Media falls for the jobs "saved" or "created" myth
Tony Fratto is envious.
Mr. Fratto was a colleague of mine in the Bush administration, and as a senior member of the White House communications shop, he knows just how difficult it can be to deal with a press corps skeptical about presidential economic claims. It now appears, however, that Mr. Fratto's problem was that he simply lacked the magic words -- jobs "saved or created."
"Saved or created" has become the signature phrase for Barack Obama as he describes what his stimulus is doing for American jobs. His latest invocation came yesterday, when the president declared that the stimulus had already saved or created at least 150,000 American jobs -- and announced he was ramping up some of the stimulus spending so he could "save or create" an additional 600,000 jobs this summer. These numbers come in the context of an earlier Obama promise that his recovery plan will "save or create three to four million jobs over the next two years."
Mr. Fratto sees a double standard at play. "We would never have used a formula like 'save or create,'" he tells me. "To begin with, the number is pure fiction -- the administration has no way to measure how many jobs are actually being 'saved.' And if we had tried to use something this flimsy, the press would never have let us get away with it."
Of course, the inability to measure Mr. Obama's jobs formula is part of its attraction. Never mind that no one -- not the Labor Department, not the Treasury, not the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- actually measures "jobs saved." As the New York Times delicately reports, Mr. Obama's jobs claims are "based on macroeconomic estimates, not an actual counting of jobs." Nice work if you can get away with it.
And get away with it he has. However dubious it may be as an economic measure, as a political formula "save or create" allows the president to invoke numbers that convey an illusion of precision. Harvard economist and former Bush economic adviser Greg Mankiw calls it a "non-measurable metric." And on his blog, he acknowledges the political attraction.
"The expression 'create or save,' which has been used regularly by the President and his economic team, is an act of political genius," writes Mr. Mankiw. "You can measure how many jobs are created between two points in time. But there is no way to measure how many jobs are saved. Even if things get much, much worse, the President can say that there would have been 4 million fewer jobs without the stimulus."
Mr. Obama's comments yesterday are a perfect illustration of just such a claim. In the months since Congress approved the stimulus, our economy has lost nearly 1.6 million jobs and unemployment has hit 9.4%. Invoke the magic words, however, and -- presto! -- you have the president claiming he has "saved or created" 150,000 jobs. It all makes for a much nicer spin, and helps you forget this is the same team that only a few months ago promised us that passing the stimulus would prevent unemployment from rising over 8%.
This goes beyond simple communication tactics. This is virtually Orwellian-speak for the uneducated, or the "tingling" class that see that this president can do no wrong, and those that will go out of their way to protect him at all costs. Messrs. Fratto and Mankiw have a right to be slightly irked at this rhetoric. President Obama has set himself up as the president who cannot fail, no matter how dire the economic news appears to be. Without a static line to verify the claims, President Obama can, and will, fall back on the tired meme that "without the stimulus" A or B would have happened. There is no way that such claims can be tracked, and it is disingenuous to the American public to let the media get away with playing the protection game for him.
The economy is showing mild -- very mild -- signs that we are coming to the end of the recession. But with the president saying that the jobs "saved" or "created" numbers is showing improvement, therefore we have to "accelerate" the timetable of more stimulus spending, we are in for rockier times in the coming months. Oil prices are creeping back up. The housing market is showing weak signs of initial recovery. But we are still saddled with a debt that no one wants to buy, and a AAA credit rating that is in jeopardy around the globe. And as the economy continues to shed jobs at a rate much faster than those "saved" or "created" by the president's ill-advised stimulus plan, there appears to be no real light at the end of the tunnel for the American public.
While Arizona is by no means in the dire straits other states are right now, in terms of unemployment, and sagging economic numbers, it is not one of the best, either. It is definitely not in the same boat as states like Michigan or California are, but it is increasingly difficult for unemployed citizens to find a job; even a paltry fast-food job, at this time. No one in Arizona seems to be hiring. And we also have a governor who, despite her supposed conservative bona-fides, is in favor of a "temporary" tax increase to generate revenue for the state's debt-ridden coffers. I should note, as Thomas reminds me of this, that the last "temporary" tax increase the state legislature passed was approximately twenty-six years ago, and we are still paying that tax. So much for temporary.
We chastise the media for dropping the ball on this. As Messrs. Fratto and Mankiw stated, had the Bush administration tried to pull a rabbit out of their collective hat with rhetoric of this sort, not only would the media have cried foul, but they would have savaged the administration. Not so much with this one, which they are clearly enamoured with. It is worse than pathetic. It is journalistic malfeasance at it's worst, and like the economy, it does not seem to be getting any better as time goes on.