Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Employment and Deficits: A Tale of Two Administrations

Stan Collender notes that, for the first time in four years, the U.S. Treasury reported a surplus in the month of April.  It isn’t just that there was a surplus in April of 2008, though.  If you look back through Aprils (data here), the last time that month showed a deficit is 1983—the April less than six months after the last official “double-dip” of recessions.
Stan offers three reasons that the White House doesn’t want to point out this good news.  I consider the first two somewhat silly—the GOP never hesitates to take about the deficit, except to deny its responsibility, and no politically-alert Democrat will see the April surplus as representative of “the wrong fiscal policy” so much as an indication that employment last year was better than it has been.
It’s his third reason that is most interesting:

While that’s likely to be $200 billion or more less than what was recorded for 2011, the deficit will still be close to $1 trillion and that would be hard to defend.

I’m assuming the phrase “close to $1 trillion” means that Stan assumes the actual FY2012 deficit will be lower than $1T.  The original projection was just under $1.3T. Getting that down to $1T would be 23% better than the original projection, not to mention the psychological gain of being back down below thirteen digits again. Even $1.1T would be just about a 15% improvement over the original projections.  If a 15%+ improvement in the deficit over your projections isn’t worth saluting, then what is?
Stan concludes:

This is a little-understood part of the federal budget debate. Even if the 2012 deficit was half of what it was in 2011, and even if that reduction were applauded by Wall Street and the economic community, it would still be a painfully difficult political issue. In fact, long after the deficit has fallen to the point where most economists are comfortable with it, the political advantage will still be with those who criticize it.

Far be it for me to argue, but…just for the sake of argument, I decided to compare President Obama’s record with that of the last sitting President running for re-election on The Two Issues that Abide, The Deficit and Jobs.

First, Deficit:

dFYFSD Obama v Bush

We don’t, of course, have the data for the deficit at the end of this year yet. (We have data for subsequent years of debt for the Previous Administration, of course, but nothing that would have been public knowledge by the voting in November of 2004.)

The story here is a clear one: the previous incumbent increased the deficit significantly; the current one has reduced it from the baseline he inherited. (If the current year ends up with around a $1T deficit, Year 3 will be around +$400,000.)

So the current Administration has been taking the deficit in the “right direction.”  But, of course, that’s only good if you are in a growing economy (for the Democratic knowledgeable; see Stan’s second point) or because the Previous Administration was “priming the pump” for the Great Growth that would follow. (After all, what the 2001 tax regression didn’t solve, certainly the 2003 Hubbard-Mankiw version would.)

So let’s check how well that Growth Thing worked.  I’ve already pointed out that the post-recession public-sector employment between the current and the previous Administrations was about 600,000 jobs almost nine months ago.  So let’s be as nice as possible and compare Total Employment Gains since their respective Recessions, knowing that we’re spotting the Previous Administration when looking at total Non-Farm Payroll:


The Obama Administration got employment back to the end-of-recession level after sixteen (16) months; it took the previous Administration twenty-eight (28) months. Counting from the end of the recession, the Previous Administration produced just under 1.4MM jobs in the thirty-four (34) months to the next election (Dec 2001-Oct 2004).

The Obama Administration has produced more than twice that (2.825MM) in thirty-three (33) months.
In summary, if we compare the current Administration to the previous one, it has (1) produced twice as many new jobs, (2) produced budgets that reduced the annual Federal deficit instead of making it greater, and (3) reduced our troop presence in wars started by the Previous Administration while finding and eliminating Public Enemy #1.

And the only thing it wants to talk about is the third.

As I said chez Collender, If this Administration is afraid to run on its gains because there is less “political advantage” in highlighting the improvements your Administration has produced than in getting bashed for something for which you will perpetually get bashed, then the country is truly lost.

PSA: FRB St. Louis Webcast Tonight, and Some from History

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, without whose FRED database and Excel Add-in Economics Bloggers (and Matt Yglesias) would be Even More Boring, has been running a series of Discussions explaining why the Fed is incompetent—er, Why They Don’t Follow Their Dual Mandate—er, well, something about how They’re Doing The Best They Can.*

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis will offer a live webcast of the finale of its fall evening discussion series for the general public, “Dialogue with the Fed: Beyond Today’s Financial Headlines,” on Monday, Nov. 21, 2011.

