'Worst Recovery Ever' and Other Lies

Time and time again I've heard from disgruntled Democrats that the economy is doing horribly. Others might begrudgingly admit that the economy is improving, but that somehow we are worse off now than we were under Bill Clinton. Despite multiple indicators showing a robust economy and a strong jobs market, Democrats continue to peddle the line that this is the worst economic recovery in memory.

According to John Kerry's official website:

America is still in the worst job recovery since the Great Depression, with 1.9 million private-sector jobs lost in the Bush presidency
Is this charge true? And if it is, should we worry about it? Let's discuss this statement, weed fact from fiction, and try to place the present economic recovery in historical perspective. In the process, we might learn a thing or two about how statistics work and why they can be misused. Indeed, this statement shows why the old axiom about "lies, damn lies, and statistics" has had such widespread appeal for so many for so long.

The statement first makes a claim: "Worst job recovery since the Great Depression¯". That's a pretty big claim. First, notice that the statement admits that we are in an economic recovery, a fact pretty hard to deny. Notice the caveat, though, that somehow economic recoveries of bygone days were much better.

The second part of the statement tells us how they came to that conclusion: $1.9 million private-sector jobs lost in the Bush presidency¯. So, if I am getting their methodology right, they simply took the number of unemployed people at the beginning of Bush's Presidency and subtracted the number of people unemployed at the end of the Bush Presidency. From The US Bureau of Labor Statistics we get the following:

Feb 2001: 6523000
Jun 2003: 8616000
= 2.1 million

Wow, that number is even better for Kerry as it is slightly higher than the number his campaign keeps throwing out there! And, indeed, it is true. There are 2 million more people today who are unemployed than when George W. Bush became President. But what do these numbers mean and do they prove that this is the worst job recovery since the Great Depression?

Ok, it doesn't look good so far, but if their methodology is as I am assuming it is, we must get the following table:

So, using the simplest methodology imaginable, simply seeing whether or not the total number of civilians (hence accounting for the modifier used by Kerry of "private sector" who are considered unemployed rises or falls from the first month of a President's term to that last month of his term, we see that the claim can't possibly be true. Nixon II/Ford has the current President licked by 700k and W's father by nearly 400k!

By this standard the statement that we are in "the worst job recovery since the Great Depression"¯ is clearly false.

But let's not jump the gun yet. Perhaps they had some other methodology they used to justify how an increase in the unemployment rate of 2 million is the "worst job recovery since the Great Depression."¯ Let's look at the seasonally adjusted civilian unemployment rate, instead. Perhaps what is meant is that this recovery is not as robust as others because somehow the unemployment rate has not fallen as fast as in times past.

Another methodology might be to take the highest rate of unemployment during a Presidency, and then compare that to the rate of unemployment when that President left office or when his term expired. The following table represents just that:

From this we see that this is not the "worst job recovery since the Great Depression”even if we lay aside the odd 1.9 million unemployed number that is used to justify this statement. Presidents Carter and Bush I both had recoveries which were not as robust as the one we are currently in. Further, the above figures make the whopping assumption that the unemployment rate for June 2003 will continue for the next six months!

If we were to drop that assumption, and compare recession recoveries at this same point in a Presidents term, we would get the following table:

Using this method we would have to add Nixon's first term to the list of recoveries worse than the current President Bush's. Clearly, when the Democrats are talking about this being the worst recovery since the Great Depression they can't be using any numbers even related to the unemployment rate!

Ok, so what! It's still pretty bad, isn't it? Why can't it be like the good old days when an economic recovery meant everyone has a job?

A few other observations are in order that might put the present jobless recovery in perspective.

In November and December of 1982 the unemployment rate hung at 10.8%. Those were some pretty bad times, and the country pinned the blame on Ronald Reagan. Of course, we all know how that turned out, don't we? Ronald Reagan is celebrated for having overseeing one of the greatest expansions in the US economy ever. But what was the unemployment rate when he left office? In January of 1989, the month he left, the unemployment rate was 5.4%.

Wait a minute. Hold on. At the height of the greatest economic expansion ever the unemployment rate was only .2% higher than in today's jobless recovery? How can that be?

Other examples also illustrate the point. Let's not forget about the Bush I Recession and the Bill Clinton Miracle Economy. Remember the last time a Democratic nominee talked about the worst economy since the Great Depression In June of 2002 the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent. In January of 2001, the month Bill Clinton left office, the unemployment rate was an astounding 4.2%!!

Wow, those are some good numbers and certainly the unemployment figures seem to indicate that the economy, under Bill Clinton, was much better than under Reagan.

But let's take a baseline for comparison. If Clinton and Reagan are to get credit for helping to create jobs, then we have to look at the relative gains made under each man's policies.

