Blaming Bush: This time, it wasn't his fault.

Jan 13 2009 Published by under Bad Economics

And now for a short gripe from the other side of the political spectrum.

Normally, I like Media Matters. I personally think that the whole "left-wing media" thing
is a crock. The media has become so sensitive to the accusation of left-wing bias that they actually shy away from even dreaming of criticizing a conservative, and attack liberals with great fervor as a way of showing that they're not being unfairly nice to them. In general,
I find Media Matters does a good job of showing how the modern press really works.

But the fact is, they are a biased organization, and you need to be very careful
to look at the details of what they write. Just like right-wing media-watch organizations,
they do look for interpretations of facts that support their bias, even if it requires
significant abuse of those facts to make the interpretation fit.

This morning, they provided an excellent demonstration of that. President Bush gave his final press conference this morning. The people at the conference showed a lot of deference to him, and let him get away with a lot. But one thing that Media Matters focused on
touches on math, and it's bad.

Discussing the economy, President Bush said that he "inherited a recession". The AP, quoting him, goes on to qualify that by pointing out: "There have been two recessions during Bush's time in office. The first was a relatively mild downturn that began in March 2001 and lasted eight months, ending in November 2001. Since the first one did not begin until after he took office in January 2001, it is not strictly accurate to say he "inherited" it."

Media Matters criticizes the AP, for its use of the word "strictly" in that sentence.
Because, you see, since the recession did officially start two months after Bush
took office, that means that he didn't inherit it.

The stupidity of this is that the business cycle moves fairly slowly. Economics at the
national and/or international scale is very much an inexact science. But still, there are
some things that we can easily see by building models and analyzing trends. And one thing
that's pretty clear from that math is that by the time the growth statistics officially meet
the definition of a recession, the trends that produce a recession had really been in
progress for some time. A recession that started two months after a new president took office
isn't a recession that can fairly be blamed on that president, unless he did something
extremely drastic. (For example, if a president announced that the US would default
on its debt, that would have an immediate impact on the economy, essentially launching us
into a depression overnight.) But Bush didn't do anything particularly drastic in
those two months. That recession was an inevitable part of the cycle.

It's pretty questionable how much power a president has to influence the direction of
the economy. Frankly, I'm not particularly convinced that a typical president's policy really
has any impact on the economy. The business cycle is cyclic, and booms and busts happen periodically. I don't think that you can stop that. You can probably damp the cycle a bit,
to reduce the severity of recessions (at the cost of also reducing the maximum of the swing), but you can't possibly stop it. And once a boom cycle comes to an end, you can't stop it from dipping into recession.

You'd have a hard time finding someone less inclined to defend George W. Bush than me.
But dishonest manipulation of statistics is dishonest manipulation of statistics. Bush did a
hell of a lot of awful things; he made an astonishing number of horrible decisions; his
administration probably screwed up more things than any other in my lifetime. But the 2001
recession wasn't his fault, and it requires either profound ignorance, or willful
misrepresentation - that is, lying - to lay the blame on him. I don't think that the
guys at Media Matters are stupid or ignorant.

No responses yet

  • The 2001 recession may also have contributed to W's victory in 2000 (recounts & SCOTUS rulings aside). Because just as the trends that lead to recession exist for months before the economy officially meets that definition, people (aka. voters) begin to feel the effects before months there is an .

  • That last clause should read "...people (aka. voters) begin to feel the effects months before there is an official recession."

  • Mark C. Chu-Carroll says:

    Re #1/2:
    Yeah, I think that part of the reason that that election was so close was because of the deteriorating economy. It's absolutely true that Gore ran the worst campaign I'd ever seen (at least up until McCain this past election!). But still, if the economy hadn't been on a downhill slope, I don't think that there would have been any way that the election would have been close. Gore was the VP of an extremely popular and successful two-term presidential administration. It took an inept campaign, an economic downturn, and a bizarre recount controversy to make him lose.