The dialogue will be streamed live from the St. Louis Fed’s Gateway Conference Center beginning at 7 p.m. CT/8 p.m. ET. It can be viewed at No registration is necessary.

Christopher Waller, the St. Louis Fed’s senior vice president and director of research, will discuss “Understanding the Unemployment Picture.” After his presentation, Waller, along with St. Louis Fed economists David Andolfatto and Natalia Kolesnikova, will take questions from the on-site audience at the Bank.

If you cannot catch the live webcast, it will be archived and available on the St. Louis Fed web site within a few days of the event, along with videos of the first two dialogues.

View Lessons Learned from the Financial Crisis with Julie Stackhouse, senior vice president, Banking Supervision & Regulation
Held Sept. 12, 2011

View Bringing the Federal Deficit Under Control with William Emmons, assistant vice president and economist
Held Oct. 18, 2011

Attend, enjoy, ask them about the Beige Book. David Andolfatto tries to be One of the Good Guys (well, for a Simon Fraser guy**, at least). Give him some love, attention, and Questions He Will Love to Answer.

*Whether you find this idea even more disappointing than the others is left as an exercise, unless you’re looking for work, in which case:

**Think A Canadian Koch Brothers, but where the work is done in the Selection Bias.

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Largest Absolute Drop in Private Employment Since the US Started Keeping Records

A commenter at Steve Benen’s Washington Monthly blog was grousing (correctly, as spencer notes in comments) that Benen had allocated all of the 2009 change (read:drop) in private-sector jobs to Obama, while GWB was in office for the first 19.5 daysduring the time the employment data for January was gathered.

Turns out that there were 841,000 private-sector jobs lost in January of 2009—the most in any month in the 2000s—so it might have made a difference.*

I assumed that, since the population continually increases, that was probably the largest monthly job loss since the data was first recorded in January of 1939.

I was wrong. By a wide margin. The Top 30 single-month drops in U.S. Private Sector employment history since February of 1939:

The highlighted months are since the beginning of NBER’s declaration of the Great Recession. But it appears that V-J Day also signalled an end to employment for more than 1.75 million people.

*Note, by the way, that November and December of 2008 are also in the Top Ten, so calling the January, 2009, layoffs part of the normal post-Xmas letdown appears dubious.

When I Steal A Blog Post, I Leave A Link

I wanted to look at the WSJ job database, suspecting what I might find, but currently lack the bandwidth in a major way.

Fortunately, Noah took some (more) time from his thesis (“distraction from productive activity”) and did the dirty work. Apparently, being a STEM undergraduate isn’t the path to Nirvana:*

I went through the Wall Street Journal database that Phil cites, and found the following unemployment rates:

  • Genetics: 7.4% unemployed
  • Biochemical Sciences: 7.1% unemployed
  • Neuroscience: 7.2% unemployed
  • Materials Engineering and Materials Science: 7.5% unemployed
  • Computer Engineering: 7.0% unemployed
  • Biomedical Engineering: 5.9% unemployed
  • General Engineering: 5.9% unemployed
  • Engineering Mechanics Physics and Science: 6.5% unemployed
  • Chemistry: 5.1% unemployed
  • Electrical Engineering: 5.0% unemployed
  • Molecular Biology: 5.3% unemployed
  • Mechanical Engineering and Related Technologies: 6.6% unemployed

    Compare these with a 5.0% unemployment rate for all bachelor’s degree holders in 2010.

  • And why do those Astronomy and Astrophysics people** have jobs?

    Earth to [Phil Plait of] Bad Astronomy: your short-list of fully-employed science majors is totally cherry-picked….And all those astronomers who have plenty of jobs? Guess what: they’re employed because they work for the government. Yep, that’s right, the same government whose ability to provide employment Phil laughs at.

    *Raise your hand if you’re surprised by this. Mine is not up.

