Saturday, August 17, 2013

Obama’s Phony Event: America’s Economic Recovery

On July 24, 2013 President Obama stated, “But -- and here's the big but -- I’m here today to tell you that we’re not there yet. We all know that.  We're not there yet; we've got more work to do.”  This quote followed a lengthy and positive review of the economic record of his administration.  The words were designed -- according to the president -- to refocus America’s attention on and reconfirm his ongoing resolve to improve the economy even in the face of obstructionist congressional republicans.  The economy has become a staple of this president’s rhetoric and ‘immediate’ priorities many times over the past 4.5 years…so often that it is easy to forget that economic performance factors also matter and that our government’s own economic statistics contradict his aggrandizing words. 

Almost begrudgingly and only recently has the media begun to report on the Obama administration’s scandals including Benghazi, the IRS, NSA, Pigford and others in combination with his rapidly declining job approval numbers.  Perhaps as a consequence, President Obama hoped to create misdirection to derail the expansion of the narratives fixated on the scandals by using his well-honed and vaunted verbal dexterity.  In the past he has successfully employed misdirection to obfuscate measurable policy failures at the expense of reality, clarity and truth.  In addition, the President has certainly learned to use to his advantage the mainstream media’s (MSM) penchant for biased economic reporting, i.e. not presenting complete performance assessments, consistently under reporting economic negatives and ignoring the reality of a virtually nonexistent recovery.

Obama’s attempt to change the subject gains further currency given his follow-on speech of July 25 when he suggested Washington should end its focus on an “endless parade of distractions and political posturing and phony scandals” and support his agenda of more spending, further stimulus and higher taxes.  The President clearly believes he can ‘sell’ his economic prowess of the past 4.5 years (as he did immediately before the last election) to suppress the dangers of the metastasizing scandals even though the facts demonstrate very little economic progress to date during his tenure.   

Yet have Obama’s economic solutions failed?  Can his initiatives be shown to have been a source of our current economic problems – slow GDP growth, lagging job creation, constricted free markets, ballooning deficits and debt, growing and counterproductive regulation, crippling taxation and the penalization of small business. 

A survey and realistic appraisal of available economic facts/statistics surfaces the following:


  • The July unemployment picture essentially replicated the glacial progress made in new job generation seen since the end of the recession in 2009.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the addition of 162,000 non-farm jobs  in July which demonstrated a decline against the average gain of 189,000 per month during 2012.   The growth was, on closer inspection, at the lower end of the income spectrum and partially composed of 47,000 retail, 38,000 leisure and hospitality and 13,700 wholesaling jobs – fully 61% of the new jobs reported.  The statistics also followed the trend that 77% of this year’s new jobs are part time in structure.

  • The unemployment rate declined to 7.4%; a decline assisted by more than 250,000 frustrated job seekers dropping out of the marketplace.  The rate of 7.4% ended a record drought of 54 months of unemployment rates in excess of 7.4%.  Nevertheless the much headlined 7.4% unemployment rate is quite misleading since an estimated 22 million Americans are underemployed or unemployed and not included in the unemployment calculations.  The government however does track two statistics that indicate the extent of today’s jobs paucity – the U5 & U6 rates of labor underutilization that were 8.8% and 14.0% respectively in July.
  • On a more macro level the Census Bureau tracks monthly resident population growth.  The average resident growth from April 2010 to November 2012 (32 months) equaled 185,684 per month or by extension an aggregate of 9,841,252 people have been added to the population since Obama’s inauguration – as population grows a corresponding number of jobs is needed just to maintain economic equilibrium.  By contrast the BLS reports an increase in employment of 2,132,000 net jobs from January 2009 to July 2013 or a mean monthly increase of 38,764 jobs.  The difference in the two numbers is blindingly obvious…where are the jobs?
  • 11,514,000 people are currently unemployed (a 7.4% rate) of a 155,798,000 civilian labor force.  But as of today the BLS is reporting an astonishing 89,957,000 able-bodied adults are sitting on the employment sidelines thus creating a labor force participation rate of only 63.4%.  Linking this fact with over 8,900,000 individuals exiting the job marketplace during Obama’s tenure and the only stunning conclusion that can be drawn is that a virtually jobless recovery is occurring.  
    GDP-Economic Growth

