Monday, May 27, 2024

Morning in America: Not Good Enough

The other day Brad DeLong posted an excellent takedown of an editorial in Financial Times--and, by extension, of much of the reporting on the economy under Biden:
They tell us: “America’s economy is booming” but somehow only “on the surface”.

To paraphrase:
  1. Polls say Americans are not happy with Biden’s attempts to manage the economy. 
  2. This is because Americans’ are struggling against a badly-performing economy every day.
  3. And Americans’ everyday economic struggles and suffering are obscured by strong national data.
How could anyone ever say all of these three things together with a straight face?
And of course it isn't just FT. Think about all of those NYT headlines about positive economic developments that frame them as a negative for Biden.

The whole thing is worth reading, but this bit in particular leapt out at me:
This seems to be tactical messaging advice to Biden’s political and media teams: Biden should focus on how many Americans are finding themselves in economic and budgetary trouble, even though very nice aggregate, average, and median statistics have been very gratifying proof of the effectiveness of Bidenomics. Biden should, it says, soft-pedal his good policy and good luck in improving the American economy as a whole, and thus improving the real on-the-ground life circumstances of Americans.

Biden should focus, the Financial Times Editorial Board says, on how many people still need the government to make their slice of the economy better, because some have been hurt and a lot have been unsettled by the relative and absolute individual price and price-level changes...
And my first thought was: would anyone have given this advice to Reagan?

When it was Morning in America, inflation was at 4.3% (a point higher than the current rate) and unemployment at 7.2% (three points higher than today). Yes, both had come down from higher levels, but that's still a whole lot of "struggling households" (to use FT's term). Clearly a messaging campaign that focused only on the positives would have been tone deaf and completely ineffective...wait, I'm getting a correction here...oh. Never mind.

There are a number of factors in this asymmetry. The assumption that Republicans are better for the economy is embedded in a lot of news coverage (and in public perception, though which is cause and which is effect I couldn't say), even though real world results say otherwise. So is the Dems in Disarray/Good News for John McCain bias, which can find the cloudy lining in any Democratic silver.

But there's another factor that I think is just as important: Republicans get a pass because they don't give a shit. Republicans can't fail if they aren't really trying in the first place*. Democrats, on the other hand, must be judged against what they want to do, and if they ever achieve 99% of what they set out to do you know that glass will be 1% empty.

Them's the breaks, and it isn't changing anytime soon. But it's still important to be aware of it, and push back when we can. 

*The Republicans' greatest policy success--making it legal again to force women to give birth against their will--also happens to be spectacularly unpopular all over the country. 

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