    **Full disclosure: I speak as someone whose wife’s cousin, with a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics, currently has a Fellowship in the Astronomy department at DeLongville.

    Obama’s First Fifteen Months, Composite Edition

    Brad DeLong has two posts, one from Ezra “I’m a liberal who is safe for the Washington Post” Klein and one from Mike “I actually looked at the data” Konczal.

    Brad deals with Ezra’s folly:

    I think a B+ is too high a grade–largely because one big task of 2009 was to set up the situation so that you could still make policy in 2010 and 2011 if it turned out that you needed to.

    And that’s without mentioning that the Administration violated the first law of Presidencies; the one George Effing W. Bush knew well: give your base something early, so they know you didn’t just come to them for their votes. Bush gave his “faith-based initiatives.” Obama—who campaigned on card check, principal reduction, and his father being Jor-El—only went for big-ticket items.

    Mike goes in detail over the ground I discussed here: the idiocy that is the 2010 State of the Union Address, delivered 27 January 2010. With contemporaneous detail. Go Read the Whole Thing.

    It’s not just bad economics, it’s bad politics. Which brings me back to Matt’s lazy first graphic, which means I’m going to beat the dead horse again. Below the fold.

    I called it “lazy” because it is; it’s raw data, and you don’t just look at raw data in isolation, at least if you’re sane. You don’t do it if you’re an economist, and you don’t do it if you’re a politician.

    As an economist, you don’t just look at unemployment; you look at unemployment in relation to other things—causes, effects. GDP gaps, demographics, transitions from one sector to another, you name it. It’s nice to see data, and flows, but they have to mean something.

    Political analysts—if they’re any good—don’t look at data in isolation either, especially when they have Austan Goolsbee, Alan Kreuger, Christina Romer, and even Lawrence H. Summers working with them. Any one of those four—let alone all of them, often in the same room, if not always the same discussion—could tell David Axelrod that the U.S. needs to create between 110,000 and 150,000 jobs a month just to tread water on unemployment. Maybe they ballpark it at 125,000. So instead of Matt’s original graphic, David Axelrod would have seen something like this one:

    And if he’s still talking about how his boss will have nothing to worry about in two years, well, I’m certain that Goolsbee, Krueger, Romer, or Summers—all of whom were still at the White House during that time—would have set him straight.

    And there would have been another policy, a change of course. Or a really bad Unforced Error.

    The Argument Against the "First Derivative Mistake" Excuse

    Unless you’re really stupid, or bending over backwards to find excuses for the Obama Administration’s Geithnerian malfeasance, you should be less than impressed with Matt Yglesias’s attempt to argue that the Administration saw reason to be happy with overall employment (link to Brad DeLong).

    If you’re Matt Yglesias, you should be even less impressed with your (own) argument.

    Because Matt Yglesias was paying attention in 2010. He was paying much more attention to Barack Obama’s speeches than I was, so he would have heard the 27 January 2010 State of the Union, when Barack Obama said:

    [O]ur efforts to prevent a second depression have added another $1 trillion to our national debt. That, too, is a fact.

    I’m absolutely convinced that was the right thing to do. But families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same. (Applause.) So tonight, I’m proposing specific steps to pay for the trillion dollars that it took to rescue the economy last year.

    Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. (Applause.) Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will. (Applause.) [emphases mine; laugh track in original]

    And Matt Yglesias, who was paying attention then and has a memory now, would have known that “freezing government spending in 2011” means starting 1 October 2010 (when FY 2011 starts), which means that departments have to start planning and cutting…well, basically when the words leave Obama’s mouth.

    And Matt Yglesias would have known that transfer payments such as Unemployment Insurance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Home Energy Assistance Program, and other programs that (at the least) enable “discretionary” spending on things such as food, clothing, and medicine are not on the list of programs that will be exempted from funding cuts. So—even ignoring any moral considerations about letting people freeze to death or starve—there’s a cut in consumption (and therefore GDP) coming. Which will impact employment.