  • The MSM’s ballyhooing of the previous quarter’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate of 2.4% came to a screeching halt in late June.  The Commerce Department revised the 1st quarter GDP number from 2.4% to a tepid 1.8%.  The initial 2.4% estimate marked the highest quarterly performance number since the 4th quarter of 2011 when GDP equaled 4.1%.  GDP has exhibited both significant volatility and a downward trend since the recession ended.  In 2010 average quarterly GDP growth equaled 2.4% which declined to 2.0% in 2011 and subsequently to 1.7 % in 2012.  2012’s fourth quarter saw a meager advance of just .4%.  Given the first quarter GDP performance of 2013, average quarterly growth for 2013 will struggle to equal 2012’s appalling 1.7% level.  The trend has triggered recent economist predictions that 2013 may grow at only 1%.
  • Both household median income and personal disposable income continue to decline although the rate of decline has slowed since the end of the recession.  Median household income fell 4.2% during the recession and eroded by another 4.1% in the 2 years following the recession.  The declines in income continue as seen in the BLS July jobs report that shows not only a decrease in the average work week to 34.4 hours but a reduction in average hourly earnings for all employees to $23.98.  Sadly this reinforces the long term trend of both statistics.
    Other Notable Factors
  • Less than 50% of working Americans now hold a full-time job.  The BLS shows 144,285,000 were employed in July  but only 115,505,000 were employed full-time or 47%.  And since the beginning of this year fully 77% of the 953,000 jobs created were part-time…an eye opening 731,000 part-time jobs.
  • Home ownership fell to its lowest level in 18 years.  Home ownership peaked in 1995 at 69.2% but has declined to 65% in the 1st quarter of this year as reported by the Census Bureau.
  • Over the previous four months the MSM has intermittently trumpeted a rebound in housing as an economic bright spot or at a minimum a precursor of a more economic ‘good news to come’.  However the Commerce Department reported an appreciable setback in June in the number of housing starts that has dragged into July, i.e. work began on 836,000 houses (annualized rate) a drop from the 928,000 reported in May.  Both prices and length of time on market of existing homes continues to vary dramatically by market.
  • The Center for Immigration Studies released an analysis concluding that all job gains subsequent to 2000 can be accounted for by immigrants – both legal and illegal.  The report shows that 22.4 million immigrants held jobs at the outset of the year an increase of 5.3 million since 2000 while native born Americans with jobs declined 1.3 million.
Many more additional negative and discouraging  economic realities can be identified – ethnic unemployment rates, growing debt, deficit spending, food stamps, increasing poverty, oppressive regulations – yet more citations will not build a stronger case against the Obama ‘economic recovery’.  The recovery is a truly phony event constructed on wishful thinking and happy talk by the administration and by some in the mainstream media. 
Today, if the same proportion of Americans were employed as was the case a decade ago, there would be almost 9 million more people working.  And last year maybe 2 million discouraged adults would not have ‘given up’ and left the workforce.  And maybe, just maybe, a majority of Americans would be holding full-time jobs.  And maybe if the Federal Reserve was not trying to stimulate the recovery with expenditures of $85 billion per month to ‘quantitatively ease’ interest rates, capital investment would be spurred.  And maybe household incomes and personal disposable income would be growing not the specter of debilitating future inflation.  Then and only then would the American economy be actually experiencing a recovery based on the economic measures cited that dictate a real economic rebound. 

No matter what President Obama may say, the recovery is a truly phony event, constructed on wishful thinking and happy talk by the administration and by some in the mainstream media.  The “phony scandals” plaguing his administration, on the other hand, are quite real.  It is up to the American people to decide which issues deserves more attention.  

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Pigford: The Unexamined Obama Administration Scandal

The Obama administration has again been protected from a troubling scandal by the mainstream media (MSM) using the tactic of omission to simply ignore the scandal, its reality and the negative blowback attendant to a disturbing story.  As sunlight began to illuminate the scandal’s inconvenient and troubling facts, charges of racism were used to temporarily silence those sounding the alarm.  Seemingly, the alarm-ringers’ only crime was having the temerity to respond to the abuses of Pigford with a politically incorrect point of view to those abuses.

