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Red media, blue media
Is the U.S. economy getting better or getting worse? If you’re a Republican, you’re overwhelmingly likely to say it is getting worse — only 20% of Republicans believe the U.S. economy is improving, compared with 69% who say it is continuing to tank and 9% who say it is about the same. If you’re a Democrat, your views are even more overwhelmingly in the opposite direction — 77% of Democrats believe the nation’s economy is getting better, compared with just 16% who say it’s getting worse and 5% who say it’s going nowhere. These figures, from an extensive Fox News poll last week, jibe with those from Gallup’s tracking polls, which show 81% of Republicans believe the economy is getting worse, while 74% of Democrats believe it is getting better.
America is famously divided, between the red states and the blue states, between whites and blacks, between the 1% and the 99%. Generally, these divisions are seen in terms of moral values and ideologies, such as racial tolerance, gay marriage and income redistribution. But the divisions have become more severe — Gallup finds the country more polarized preceding this presidential election than ever — and more pervasive, extending beyond subjective world views to matters more of fact.
By almost any objective measure, the U.S. economy has been getting worse. Growth in GDP declined in 2011 compared with 2010, in 2012 compared with 2011. It has declined in each of the last three quarters to its now anemic 1.3%, leading many to warn about a double-dip recession. Median household incomes have fallen a mind-boggling 8.2% since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, an equally startling 5.7% since the beginning of the economic recovery in June 2009, and household incomes are continuing to fall. These are facts, as is a debt that now matches GDP and is approaching levels in Italy and Greece. While there are some bright spots — the stock market has bounced back, for example — to see the U.S. economy as improving requires full-strength rose-tinted glasses.
The dominant reason for the starkly different perception of economic data almost certainly stems from one factor: Republicans and Democrats rely on different media sources for their news. How this plays out can be seen in news coverage last week that trumpeted a surprising drop of 30,000 in U.S. jobless claims. “Claims for jobless benefits decline to a four-year low,” read The New York Times headline. “Jobless claims fall to lowest level since ’08,” stated CBS. “Jobless Claims in U.S. Fall to Four-Year Low,” said Bloomberg. All of these stories buried or altogether ignored the news that officials within the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics itself didn’t believe the surprising drop: The officials revealed that one large state, believed to be California, was remiss in reporting its jobless claims, meaning that there may have been no surprising drop at all in jobless claims, making nonsense of the headlines in the majority of media stories. To my knowledge, the only The Wall Street Journal and Fox News, both of which have a large following among Republicans, highlighted that the figures for jobless claims properly counted 49 instead of 50 states, making them meaningless.
A similar, albeit less egregious, controversy concerned a much-ballyhooed drop in the U.S. unemployment rate, announced the previous week. “U.S. jobless rate drops to 7.8% in September,” ran The Boston Globe headline, explaining, as did much of the press, that: “The U.S. unemployment rate last month fell to its lowest level in nearly four years, and employers added jobs for the 24th consecutive month as the economy continued its slow recovery from one of the nation’s worst recessions.”
The story, in fact, was more nuanced than Boston Globe readers would realize. For one thing, the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes two different sets of job statistics. One, based on a large payroll survey, is considered highly accurate and showed a paltry 114,000 new jobs created in September that would not have moved the unemployment stats; the other, based on a small household survey that produces a high margin of error, showed a staggering 873,000 jobs created. The drop in unemployment stemmed from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s use of the household survey’s 873,000 figure. Republicans, who patronize media outlets that explain these nuances, are less likely to accept the 7.8% unemployment figure at face value.
Another nuance that many Democrat-news consumers will have missed: A reported 600,000 of those 873,000 jobs are part-time, which again shows the presumed employment gains to be iffy. Moreover, employers may be deciding to replace full-time employees with part-timers. Why would employers do this? One reason is Obamacare, as seen by the activities of Darden Restaurant Inc., which employs some 180,000 people and owns some 2,000 restaurants in Canada and the U.S., including the Olive Garden and Red Lobster chains. Effective Jan. 1, companies that don’t provide insurance coverage to full-time workers and their dependents will be subject to fines. Darden is now converting full-time employees into part-timers in four U.S. markets, to test the feasibility of a country-wide conversion.
These aren’t good-news stories for the job market, as Republicans well understand. When asked if “the nation’s job situation is getting better or getting worse,” 77% of Republicans answered “worse.” In almost equal numbers — 76% — Democrats answered “better,” not knowing any better.