    And Matt Yglesias would have known that freezing Federal spending—which is what Obama really means, since he doesn’t control the States’s spending directly—means that the States that are at best just starting to recover, and that have to balance their budget somehow, and only did it for the then-current fiscal year with the help of a lot of stimulus that won’t be coming from a frozen government budget. So there will be cuts in civil servants, and more cuts in consumption.

    And Matt Yglesias would have known that freezing the Federal budget in the midst of a slow recovery (because even Matt’s first graphic doesn’t come close to the stable-unemployment rate of 110-150,000 new jobs a month at the time of the SotU, and only approaches it later because it includes temporary census hiring) means that there will have to be layoffs at the Federal level as well, even if there is no one (contrary to economic theory) who leaves for the private sector.

    And Matt Yglesias—who isn’t as dumb as his post makes him seem—would know that an Administration that says something that stupid in 2010 isn’t looking at his second (more clearly understandable) graphic, or even his first (census-enhanced) graphic, but rather so mythological construct where all those government workers and increasingly-impoverished unemployed people magically Create Jobs.

    And Matt Yglesias—not to mention Brad DeLong—would not be at all surprised when the result of those early 2010 policies came home to roost:

    Indeed, the reaction might well be that the recovery went even better than should have been expected, and to wonder why.

    And Matt Yglesias would, instead of making excuses for them, wonder aloud why any capable economist (or even one of the Administration’s policy guru) would have been stupid enough to take the first chart he presented seriously as a roadmap, since the Administration changed the territory—for the worst, from an employment perspective—from the previous model. He would be asking if Austan Goolsbee—who is smarter than both Matt and myself, and possibly the two of us combined—was just sleeping through the entire Administration.

    But Matt Yglesias didn’t do any of those things. Why, oh why, can’t we have a better press corps?(tm, Brad DeLong)

    Bad Expansions Are In the Eye of The Beholder

    Via Barry Rithholtz, I see that Martin Feldstein has not yet finished with his Atonement.

    I think I’ve posted a variation of this before, but apparently I’ll have to keep screaming, at least throught Simchat Torah (and, I suspect, beyond).

    Anyone have Feldstein appearances or editorials from early 2004 talking about how badly the economy was expanding? I just can’t seem to remember them…

    Uh, Brad, This is How You Do It

    If your question—correctly—is “why Axelrod and Plouffe were satisfied,” then you have to think like people whose vote support came, in some significant numbers, from people who were just entering the workforce in 2008 (and who did not show up in 2010 because, having entered, they found they were unwelcome).

    Which means, if you’re any good at your political job at all, you’re looking at that graph this way:

    To see if your “maybe going to be lifetime supporters” are getting into the workforce or about to have a very short lifetime.

    (Note that I have been very generous—that is, in the Administration’s favor—with the assumption of a 120K/month “assimilation rate.” YMMV, but is unlikely to put that bar lower.)

    You know I disagree with BarryO’s idiotic acceptance of (1)-(7), most especially (2)and (4). I’ve been using the phrase “cursive-Z recession” since at least December of 2009; the only person outside of the Administration who expected a “V-shaped” employment recovery was Bryan Caplan, and he was only willing to bet $100 on it, with a much longer time frame. The Administration has produced a result where the only way Obama makes it to the November 2012 election as the odds-on favorite—even against the current array of Luddites and doofuses—is if he has Timmeh gutted and flayed very publicly, and then walks through Zuccotti Park with his head on a pike,* and even then I’m not certain that’s the way to bet. (In fact, I’ve bet Lance Mannion the other way.)

    If you’re talking political calculations, we’ve been hearing for three years how great Alexrod and Plouffe are at their jobs, mainly because they could beat an old man and The Quitter who wanted to continue the policies of the previous eight years, only moreso. (Oh, and that they weren’t Mark Penn, which seems to be the motivating factor for Scott “play the manager, not the player or the ball” Lemieux.) And for three years, they have gotten their arses handed to them, in large part because they are stupider than the Cheney team, and thought that kicking their base would be “motivational” for someone other than Mitch McConnell.