So, the Reagan Recovery was, in fact, greater than the Clinton Recovery in alleviating the unemployment rate. We can see the reason why Reagan's unemployment rate dropped 1.8% more than did Clinton's because the recession that he was fighting was so much worse!!

Had the unemployment rate under Reagan fell by the same margin as it did under Clinton, the unemployment rate would have been 7.2% in 1989--far higher than Bush II's unemployment rate would ever reach!

Clinton's economy produced some marvelous job growth, but then again, the economy Clinton inherited was not as bad as he made it out to be. I am not a Clinton hater, but I can't, in all honesty, give him the credit that some wish to laude upon him. It would be like calling Phil Jackson the greatest basketball coach in history forgetting the fact that he inherited teams with Neil or Jordan and ignoring the many other coaches that inherit losing teams, only to turn them around and take them to the playoffs. Baselines matter.

Now let's add both the Bush Recession and the Bush Recovery into the equation:

Wow, not very stellar, then again Bush would need another 4.5 years in office to make the comparisons fair!

In fact, we see that (assuming no change, and that is assuming a lot) President Bush's unemployment rate is only 0.3% higher than the unemployment rate at the end of Clinton's his first term!

It is also better than Reagan's unemployment rate after his first term. Remember, Reagan took the Presidential oath for the second time with an unemployment rate of 7.3% looming over his head--the unemployment rate is lower than that today and never got that high even in the depths of the last recession. If we want to use the Democrats fuzzy logic, we could say that Bush's recovery is even better than Reagan's! And technically, we would be telling the truth.

See why baselines are important?

Ok, you say, but Kerry's people aren't comparing unemployment rates, they are comparing the absolute number of unemployed people and that is something entirely different.

Well, we've already been through that argument and disproved it. However, the statement is much more misleading than it appears at first glance. You see, as difficult as it is to make relative comparisons between recoveries based on the unemployment rateā€”it is even harder to make the comparison based on absolute numbers of unemployed.


First, think of the absolute number of people who live in the US now compared to 1939ā€”the year the Great Depression finally ended. According to the US Cennsus Bureau, in 1940 there were 132 million people in the USā€”but by 2000 there were 280 million! How can it possibly, under any imaginable reasonable standard of truth, be fair to compare the absolute number of jobs gained today to those gained at the end of the Great Depression when there are over twice as many people living in the US today than there were in 1940?!?! Itā€™s mind boggling.

When one wishes to compare the number of jobs created, or lost, or whatever, keep in mind that there are more TOTAL people today. In 1940, if 1.3 million people lost their jobs, that would mean that 1% of the (total) population had become unemployed. However, if 1.3 million people lose their jobs today that would mean only .45% of the (total) population had become unemployed.

So, when Kerry's people compare this recovery to that of, say, the Reagan recovery, it is important to note that there are now 30 million more people living in America than there were in 1990 and over 60 million more than in 1980!!

Under no reasonable standard of statistical measurement can the statement that America is still in the worst job recovery since the Great Depression¯ be upheld. None!

The unemployment rate goes up, and it goes down. At present, it is going up. But even in the worst months of the past recession, unemployment never really rose very much.

Are the Democrats lying? Well, maybe not. I suppose that someone came up with the statement erroneously and now it has become conventional wisdom to the Inside the Beltway crowd. These things tend to take on a life of their own and get passed on as truth by people in good faith. So, maybe they aren't lying, but neither are they telling the truth.

Remember, it's not a lie if you believe it yourself.

Posted by: Rusty at 03:26 AM


1 Excellent, excellent post.

I don't know enough about the mechanics of the count to delve into this more deeply, but really good stuff.

Posted by: Bravo Romeo Delta at July 30, 2004 04:39 AM

2 Very very good. Huzzah!

Posted by: The Maximum Leader at July 30, 2004 06:54 AM

3 This is excellent. I was first attracted to your blog by your intellect. The sense of humor came later as an added bonus. I like the brainiac posts from everybody, but this one really rips Kerry to shreds, so its even more fun. My favorite posts in general are the ones I learn from.

Posted by: Jane at July 30, 2004 09:06 AM

4 Wow, some post; I followed over here from "naked villiany.com" at the request of Maximum Leader. Quite a bit of analysis to uncover a lie, or possibly just a "non-truth" (as you generously allow) on the part of the Democrats.

Republicans, of course, can take pride in the fact that such detailed analysis isn't necessary to reveal the non-truth of "WMD's," "al-Queda links," and best of all, "imminent threat." Keep reminding yourselves that "it's not a lie if you believe it yourself." I think that's a direct quote from Cheney.


Posted by: The Minister of Propaganda at July 30, 2004 12:24 PM

5 Jane, BRD, ML--thanks

Minister of Propaganda: That is a direct quote from George Costanza. Of course, in the context that he used it he meant the he (George) could convince himself that was he was saying was true...ie, he was lying to himself so he wouldn't have to lie to others.