  • Jon Hendry says:

    "It's pretty questionable how much power a president has to influence the direction of the economy. Frankly, I'm not particularly convinced that a typical president's policy really has any impact on the economy."
    I think the President has limited ability to improve the economy - he can pretty much just implement incentive policies and hope they work.
    But a moment's thought shows the President has virtually unlimited ability to damage the economy. Many actions the President could take would cause the economy to tank severely. A trade embargo with China removing most of our manufacturing capacity. Nuking the Saudi oil fields, causing oil prices to skyrocket. These would be irrational, but as we can see by looking at Mugabe, national leaders don't always act in ways that seem rational. (Heck, if the US President just started talking aggressively about doing these things, the economy would tank.)

  • Moopheus says:

    It's true--GWB did not cause the 2001 recession. His policies did nothing to help us out of it, but it was on its way no matter what he did. The tech stock bubble was already a-bursting before he was sworn at, I mean in. A related canard repeated among certain liberal politicos is that GWB blew the $5 trillion surplus we were due for in the following ten years, as if it were a sure thing. Unfortunately, the surpluses almost certainly depended on the continuation of the aforementioned bubble. GWB's tax cuts almost certainly made the the deficits worse, but deficits were coming no matter what. That surplus was an accounting illusion, nothing more.

  • Jud says:

    The business cycle is cyclic
    I'm sure Dr. Egnor will be around soon to scold you for speaking in tautologies. 😉
    Back on topic: I think the President has profound power to affect the economy, for good and ill. Does anyone really think the utter lack of regulation of the investors/investments that so highly leveraged the mortgage industry had nothing to do with the current economic troubles? Or that the types of economic stimulus currently being discussed in Washington can have no favorable impact on the economy? Or that the tracking of economic numbers with Franklin Roosevelt's expansion, then contraction, then expansion again of government spending programs during his Presidency was mere coincidence?
    We need to be careful that the current administration's seeming lack of ability to competently influence *any* major issue doesn't lead us to the (IMO) intellectually lazy conclusion that such competent influence isn't possible.
    BTW, I'd very highly recommend Paul Krugman's column and blog in the NY Times as one source of fairly understandable information about our economic problems and the various proposals to do something about them.

  • Moopheus says:

    "Does anyone really think the utter lack of regulation of the investors/investments that so highly leveraged the mortgage industry had nothing to do with the current economic troubles?"
    That was a problem, as well as the related problem of nonenforcement of already existing laws and regulations, which is something that the President can definitely affect, to the degree that the enforcement is provided by executive-branch departments that he can set policy for. The SEC and DoJ have a lot to answer for.
    Lack of regulation can also be blamed partly on Congress, which spent the Bush years in rubber-stamp mode.
    There are, of course, significant actors that the President does not control, such as the Fed, and the central banks and other institutions of other countries. The Bank of Japan's ZIRP was full-blast hose of liquidity into financial markets. We may forget that the problem was global--the UK, much of Europe, Australia, India, even China had housing bubbles.
    Playing the "blame game" for the current debacle is fun because there is indeed, so much of it to go around.

  • Jud says:

    We may forget that the problem was global--the UK, much of Europe, Australia, India, even China had housing bubbles.
    Yeah - to a great extent, countries like the UK and China had our housing bubble (and Iceland had the UK's, and on and on), due to securitization that got local mortgages into the global electronic marketplace. The divorce of local conditions from global investments also made it easy to over-leverage these mortgages, so when they went south, what happened to the financial markets was like what happened to you as a kid when you were on a see-saw and the other kid jumped off.

  • Moopheus says:

    Other countries didn't have "our" housing bubble--they were perfectly capable of having their own bubbles. Globalization of the financial markets meant that it didn't matter, really, where the bubble was. It could be everywhere, and in many places it's even worse than here.
    The point is, that while people like Bush, and Greenspan, and Robert Rubin, etc., etc., has their roles to play, a fuck-up of this magnitude requires the cooperation of a cast of thousands (millions, really), in a bipartisan, international clusterfuck of insanity and greed that took at least two decades to build.

  • Jud says:

    Moopheus @ #9:
    You mistook my meaning - I was agreeing with you regarding the global nature of the problem.

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