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How to deceive without actually lying: a tale of TV hype (with charts)

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.

Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey
Bureau of Labor Statistics
Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey

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.

S&P 500 Index: 10-Year Daily Chart
Macrotrends
S&P 500 Index: 10-Year Daily Chart

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.” 

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Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/25/2017 - 09:07 am.

    Three things

    It’s true that W. cannot himself be blamed entirely for the recession, nor Obama entirely for the recovery. When we step back from individual presidents to look at the forest instead of the trees we see that neoliberal assumptions about government regulation, markets, and private sector efficiency cut across Party lines. The real difference is the Republican ability to recognize much less effectively deal with genuine crises collapsed in the 1990s. Obama was a competent president, and that surely had an effect on the recovery and the economy, but obviously not everyone was impressed.

    Almost every recession is triggered by a white collar crime wave, and we need to acknowledge that fact openly and clearly. It’s not just greed and “mismanagement” or poor practice. Its the difference between something akin to natural disasters which cant’ be avoided and engineered disasters for which human beings are responsible. Bubbles are crime waves, they’re engineered, they’re not “healthy” or natural business cycles.

    In general I think Trump and his various associates can be best described by the simple sports analogy: “They were born on 3rd base and think they hit a triple.” Sure they play politics with the numbers, and they lie. But there is a palpable sense of entitlement that informs their dishonesty, and that should be acknowledged because it frequently is a basis for intellectual dishonesty.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/25/2017 - 09:41 am.

      Now That’s A Broad Brush!

      “Almost every recession is triggered by a white collar crime wave”

      Really? I recall recessions in 1973 (or so), 1982, and the early 90’s. Were there white collar crime waves I missed? You may be right, but I;m skeptical.

      • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 07/25/2017 - 10:00 am.

        Savings and Loan Crisis and the Energy Crisis

        The 1979 recession can be seen as an extension of the oil crisis which may not be white collar crime but would qualify as restraint of trade. The savings and loan fraud of the 1980s helped contribute to the 1982 recession and early 1990s recession and that was definitely white collar crime. Most recessions can be explained by a tightening of energy resources and/or financial fraud.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/25/2017 - 10:17 am.

          S&Ls

          The savings and loan crisis began in the mid-80s. The ’82 recession was caused by a deliberate policy choice to limit the money supply to break inflation.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/25/2017 - 12:46 pm.

      Nope, it’s still about Crime

      Those oil “crises” were the triggered by attempts to manipulate the markets, and in one case or another such attempts are technically illegal. Remember, we de-regulated those markets under Cater; remember the:”windfall profit tax?”

      The primary concern of Reagan’s economic team was “stagflation”, not inflation per se. Inflation is a component of stagflation with is characterized by high inflation,high unemployment. The stagflation of the 80’s, and it’s attending recessions, were primarily caused by the various price manipulations in the energy sector, and a variety of monetary policies that put downward pressure on wages and salaries and job security while relaxing of environmental laws and other regulations. The primary crime wave behind these recessions was the manipulation of the energy sector (the nature of which wasn’t completely revealed until the Enron collapse decades later), and the financial sector trying to take advantage of the high interest rates (i.e. monetary policy) that eventually culminated in the Savings and Loan crises and bailout. The entire era was characterized by endemic corruption, over 130 Reagan officials were eventually convicted of various crimes in a variety of scandals. Setting aside Iran Contra, Reagan officials were convicted of criminal activity associated with HUD loans, Lobbying, EPA Superfund irregularities, and of course the Savings & Loan fiasco. From one end of the economy to the other white collar crime was almost ubiquitous.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 07/25/2017 - 01:24 pm.

      Excuse me, but is that a tentacle on my bank account?

      Good point . . .

      Remember the tech bubble? Remember $4.00/gallon gas on the way to the Great Recession? Or how about the more recent sharp decline in the price of iron ore [that began in 2011] that the Iron Range has yet to come close to recovering from. Remember how, in about 2010, that little Canadian company called Polymet suddenly popped up with its proposed poison factory solution that, they said, would generate millions of jobs and billions in free money for the state and how there was this shadowy Swiss commodities company called “Glencore” lending Polymet (a mining company that had never made a nickel mining ANYthing) hundreds of millions to bankroll their quest to make lots of friends on the Range (see: everyday Rangers, the IRRRB and, just a couple weeks ago, Rick Nolan) and browbeat the DNR into giving them a “permit to mine”?

