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.