Radio commentary, September 5, 2009
[No, it’s not time travel. The commentary I read on WBAI on Thursday, September 3, came out before the August employment report. I added an analysis of that for the KPFA version, included here, to be broadcast on the morning of September 5.]
If you watch MSNBC, which I do most nights (before switching to Fox, because it’s so much more energetic and perversely entertaining), you’ll hear that the Republicans are unfairly demonizing a president with a fundamentally popular agenda. Uh, not exactly. Obama’s slide in the polls is actually one for the record books.
He started with a pretty high standing. Since Eisenhower, the average first-term president enjoyed a 58% approval rating in the Gallup poll. Obama’s was 8 points higher than average, 66%. George W. Bush was also at 66% as his term started. Those are among the highest figures for first-term presidents in modern history. Eisenhower was at 74%, and LBJ at 71%. But Reagan and Bush Sr were both at 51%, 7 points below average, and 15 points below where Obama started.
In the latest Gallup poll, Obama’s approval rating is down to 54%, a decline of 12 points. The average for first-term presidents is a gain of 5 points. Losses of Obama’s magnitude but him in company I’m guessing he’d rather not be in: George W had taken a 10-point hit just before Semptember 11—though his approval rating soared after that unfortunate day. Jimmy Carter took a 12-point hit in his first nine months in office. But Nixon, Kennedy, and Reagan all gained 7 to 9 points. Bill Clinton offers a more cheering precedent for Obama—though he started with an approval rating 11 points below Obama’s, he fell by almost as much during his first nine months in office, and left office as one of the most popular presidents in the history of polling.
So what’s this all mean? Though Obama’s lost a few points among Democrats, especially moderate and conservative ones, most of his erosion comes from Republicans and Independents—despite all his efforts to woo them. This suggests a few things. One is that it makes little political sense to try to win over people who are disposed to hate you. And two is that liberals are a bunch of credulous suckers. At some point, they will join those to their right in jumping ship—maybe as soon as next week, once Obama ditches the public option in his health care reform scheme. And then, maybe, politics could get more interesting.
Speaking of health care reforms, we’ve heard a lot from the Sarah Palin/Betsy McCaughey right about how ObamaCare would create death panels who’d pull the plug on grandma. Though there’s a lot to hate about the health care reform schemes, the death panel thing is a complete invention of the loony right, which either can’t tell true from false, or is happy just to make stuff up if it suits their purposes.
The other day, the California Nurses Association, a vigorous supporter of a single-payer, Canadian style system, put out an interesting study of actually existing death panels: the practices of private insurers. They found that more than one in every five requests for medical claims filed by insured patients are rejected by California’s largest private insurers. They looked at seven years of data, 31 million claims, and found that 21% were rejected, despite being for procedures ordered by licensed physicians. Some companies rejected 30–40% of claims submitted. These weren’t frivolous rejections. People died because of them. But since they’re done by private insurers, and not some phantasmic public body, Sarah and Betsy aren’t fulminating about them.
And now, a special update for the KPFA and podcast audiences. Friday morning brought the release of the August U.S. employment report. It was a mixed bag. The unemployment rate took a surprisingly strong leap, but the rate of job loss continued to slow.
Before proceeding, a technical note. The monthly employment statistics come from two separate surveys, one of employers, also known as the establishment or payroll survey, and another of households. The sample size on the establishment survey is huge—around 300,000 employers. The household sample is much smaller, 60,000 households, but that’s still 50 times as large as a typical opinion poll. Both provide pretty good estimates done in a very timely manner, but they’re not perfect—and given the smaller size of its sample, the household survey is noisier (meaning it bounces around some from month to month).
The establishment survey reported a loss of 216,000 jobs in August, a number that would normally look terrible, but is actually the smallest loss in a year. The private sector lost 198,000 jobs, also the smallest number in a year, and well below the -477,000 average for the previous six months. Construction lost 65,000—but this time, residential building wasn’t in the lead. Losses in residential construction are slowing, suggesting that while housing—an important leading indicator for the broad economy—isn’t yet turning around, the bleeding has largely been stanched. And more than a third of industrial sectors actually added jobs in August, the most in nearly a year. Normally, a third would be a terrible number, but we’ve been down so long that terrible is starting to look up to me.
Some wit or other labeled this a “mancession,” because so many more men than women have been losing jobs. (The term has really caught on: Google turns up 49,500 hits on the word.) One sign of this is that the share of women workers in the establishment survey was 49.9% in July (the sex breakdown is available only with a month’s delay). Given the recent trend, it’s likely that it hit 50.0% in August – or, if not exactly, it will in September. When the recession began, not quite 49% of workers in the payroll survey were women. Of course, this is a long-term trend – when the Bureau of Labor Statistics first started the gender breakdown in 1964, just 32% of workers were women – but it looked for a while, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that the female share of the workforce had plateaued. But the recent disemployment of men has changed that, to the point where the workforce is almost perfectly divided between men and women (though, of course, women are more likely than men to work part-time, and to earn considerably less money: some things haven’t changed).
But the household survey was rather discouraging. The share of the unjailed adult population working fell 0.2 point to 59.2%, its lowest level since early 1984. It’s down more than 5 points since its peak in 2000. In other words, when you adjust for population growth, almost all the employment gains of the 1980s and 1990s have been reversed.
The unemployment rate rose 0.3 point to 9.7%, a surprise given the behavior of other indicators, like the weekly jobless claims numbers that I often cite here. The broader U-6 rate, which includes those working part-time because that’s all they could find and discouraged workers, who’ve given up the job search as hopeless, rose 0.5 point to 16.8%. In line with the recession’s continuing pattern, most of the rise in unemployment came from permanent job losers (as opposed to those on temporary layoff, or those quitting voluntarily, or those just entering or re-entering the workforce). Over the last year, the number of unemployed is up 5.4 million; 4.4 million of those are permanent job losers.
Although there were some encouraging signs in the report, they’re mostly of the less bad rather than the actively good variety. Forward-looking components like temp and retail employment suggest we’re in for more of the same (that is, more less bad but not yet good) for some time to come, even if GDP growth turns up in the next quarter or two.
And the longer-term picture remains horrible. Total job losses in the recession are now almost 7 million, or 5.0% of total employment. (That’s the worst percentage loss of any recession since the post-World War II demobilization.) According to an IMF study, job losses in recessions caused by financial crises average 6.3%, suggesting that we’ve got another 1.7 million jobs to lose. Since we’re about 80% of the way to the average, the best you could say is that the edge of the woods is coming into view.