    Maybe they can’t read the above graphic; maybe they’re thinking of it the same way you drew it. But I’ll give you odds the voters aren’t. They’re thinking more about the graphic in the upper-right corner of your website. You know, this one:

    And they’ve been hearing “prosperity is just around the corner” from that crack political team for so long that, as Michael J. Fox’s character once mouthed Aaron Sorkin’s words said, “in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone….They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”

    Welcome to the Sands of Romney-Rubio-Perry-Christie, Brad. Because the people you talk with read the graph you drew, not the one I’m showing. And may your G-d have mercy on their souls for it.

    *Yes, I mean this literally, and, no, I am not advocating it. As I said on Twitter, describing Tim Geithner as a “career regulator” is like describing Willie Sutton as a “career bank manager.”

    Private-Sector Employment in Jobless Recoveries

    I still think Obama is toast—a result of his own making, since he’s really the apotheosis of a government-hating Republican who never tries to do anything because he’s afraid it would succeed.  He’s basically Jon Huntsman, economic policy and all, with a slightly better social policy—or at least a willingness not to try to compete globally in the 21st century using employment policies that were outdated in the 19th. (Short version: you might be able, in general, to exclude 55% of your potential workforce—women and gay men—if you have the population of an India or a China. You can’t do it when you have 1/3 or less of their population; you need a market that is open to everyone, which means you need social policies to match.)

    But there are way in which he is a Bad Republican (traditional definition—think Gerald Ford’s Presidency), and those, as much as anything else,are what has destroyed his re-election chances.  Not to mention U.S. employment data.

    I’d like to think I’m wrong, but let’s look at the data, comparing the last three recessions: the ones with so-called “jobless recoveries.”  In the grand tradition of Mitt Romney, let’s look at job growth over the following 24 months.*  First, the Private Sector:


    The first thing we notice is that The George W. Bush-Mankiw-Hubbard “Recovery” Really Massively Sucked for U.S. Private Sector Employment.** Two-thirds of those post-recession months were negative, and the negatives were more than 1/3 again worse than the gains.  Even the 24 months that follow the 1980 recession—half of which were the first 3/4 of the 1982 recession—show a net positive gain in Private Sector Employment.

    But the second thing is that the Obama Administration really isn’t doing that poorly in Private Sector Employment. It’s rather similar to the George H. W. Bush Administration.***  The loss months are slightly more severe than the gain months (about 5%), but there are 2 gain-months for every loss-month.  It’s still a “jobless recovery”—as was the post-1991 era—in that producing slightly over 1,000,000 jobs in a 24 month period is falling behind the growth in available workers, but it’s not a disaster, if the criterion is the recovery of private-sector hiring.

    Sadly for BarryO—again, I consider this what the tennis-playing Brad DeLong calls an “unforced error,” a direct result of the errors of his priors—there is also employment in the non-private sector.  Which both Bushes knew that, the “small government Democrat” appears not to:


    On a proportionate basis, George H. W. Bush oversaw as large a post-recession expansion of Government workers as Barack H. Obama has overseen a reduction in those workers.  This is even before one considers that at least three of those six positive months—a figured dwarfed by W’s 15 months of public-sector worker increase, let alone his father’s 19 months—are due to temporary hiring of U.S. Census workers. March, April, and May of 2010 show net gains because of Federal hiring that is more than completely reversed by September.  Great “Recovery Summer,” that was!

    But if we really want to be fair to Barack Obama, we would have to break this down further.  After all,while the data is national, the breakdowns are not always so:


    Federal government employment—now including the ever-expanding Department of Homeland Security, and with a military that continues to fight (at least) three wars—has been essentially flat during the “recovery”period.  The damage has been done extensively at the State and, especially, Local levels.

    Part of this is simply that the 2007-2009 recession was longer and deeper than the other two (18 months long v. 8 for each of the previous two; more than 7.5 million private-sector jobs compared to just over 1 million in 1991 and just under 2 million in 2001).  That’s a lot more time and a lot less money flowing into taxes and budget-balancing requirements.