      Lots of pages and adult language, but writing good and humorous enough to keep things moving right along . . . Probably just left wing conspiracy theory witch hunt fake news but, for anyone interested in this topic, interesting as can be.

      “The Great American Bubble Machine

      “The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent [2008] financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.”

      http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-great-american-bubble-machine-20100405

      “The Vampire Squid Strikes Again: The Mega Banks’ Most Devious Scam Yet

      “Call it the loophole that destroyed the world. It’s 1999, the tail end of the Clinton years. While the rest of America obsesses over Monica Lewinsky, Columbine and Mark McGwire’s biceps, Congress is feverishly crafting what could yet prove to be one of the most transformative laws in the history of our economy – a law that would make possible a broader concentration of financial and industrial power than we’ve seen in more than a century.”

      http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-vampire-squid-strikes-again-the-mega-banks-most-devious-scam-yet-20140212

      “The Vampire Squid Occupies Trump’s White House

      “After running against Goldman as a candidate, Donald Trump licks the boots of the world’s largest investment bank”

      http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/the-vampire-squid-occupies-trumps-white-house-w456225

      And, in regards to that second blurb and how this bubble thing might work (is a squid ink cloud diversion an integral part of the formula?), what is America obsessing over now? On a scale of one to ten, how big and (potentially) blinding would you say that obsession is? Has anyone in recent American history seen one that’s more complete?

  2. Submitted by cory johnson on 07/25/2017 - 09:11 am.

    Wait a minute…

    Are you saying in politics that people take too much credit for things they don’t actually have that much control over? Next you will claim they also try to deflect as much blame as possible to an opposing party. This is groundbreaking stuff.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/25/2017 - 09:19 am.

    How about

    a graph of wages rather than employment,
    see: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-mayors-jobs-idUSKBN0GB1T920140811
    and
    http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/10/09/for-most-workers-real-wages-have-barely-budged-for-decades/
    …..
    also, UNemployment rates are affected by things like people dropping out of the work force. Employment rates can show a different picture.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/25/2017 - 09:32 am.

    Obvious

    Just to point out the obvious: Intellectual honesty, or any other kind of honesty, has not been a hallmark of Donald Trump’s life, whether personal, financial or political. If it makes him look better, he will, in the manner of every insecure human from time immemorial, insist on taking credit for it. If it makes him look worse, less competent, less “honest,” he will, in that same tradition, insist that the fault lies elsewhere. It’s a characteristic of every emotional child, regardless of chronological age, and certainly seems applicaple to the emotional child who is the Current Occupant of the Oval Office.

    Sycophants, that is, members of the Imperial Court currently gathered around New York and Washington, D.C., and fervently hoping to improve their own wealth and influence in a plutocratic age, will be happy to appear in television and other media interviews praising the alleged accomplishments of the Current Occupant, whether real or, for the most part, imagined. Sucking up is part of the job description when your boss is part of the Trump dynasty. It’s pointless to blame these people, who are only doing what sycophants have been doing since the first Imperial dynasty, several thousands of years ago. That said, there’s also no reason to accept what they tell us at face value.

  5. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/25/2017 - 09:37 am.

    Any Minute Now

    During the Obama presidency, any reports about a falling unemployment rate was met with posts here about how the participation in the labor market is falling, so this really isn’t such great news. I’m sure that, in a matter of minutes, they will be posting the same information in response to this story.

    If not, they will tell us how that decline is not Trump’s fault, because Benghazi.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/25/2017 - 10:26 am.

    Lying

    The funny thing about politicians that the experienced and capable ones rarely lie, and when they do, it’s as much a mistake as anything else. What they do instead is mislead and confuse. Complexity is the politicians friend, because it helps them in varying degrees, take both sides of an issue, which is the sweet spot of messaging.

    This is one of the many things that makes Trump unusual. He just has no reticence about lying, and curiously, he seems to pay no political price for it.

