Jimmy Carter’s spurious evidence for the crisis of confidence

From wikipedia:

On July 15, 1979, Carter gave a nationally televised address in which he identified what he believed to be a “crisis of confidence” among the American people. This came to be known as his “malaise” speech, although Carter never used the word in the speech.

This ‘malaise speech’ is rather famous, and there is some controversy over its reception and effect. Some look back on the speech and see it as typical of some awful traits in Carter – weakness, and a scowling disdain for his fellow Americans. Others suggest the speech was well received and nicely captured a mindset, more broadly accepted now, that we are in a state of self-inflicted decline (environmental, cultural, political and economic), but we may find a degree of moral redemption by gracefully managing this irreversible downward slide.

I don’t care about any of that. I care about one paragraph from the speech:

The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.

Sentence 2: For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. 

Gallup does regular polling on that question. In August 1979, 75% of Americans believed things would be BETTER over the next 5 years. At no point in the 1970s did that mark fall below 70%.

Sentence 3: Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. 

In 1976, 55% of the voting-age population voted in the presidential election. Voter turnout in the midterm election was 39.1%. That is low turnout, but not especially for midterm elections. It beats 1926 (32.9%) and 1946 (38.8%). 1946. Are we to believe that Americans were suffering from a crisis of the American spirit in the prosperous years following World War II as our nation rose to the status of global superpower?

Sentence 4 (a): The productivity of American workers is actually dropping…

Labor productivity was going down during this period, but that wasn’t a new phenomenon (productivity cycles up and down over the decades), and Carter missed the point anyway. The problem was with wages, not productivity. For example, labor productivity declined sharply in the mid-1950s, but compensation relative to productivity rose significantly. So people weren’t working as hard and were getting paid better. That didn’t feel like a crisis.

The troubling decline in the late 1970s was actually in ‘Real Hourly Compensation’. Productivity and compensation do not march in lockstep (look at the 1950s), so if Carter was implying that American workers were suffering economically because they were less productive, then he was wrong. And in a mean sort of way.

Sentence 4 (b): …and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.

Bracketing the odd choice of the word ‘willingness’ (what with the decline in real hourly compensation), the statement is just not true. In the late 1970s, Norway’s household savings rate was far below the U.S. household savings rate. Same with Sweden, and probably Iceland and Finland.

You can’t refute subjective arguments and moral reasoning. They are not meant to be testable. But the evidence presented to bolster that reasoning can be tested. And then we each have to decide what it means about the larger argument when the evidence presented is shown to be garbage.

 

 

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