I’ve gone on and on recently about facticity. It’s important to use accurate facts and to not lie about what they show. But real honesty, what one might call intellectual honesty, requires more than just not lying, if by lying we mean simply using false facts.
For a pretty good illustration, I return to the same Sunday show that I relied on for yesterday morning’s post, which was Sunday’s edition of CNN’s “State of the Union” that featured new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci.
Later, after Scaramucci had moved on to his next interview, CNN brought on a balanced panel (balanced, that is between left and right, pro-Trump and anti). One of the pro-Trumpers was David Urban, identified as a Trump campaign strategist and as the guy “who won Pennsylvania for Trump.”
Among his first comments, Urban said, in addition to fending off the various crises and scandals, there was a lot of good news about the accomplishments of the Trump administration in its first six months that the communications team needed to emphasize to the wider public. What are those? The two he mentioned were first were:
“I would say there’s other communications issues and that’s unemployment, right, we’ve heard, low unemployment here, 4.4 percent. Stock market through the roof.”
Yes, it’s true. Unemployment has fallen during the first six months of the Trump presidency. Yes, it’s true, the major stock market averages have hit record highs. That’s good news, and it has happened with Donald Trump in the Oval Office.
But it’s also hype, which is one of the many forms of intellectual dishonesty. Let’s dehype that, with the help of two graphs. Here is a graph from the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracking the U.S. unemployment rate over the past 10 years.
It’s quite dramatic. Unemployment at the beginning of 2007 was about where it is now. Then came the crash, substantially caused by Wall Street lending practices which caused many business to go bust and the unemployment rate shot shot up from less than 5 percent to 10 percent at its peak.
Because I strive for intellectual honesty, I don’t assume for the sake of convenience to my argument that everything that happens in the economy is the result of government policy. But that horrendous rise in unemployment occurred during the second term of George W. Bush and whatever he may have tried to do to fend off the crash or bring the economy back was relatively ineffective, certainly as measured by employment numbers.
Unemployment was still rising when Bush left office and kept rising in the first months of the Obama presidency until it peaked at 10 percent nine months into Barack Obama’s first term. Then it started coming down, quite steadily, quite dramatically, for seven-plus of the eight years Obama was in the Oval Office.
Again I repeat, I do not subscribe to the oversimplified, overpoliticized view that everything that happens in America is a reflection of the policies of whoever is president. But by any reasonable interpretation of that chart, the second Bush term was a disaster for the U.S. unemployment rate.
The Obama presidency saw a dramatic recovery of the jobs picture. The unemployment rate was cut by more than half, from its peak of 10 to less than five on the day Obama handed the keys of the Oval Office over to Trump. That’s more than 5 full percentage points. And it was still falling when Trump took over and it has since fallen by an additional four-tenths of one percent.
Trump cannot honestly point to any policy of his or any bill he has signed as the reason that unemployment has declined. But OK, let’s ignore that obvious fact and just say that Trump can claim credit for every hiring and firing decision made by every U.S. firm since he took the oath of office, which would be nonsense, but just for the sake of discussion.
To look at this chart and argue, as the guy who won Pennsylvania for him suggests, that Trump stands as the hero of a dramatic improvement in the U.S. unemployment picture does not pass the most basic test of intellectual honesty or any other category of honesty worthy of the name.
Below is a chart of the S&P 500 closing figure every market day for the last 10 years.
I won’t waste your time or my precious pixels explaining what it shows, because it’s exactly the same as the unemployment level above, except that we want stock prices to go up instead of down (for unemployment). Instead, I’ll rough out what an intellectually honest comment about the first six months of the Trump presidency relative to both indices that Urban might have said:
“President Trump was fortunate to inherit a lot of strength in the economy from his predecessor, President Obama. That’s true both for investors as reflected in the stock market averages and for workers as reflected in the unemployment rate. Whatever people may think of President Trump’s first six months in office, both of those indices of prosperity have continued to improve and if they can keep improving it’s going to make life better for Americans in general, rich and poor, workers and bosses.”