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Assessing how America’s doing, by the numbers

President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Donald Trump
During the Obama years, we started hearing the term “Obama Derangement Syndrome.”

It referred to those who were so opposed to (dare might one say prejudiced against) President Barack Obama that it unhinged them a bit, to the point where they wanted to see only things that were going wrong in America under Obama’s presidency, and ignore (or explain away) anything that was going well.

As regular readers of this space have sensed, I am not an admirer of the current incumbent in the Oval Office. My dislike may have, at times, qualified as a similar derangement syndrome in which I am drawn to notice bad developments and other evidence of President Donald  Trump’s incompetence, venality, self-obsession, etc,. to a degree that might render me unable to notice anything that might be going well during the Trump years.

I have long been aware, and have occasionally cautioned against, the twin demons of “selective perception” and “confirmation bias,” which underlie such an inability.

(This matter, I would say, also reflects the silliness of assuming that everything good or bad that happens in America is somehow a reflection of the goodness or badness of the then-president. In the case of Trump, this is half-true: He wants credit for everything good that happens, but repudiates blame for any badness. But that’s just the kind of editorializing I’m trying to tamp down for the purposes of this post (except in parenthetical asides like this one).

Anyway, there are ways to guard against the derangement syndrome in either direction. One could decide on a set of measures that might reflect things getting better or worse, and try to pay attention to them whether they confirm or rebut one’s bias.

I’ve long been an admirer of, one of the pioneers of the fact-checking specialty in journalism. It operates within the Annenberg Public Policy Center. In addition to the day-by-day work of the outlet (which often call attention to the day-by-day lies and exaggerations coming out of every administration, and this one in particular), FactChecks’ periodic check-ins scrupulously follow a particular set of measures of how things are going in America. Then they update those numbers quarterly by standard measures — obvious, basic, well-established measures like the unemployment rate, the consumer price index, the size of the federal debt, the increase or decrease in the number of Americans covered by health insurance, the stock market averages, carbon dioxide emissions and so forth.

You could, if you wanted, quibble with some of the choices of what to include, but there’s clearly no bias in it. And the beauty of committing to a set of measures (although the set of measures has grown over time), is that it cuts off the natural tendencies of less-disciplined observers to cherry-pick data that fit their prejudices. Their discipline also precludes the natural attempt to try to figure out the reason that the various measures rose or fell. Each update leaves the credit or blame for others to argue.

And there is, of course, plenty of room to argue. Below the numbers, they include some discussion that polices, to some degree, Trump’s efforts to exaggerate how great everything is since he took over and to claim credit for it. But mostly, it’s just the facts, or more specifically, just the numbers.

My purpose in describing Factcheck’s admirable habits is to pass along their latest quarterly update of what they call “Trump’s Numbers” (just as they previously called it “Obama’s Numbers”). Whatever your biases, the numbers won’t fit them all.

Be a fact nerd.  Take a look.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/12/2019 - 11:29 am.

    Some good economic news among the numbers, little of which has anything meaningful to do with Trump policies. Also some less-than-good news for people who tend toward fiscal conservatism, as the national debt is skyrocketing. I couldn’t help but notice, as well, the disparity between the rise in wages (2.6%), which tends to be spread out among the population rather widely, if not always equitably, and the rise in corporate profits (12%), which tends to accrue to those already in the top 10% of the population. It still looks like government of, by and for the wealthy to me.

    Alas, among the toxic remnants of the Trump era that will constitute the legacy of easily the most dishonest president of the past hundred years or so will be the dozens / hundreds of Trump administration-nominated federal judges at every level of the federal judiciary. This will be great news for the right, unless those judges turn out to have independent streaks – as judges sometimes do – that don’t hew closely to current right wing ideology.

  2. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/12/2019 - 09:33 pm.

    It speaks to a certain economic illiteracy to measure and report on the performance of the stock market under Don Trump while not taking a step back not see what the trend line was before he assumed office.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/13/2019 - 10:52 am.

      The stock market is a measure of the demand for equity in corporations.
      It’s at best an indirect marker for the performance of the economy as a whole.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/14/2019 - 09:09 pm.

        OK, I’ll be more specific.

        The stock market was on an upward trajectory from March 2009. When looking at a graph of stock market performance from that time through today, it shows that Don Trump inherited bull market and did nothing to improve that performance.

        That is one of the metrics chosen by, not me. And to not put the numbers in context is irresponsible or economically illiterate.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/13/2019 - 10:14 am.

    From a stock market standpoint, share buybacks have been the underpinning of the markets. $2.95 trillion dollars worth in the past 5 years ($800 billion last year).

    ….“Repurchases have consistently been the largest source of U.S. equity demand,” the Goldman strategists wrote in their note. “Without company buybacks, demand for shares would fall dramatically.”…

    Can’t be any clearer than that–the rise in the stock market is funded off of the back of future tax-payers. Concentration of wealth continues apace.

    With respect to coal and oil–borrowing from future generations to fund the party today, again. Shale oil is a short-term commodity– at our current rate, only 6-7 years of proven reserves remains, but our current policy is to burn through it in the fastest, most destructive way (wells spaced too close, gas that can’t be captured burned-off at site with none of that energy used in exchange for massive carbon releases. Don’t listen to me, listen to Republican oil guy…

    Just two items of current economic positives that will affect the future of the United States in a bigly negative way.

    Knowing the price of everything, but ignoring the value of anything.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/13/2019 - 11:03 am.

      And, I forgot the most obvious tell-tale of the so-called “booming” economy–it can’t stand an interest rate above 2.5%. Recently, everything started to fall apart when there was a thought of moving toward historically normal rates.

  4. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 04/13/2019 - 11:17 am.

    I don’t allow Presidents to assess their own numbers. Most of their analysis is baloney. Their success or failure is partly due to those who preceded them. I’ll let the historians be the judge of the long term pros or cons hidden in the numbers. Trump is the least believable president in history. He would be best served to quit campaigning and get to work.

  5. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 04/14/2019 - 09:40 am.

    Interestingly, I see no indicators concerning the health of democratic institutions and the rule of law; the rise of authoritarianism; dehumanization as an executive branch political practice; or the encouragement of violence toward enemies of the state.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/15/2019 - 09:11 am.

      Freedom House still rates the U.S. as “free.” Our score on political rights dropped , “due to growing evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, violations of basic ethical standards by the new administration, and a reduction in government transparency.” We receive a lower score than most of the countries in Europe, except for countries such as Hungary and Poland.

      Interestingly, our two former protectorates in the Pacific – Palau and the Marshall Islands – rank higher than the U.S. Those who won’t do, taught.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/14/2019 - 09:43 am.

    These “numbers” are always dodgy from a correlation vs. causation perspective. A lot depends on which numbers you choose to look at obviously.

    On thing that confuses me about these numbers that the authors point to a 4.3% increase in CPI and claim that a 2.6% increase in weekly earning is outpacing the CPI?

    Of course longstanding issues with measures like the GDP and the CPI is that they select certain metrics that may well screw their over-all validity. For instance a CPI that omits housing prices, college debt, and health care costs, can push your analysis into junk territory. You have to look at the actual impact of a 2.6% increase on median and sub-median incomes. What’s the REAL impact of a 2.6% increase on a median income household that’s two paychecks away from losing their housing?

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