Charles Franklin | February 17, 2010
This chart from Organizing for American drew a lot of comment today. On its face, it is a striking and strong contrast between the Bush and Obama records on jobs. From a purely graphical perspective it is very effective in contrasting the rate of job loss in the past two years, and from a perspective of political rhetoric it is a strong claim that Obama has done better. And it has proven very attention getting, so it has served that political purpose as well.
But let's plot the same data in an equally relevant but strikingly different way visually. Let's look at total jobs lost over the past two years. This is simply the data above, but summed to show how many jobs the economy has shed and therefore how deep the hole is we still have to climb out of.
The OfA chart gives the impression that we have "returned" to where we were in January 2008. The sharp rise since February 2009 gives the impression that what was lost in red has now been regained in blue. But of course, that isn't right. The rate of loss has indeed slowed tremendously in the first year of the Obama administration, something the White House has every right to crow about. But that doesn't mean we've returned to previous employment levels. In fact, we've continued to sink lower throughout the last year, just at a slower and slower rate.
This second chart makes that perspective on the data more clear. It is visually clear, if less dramatic than for OfA's chart, that the rate of job loss has slowed. But my version of the chart drives home the point that we have continued to lose jobs and now stand at over 8 million jobs lost since December of 2007. That is the other "deficit" the administration must worry about. The recovery, which GDP data show has started and at 5.7% growth in the 4th quarter is quite strong, will take a very long time to regain these lost jobs. This fact is made clear in my chart, while it is obscured in the OfA presentation.
Interestingly, my chart is also subtly deceptive. More jobs were lost in the last Bush year than were lost in the first Obama year. But the red lines look shorter and smaller than the blue Obama lines. That makes the graph appear to show that things are worse for Obama, even though his job losses are actually about 3 million compared to Bush's 5 million.
One can think of these two charts as data displays that reveal different aspects of data, but
also as graphical political rhetoric. The different aspects of data are the sharp reduction in the rate of job loss shown so well in the OfA chart and the terrible cumulative loss to employment in the country that has not yet started to rebound that is shown in my chart. Both of those are "true facts" about the jobs data. They use exactly the same data, so differences are entirely matters of perspective and perception rather than "apples to oranges" comparisons. But while both are true stories, their substantive interpretations are quite different-- one is a story of an administration's success is stemming the tide of recession, the other is the high water mark of that tide, which has yet to begin receding.
The other story is graph as rhetoric. The OfA is splendid rhetoric that seems to make an utterly persuasive point with simple yet bold graphics. But it is a rhetorical answer that conducts a slight of hand away from recovery of jobs lost to reductions in rate of loss. Credit worthy to be sure, but not so positive a result as the chart suggests. The rhetoric also succeeds because it has been so widely picked up and commented upon. Even the critics pass on the message that is sent by every viewing of the image.
My chart has its own rhetorical concerns. By focusing on the status of job losses, rather than their trajectory, mine shows the depths of job loss and the lack so far of a trend back up. Mine doesn't lie, because it too shows the reduction in rate of loss, but without a hint of even the beginning of recovery of jobs, mine clearly leaves the rhetorical impression that things are not only no better but are actually quite a bit worse than when Obama took office. The added optical illusion that the red bars are shorter than the blue, even though the opposite is the case, just adds to the false impression that most of the jobs troubles are within the Obama year.
Same data, two charts, two different impressions, both fundamentally true yet also fundamentally misleading in opposite ways. When data and politics mix beware the power of graphs to imply their own conclusions, even with the same data. And appreciate the rhetorical success of a graph that does it's creator's bidding.