There’s a well-known maxim used in many walks of life that “victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” And so it is when it comes to the economy and overall societal wellbeing in the world of policy and politics.
When things are going well, anyone with the slightest connection to political power claims credit. Meanwhile, when things are trending downward, blame usually gets shed like water off of a duck’s back.
Often, the politicians in question have very little to do with the trends for which they are claiming credit or shunning blame. Frequently, it’s just a matter of having the good fortune of being in office at the time that natural swings in the business cycle are trending upward or having the bad luck to preside over a decline that was years in the making.
Herbert Hoover had been President for just seven months when the 1929 stock market crash plunged the nation into the Great Depression. As many historians have noted, it was his do-nothing predecessor Calvin Coolidge whose policies (and lack thereof) helped precipitate the crash. Yet Coolidge escaped public blame while Hoover bore the full brunt and has long been considered one of the nation’s failed presidents.
Here in North Carolina, Bev Perdue became Governor in 2009 just as the full brunt of the national economic recession that had been brewing for years on the watch of President George W. Bush hit North Carolina like a ton of bricks. The result: Perdue’s governorship never had a chance and conservatives swept to power in 2010; whereupon they vigorously sought to enact the same kinds of laissez faire policies that Bush pursued in Washington, while resisting President Obama’s common sense efforts to repair the damage.
The rebound of recent years
Since that time, of course, the economy has gradually rebounded at the national and state levels and politicians have debated who is responsible and entitled to credit for what. Today, with the 2016 election in full swing, this debate is increasingly heated, important and, often it seems, divorced from reality.
Consider Lt. Governor Dan Forest, for example. By any fair assessment, Forest has very little in the way of meaningful official duties. Since 2013, he has presided ceremonially over the state Senate and been a member of various boards and commissions. This was true for each of the past four North Carolina Lt. Governors too — Jim Gardner, Dennis Wicker, Bev Perdue and Walter Dalton – since all of them served after changes to state Senate rules did away with the once prominent role of the Lt. Governor in that body. Since Governors and Lt. Governors do not run as a ticket in North Carolina, he’s not really even part of the McCrory administration.
Nonetheless, this hasn’t stopped Forest from repeatedly claiming credit for any positive development in the North Carolina economy in recent years. His website even touts a long list of positive developments which it dubiously attributes to “this new administration.”
But, of course, to attribute the positive developments in the North Carolina economy of recent years to Dan Forest borders on the absurd. Forest clearly has had no more to do with the economic rebound of recent years than other mostly anonymous council of state members like Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry or Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin. Indeed, the same is arguably true to some extent with respect to Governor Pat McCrory for that matter, given his serial inability to influence the policies enacted by the General Assembly.
Naturally, similar debates take place throughout American politics. As November approaches, politicians of both parties in all manner of public office will be claiming credit for every downtick in the unemployment rate and every bump in the stock market.
McCrory or Obama?
Given this backdrop, how might we make sense of the debate that will be taking place over the next five months in North Carolina? How do things really stand in North Carolina and who is responsible? For many voters, it will come down to whether they blame or credit Governor McCrory or President Obama.
Recently, and not surprisingly, McCrory and his allies have been touting a handful of positive (or, at least, positive-sounding) developments and claiming credit. Last week, the Governor issued a press release which plugged the fact that the official unemployment rate is down in all 100 counties since he assumed office. Setting aside the big question of how unemployment is actually measured and the fact that, in many counties, far fewer people are actually employed than prior to the Great Recession (many have simply dropped out of the workforce), it’s certainly understandable that the Governor would highlight this development.
One must question, however, whether he is really at all responsible for this development and deserving of any real credit. After all, unemployment is down dramatically throughout the country and in virtually every state under President Obama. What’s more, for all of the headway North Carolina has made, it still lags behind 35 other states and most of its southeastern neighbors. Rather than celebrating North Carolina’s 5.4% rate, one might just as reasonably ask why we’re so far behind Virginia (3.9%) and Tennessee (4.3%).
On another important economic measurement, median household income, neither North Carolina nor the nation as a whole has yet recovered from the Great Recession. If this is something that occurred on President Obama’s watch, doesn’t he also get the credit for the unemployment declines?
And then there’s the measurement known as gross domestic product or GDP. In recent weeks, the Governor and his friends have been making much of the fact that North Carolina’s GDP has been one of the nation’s fastest growing. Sounds impressive, right?
Well, maybe not. The following is from a summary of “The Little Big Number:
How GDP Came to Rule the World and What to Do about It” – a book by Duke University economist Dirk Phillipsen, who will headline next Tuesday’s N.C. Policy Watch Crucial Conversation luncheon “Carolina comeback or comedown? A look at how we should measure success in the North Carolina economy”:
“In one lifetime, GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, has ballooned from a narrow economic tool into a global article of faith. It is our universal yardstick of progress. As The Little Big Number demonstrates, this spells trouble. While economies and cultures measure their performance by it, GDP ignores central facts such as quality, costs, or purpose. It only measures output: more cars, more accidents; more lawyers, more trials; more extraction, more pollution—all count as success. Sustainability and quality of life are overlooked. Losses don’t count. GDP promotes a form of stupid growth and ignores real development.”
There are all sorts of other measures too. As noted in this space five months ago in successive columns (click here and here), President Obama fares exceedingly well in many of these head-to-head comparisons.
In such a contentious and complex environment, it will be fascinating to see where North Carolinians come down on all of this. If polls are to be believed (click here and here), the President is actually significantly more popular (even in North Carolina) at this time and, unlike his recent retiring predecessors, expected to be much in demand as a campaigner for his party’s national ticket in the months ahead. McCrory, in contrast, continues to do battle with many of the most powerful members of his own party and seems poised for a very difficult reelection campaign.
Ultimately, of course, a comparison between Governor and the President presents a bit of a strange and false choice. Not only is the President retiring after two terms and the Governor seeking reelection after one, neither man is actually personally responsible for all of the things each will claim credit for. That said, it seems more than likely that voter attitudes toward both men will serve as a powerful indicator as to how they will cast their ballots in November. Stay tuned.