Thursday, July 10, 2014

Seeing Job Growth Through a Partisan Lens

During an election year, the politicians who are running for office will have a whole host of issues to deal with. For the past several years, job growth has been a big issue, not just nationally, but at the state level. Like any statistic, measuring job growth involves numbers. While the saying, "numbers don't lie" is usually accurate, it overlooks the fact that numbers can be cherry-picked. And politicians enjoy cherry-picking during an election year.

In Wisconsin, much is being said by both side's about the jobs record of the current governor, Scott Walker. His opponent has attacked him for falling short of his pledge to create 250,000 private sector jobs in his first term (through May, Wisconsin has gained 114,300 private sector jobs since Walker took office in January 2011--it's highly unlikely that the 135,700 jobs needed to make his pledge a reality will be created in just seven months).

Scott Walker is defensive, comparing job growth during his tenure favorably to that of his predecessor Jim Doyle. At a recent news conference, Walker claimed that he created more jobs in first three years than Jim Doyle did in his entire two-term tenure. Politifact analyzed that claim and graded it "Mostly True." Walker's numbers are accurate, but they're also cherry-picked. The jobs losses of the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009 are the primary cause of Doyle's poor job performance.

However, even before the recession, job growth was slower under Doyle in his first term than under Walker, with 86,530 jobs created between 2003 and 2006 vs. 91,813 jobs created between 2011 and 2013. Does this mean that Scott Walker has more successful policies?

At face value, that would seem to be the case. However, the big picture is a little more complicated than that. A study from the Wisconsin Taxpayer's Alliance shows that the pace of job growth in Wisconsin has been slower than the historical average since 2000. But Wisconsin is hardly alone here. This is true of a majority of US States, and for the nation as a whole. Even before the Great Recession, job growth and the performance of the US Economy in the mid-2000s was rather modest when compared with previous expansions. Much of this had to due with the manufacturing employment sector, which was hit hard by the 2001-02 recession and then stagnated for the majority of the mid-2000s expansionary cycle.

Wisconsin, an upper-midwest state where manufacturing plays a large roll in the economy, had job growth that lagged behind the US as a whole because of it. Most midwestern states did, especially Michigan and Ohio.

Since 2010, a slight-rebound in US manufacturing has benefitted the midwest, Wisconsin being no exception. In 2010, the last year of Jim Doyle's tenure, Wisconsin gained 33,658 private sector jobs. Job growth in Wisconsin has not different significantly during the Walker years (29,800 in 2011, 33,872 in 2012, 28,141 in 2013). Wisconsin, like most states, is also beholden to national trends in the economy and the jobs market. The governor will take credit for good conditions and will be blamed for bad ones, but there are a lot more forces at work.

Of course, political partisanship also plays a role here. During the 2012 elections, the Republicans loved attacking Obama on his jobs record while downplaying the role of the Great Recession. The jobs record of George W. Bush, however, wasn't very impressive, but the seemed to enjoy bragging about the 7.4 million jobs created between from 2002 to 2007. This ignores the fact that in 2002, the first year of the mid-2000s expansion, the US actually shed 508,000 jobs. And in 2003, it created only 105,000 jobs. By contrast, the first two years of the current recovery posted a gain of 958,000 jobs in 2010 and 2,083,000 jobs in 2011. This followed a loss of 3,591,000 jobs in 2008 and 4,987,000 jobs in 2009. Since there were 133,976,000 jobs in January 2009, job growth during the Obama years was in the net loss region before July 2012. In January 2013, the country had 135,261,000 jobs, giving Obama's first term an unimpressive net gain of only 1,285,000 jobs.

Several Republicans, including Scott Walker, claimed that this was the worst four years of job growth since the Great Depression. In fact, the four years of Bush's first term were worse. In January 2001, the country had 132,694,000 jobs. In January 2005, that number was 132,753,000. This is a net gain of only 59,000 jobs.

During the six-year expansion from 2002 to 2007, a total of 7,398,000 jobs were created. From 2010 through 2013, 7,608,000 jobs were created. Those observations used similar cherry-picking to those of Scott Walker, just using different years. Both he and I ignore the job losses of 2008 and 2009. The main reason I'm mentioning this is to show how easy it is to cherry pick data and how easy it is to view it from a partisan lens. The way Walker picked his data shows that he has a better jobs record than Jim Doyle. The Democrats obviously aren't going to argue in favor of such a claim. The way I picked my data shows that Obama has a better jobs record than Bush. The Republicans damn sure as hell aren't going to argue in favor of that. Neither would Scott Walker.

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