The under-reported scandal referenced is generally identified as Pigford.  Pigford’s germination occurred in 1997 as a lawsuit (Pigford vs. Glickman) alleging that 91 African-American farmers were unfairly denied loans by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) due to racial discrimination which prevented the complainants from farming.  In 1999, the black farmers won their case.

Pigford has the distinction of being an out of control waste of taxpayer funds and/or a cynical attempt by the Obama administration to curry favor with certain minority groups  to which neither President Obama nor Attorney General Eric Holder can plead ignorance of involvement.  Both have had knowledge since the court ruled on the Pigford lawsuit; in 2008 then Senator Barack Obama supported and voted for the funding of the initial settlement.  Since then Eric Holder (and Obama) have been involved in overseeing and managing the Pigford ‘judgment fund’.

Yet can Pigford be fairly described as a scandal? 

Pigford began innocently enough as a lawsuit to redress a perceived wrong negatively affecting a group of 91…  But then the number climbed to 400…then 1,600…then… 

The number of black farmers has metastasized, nay exploded, and the aggrieved group now includes not only blacks, but Hispanics, Native Americans and females.  In fact over 90,000 people have filed claims seeking a payment under the terms of the original Pigford court ruling.  That decision, now referred to as Pigford #1, was anticipated to cost approximately $120 million including legal fees. 

Pigford #2 is the appellation used to identify an expanded payment regime that funds more African-American payments, Native Americans, Hispanics and females.  This regimen grew out of the fact that thousands of claimants missed the original Pigford #1 filing deadline of October 12, 1999.  Interestingly potential Native American claimants were estimated at 5,300 while ‘plaintiff’ lawyers pegged the exposure at an estimated 19,000 Native Americans.  The ‘judgment fund’ announced by Agricultural Secretary Thomas Vilsack and Eric Holder in 2010 was expanded from just over $120 million to $1.25 billion given the expectation of many more filers.

However, the explosion of claimants has caused payouts to reach $4.4 billion and has swelled legal fees to over $130 million.  More importantly the claim’s process created a rush to get a share of the monies allocated to the ‘judgment fund’ even if no real claim existed.  Essentially the process encouraged people to lie and spawned a cottage industry.  Claimants had only to file applications for a $50,000 payment by stating that they had ‘thought’ about applying for loans to become a farmer.  Proof of a claimant’s intent to farm also included a statement from that petitioner saying he or she had attempted to farm by planting a batch of tomatoes in his or her backyard and having that statement verified by a family member.   In essence the need to be a farmer at the time of the alleged discriminatory actions by the USDA was not a requirement to share in the financial redress.   

Fraud was endemic to the claims process -- for example every apartment… in a New York City building received a settlement of at least $50,000.  Further, some families received checks of $50,000 for each family member (see NYT’s fraud identification narrative of 4-26-13).  These payments were dispensed by the judgment fund’s monitor, whose management and control fell to the Executive Branch and Justice Department.  Due to the application ‘vetting process’ the payouts were criticized by both Representative Steve King (D-IA) and journalist Andrew Breitbart as payoffs to Obama’s/Democrats’ preferred groups to gain a favored political position with those entities. 

King and Breitbart had the courage to indelicately point out that some of payouts were ridiculous, fraudulent and highly politicized.  Both Congressman King and Breitbart were predictably charged with racism by many in the MSM; and only because The New York Times printed their recent investigatory story have some MSM members begrudgingly ceded the veracity of King’s and Breitbart’s concerns. 

The combination of the racial criticism, the MSM’s silence regarding Pigford, and the quarantine on additional Pigford narratives subsequent to the NY Times’ article have emphasized the media’s concern for the damage an ongoing discussion of Pigford could cause the president.  Potential stories may have included added evidence of rampant fraud and controversy:

  • A review of the Shirley Sherrod incident/resignation that became an embarrassing chapter in the Obama administration and might have brought into question the fairness of the payout her family received from Pigford which was rumored to total in the millions.  Time magazine also reported that the Sherrods’ received compensation of approximately $330,000 for mental suffering after it was determined that Ms. Sherrod did not use racist tactics in dealing with white farmers, a charge that led to her resignation from the USDA.

