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

Making Fun of Barack Obama

My wife has been enjoying the recent skits about the Trump administration on Saturday Night Live. I can see why. Even Melissa McCarthy has managed to be funny in her impressions of Sean Spicer. Until now I would have sworn that reports of McCarthy having a sense of humor were some sort of urban legend. SNL has a long history of generating memorable Presidential impressions: Chevy Chase (sort of Gerald Ford), Dana Carvey (Bush the Elder) and Will Ferrell (Bush the Lesser) come to mind.

But poking fun at Presidents has a long and storied history, and is probably a good thing. I enjoy comedy a lot, and I can safely say that every President in my lifetime has been the butt of a lot of jokes. Well, every President but one. It seems to me that almost nobody made fun of Barack Obama.

I thought it was interesting, so I did some searching. I found this NY Post article which has a bit of commentary from SNL’s Jim Downey:

Yes, data nerds, there is empirical evidence that Barack Obama gets a free ride from comics.

In a new book, “Politics Is a Joke!” three academics tabulated 100,000 jokes told by late-night comics over the last 20 years. They found that in 2008 only 6% of the jokes were about Obama (Palin attracted nearly as many jokes in four months as a public figure as he did all year). And those jokes had a tendency to be about as barbed as cotton candy. Example cited by Tevi Troy in The Wall Street Journal: Jon Stewart said Obama visited Bethlehem so he could see “the manger where he was born.”

In every presidential campaign since 1992, the researchers found, comedians aimed more jokes at Republicans than they did at Democrats. Overall, twice as many barbs flew at the GOP.

“Our job is, whoever is in power, we’re opposed,” “SNL” chief Lorne Michaels told The New York Times in 2008. Agreed. And so they’ve been doing their job badly. Says who? Says . . . Downey.

Now that he has retired from the show and gained a little perspective, Downey comments in “Live from New York,” “I have to say, and even [Al] Franken agrees with me — I’ve talked to him about this — that the last couple seasons of the show were the only two in the show’s history where we were totally like every other comedy show: basically, an arm of the Hollywood Democratic establishment. . . . We just stopped doing anything which could even be misinterpreted as a criticism of Obama.”

But I don’t know if this is being deferential to the Democrats, or to Obama. After all, comedians had a lot of fun at the expense of Clinton, and Jimmy Carter before him.

Another possibility was raised by no less an expert than than Dana Carvey, namely that making fun of Obama is seen as not PC and possibly racist. I suspect there is something there. For instance, NPR carried an article with this title:

Portraying Obama As Chimp Not Like Showing Bush As One

Personally, I think that regardless of the reason making fun of Obama was off limits, the fact that people mostly didn’t do it wasn’t healthy. Humor, particularly at the expense of the ruling class, is a safety valve for dissatisfaction. The victories that Obama provided the American people were sparse and weak. They were not great or grand, and they provided no justification for treating a leader like a holy man. And unearned privilege does nothing more than generate resentment. I think it created an “emperor has no clothes” mentality in a substantial segment of the electorate, many of whom had previously voted for Mr. Obama. I think that in turn helped elect a successor whose campaign essentially came down to repudiating Obama and everything for which he stood.

Your thoughts?

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$1 trillion to be spent on direct hiring…that’s the ticket!

With all this stalemate posturing in Washington, today Chris Hayes has come up with the best idea I have heard yet to move the players. And, in my opinion actually solve our economic depression.

One trillion dollars to be spent on direct hiring by the government along with debt forgiveness.  A solution right out of the New Deal program. Unfortunately for Chris, Obama does not have the language within his vocabulary to recognize such an approach and thus in Obama’s own words: “…put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.”
In fact, not only does he not have the language within his vocabulary to recognize a solution from history, he thinks the 60’s and 70’s were full of excesses (while noting Kennedy moved the nation in a new direction…right into the excesses of the 60’s?)*

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy 
Do you think anyone who remembers what it meant to be a leader in the Democratic Party was watching?  
*“I do think that, for example, the 1980 election was different. I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.”
“He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the 60s and the 70s, and government had grown and grown, but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people just tapped into — he tapped into what people were already feeling, which was, we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”  
Don’t get me going on the people wanting “clarity” (security state that even the congress can’t get info on) and “optimism” (the audacity!).

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You Can Fool Most of the People Most of the Time

At least on certain issues.