    But if I were Barack H. Obama, and if I really wanted to be re-elected, the speech I would be giving tonight wouldn’t be about extending tax credits or capital amortization credits—with or without the idiocy of budgetary offsets—but direct state aid. Billions of dollars of it.  Without offsets. The speech would run something like this:

    The latest few years have been difficult for you.  Almost every state in the Union has to balance their budgets, and with record levels of unemployment and job losses, that’s not easy to do.  So they made decisions that affected you, your children, and your friends. They laid off police officers, firefighters, teachers, librarians, surveyors, road repair personnel, and trash collectors. They’ve cut back hours at the DMV, Social Security, and Employment Offices.  They’ve made it more difficult to get an appointment to get health insurance for your children, support to buy healthy food for you and your children.  Your classrooms are more crowded, your property taxes are higher, and you’re getting less for your money while you have to put in more effort.

    The Federal Government doesn’t have to balance its budget, and the bond market has given us a rare opportunity to borrow money for less than it will cost us.  I plan to take full advantage of that now, so that your children will have food, your streets will be safer, your opportunities for education will be greater, and the services for which you pay will be more available.

    The private sector is rebuilding and restaffing, but that will—as it has in the past, as it almost always does—take time.  But they cannot rebuild if there is no demand, and you cannot demand things if you cannot pay for them. So, along with $1T in infrastructure improvements to be made over the next 15 years, I will tomorrow send a bill to Congress to triple the total of the two previous grants-in-aid to the States that were made as part of the ARRA.

    Now you have heard many people—and to my shame, I am one of them—who live in fear of deficits. They pretend that the government “has to be like a family”—a family that never takes out a mortgage, never borrows to buy a car, never needs a loan to pay for schooling or training, and never uses a credit card.  I’ve seen families like that. They live on the streets of Honolulu and New York City and Chicago and Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia, and Cincinnati, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan, and Paint Creek, Texas.  They’re impoverished.

    The United States is not impoverished, and I will not allow it to become so. We will rebuild opportunity now and build our superhighways—information and otherwise—for life in the 21st and 22nd Centuries.  The bankers—grateful for the bailouts that have been heaped upon them by my predecessor and myself—are willing to loan us money for less than the cost of inflation. We would be foolish not to borrow.  Even as those of you who can are refinancing your houses, the U.S. government will—as families do and should—borrow now to make a better life for our children and their children.

    We have a unique opportunity. We have massive unemployment because the states do not have the money to employ and hire workers—workers who help keep our streets and homes safe, who keep our roads in good condition, who educate our children, who find us opportunities for work and ways to keep us healthy so that we can do that work.  And the bankers are telling us, “We will give you that money for free!”  And some people are telling you that we should not take that money.

    We have given the bankers enough.  Now, they are willing to Pay It Forward, to give some small portion of that money back to us for less than it will cost them to do it. I intend to take that money and use it to make a better present—and the chance for a better future—for the American family.

    Yeah, I want a pony, too.

    *All data following derived from FRED(R).
    **Let us leave aside whether this was a feature or a bug of that Administration
    ***It is left as an exercise that GHWB was a one-term president.

    2012 = 2006?

    It’s not just that you make a mistake; it’s that you cling desperately to that mistake and let it define you.

    Katrina revealed George W. Bush’s basic incompetence in a way that 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq had not. So he was weak going into the 2006 midterms. There were going to be losses. No one who wasn’t being paid to say otherwise thought there were not going to be some losses.

    And you have to assume that some people thought those losses would be smaller: they got rid of “Brownie,” made a lot of noise about “Katrina and Rita,” put Hayley Barbour on television as often as they could, talking about how Mississippi was rebuilt.

    Damage control.

    The problem was that one failure got people to look at other failures. And the sacrifices didn’t come from there.

    After the 2006 election, Donald Rumsfeld resigned. There were rumors it might happen before then, but it didn’t.

    A few weeks ago, going into the Wisconsin recall elections, there were rumors that Tim Geithner would resign.

    That’s not going to be true now. So Barack Obama is going to go into a re-election campaign running what John Hempton astutely described as “the cravenly pro-finance Obama administration.”

    Not pro-economy: that would involve employment and GDP growth, neither of which has been happening for so long that Sensible Centrist Brad DeLong is sounding more and more and more like me.

    The center isn’t holding. Every pictures tells the same story.