Moneybox

Here’s Why Trump Tweeted That Weird, Incorrect Factoid About Economic Growth and Unemployment

US President Donald Trump speaks during a fundraiser in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on September 7, 2018. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP)        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Tweeted another Tweet. The Tweet Was Wrong.
NICHOLAS KAMM/Getty Images

Welp, it’s Monday morning and I’m back from a blissful week of vacation, mostly without Internet access. I guess it’s time to fire up the ol’ Twitter machine and see what’s going on in the …

Oh.

Sigh. No, that’s not right. Forget the last century. The quarterly growth rate (red line) has popped higher than the monthly unemployment rate (blue line) several times in the last twenty years.

Unemployment and economic growth

Comparing quarterly data only, it appears that the growth rate has topped the three-month average unemployment rate more than 60 times since 1948, when reliable government figures begin.

Unemployment and economic growth

Not that this comparison is meaningful or illuminating in any way. The quarterly growth rate doesn’t have any direct relationship to the unemployment rate. It’s also spiky. It pops up. It plunges down. The figure gives us a fleeting sense of the economy’s momentum—and its constituent parts can show analysts important things about business investment or consumer spending—but tells us little about even its medium-term health. That’s why most presidents don’t spend much time crowing about three-month stretches of growth.

Trump, however, wants to convince Americans that they are living through “the strongest economy in the history of our nation.” According to the Washington Post, he’s made some version of that claim “in 40 different venues over three months,” and as we saw this morning, he seems to be grasping for talking points that might justify it. It doesn’t matter to him if they’re factually incorrect non-sequiturs. So the broader issue here isn’t that the president tweeted another tweet and that tweet was wrong (what else is new?). It’s that he’s commenced another, very specific gaslighting campaign to make people believe a good economy is actually the greatest economy.

Update, Sept. 10, 2018 3:17 PM:

Kevin Hassett, who chairs the White House Council of Economic Advisers, popped by the today’s daily press briefing, where a reporter asked him about Trump’s comment.

What is true is that it’s the highest in ten years. And at some point, somebody probably conveyed it to him, adding a zero to that, and they shouldn’t have done that. And I can say that at least we numbers geeks here at the white house are grateful for—when the press finds mistakes that we make, we don’t like making mistakes, but we’re grateful when they’re pointed out, because we want to correct them. And you might have noticed that I gave Sarah a bad number a few weeks ago, it was 100% my fault and I apologized immediately. And you would have to talk to the president about where the number came from, but the correct number is ten years.

Hassett is roughly correct about the ten years bit. But again, the fact that Trump, or one of his advisers, tacked a zero onto that speaks to the fact that the president has convinced himself, and is trying to convince the country, that we are living through an economic golden age unlike any previously seen.