I’m not inherently a great pessimist, but with few exceptions each passing month for over a decade now has seen my optimism whither, at least a little.  So I can’t help but see the manure-colored lining in this otherwise rosy, fluffy cloud.

Steve Benen reports that according to the new NBC/WSJ poll, Americans trust Democrats more than Republicans on domestic issues, sometimes by large margins.  Here is a graph.  (As always, click to embiggen.)

Graph 1   Who Do You Trust?

But the causes of my pessimism are four-fold.  First, as Benen goes on to note, the same polling reveals that in the popular mind “Republicans have an advantage on the (sic) reducing the deficit, ‘controlling’ government spending, and national defense.”  Well, there’s three reasons for pessimism right there.  A) Reducing the deficit is an issue of exactly zero urgency, and attacking it now will certainly cause economic hardship, especially for those at the bottom. Further, Republicans have been huge debt increasers for decades, while Dems have not.  B) We absolutely do not have a spending problem.  We absolutely do have a revenue problem, as graph 2 plainly indicates.  I think the Republicans have become convinced of their own lies.

Graph 2   Federal Gov Current Recpts by GDP

C) From FDR through LBJ to BHO, Dems have been every bit as war-mongerish as their Rep counterparts; BHO has continued his predecessors war initiatives almost seamlessly;  and 9/11 happened on W’s watch.  This just makes me want to cry.

But I have a bigger list.  Second, a look a graph 1 reveals some disturbing details.  A)  Joe BeerCan must not connect “Looking out for the middle class,” Medicare,” “Health Care,” “Medicare,’ or “Social Security” with “Economy” or the results for those categories would line up better.  B) Considering Paul Ryan and the never-ending series of Republican contrived cliffs, scoring Dems only marginally better than Repubs on the economy is, all by itself, cause for despair.  C) As is the close call on taxes.

Third, and I’ve already alluded to this, there is almost no daylight between the two parties on foreign policy issues.  Still I have to give a slight nod to the Dems, based on practicality, because: John Bolton.

And last, though I firmly believe to the bottom of my heart that the Dems are superior on absolutely every issue, problem and question that might rise, they still aren’t that damned good.  Case in point: the new head of the Michigan Democratic party is a venture capitalist.  As Bill Maher sagely put it, while the Democrats have moved to the right, the Republicans have moved to the insane asylum.  They demonstrate this anew, almost every single day

The lessons of history and even a casual observation of the current failures of European austerity show that progressive policies are the clear and present necessity.  But even if we had strong Dem majorities, we still have Reaganite B. Hoover Obama in the White House, and a genuine progressive movement in congress the exact size and shape of Bernie Sanders. 

As one of my college professors put it long ago:  Booze is the only answer.

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Yes, The Right Wing Lies When They Say Obama is a Profligate Spender

Part III – How to think about time series data.

For reference:
Part II  Federal Spending as a Fraction of GDP

Part I  Federal Spending Growth

Some commentors to the previous posts have rightly concluded that I consider spending under Obama in the context of historical trends.  In fact, if you don’t consider historical trends, you are ignoring the most important element of context that is available.  I only mentioned trends briefly in Part II, but the directional changes in the graphs of Parts I and II implicitly suggest them.

Time series data that relate to the size of the population, the government, or the economy generally follow a quasi-exponential growth pattern.  I say quasi- because a perfect exponential growth pattern  results from a continuous constant rate of growth, while real world growth rates vary from year.  Graph 3 of Part II shows how these variations have occurred over several decades.  Usually this does not result in a large or permanent deformation in the shape of a quasi-exponential curve, since the growth rate typically oscillates irregularly around a mean value that only changes slowly over time.

Graph 2 in Part II shows that the spending and GDP growth curves stay close to exponential tracks over long time spans.  It also illustrates that the recent recession was one of those rare times when growth rates deviated substantially.

Human eye-brain coordination doesn’t deal well with exponential curve shapes.  Straight lines are much easier to comprehend and extrapolate.  Graphing quasi-exponential data on a log scale reduces the curve to a quasi-straight line that is much easier to use and understand.

Graph 1 shows Federal Spending and GDP, since 1995, plotted on a log scale.  Constant growth results in a straight line segment, and a higher growth rate causes a steeper slope.  Zero growth shows up as a horizontal line.   I’ve again included a line for 5 times spending, to get a close overlay with the GDP line.

