can cherry pick your parameters and time lines to make it look like the economy is better or worse, depending upon ones view.

    The perception held by most voters, and it is often said perception is ones reality, is the economy is still in the tank.

    Like it or not, fair or unfair,  Obama, after 3 years in office,  "owns" the economic state we are in.  

    If the Obama/Democratic campaign strategy is to continue to "blame Bush", or to say "it might have been worse",  that argument will not sway many voters outside of the democratic rank and file, especially the important indepentdent voters,  imo.

    As Mr. Clinton was fond of saying..."It's the economy, stupid!"

    and this economy still sucks!


    •  The point of this diary (0+ / 0-)
      Yes, you can cherry pick your parameters and time lines to make it look like the economy is better or worse, depending upon ones view.

      As far as the election goes you may well be right.  The point of the diary is that if the numbers are picked correctly, it ain't cherry picking. There IS a right way and a wrong way.  And the graphic I'm critiquing did it the wrong way, on purpose IMHO.


      We are the principled ones, remember? We don't get to use the black hats' tricks even when it would benefit us. Political Compass: -6.88, -6.41

      by bmcphail on Wed Jan 25, 2012 at 06:14:06 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  gas prices and peak oil (0+ / 0-)

    Volatile oil and gas prices likely reflect that we've hit peak oil. Production can't increase to meet demand, so when demand goes up, prices also shoot up.

  •  This chart is part of the rejuvenation of.. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The neocons and is viral.  Thank you for this analysis.  It is dead-on.

    I have constructed a FB answer comment that I think will make some think (others never will).

    And unto the new President the Lord said, "...on this 20th day of January, 2009, I shall re-create the economic world, forgive all debts, trends, and misjudgements of those before you....the slate is clean. You will have the power to control misery, gas prices, unemployment, taxes, unregulated debt, foreign economics, healthcare costs, poverty and hunger. Go forth, prosper, and don't screw it up for thou shall be judged in fairness for what you do."

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site