  • The NY Times’ article disclosing that in 16 ZIP codes in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and North Carolina the number of successful Pigford claims exceeded the total number of farms that existed in 1997.

  • The possible resurrection of a contentious conversation on the redistribution of wealth by whatever means to correct previous wrongs for certain minorities a la the Van Jones reparations argument.

  • The blatantly racially charged comments similar to those of Mr. Al Pires, a lead attorney for African-American Pigford farmers, who asserted the USDA was “the biggest racist the world has ever seen.”

Thus, Pigford is another scandal that has received little attention and even less discussion than many of the scandals currently receiving attention.  Nevertheless, this scandal is another example of an administration out of control.  This is perhaps because Americans elected a leader without a modicum of real world management experience -- a person who believes ideology trumps organizational discipline, who believes that political cronies are automatically qualified as leaders/managers, and who uses lies/dissembling as a tool to obscure factual information from the American people. 

In sum, the damage generated by the Pigford scandal, and all the others, continues to be muted by the MSM’s lack of interest in reporting the facts integral to each issue and their lack of desire to dig for more information.  But given the daunting mass of scandals existent, President Obama’s administration will be described in the future by objective historians as the most scandalous in history.  

Thursday, April 11, 2013

America's Economic Disconnect

The state of our economy has become a somewhat constructed fantasy created to an extent by mainstream media (MSM) narratives.  Media accounts of economic performance over the past four years have ranged from confusing to inaccurate to flagrant happy talk and spin.  Rationalization and selective reporting of factual information has created economic ‘good’ news and false ‘hopes’ where none existed or should exist.  The techniques employed have included a consistently biased meme, factual omission, factual commission, and even misdirection.  Often narratives have suggested that improvement would occur tomorrow…or next week or next year.  The effect on Americans has been a growing separation between economic reality and the media’s economic illusion. 
The ‘measured’ beliefs of many Americans clearly demonstrate that a disconnect does exist.  But are the cited causes the only explanation for this distortion?   Or is the statistical economic snow just too much and too boring for people to digest?  Perhaps Americans lack even a minimal understanding of the somewhat opaque concepts and statistical mechanics of economics.  Or is it because current information is not compared and contrasted to previous months and years with regularity to highlight trends and help understanding?  Or has a ‘new economic normal’ actually taken hold in the minds of most individuals?  These possibilities and others are contributing factors and can be added to the media causes degrading a realistic understanding of our troubled economy.

The public’s disconnect is seen in both polling and measurements of their confidence.   Polling indicates that the American people think the economy has improved since 2009.  In March, Pew Research discovered that 58% believed the economy is recovering or would recover soon verses 40% stating an economic resurgence wouldn’t occur for a long time.  This result compares to their December 2010 poll which surfaced 40% thinking the economy was recovering or would soon improve while 48% felt that economic improvement was in the distant future.  Similar polls by ABC, NBC, Fox News, CNN and CBS largely demonstrate similar results.  Additionally, consumer confidence declined from 68.0 in February to 59.7 in March. Although confidence has been very erratic over time, it has been gradually trending up since 2009.  Neither the polling nor the confidence trend makes sense in the face of the economy’s actual decline since 2009.  

The overall state and direction of the economy can be illustrated by a few important factors. 