 Graph 1.  Spending and GDP since 1995 (log scale)

There is an upward bend in the spending line in 2000.  This is most easily seen in the blue line.  During the 90’s, we can see that GDP grew faster than spending.  In 2001-2, GDP growth flat-lined, as expected during a recession. Then, from 20002 to 2008, the growth rates for GDP and spending were close to identical.  Both lines twist during the most recent recession.  Curiously, spending growth was flat for a large portion of 2008.

Since the recession, the spending lines are very close to flat, and GDP growth has been anemic.  Here is a close up.

Graph 2.  Spending and GDP since 2007 (log scale)

Graph 3 provides context, all the way back to 1947.  Ponder the inflection points and slope changes at your leisure.

Graph 2.  Spending and GDP since 1947 (log scale)

Note that there are only two flat-ish spots in the spending lines: now, and during the Eisenhower administration. The current administration has, at least temporarily, broken the decades-long trend in continuous spending increases. 

To emphasize the obvious, spending growth is now very close to zero.  In context, this is remarkable.  Saying Obama is a profligate spender is a lie. 

In this post, I am not suggesting that the rate of spending growth under any president is good, bad, appropriate or inappropriate.  I am only pointing out what was and is. 

So, this is how you think about time series data.
0) Forget your preconceived notions.    (Frex:I had no idea that spending growth has essentially stopped until I looked at the data.)
1) Identify trends. The history of time series data provides meaningful context.
2) Identify break points and trend changes.  These are key data points.
3) Note the directions of these changes.
4) Think hard about what these observations are actually telling you, not what you want them to say.
5) Double down on 4) if you are looking at a ratio.  Ponder that denominator.
6) Don’t cherry pick.  It’s dishonest.

There are a lot of ways to look at a data set: linear and log scales, rate of change, etc.  Chose the one that gives the clearest picture of the data you want to analyze, or simplifies the analysis, or makes it easier to understand.  Studying different views can be informative, as can a comparison of different data sets. 

Here is the working page at FRED for the graphs in this post.  I encourage the interested reader to spend some time working with the capabilities of this very powerful tool.

Editorial Comment:
In case it’s not obvious, I’ll tell you that I write these posts because they interest me and I think they generate some knowledge, or at least information, that is worth sharing.  I have virtually no interest in the fool’s errand of convincing anybody that I am right – either the data analysis convinces you or it doesn’t.  So unless you have better data, or can point out some specific flaw in my reasoning [and then tell me specifically and in detail how to get it right] don’t bother arguing with me.

I appreciate rational discourse, and am always willing to engage thoughtful readers. I’m also willing to be proven wrong by a cogent argument.  That said, though, I don’t really care if anyone comments.  At this point, I’d almost rather nobody did.  But if you chose to, please do me the courtesy of having your comment be somewhere in the general vicinity of on-topic.  And – fair warning: naked assertions and unsubstantiated ideologically approved talking points will be scoffed at, so please check that nonsense at the door.

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Why Spending/GDP is a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Metric For Judging Obama’s Performance

A post like this really shouldn’t be necessary, but part of the right wing canard that Obama has been a profligate spender is based on spending as a percentage of GDP.

It looks like this – Graph 1.

Graph 1.  Fed Expenditures/GDP

Sure enough, by the end of Clinton’s term the ratio had fallen from Reagan’s high of 24% to a modern low of 19%.  But note that the 19% value wasn’t typical.  It was the end point of a decade-long decline.  And, yep, there’s Obama with an all-time-high approaching 26%.

What otherwise intelligent, and sometimes even famous people seem to ignore though, is that every ratio has not only a numerator but also that ol’ devil denominator.   Let’s have a look at both of them.  Graph 2 shows GDP and Expenditures since 1980, expressed in $ Billions.  I’ve also added a line representing 5* Expenditures, since 20% of GDP is a reasonable rough estimate for the post WW II era.

Graph 2.  Expenditures and GDP Compared

Actually, the 5x Expenditures line runs pretty consistently above the GDP line, telling us two things that we should have already known from looking at Graph 1.  First, Expenditures greater than 20% of GDP have been the norm since before 1980, and 2) Clinton’s final number is not representative of anything other than a single year.  Using it as a comparator is cherry-picking and fundamentally dishonest.

