Rumors of Scott Walker’s resurrection have been greatly exaggerated
So what exactly is the state of the state’s economy, and where does Scott Walker stand with Wisconsin voters, who will either give him a second term in 2014 or send him off to test his worth among the growing pool of high-profile college dropouts? (I’m guessing he would end up falling somewhere on the success spectrum between Bill Gates and the guy who’s forced to wipe up mascot blood after Chuck E. Cheese riots. But who knows? He could become president one day.)
Some recent positive economic news has brought the Badger State’s conservative spin machine out of hiding — whereas Republicans had previously been loath to mention our state’s economic malaise relative to the rest of the nation lest it be, you know, noticed. In short, there was no way to make Walker’s economic performance look good up until now, so sleight-of-hand and misdirection ruled the day.
But now there’s a glimmer of starlight peeking in through the clouds, and Republicans, mistaking it for a spectacular harvest moon, are baying like coked-up lycanthropes.
Two pieces of evidence have been trotted out by the Walker administration to show that it’s morning in Dairyland, and they have conservatives suddenly feeling cocky.
First is the recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, which predicts that Wisconsin’s economy will grow 3.14% over the next six months, placing it second among all states in economic expansion. I have to admit, this one left me blinking in disbelief. Not that it’s hard to believe that our economy has improved (it had nowhere to go but up, after all), but it seemed impossible to fathom that we were now second from the top in the Philadelphia Fed’s ranking after languishing in 49th place just two months ago. At that time, the Philadelphia Fed was predicting that Wisconsin would be one of only five states to show economic contraction in the coming months, and now we’re suddenly near the front of the pack.
Huh? I hadn’t seen anyone’s fortunes shift so radically since the last time J. Howard Marshall stepped into a Houston strip club. I have to think there’s at least some reason to be suspicious.
To be fair, I was among the chorus of nattering nabobs who piled on when the Philadelphia Fed listed our state as an economic bottom feeder, and I’m more than willing to step up now and eat my well-deserved helping of crow. But when economic measures swing this wildly, it makes me wonder at least as much about the measure as the economy it supposedly reflects. At the very least, this quantum leap should make us cautious about reading too much into these monthly rankings.
Believe it or not, the second piece of evidence, the June state jobs report, is much easier to dismiss. The report was very encouraging indeed. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wisconsin added 17,500 nonfarm jobs and 13,800 private sector jobs from May to June, and the DWD’s press release on the jobs numbers was a full-throated paean to the Walker administration.
But when you dig deeper, you’ll discover that some context is missing. Or rather, all of it. There’s no context, and that’s as the Walker administration intends. So here’s a heapin’ helping of context:
First of all, it’s become clear to us here at In Business HQ that the monthly BLS numbers are kind of a joke. So much so that we’ve basically stopped reporting them. Based on a tiny 3.5% sample size and subject to heavy revisions, the numbers are often wildly off the mark, and they have become useful only to spinmeisters. (For a more thorough explanation, see IB Editorial Director Joe Vanden Plas’ excellent blog post “About those state jobs numbers …”)
But it’s one thing for us to know this and respond accordingly. It’s another for the Walker administration to know it and proceed as if the monthly BLS numbers are accurate.
How do I know that the Walker administration is spinning like FDR in his grave* right about now? Because last year, when the terrible monthly BLS numbers showed that we were actually shedding jobs while other states gained them — leaving us worst in the nation in job creation — the administration prematurely released the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages report, which showed job gains. At the time, I gave Walker his due. He was right that the QCEW, which is based on a sample size of around 95% of state employers, was the more accurate measure. (Though I also noted that the numbers hadn’t been reviewed according to the usual procedure and that they said nothing about the state’s job-creation record relative to other states.)
So when the BLS numbers actually showed our state losing jobs, Walker wanted to have nothing to do with them, and he loudly (and rightly, to the chagrin of many liberals-in-denial) promoted the QCEW numbers as the more accurate data set. But if you’re going to dismiss the BLS numbers when they go against you and embrace them when they make you look good, you need to be called out on it. In fact, as recently as April, the BLS numbers showed the state losing 21,900 jobs, revised down from a preliminary total of 24,100 lost jobs. I’m guessing there was no chirpy press release then. (If you want to peer even deeper into the DWD’s spinning ways, check out this highly informative blog post from Bruce Thompson at Urban Milwaukee.)
Of course, the rich irony in all this is that the QCEW numbers — which Walker was only too happy to prematurely release prior to the recall election when his political life was at stake — still show that Wisconsin is a laggard when it comes to job creation. The most recent QCEW report showed that we were 33rd in the nation in private sector job creation (31st in total job creation), had a rate of job creation (1.4%) that still badly trails the national rate (2.3%), and lagged behind all other Midwestern states with the exception of Illinois, with which we were tied.
What’s more, as Democrats pointed out when we leaped from 44th to 33rd in the nation in private sector job growth based on the QCEW numbers, we’re still just 38th in the nation in job growth since Walker took office.
Now, I’m going to share a secret with my readers. Ready? I don’t really like Scott Walker. And it’s pretty obvious that most of what I write hits the page after gushing through a liberal filter. I’m often amused when readers accuse me of partisanship. Yeah, check out the name of the blog, Chachi. What did you think you were gonna get?
Here’s another secret: Bloggers with established biases tend to present a version of reality that conforms with their own worldview. Not just bloggers. Humans. We all like to present the most appealing face possible.
Check out that picture on the right that accompanies my column. Somehow, the alchemists in our art department captured the best possible image of me that exists or ever could exist. You could place cameras at every geometrical point in the universe and have them snap photos every nanosecond for the next 40 years, and you’d never find this photo’s equal. I’m very pleased with it. Of course, in reality, I look like Buddy Hackett’s fetus, but somehow this headshot makes me appear more or less normal.
Such is the case with folks who have political biases (i.e., all of us). We want to see reality, but we prefer to see a softer version of it, so on occasion we shoot it through a fuzzy layer of gauze.
So I can’t blame Walker or his supporters for latching onto these newest numbers. Despite everything, they are indeed encouraging — to a point. Then again, we need to see the context. And what I can’t stomach is the Republican triumphalism that seems to accompany each glimmer of good news for Scott Walker or minor dark portent for President Obama.
Why is that? Well, because when you widen your lens, you’ll see that Democrats are actually far better stewards of the economy than Republicans (as I argue here, here, and here). What’s more, the last president to follow the standard GOP playbook took a pratfall the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Great Depression.
Remember that guy? Republicans seem to have forgotten he ever existed. Then again, how can you blame them? As Homer Simpson famously noted, “Everything looks bad if you remember it.”
We have months and months to go before Wisconsin decides Scott Walker’s future, and a lot can happen. He’s already floated the idea of expanding Act 10 to include firefighters and police (that will peel away a few more voters), and after his support of several anti-choice measures, including an ultrasound requirement for abortions, women are unlikely to flock to his side. Unless his economic performance by October of 2014 is exemplary, he’ll still be vulnerable.
That is, if the Democrats can find a good candidate. At this point, that’s still a big if.
*At a recent conference, Walker said, “The position I pushed is not unlike the principle that Franklin Delano Roosevelt — not exactly a conservative — pushed as well when it came to public sector collective bargaining. He felt that there wasn’t a need in the public sector to have collective bargaining because the government is the people. We are the people. And so what we’ve done is to be able to empower our great employees, to affirm them.”
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