Along with critical race theory, “wokeness,” the deep state, and other recent conservative obsessions, it appears we can now add the basic language of economics to the list of things Republicans have decided to go to war on.
Take the latest round of inflation statistics. On Wednesday morning, the U.S. got its first bit of truly good news about the rising cost of living this year. The Consumer Price Index, which has been surging in recent months, remained essentially flat in July. That was largely thanks to tumbling gas prices, which canceled out rising costs elsewhere. (Technically, the index actually declined a tiny amount, but the change rounded to zero.)
Core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, and is watched closely by economists and the markets, rose at a 3.8 percent annual rate, its lowest reading since September 2021.
At a White House press conference, President Joe Biden unsurprisingly took a moment to celebrate the welcome reprieve. “Today we received news that our economy had 0 percent inflation in the month of July,” he said. “Zero percent. Here’s what that means. While the price of some things went up last month, the price of other things went down by the same amount. The result, 0 inflation last month.”
Biden then added a slightly wonky flourish, noting that core inflation rose at its slowest rate in “several months.”
Now, personally, I think the president is at risk of spiking the football early here. While today’s inflation report was certainly welcome news, the month-to-month data can be erratic and reading too much into a single report can be hazardous. (I mean, trust me.) Nonetheless, everything Biden said was strictly accurate. Overall prices did not rise in July, meaning that inflation for the month was zero.
Republicans nonetheless erupted in furor and mockery. In tweet after tweet and article after article, right-leaning journalists, GOP officials, and party operatives accused of Biden of lying or misleading the public, since inflation is still up 8.5 percent over the past 12 months. “Ridiculous BS from the White House,” Sen. Ted Cruz huffed in a characteristic tweet. “There’s 8.5% inflation and basically everything anyone ever buys went up in price. This is just cruel gaslighting from the Biden admin.” Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee managed to wrap in some transphobia, tweeting that, “In Joe Biden’s America, men are women, and 8.5% inflation = 0% inflation.” Classy.
When journalists widely pointed out that what Biden said was basically accurate, conservatives promptly accused them of being patsies for the administration. “I’m trying to imagine the pitch and volume of outrage from journos right now, if it was a GOP admin that produced this economy, and was now trying to redefine recession and declare ‘zero inflation,’” Cruz adviser Omri Ceren complained. “It would send moons and planets across the solar system hurling out of orbit.”
This is all predictable enough—Republicans of course want to emphasize the economy’s troubles—but silly. It makes sense to cite the rate of inflation from the past 12 months when you want to talk about the cost of living versus a year before, which is what most families care about. But it’s totally acceptable to cite the one-month change in prices if you want to convey how much inflation is speeding up or slowing down in real time. I’ve often done it after particularly bad reports to highlight that prices were accelerating. You can accuse Biden of omitting context, but he isn’t lying, making things up, or violating any kind of longstanding practice by economists and journalists.
This is now the second month in a row in which conservatives have thrown a fit over economic lingo. In July, the right collectively excoriated journalists and the Biden administration for supposedly attempting to redefine the meaning of the word “recession,” after the most recent batch of gross domestic product numbers showed the economy had contracted for the second quarter in a row. According to a commonly used rule of thumb, which you will often hear repeated by Wall Street traders, two quarters of negative growth qualifies as a recession. But Biden told reporters that we were “not in a recession.”
That’s because, officially, we are not. The task of deciding when recessions begin and end traditionally falls to the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Business Cycle Dating Committee. The group of esteemed economists isn’t an official government office, but professionals rely on it as the final arbiters when it comes to this topic. The committee defines a recession as “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and that lasts more than a few months,” which they clock “based on a range of monthly measures” including income, spending, and hiring, among others.
This is a significantly fuzzier definition than the two-quarter rule, but it’s also a sensible one. GDP is just one number that can be nudged up or down by a variety of factors, and it makes sense to take a holistic view of the state of the economy. Technically, the U.S. never experienced two consecutive quarters of contracting GDP after the dot com bubble burst in the early 2000s, but between the choppy growth and job losses that ensued, the period was counted as a recession. Right now, we’re experiencing an inverse situation: The economy is technically shrinking, but employers are still on a hiring binge. It’s hard to really call that a downturn, though who knows, it might turn into one, eventually.
Nonetheless, Biden’s insistence that, no, we are not in an official recession left the right apoplectic. The fight online boiled over to the point where Wikipedia had to halt edits by new editors on its page for the term recession. Conservatives accused Biden of “governing by gaslighting.” Mind you, this is coming from a movement in thrall to a former president who lied about everything from the size of his inauguration crowd to the outcome of the 2020 election. The word chutzpah is inadequate.
Anyway, as an economics writer, this is all obviously exhausting, since talking about my beat using basic terminology now results in my mentions being flooded with accusations of being a propagandistic stooge. But I expect these kinds of fights will repeat if Biden gets additional good news he wants to trumpet. Such is life.