The 5x line also emphasizes that the majority of the spending increase under Obama unavoidably occurred during the officially designated recession.  The GDP line shows that, post recession, GDP growth has not recovered to the pre-recession trend line.  In fact, growth has established a new trend line with a lower slope.  This is unprecedented in the scope of FRED historical data.  My guess is that insufficient Federal spending has been a big drag on this recovery.  But it’s also true that GDP growth has been in secular decline since the Reagan administration.  Note that skewing the denominator down will automatically skew the ratio up.  This is what Bill Clinton calls “arithmetic.”

Slicing across this a different way, Graph 3 gives us year-over-year percentage growth in Expenditures and GDP, dating back to the Eisenhower administration.

Graph 3.  YoY % Change in Expenditures and GDP

A few simple observations:
– The spending increase during the recent recession was modest by any standard, and dwarfed by earlier surges.
– That increase, coupled with the most severe GDP decline since the other Great Depression gave our beloved ratio a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad double whammy.
– GDP growth during this recovery is only marginally better than it was during the 2001-2 low, and far below Clinton era levels.
– Clinton was the most consistently frugal president of the post WW II era – until now.
– Since the recession was declared over, B. Hoover Obama has been miserly.

One can legitimately argue that Obama’s approach to the economy has been excessively conservative.  Krugman has made this point repeatedly.  I often say that Clinton governed to the right of Eisenhower – who was a genuine deficit hawk – and that Obama is to the right of Clinton. That is intended to be slightly hyperbolic, but using this data as the benchmark, it’s dead on.

Any questions?

Cross posted at Retirement Blues

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A Quick Look at Federal Spending

Over at Plain Blog, an anonymous wing nut made this off-topic comment.

Now, yes, Bill Clinton and his 2000 federal spending level of 18% of GDP doesn’t put him on the fringe, which makes it surprising that you lefties are celebrating him, even as you hysterically condemn anybody who resists the Left’s current massive spending levels, which are nearly 50% greater than Clinton’s and are spending the nation into debt obvlivion.

This once again raises the regressive canard that Obama has been a profligate and fiscally irresponsible spender.

Let’s have a look.

Here is a graph of current expenditures that took place in the years of the current century.

First observation is that anon’s math isn’t very good.  Current expenditures are roughly 100% greater than when Clinton left office, not a mere 50%.

Second observation is that the vast majority of that increase – from about $1900 billion to about $3200 billion – took place under the previous administration.

Third observation is that the bulk of the Obama increase occurred during the recession – as it should – from a bit under $3200 billion to a bit under $3600 billion.  Since then it’s crept up to about $3800 billion, and has recently flat-lined.

A more subtle point is that spending, like many time series data sets, increases exponentially over time, following population growth.  So, saying that a value at time B is some percentage greater than the value at time A communicates essentially zero information.  Context matters.

Let’s look at expenditures in terms of year over year increase.

Yep, there was a big increase in 2009 and 2010, as social safety net programs kicked in.

Since then, expenditure growth fell precipitously and now has actually gone negative.  The last time that happened was in the Eisenhower administration.  Clearly, Obama has not been profligate.  Would it be an exaggeration to say he’s been miserly?

Bill Clinton did a great job of exposing Republican lies in his speech at the Democratic convention last night.  But really, it’s easy.  All you have to do to refute a regressive is have a quick look at facts and data.

Cross-posted at Retirement Blues.

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Ryan, Jimmy Carter, and Obama…payroll employment by Presidential Administrations

Payroll Employment by Presidential Administrations

Ryan is saying that Obama’s record is like Jimmy Carter’s record.

When it comes to employment we should hope so.

During Carter’s four years in office payroll employment expanded some 10 million,
or 12.5%.  or at an average annual rate of 3.1%   This is the second best employment record of
any post WW II Presidential administration.  It is almost a full percentage point stronger than
Reagan’s average gain of 2.2%.

I would think the better comparison would be against Bush where over eight years payroll employment only expanded some 308,000.  Interestingly, in three and a half years under Obama payroll employment has expanded more that it did over eight years under Bush.

You would think that someone in the press would call the Republicans on their claims.

In modern times every Democratic presidential administration left office with a lower unemployment rate than when they took office.  But only one Republican Administration has managed this accomplishment.

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Private Real GDP in Recoveries

Update: Paul Krugman at Conscience of a Liberal points to Spencer England’s post in his column 8/1…Dan

I thought it would be interesting to post this chart of real private GDP in recoveries.

It clearly shows that since the great moderation we have experienced three recoveries that compared to previous recoveries were very weak.  Whether this is the new norm is open to debate.

