Misery Index

The “misery index” was coined by the economist Arthur Okun. It is calculated by adding the unemployment rate to the inflation rate. Jimmy Carter often referenced it when he was campaigning for the Presidency in 1976. Carter declared that since America was stuck with a misery index of 13.5, President Ford had no right to ask for re-election.

Was he right?

After Jimmy Carter was elected, the misery index continued to rise until his administration was vanquished in a landslide victory for Ronald Reagan. The chart below shows the progress of the misery index using October of each year from 1968 to 2008 as a data point.
Misery Index 1968-2008 Presidents

Be careful before you draw any conclusions.

Here’s a color-coded version of the same chart. It uses the modern media’s assignment of red to the Republicans and blue to the Democrats. Trying to make sense out of why the misery index goes up or down based solely on the party of the President in office comes up with some mixed results.

Presidents misery Index color

For instance, during Richard Nixon’s Republican administration the misery index continued to climb until Gerald Ford, also a Republican, took office. Ironically, President Ford’s misery index was trending lower the entire time he was in office and even as candidate Jimmy Carter made an issue of snap-shots of the index to oust Ford.

The misery index increased so much during Jimmy Carter’s administration that the American people embraced Republican Presidents for the next 12 years.

Misery is not easily forgotten.  But sometimes, like old soldiers, it just fades away. Listen to the old folks if you ever have the time.

As much as some people would like to tag all Democrat Presidents with the misery heaped on Americans during Carter’s administration, it doesn’t prove true when you look at the historic trend on the charts I’ve provided.

Bill Clinton presided over the lowest misery index since the early 1960’s and 1950’s. And we can’t blame the most recent after-burner climb of the misery index on a Democratic Party president since we’re nearing the end of eight years of a Republican administration.

So how can this be?

It is clear that which party the President belongs too is not the sole determiner of how miserable Americans will be. In addition, one of the most repeated lessons in history is to never put your faith in mortal kings. They’ll eventually let you down. The President alone does not control the misery index.

Is there another branch of government that has some control over the economy?

Yes, there is. It’s called the legislative branch, and it’s comprised of the House of Representatives and the Senate. They do the grunt work on budgets and taxes. The President has an influence, and sometimes he can force them to do his will–but not always.

What was going on in the legislative branch while that misery index was rising and diving?

Here’s the same chart of the 1968-2008 misery index showing which political party and which Speaker of the House was maybe culpable for American misery. It’s easy to see that Speakers of the House Albert and O’Neill and their fellow Democrats were in control during the most miserable times, but it doesn’t seem consistent.

Misery Index 1968-2008 Speakes

Notice how in 1980 the misery index plummets even with O’Neill as the Speaker of the House. Using this data, it is clear to see that the Speaker of the House alone does not control the misery index.

So what was happening with the Senate from 1968-2008?

Take a look at the chart below.  The Senate is often called the “upper house” so I’ve placed Democratic Party and Republican icons at the top of the chart along with the names of the Senate Leaders at the time. Notice how the misery index drops rapidly with the beginning of Senate Leader Baker’s control. It levels off when power switches to Senator Byrd, climbs again when Senator Mitchell comes to power but then defies the logic of blame by decreasing in the middle of his term of leadership.

Misery Index 1968-2008 Senate Leaders
While the chart appears to show that when Democrats control the Senate the misery index goes up, it is not consistently true. Thus, it is clear to see that the Senate Leader alone does not control the misery index.

What happens when we combine all three of these charts?

Misery Index 1968-2008 combined
When the misery index chart shows the President in office along with which party controls the House of Representatives and Senate, it becomes more clear that certain combinations result in more misery for Americans.

When the House and the Senate are controlled by the Democratic Party, regardless of which party the President belongs to, the misery index trends upwards. This is evident on the chart from 1968-1980, 1986-1993, and in our current time. But in contrast, when a Republican Senate is combined with either a Republican President or Republican House, the misery index trends downward.

The extraordinary drop in misery during President Reagan’s administration, according to the chart, appears to have been possible because of help from Baker’s and Dole’s Senate leadership. Notice how the misery index rose when the Democrats retook the Senate in 1986. The next big drop in the misery index occurred in 1995.  Interestingly, the Republicans control both the House the Senate while the Democrats control the Presidency.

So what does all of this mean?

By examining past results we can make some predictions about the future with some confidence of accuracy. We can deduce that the President can neither increase nor decease the misery of Americans by himself.

What a remarkable system we’ve inherited via the Constitution. As Veterans’ Day approaches, maybe we can understand a little better why America’s military pledges an oath to protect and defend the Constitution.  No American takes an oath to a Party, ruler, or place.

Based off of what we see in the trend chart below, the misery index of the Carter administration was not completely Jimmy Carter’s fault. He was enabled by a Democrat-controlled House and Senate. The result was the greatest misery index since statistics have been kept.

Misery Index 1968-2008 combined with arrows
You probably couldn’t help but to notice the sudden upswing in the misery index over the last two years.  Did you also notice how it seems to parallel the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s? That can be attributed to the Party that controls both the House and the Senate. And I’m sure you’ve notice that America just elected a Democratic Party member to be the next President of the United States.

If the trends of the last 40-years of Party-induced misery stays true to past performance, America will experience another big rise in misery beginning shortly after power is transferred. Just like during the Jimmy Carter years, when the Executive branch and both houses of Congress are controlled by the Democrat Party, nothing can dissuade their economic policies from pushing misery upwards.

So misery seems certain to come.  Here’s the solution to prevent a new record in American misery.

If the misery index keeps rising over the next two years, America should realized that the only way to stop it is to balance the power through the 2010 election. We have already seen a Republican Senate and House combine to lower misery in 1996–some may argue it even made Clinton successful enough to be re-elected.  While that can neither be proved nor disproved, we do know that it worked to lower misery.  The chart above clearly shows that.  The chart suggest that it will probably work again in 2010.

Looking backwards, that would have been the solution in 1976–but alas, it wasn’t tried. Some people said we got what we deserved for keeping one-party control back then. But saying that didn’t make life any better. Anybody old enough to remember 17% house loans, 22% car loans, and Staff-Sergeants standing in line for food stamps?

I am.  It was miserable.

When the misery index rises–and it will–and if the American people fail to balance the power by voting a Republican majority into both houses of Congress in 2010, some people might say we’ll get what we deserve.

Talk is cheap. Misery is expensive.

It just makes sense.

I’ve posted this on my political commentary site http://charlessutherland.com with charts that are easier to read–you don’t have to click on them to view them.  It’ll stay there until I get another vision.


One Response to “Misery Index”

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