  7. Submitted by Bob Petersen on 07/25/2017 - 10:32 am.

    More of the Same

    The continued straw grasping by Mr. Black continues. Now he is trying to link lies to economic activity as if lying is only tied to the current president. Let’s get real, the lying happens on both sides of the aisle and by everyone.
    Everyone knows that the gap between the rich and poor widened at a serious rate under Obama. More regulations make it harder for people to climb tax brackets and actually insulate the wealthy even more from everyone else. The evidence is why stocks rose but yet incomes were stagnant or decreased. Then, as pointed out by a comment as well, unemployment dropped because records of people dropped out of the workforce. Workforce participation rates were at 50 year highs as well as home ownership rates were at the lowest levels in over a generation.
    So nice way to cherry pick the stats. Keep railing on the lying president. It’s been expected out of politicians of all stripes for some time and will continue to do so.

  8. Submitted by Tim Smith on 07/25/2017 - 10:41 am.

    it’s what politicians do

    and it is never that simple. Presidents, Governors too, really can’t take the credit or should get the blame for the economy.Trump is not to get credit for the current economy, but can take some credit for the rise in the stock market.He is hardly the first politician to take credit for good news though.

    There are still fundamental flaws in the economy that must be fixed, the unemployment rate is really too simple of a stat. Growth and income stats have been abysmal for years.More facts and reason needed.

  9. Submitted by Misty Martin on 07/25/2017 - 12:37 pm.

    An important point to remember is this:

    When it comes to statistics on unemployment, the figures may show that unemployment has gone down when it fact, what is doesn’t show are the thousands of people who have given up trying to find a job and are either down to one spouse’s income; living with relatives, and therefore, not having their own household to support; trying to apply for public assistance to survive, etc., etc.

    To my knowledge, the unemployment statistics only show the facts as they relate to people drawing unemployment which only lasts about six (6) months unless extensions are granted, which lately, have not been in most states.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/25/2017 - 12:56 pm.

    Again…

    Responding to the lies of one person by pointing the lies another person is intellectually dishonest and morally vacuous. The dishonesty of one person cannot sanction the dishonesty of another. Even if one were accept the absurd proposition that Obama’s dishonesty was equivalent or greater than Trumps, that could not erase Trump’s duplicity. All such comparisons can amount to are intellectually bereft attempts to change the subject.

  11. Submitted by Eric Black on 07/25/2017 - 12:56 pm.

    I very much appreciate the spirit of this thread

    And I agree with most of what’s been said and consider the commenters to mostly be engaging in an intellectually honest effort to describe the larger picture. Of course the unemployment rate and the S&P index are not perfect statistics to measure prosperity. We need a whole bunch more to honestly capture what happened in the economy over the past 8.5 years (or longer) and many of the statistics cited by the commenters are helpful in that effort. I focused on those two measures because the Trump friend on the panel cited them (and only them) as evidence of how great everything is going under Trump and them, even on those statistics, took them completely out of the context that Trump inherited.

  12. Submitted by Kenneth Kjer on 07/25/2017 - 02:05 pm.

    The Hype

    The government hypes almost all statistics. Let’s talk about one I am most familiar with. The past 8 years I have worked in the unemployment field, mostly as an Appeals Hearing Representative. The government posts the current unemployment rate at 4.4%, but that is not a true figure, it much higher than that and here is the reason. The do not count people who unemployed who have run out of benefits. For example, a person gets laid off and is granted 16 weeks of unemployment, after the 16 weeks if the person has not found a job they are no longer counted in the statistics. Self employed people who lose there jobs, insurance agents, etc are not counted, employees who are not granted unemployment benefits are not counted and of course there are certain group that not allowed unemployment benefits at all. The formula for figuring unemployment is so skewed that it is theoretically possible to have 100% unemployment, but the governments formula showing 0% unemployment. In June 2017, the real unemployment rate (U-6) was 8.6 percent. That’s almost double the widely reported unemployment rate (U-3) of 4.4 percent. Here’s how to calculate both.

    Step 1. Calculate the official unemployment rate (U-3).

    U-3 = 6.977 million unemployed workers / 160.145 million in the labor force = 4.4 percent.

    Step 2. Add in marginally attached workers. There were 1.582 million people who were marginally attached to the labor force. Add this to both the number of unemployed and the labor force.

    U-5 = (6.977 million + 1.582 million) / (160.145 million + 1.582 million) = 8.559 million / 161.727 million = 5.3 percent.

    Step 3. Add in part-time workers. There were 5.326 million people who were working part-time but would prefer full-time work. Add them to the unemployed. (They’re already in the labor force.)