  • Gross domestic product (GDP) has declined since 2010 when it equaled 2.4% in average quarterly growth (growth greater than 3.0% is considered fair and above 4.0%, good).  GDP in 2011 fell to 2.0% and then sank to only to 1.7% in 2012.  The fourth quarter of 2012 saw an anemic .4% in positive GDP activity.  In sum the cumulative GDP growth for the 12 quarters following the recent recession was 7.2%.  The number translates into the slowest GDP growth rate after a recession in years when compared to 11 previous recessions…where average growth exceeded 15% for a similar 12 quarter period. 
  • 4.5 million fewer Americans are working today than when the recession began and amazingly fewer are working today than in 2000.  This is more astonishing when accounting for a labor force increase of 11.4 million since that date.  And the White House prediction in 2009 that with a stimulus plan a 5.2% jobless rate would be realized by now…yet the unemployment rate is 7.6% (U3) and a more accurate measure equals 13.8% (U6) -- per the Bureau of Labor statistics (BLS) unemployment measures.  
  • 89,967,000 eligible Americans are currently not in the labor force.  In March 2009, 80,944,000 able bodied workers were sitting on the side lines.  The difference between dates totals 9,770,000 or an increase of 11.0% in the number of individual workers essentially giving up hope of employment.  The number of people leaving the labor pool or simply dropping out causes the unemployment rate to be misleading.  In March 496,000 workers dropped out of the workforce and the unemployment rate (U3) declined to 7.6%...if these workers had chosen to continue searching for jobs the unemployment rate would have grown from 7.7% to 7.9%.  Further if today’s labor participation rate was at January 2009 levels the unemployment rate would equal 10.98%.  Jobs remain critical to a healthy and robust economy.  Yet meaningful job creation simply hasn’t occurred since the recession ended in early 2009.
  • Food stamp usage has grown to 47.8 million participants (15% of total population today verses 7.9% from 1970 to 2000), an increase of 70% since 2008.  This support system continues to rapidly expand and preliminary 2013 numbers indicate that the program will soon have 50.0 million users.  The astounding growth is driven by not just the moribund economy and a lack of jobs but a loosening of the standards for inclusion in the program…an increase in a participant’s allowable asset and income thresholds.  Concurrently poverty has grown precipitously to almost 50.0 million, a level not seen since the mid-1960s.  In fact one in six Americans is now in poverty.
  • America is in danger of losing 1.7 million of our young workers (18-29 years) to the misery of our economy since they have abandoned their efforts to secure employment.  Many of these people have college degrees and are faced with the reality of much lower wages, older workers staying in their careers longer and only the availability of part time or hourly wage opportunities.
In contrast to the above, doing a careful reading of media economic reports surfaces manipulation and bias.  For example, weekly unemployment assistance filings have not noted that claims have yet to fall below 325,000 during the president’s tenure – a statement based on a sampling of 40 stories by Fox, AP, NYT, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune.  Prior to late 2008 weekly claim counts with magnitudes above 250,000 were considered terrible at best.  Now the narratives basically report the number of new filings, the difference to the prior week’s revised number and the running four week average with virtually no perspective on the magnitude of the numbers, relevance or trends.

The use of adjectives and phrases that do not fit the facts are often found in economic articles.  An egregious but not unusual example by the Associated Press’ economics writer is worth review.  Even the story’s headline, "US economy expands at 0.4 percent rate", is misleading.  In economic terms a .4% increase in GDP is hardly fact it is considered economic stagnation.  The opening paragraph says the .4% rate is anemic yet follows that assertion with, “[T]here is hope that growth accelerated in early 2013” without giving a reason for that hope. It’s stated later that, “Analysts think the economy is growing at a rate of around 2.5%”, again without a rationale/support or any identification of the unnamed analysts.  The narrative continues with unsupported positive speculation to its end. 

Another example of the media’s unrealistic and overly optimistic slant is illustrated in a Business & Money story.  The narrative reviews the BLS’s employment release for March 2013.  The writer states that the “Labor Department’s employment situation reports have been generally positive since November of last year” without establishing a standard to measure that judgment.  But later in the 4th paragraph it is posited that the report is much better than a first glance suggests and in the next segment the reader is told why.  The author uses the increase in employment realized due to a revision in two prior months and adds the amount to the March total of 88,000 new jobs to reach a contrived but still mediocre sum of 146,000 jobs (incidentally the correct math is 149,000 jobs).  And the masking of reality continued… e.g. a stated reason for the massive reduction of 496,000 in the workforce may have been due to unusually high retirement levels (yet BLS employment statistics clearly demonstrate that older people are delaying their retirement).  

Although only a few examples of bias, confusing or manipulative reporting are identified, a critical read of a majority of economic stories in the press will simply emphasize the findings presented.  Given the facts, media bias and manipulation is a valid and important reason -- of many -- for the gap between the public’s perception of the economy and its actual condition.