Better off today? Depends on who you are, but yes

I’ve always thought the question “are you better off today than you were four years ago” was kind of a shallow one. After all, it’s so subjective.


For instance, four years ago, I was marginally employed, lost in an alcohol- and Mexican soap opera-induced fugue, and spending a huge chunk of my time spastically pawing through old People magazines at the Neenah Public Library, trolling for circa 1985 photos of a post-Breakfast Club, pre-St. Elmo’s Fire Ally Sheedy while rapidly approaching the event horizon of a more or less permanent Count Chocula-suffused dereliction.

Today, I am married, gainfully employed, and wearing a nicely pressed and remarkably unsullied pair of khaki business casual slacks.

So while to any reasonable observer it would appear that my life is much, much worse now than four years ago, subjectively I feel better. So there it is. You never know.

Of course, the eternal question “Are you better off?” has reared its head again because we’re in a heated political mud-match between President Barack Obama and Gov. (of the state with universal health care and an individual insurance mandate) Mitt Romney.

Different people have a lot of different answers to that question and, again, subjectivity rules. If you’re a Republican, you’re bound to cite the stubbornly high unemployment figures as proof that people are not better off than they were four years ago. But official unemployment figures provide a notoriously flawed picture of the overall employment landscape. Most significantly, the official unemployment rate does not take into account discouraged workers who have left the workforce, so it’s hard to make true apples-to-apples comparisons. It’s possible for the unemployment rate to go up even though the job outlook is getting better, and it can also go down when the job outlook is getting worse.

That doesn’t mean we should dismiss the Republican criticism that the unemployment rate is too high and has stayed high under Obama’s watch. We’re miles away from full employment, and that’s a big problem – both for the country and the president’s re-election campaign.

But if you look at the overall economic picture, the “are you better off?” question resolves itself pretty quickly.

Here are just a few key indicators:

  • In January 2009, the month Obama was inaugurated, the country lost 800,000 jobs. While job growth of late has been weak (roughly in the 100,000-per-month range), at least we’re gaining. A 900,000-job swing is major progress.
  • When Obama took office, the economy was already in a deep recession and cratering fast thanks to a financial sector that had gorged itself like hangers-on at a Thursday night Caligula bacchanal before puking out economic catastrophe. While the economy is far from fully recovered, officially we haven’t been in a recession since 2009.
  • We have now seen 29 straight months of private-sector job growth. While no one is doing backflips over the numbers of jobs created, we’re much better off than we were. From February 2008 to January 2009, when Obama was inaugurated, we saw 12 straight months of deep job losses. At the tail end of the Bush presidency, from November 2008 to January 2009, private-sector job losses ranged from 658,000 to 839,000. Job losses piled up in the first year of Obama’s presidency (though they consistently and rapidly shrunk) before the economy registered its first month of private-sector job gains in two years (in March 2010).
  • On Jan. 20, 2009, the day Obama was inaugurated, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 7,949.09, the Nasdaq at 1,440.86, and the S&P 500 at 805.22. As of this writing (Monday, Sept. 10), they’re at 13,254.29, 3,104.02, and 1,429.08, respectively.
  • Finally, while this is little more than shameless sloganeering, Osama bin Laden is dead and GM is alive.

While the subjective “are you better off?” question is impossible to answer, this much is certain: Our country is better off economically than it was four years ago. The public has a notoriously short memory, but we’d all do well to remember where we were and just how far we’ve come.