In the context of a)WMD-not a lie. It would be kind of dumb to say it was a lie because, at the time, everyone believed it to be true except a few wingnuts who also believed that Castro was a good guy and the Taliban could be dealt with at the diplomatic level. On the contrary, the word we use for people who didn't believe there were WMD in Iraq is "fool." --Even fools get it right sometimes.

b)There was an al-Qaeda link. This is not opinion, it is fact.

c)imminent threat is a matter of opinion and is therefore not subject to empirical verification.

Posted by: Rusty Shackleford at July 30, 2004 03:23 PM

6 Very, very nice, Rusty.

Also, re, your final note to MoP: Glad I'm not the only one who gets annoyed by Kerry's constant use of qualifiers whenever he talks tough about goin' to war.

Posted by: ccwbass at July 30, 2004 06:49 PM

7 I'm impressed. First time reader. I'm adding this blog to my faves.

Posted by: csmkorea at July 31, 2004 03:32 PM

8 Wow, thanks...I'm flattered.

Posted by: RS at August 01, 2004 12:24 AM

9 Excellent post. Insightful, factual, and statistically enlightening. Thanks for this information. I will be linking to it tomorrow morning (after I get some much needed sleep). I've started doing a "Deconstructing Kerry" series, where I'll examine his platform on different issues.

You saved me from researching and analyzing the economy as the Johns see it, so now I can focus on another issue. Will you be doing any more of these?

Posted by: Michele at August 04, 2004 06:16 AM

10 Michele,

Thanks for the encouragement. I did another post just a couple of days ago, this time using graphs for simplicities sakes. Here is the link: http://mypetjawa.mu.nu/archives/039600.php

(Everyone) Feel free to use the graphs. They are saved as .jpg pics and I don't mind you grabbing them from my server.

Posted by: Rusty Shackleford at August 04, 2004 02:10 PM

11 Rusty:

I just can't read the tables. They appear as black on brown to me, and they might as well be black on black or white on white. My poor eyes just aren't good enough. Can you make the background color light for those of us over 40?

Posted by: Scott at August 08, 2004 04:32 AM

[quote]So, the 'Reagan Recovery' was, in fact, greater than the 'Clinton Recovery' in alleviating the unemployment rate. We can see the reason why Reagan's unemployment rate dropped 1.8% more than did Clinton's because the recession that he was fighting was so much worse!![/quote]

What utter nonsense, Reagan inherited a rate of 7.5% and increased it to 10.8% before lowering it to 5.4% at the end of his term. In real terms he lowered unemployment by 2.1% in 8 years - let's forget about the years that it was over 8%.

As for Clinton, he inherited a rate of 7.3% - in 12 years the Republicans had lowered unemployment by 0.2% (after first raising it by 3.3% during Ronnie's first term in charge of the button).

Clinton reduced unemployment by 3.1% over 2 terms without ever raising it above his inherited level - Reagan saw unemployment soar by 3.3% before bringing it back down to 2.1% below his inaugurational rate - unemployment NEVER rose under Clinton but instead dropped by 3.1% in 8 years (or nearly 16 times more in 8 years than the reduction achieved by the Republicans in 12 years)

Your so called 'proof' is laughable and easily refuted without looking beyond your own figures!

Posted by: Gary at August 28, 2004 01:08 AM

13 quote:
On the contrary, the word we use for people who didn't believe there were WMD in Iraq is "fool." --Even fools get it right sometimes.

Question - Do you have a word for the people that disagreed with those 'fools'?

b)There was an al-Qaeda link. This is not opinion, it is fact.

No it isn't! How can you still quote such untruths when Bush himself has had to back down on this issue?

FACT IS - there were NO links btwn Al-Qaeda and Iraq at the time of the invasion. In fact Saddam's secular regime was almost as abhorrent to radical Islam as it was to the West - the recent involvement of Al-Qaeda in Iraq is a direct result of the current occupation and just goes to prove that the remit of making the World a safer place by killing 15,000+ Iraqis has failed spectacularly.

Posted by: Gary at August 28, 2004 01:40 AM

14 Great information! I'm also going to save this on my favs. Keep on...

Posted by: Jayne at September 09, 2004 07:28 PM

15 Wait a minute, this is a website praising Bush Jr.'s unemployment ratings, and yet virtually all the charts shown show the Republican ratings as at least somewhat (and, in the first graph, grossly) worse than the Democrat ratings. Your only point is that Bush's unemployment statistics are marginally better than the Democrats claim. Do you really consider that an achievement. "Our ratings may suck, but they don't suck as badly as you say they do!" This is a load of shit.

Posted by: Lord Zandalor at February 14, 2005 09:34 PM

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