    U-6 = (8.559 million + 5.326 million) / (161.727 million) = 8.6 percent. (Source: “Table A-15,” Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

    Compare the Real Unemployment Rate
    To put things in perspective, here’s the official unemployment rate compared to the real rate. The table goes back to 1995, since that’s the first year the BLS collected data on U-6.

    However if you add in to the formula those who have run out of benefits or those who have quit looking for jobs and those who not eligible to apply for unemployment, the estimated rate jumps up to over 12 % However no matter whether the estimates are right, the real unemployment rate using the all of the governments formula U3/U6 the current unemployment is 8.8% That having been said I don’t think any President can take credit, allthough they all do for the unemployment rate, until they fix the formula they use.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/25/2017 - 06:49 pm.

      Trends

      The topic of this thread is about trends in employment.
      Does changing the base measure from one unemployment rate to another change these trends?
      Can you direct me to charts of U3/U6 trends?
      I found some at https://unemploymentdata.com/current-u6-unemployment-rate/
      and https://unemploymentdata.com/current-u6-unemployment-rate/
      The trends for U3 and U6 seem to be the same.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/26/2017 - 10:23 am.

      And…

      Progressives have been saying the officially reported unemployment rate should be the U6. U3 is used simply because it well always yield the smallest numbers. And when you to compare our U3 with unemployment rates in the EU or even Canada, it always giver the US an edge. The official rates in Canda and EU are closer to our U5 and I can’t figure out how they handle those collecting unemployment, so that could be huge. Many countries in the EU provide benefits for longer period of times and Belgium pays unemployment indefinitely. Many EU countries also reimburse as higher rates (80+% vs 50%).

      During the Great Recession Congress extended UB’s but most of those extensions have now expired.

      Another metric that should always be discussed whenever we talk about unemployment is the job vacancy rate. This tells us the ratio of actual jobs that are available vs. the number of people looking for jobs. The US BLS makes figuring this out kind of difficult but the MN BLS actually performs the calculations. The latest numbers show that Nationally the ratio is about 1:3, one job opening for every three people looking for a job (Using the U3 figure for job seekers). In MN we’ve almost reached parody at something like 1:1.2 in the last three years. So when “economists” claim that we’re nearly at full employment at 4.4%, that claim looks a little different when consider at the fact that there are only 5.7 million jobs available for the 20 million that are looking for work. Vacancy rates are important because we always have people claiming that anyone can get a job if they try hard enough, but if the jobs aren’t there you’re not going to get a job. At the height of a recession when unemployment are super high, low vacancy rates determine employment levels, not bootstraps and attitude.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/26/2017 - 12:43 pm.

    And today we have this

    “26 Hours, 29 Trumpian False or Misleading Claims”

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2017/07/26/26-hours-29-trumpian-false-or-misleading-claims/?hpid=hp_hp-more-top-stories_scouts-ceo-1235pm%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.644d12e02868

    • Submitted by cory johnson on 07/28/2017 - 09:27 am.

      I’m glad the post has decided to practice journalism again….

      They had 8 years of dutifully reporting innacurate unemployment numbers, that ACA would bring premiums down, and believing that people who liked their doctor could keep them. This isn’t to criticize the article referenced, just the selective nature of reporting.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/28/2017 - 05:05 pm.

        Yeah…

        Show us that time that Obama made 29 false claims within 26 hours. I see what? 3 claims made over the course of 8 years your referring to here? Are you really suggesting equivalency?

        The media report the same U3 unemployment numbers, regardless who the president is, Obama’s presidency was no different than Bush, or Trump. As for the problems and complaints about Obamacare, all of these issues have been standard fare in the mainstream news for years. The Post, the NYTs, even the Strib reported all of these issues, as they arose.

        • Submitted by cory johnson on 07/30/2017 - 09:54 am.

          yeah some more

          I not making an equivalence argument but was pointing out blatant hypocrisy and selective reporting. The Post gave Obama credit for any drop in U3 knowing full well he problems with said number. A new administration comes in and suddenly its failings are treated as news. The issues with the ACA were know by anyone who cared to examine the bill before it was rammed through. The “news” groups you cited were too busy cheerleading Obama to actually examine he bill. I applaud their return to actual reporting and anticipate a vacation again once the other party returns.

        • Submitted by cory johnson on 07/30/2017 - 10:02 am.

          Oh yes…

          And bengazhi was a spontaneous demonstration caused by a youtube video no one saw.

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