by Max Brantley
It's funny how societal fear works (if your humor turns to the morbid). It can be in inverse proportion to the facts supporting it but in direct proportion to the heat of politics and the proximity of elections.
Take the recent hysteria over terrorists that followed the Muslim couple's assault at an office Christmas party in San Bernardino, though this column is about something else, the economy. Excuse the digression.
Gun sales, of assault weapons as well as handguns, skyrocketed as people armed themselves against mad Muslims, and calls went out to stop President Obama from allowing desperate Syrian refugees into the country and to force him to send American men and women and more and bigger weapons into the Middle East to settle scores with whomever among the warring sectarian factions—the Sunnis or the Shias—or tribes that at the moment seem most antagonistic to us.
Terrorism, concentrated in the Middle East, is a modern fact of life and it reaches other nations—the United States, western Europe, Russia, even passive Baltic countries—when the fanatics in the region perceive them to be meddling in their hatreds and vengeances. We paid the price of many lives for President Reagan's well-meaning incursion into Lebanon to stop the factional blood-letting and then, with the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, for establishing a military presence in the holy land to settle scores with a Sunni dictator who was running a Shia-populated country.
Although the danger of more San Bernardinos will continue unless we decide to just leave the Middle East alone, as only presidential candidate Rand Paul would have us do (he's demoted into the kiddie corner of the next debate), the United States enjoys relative safety, owing partly to big oceans and a bigger security apparatus than any other nation. With a big election approaching, however, terrorism and Muslims are powerful fuel. Thus they have replaced the economy and jobs as voters' greatest fear.
So let's get back to the economy. Barring more terrorist attacks, it will creep back as the top talking point, maybe even in the next debates. But it is getting trickier and trickier.
You know the refrain since 2009, which reached a crescendo in the presidential debates in the fall: The leftist Obama administration has destroyed the greatest economic machine in the world by raising taxes and government spending, tying the hands of banks and industry with regulations and knuckling under to the Chinese, the Russians, Europe and even South America and the Caribbean. Donald Trump has been the loudest and most effective, but every Republican candidate and much of the media has joined the cause.
The real world, however, is not following the script. As 2016 is born, China is crashing and taking much of the world with it. All the economic wizardry the past month is directed at discerning whether the United States, still the largest and now the most stable growth economy in the world, can avoid the free-fall itself. So far, it keeps moving up, not down. Its growth rate surpasses once virile Germany, the rest of western and northern Europe and Japan.
And what has really happened under the job-killing Obama administration? Remember that it was supposed to have been he who took a spiraling recession and made it worse. Since around the first of 2010, when the country shored up the financial collapse, it has netted nearly 14 million new jobs—13,547,000 to be exact as of Dec. 31. The unemployment rate hovers at the full-employment threshold of 5 percent, new monthly jobless claims since last fall are the lowest in more than 40 years, and nearly every other economic graph except median family income (a more depressing story for another day) has tilted sharply upward for four years.
That hasn't been the story line, however. Most Americans were convinced by all the ads and proclamations that Obamacare and its taxes on investors and some commercial groups would destroy jobs by the millions and actually reduce access to medical care. The opposite happened. Hiring shot upward when the law kicked in in 2013, particularly in Arkansas, which implemented the Medicaid option that some 20 other states bypassed. Sixteen million Americans gained health insurance, itself a giant boon to the economy.
The Republican debaters last fall told us that the rash of minimum-wage hikes in many states were going to kill jobs and sink the economy. They didn't. Arkansas, by the way, raised the minimum wage from $6.25 an hour to $7.50 Jan. 1, 2015, and despite Ben Carson's factoid that every single minimum-wage increase in history had driven unemployment, the Arkansas jobless rate sank from 5.8 percent to 5 percent over the next nine months. More bad news: It went up to $8 an hour two weeks ago.
Obama deserves no more than modest credit for the economy and jobs picture (mainly for not making it worse), but that is what largely drives modern American politics and this election no less than previous ones the past 45 years. Presidents are credited or blamed, and that is the issue that leverages every campaign.
While we're on the point, let's compare the jobs records of other recent presidents. Obama's may reach 15 or 16 million by year's end but China could send it in the other direction.
George W. Bush, 1.3 million jobs in eight years; Clinton, 22.9 million in eight years; George H. W. Bush, 2.7 million in four years, Reagan, 16.1 million in eight years; Carter, 10.3 million in four years; Nixon and Ford, 10.8 million in eight years; Kennedy and Johnson, 15.8 million in eight years. All were beset by or aided by conditions beyond their control, but we give them stars or demerits and score our own confidence or fear depending upon our political preferences.
Tune in the debates. You will get a different perspective.