The Republican Convention is over – but, of course, the arguments will continue. If you watched any of the speeches, especially the gloom ridden rant delivered by Donald Trump, you may be wondering about some of the horrifying statistics thrown around. Is America really in such peril, with such incredibly high unemployment and violence in the streets?
The short answer is no, not at all. We’re at a turning point, as we’ve shown many times. The long Depression which started about the year 2000 is coming to an end. We’re literally at the glass half full stage, for us optimists. It’s fairly easy to counter that it’s half empty if you’re a pessimist, and there’s no reason we can’t have great time arguing about those perspectives while draining down a few pint glasses of beer if you’re so inclined. But there’s also no reason to tolerate those who say the glass, or our great nation, is somehow completely empty.
You may run into some of these arguments in social media, a family gathering, or from the cranky guy at work who is really into talk radio. They are easy to refute if you have a few facts and figures under your belt. Here are some of the most common and pressing arguments that everything is bad and/or worse under Obama and how they can be refuted.
There is no doubt that we’ve been through a lot. It’s been the position of this blog that the two official “recessions” of 2001 and 2007-2009 are really one long event – a Depression. The main argument is that there was no complete recovery between them, as you’ll see in some of these charts. Workers have been having hard times for 16 years now, which explains the frustration and anger out there.
But this makes it even harder to blame Obama for the situation, if anything. We can see what he inherited as President with a chart of the total number of workers in the US – as well as what has happened since he took office:
We’re at a net gain of about 11 million jobs since the Obama administration began, which is about 8% of the total workforce. This is the main argument that while things aren’t perfect, we have built a solid base to build on. But there are those who will trash-talk the economy, and President Obama, with a bunch of horribly bad arguments. Let’s take the most common slams one at a time.
The Real Unemployment Rate is Higher: One variation of this is “No one knows the real unemployment rate”, and another is “The unemployment statistics are all fake”. The argument is that the “headline” unemployment rate of 4.9% doesn’t include “discouraged workers” who dropped out of the workforce and are no longer looking. If you add them in you’d get a much higher number.
This argument has the advantage of being partially true. The headline unemployment rate, known in the Bureau of Labor Statistices (BLS) as “U3”, was devised just after World War II. It included a lot of assumptions, one being that people not looking for work shouldn’t be counted. By the 1980s everyone realized this was a problem, so the BLS developed “U6” which includes everything – discouraged workers, people who only worked a little, even those part-time workers who want more hours.
It’s published every month by the BLS, but for some reason the media ignores it. Professionals, including Federal Reserve Chair Yellen rely on this number far more than the headline U3. Here it is since 2000:
Here you can really see the lack of complete recovery between official recessions. In 2010 it spiked up at 17.1% of the working population, roughly 1 in six, who didn’t have enough work. It’s down to 9.6% today, very close to where it was in 2006 (7.9%).
We do know what the “real” unemployment rate is, and it’s down dramatically.
95 Million Americans are Not Working: Variations on this include much bigger numbers and sometimes “A higher percentage of Americans are not working”. This is a complicated one that deserves a little more explanation.
It comes from the “Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate”, which is the percentage of all people over the age of 16 who have a job. If you graph this since its peak in 2000 it’s nothing but downward:
If only 62.7% of all Americans are working, the theory goes, isn’t the real unemployment rate 37.3%? Doesn’t that mean that all these people don’t have jobs?
The way to refute this comes from the same data set, which is taken from a telephone survey of people. They also ask why people aren’t working in that phone call. Many are retired, some are disabled, and some stay at home to raise the kids. The full breakdown of the 95 million Americans who did not work at the end of 2014 (the last time they released all the data for this) is shown in this chart:
There are some interesting reasons for not working. “Marginally Attached” includes everyone temporarily sick or otherwise burdened, as well as the roughly 500 thousand truly “discouraged workers” – yes, that’s all there are. “Other” includes people who don’t need to work because they won the lottery, inherited money, or took the year off to follow a band.
What’s interesting about this argument all around is that people who don’t believe the unemployment numbers often cite the Workforce Participation Rate as if it was gospel – and they come from the same survey. And there is another, more dark argument to be made to counter this if you want to go there, as shown by pulling this chart all the way back to World War II:
Before 1968 we never had more than 60% of all adults in the workforce. When the Baby Boom came of age women went to work in larger numbers than ever before and we had more people of working age than ever before. Seeing the Workforce Participation Rate go down, as it will continue to, only shows that we are more prosperous in some ways than before – as Baby Boomers retire.
It also means there will be fewer workers competing for the jobs that are out there as we go back to where we were in the 1960s. Worker shortages will mean higher worker pay, which is actually a good thing. Why Republicans are spinning this into a bad thing only shows that they are grasping at straws. Another good argument against this talk is to ask, “Don’t you want people to stay home to raise the kids?” or the darker, “So you think that people should be working until they drop dead, like some kind of Soviet prison camp?”
47 Million Americans are on Food Stamps: This is a very interesting figure all around, and it does happen to be true. A record number of Americans qualify for food stamps, and it’s down only a little from the 2014 peak at 47 Million.
What happened was this – in April 2009 Congress changed the eligibility rules for Food Stamps as part of the stimulus package. It’s never been changed back. Republicans actually like the number being this high because it gives them what seems like a powerful argument. Since it’s entirely true, it’s hard to refute.
How do you counter the truth? Remember, we’re Progressives and we always have truth on our side. But with nearly all the Americans working who want and record corporate profits all around why should we allow this? This is a powerful argument in favor of raising the minimum wage more than anything. It is entirely true that the federal government has to subsidize over 40 million working people because wages are too low.
Isn’t the basic social contract in America “A full day’s wage for a full day’s work?” This isn’t a measure of the economy’s weakness, it’s a measure of lousy pay for working people in a time of high profits. We don’t counter something that’s true – we point out who’s to blame for it.
America is More Violent than Ever: There are many variations on this, including “Crime is at an all-time high” and “America is more dangerous than ever. This one is simply and completely not true. Crime has been dropping since 1991, especially violent crime.
Why is this? Again, Baby Boomers are only getting older. But strangely Millenials have a very low crime rate – so it’s staying low. America hasn’t been this safe since 1970:
There is a perception that violent crime is up, fueled by a rise in mass shootings and a general taste for mayhem as a leader in TV news. This makes the utterly false argument that violent crime is up even more interesting, given widespread support for gun control.
Again, the best weapon we have is truth and it’s always best to show that violent crime is actually down. But if that doesn’t work with the person you are arguing with, why not say, “That is exactly why we need universal registration – to have the tools law enforcement needs to take the guns out of the hands of criminals.” It might be a better way to put this ridiculous and false argument to bed forever.
There may be more arguments that I’ve missed, so if you know of one please go after me in the comments. I’d be glad to help you refute whatever it is you need. Again, we’re not saying everything is rosy, just that we have a good base to build on. What deep, systemic problems we do have aren’t the kinds of things solved by a dictator who takes charge of everything, but are instead the kind of big changes that it will take everyone working together to solve.
As Bill Clinton said, “There’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed by what is right with America.” Progressives are the optimists who look forward to a brighter future. Yes, it’ll be work, but we’re about halfway there. Let’s get busy on the hard stuff and stop whining about how bad it is.
Trash-talking the economy is for politicians who rely on fear to keep people in line. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, as FDR told us. Let’s stop the whining, get real, and work together for a better nation.