Saturday, July 31, 2004

Do the Math

Michael Kinsley whips out the calculator to see if there’s any truth to the line that Republicans are better at handling the economy than Democrats. Guess what.

You know how sometimes, when it’s really, really hot, you get this urge to crank up the old spreadsheet, download a bunch of numbers from the Web and start crunching away like there’s no next fiscal year?

Me neither. But I did spend a bit of the past week watching the Democratic convention on TV, and I needed something to exercise my mind while that was going on. Convention season is the one time every four years when we pretend that political parties matter. In general, we have accepted the reality that campaigns for national office have become entrepreneurial, united more by shared political consultants than by old-fashioned parties.

So I thought I’d see if there was a difference between the parties that transcended the differences between the candidates. Is one of them, for example, a better steward of the economy? One year won’t tell you much, or even one administration. But surely differences will emerge over half a century or so, if they exist.


It turns out that Democratic presidents have a much better record than Republicans. They win in a head-to-head comparison in almost every category. Real growth averaged 4.09% in Democratic years, 2.75% in Republican years. Unemployment was 6.44%, on average, under Republican presidents, and 5.33% under Democrats. The federal government spent more under Republicans than Democrats (20.87% of GDP, compared with 19.58%), and that remains true even if you exclude defense (13.76% for the Democrats, 14.97% for the Republicans).

What else? Inflation was lower under Democratic presidents (3.81% on average, compared with 4.85%). And annual deficits took more than twice as much of GDP under Republicans than Democrats (2.74% of GDP versus 1.21%). Republicans won by a nose on government revenue (i.e., taxes), taking 18.12% of GDP, compared with 18.39%. That, of course, is why they lost on the size of the deficit.

Personal income per capita was also a bit higher in Republican years ($16,061 in year- 2000 dollars) than in Democratic ones ($15,565). But that is because more of the Republican years came later, when the country was more prosperous already.


But maybe we are taking too long a view. The Republican Party considers itself born again in 1981, when Ronald Reagan became president. That’s when Republicans got serious about cutting taxes, reducing the size of government and making the country prosperous. Allegedly. But doing all the same calculations for the years 1982 through 2002, and giving each president’s policies a year to take effect, changes only one result: The Democrats pull ahead of the Republicans on per capita personal income.

As they say in the brokerage ads, past results are no guarantee of future performance. [Los Angeles Times]

Oh, those tax-and-spend Democrats!