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Assessing how America’s doing, by the numbers

FactChecks’s periodic check-ins scrupulously follow a particular set of 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.

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.

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(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 FactCheck.org, 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.