But interestingly, at this point in the recovery this measure of real private GDP is exactly the same as it was in the last cycle under Bush that Larry Kudlow called the “Goldilocks” recovery.

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Crony Capitalism And Its Variety Of Flavors

I can’t help but think that Romney’s newly invigorated crony-capital (e.g., Solyndra) schtick is very much a double-edged sword for him.  I mean, isn’t he the candidate who, notwithstanding his claimed concern about the federal deficit, refuses to support the proposed elimination of the federal government’s subsidies to the oil and gas industry, and who (as per a speech he gave last winter in, I think, Utah) wants the federal government to sell most of the national forest and park land to the logging industry because, well, the public doesn’t need those forests and parks?

Or am I mistaken in thinking that the Koch brothers have vast oil, gas and logging interests—and that the brothers contribute heavily to Romney, his super PACs and other Republican fundraising groups?

Or that Romney’s proposal to tie the level of his proposed increases in Defense spending to the level of annual GDP output, rather than, y’know, this country’s national defense needs—might have something to do with crony capitalism?

Not even to mention a stunningly perverse pinstriped-patronage version of Keynsian economics.  Okay, I’ll mention it:

Romney’s plan calls for linking the Pentagon’s base budget to Gross Domestic Product, and allowing the military to spend at least $4 dollars out of every $100 the American economy produces.”

Been wondering when this interesting little policy proposal, and its obvious purpose, would start to get some national media attention.  There’s no time like the present.  Not that our blog is a national media outlet.  But we can pretend.

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Ernst and Young, Make-Up Artist*

A key but seriously underemphasized factor in the near-collapse of the financial system and economy in 2008 was the role that the two largest securities-ratings firms, Moody’s and Standard and Poors, played: The two agencies routinely and deliberately overrated the value of mortgage-backed securities. 

So I was momentarily (and naively) stunned to read this morning the specifics of the highly-publicized Ernst and Young report released yesterday claiming that Obama’s main tax proposal could cause the loss of 710,00 jobs. A Yahoo! News article summarizes:

On the official White House blog, senior Obama economic policy aide Jason Furman ripped the new study. Among his complaints:

–       The report, funded by pro-business groups generally hostile to Obama’s agenda, assumes that none of the revenue generated by raising taxes on the richest Americans goes to deficit reduction. Instead, it assumes the money would go to expanding government spending. But the president has called for the money to go to reducing the federal deficit and national debt.

–       The report omits Obama’s push for new tax cuts to spur private-sector hiring and investment. By ignoring the predicted impact on jobs growth, Furman argued, the study distorts the impact of the president’s agenda.

The article goes on to say that “Furman, whose title is Principal Deputy Director of the National Economic Council, also charged that the study’s conclusions are ‘dramatically out-of-line with estimates by other analysts’ like the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the non-partisan standard for judging the economic impact of federal legislation.”  Furman also noted that the proposal would restore tax rates to their Clinton-era level, a time of significant jobs creation.

Good grace.  Ernst and Young is not an ideological think tank.  Not openly, anyway.  It is instead one of the very largest and most prestigious accounting firms in the world, and, like Moody’s and Standard and Poors, is relied upon by securities investors and merger-and-acquisition folks for honest evaluation of corporate value and the like in SEC filings and private deal-making. 

It also is generally considered a proverbial gold-standard firm in preparing tax documents for corporations and (wealthy) individuals.

Which brings me to the subject of the IRS.  Needless to say, the IRS’s investigatory powers cannot be used for political purposes.  For the most basic and obvious reasons, that would be illegal; it would undermine democracy itself.  (See, e.g., Richard Nixon; Watergate.)  But if this firm is simply altering or removing relevant facts from its computations in order to meet a client’s pre-calculation demand—which apparently is what happened in this instance—its very credibility is so undermined that the firm’s identification on IRS, or for that matter securities, documents, as having played a role in the preparation of the document, should begin to raise red flags for the relevant government agencies.  And for anyone reading a securities prospectus or considering the purchase of, or investment in, a particular business.

There’s simply a limit to the extent to which relevant facts can be manipulated or discounted and still have the financial representations not amount to fraud.  In the case of this Ernst and Young report, it’s fraud, but not illegal fraud.  But that’s only because the report itself was not part of a securities or IRS filing or some other financial transaction.  

*Oookay.  Blogger is not letting me use the ampersand, saying it’s a character that’s not allowed. Thus, my use of “and” rather than the forbidden character in the corporate names.

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