Misery Index hits Reagan Years HighPosted: May 15, 2011
One of the measurements of economic well-being that got some play in the Carter/Reagan years was the Misery Index. It basically measures the impact of price increases and unemployment on people. There’s some new information coming out of this index. It seems it’s as bad as it was in 1983.
John Williams, over at Shadow Stats, compiles economic data for inflation and unemployment the way it used to be calculated pre-1990. Based on that data, the CPI inflation rate is over 10%, and the unemployment rate is over 15% (see charts). The Misery Index is the sum of the current inflation rate and the unemployment rate. If it were to be calculated using the older methods, the Index would now be over 25, a record high. It surpasses the old index high of 21.98, which occurred in June 1980, when Jimmy Carter was president. Most believe the height of the Index along with the Iranian hostage crisis is what caused Carter to lose his re-election bid.
We’ve changed a lot of the way we measure inflation and unemployment since then partially because we’ve tried to focus more narrowly on measures of both inflation and unemployment but also because the measures were consistently high during the 1970s and 1980s. The inflation rate as stated by the CPI was frequently overstated because of its use of a base market basket that didn’t always reflect the introduction of new goods and services, the places people shop, and the switching or substitution behavior of people. It had a fix budget apportionment that was used to weight prices and those weights were frequently stale.
The changes in the way the unemployment rate was measured had to do with the shift away from reliance on the traditional 40 hour work week job by both businesses and job seekers. The unemployment rate was changed so that you only had to work at least one hour a week at paid work to be excluded. This is why economists look at a bunch of different statistics to get a handle on the job market. People that don’t want to work part time but are stuck there are now considered underemployed and are tracked separately. If you visit Shadow Government Statistics you can see comparisons of the old and the new way of doing things.
Some of the most salient points are that long-term, discouraged workers were taken out of the unemployment statistic in 1994. SGS calls this being “defined out of existence”. Again, the statistic is still being tracked so you have to go look for it at the BLS. I will say that economics reporters have been doing a better job of providing more than just the unemployment rate in their analysis. You have to look at the underemployed and the discouraged worker to get a good idea of what’s going on. We’ve talked about the changes in the make up of the labor force around here because it’s one of the reasons that you’re seeing the unemployment rate go up and down recently. When discouraged workers re-enter the labor force, the new unemployment rate will go up because the number of people in the labor force–the denominator in the statistic–goes up.
I actually have less problems with the changes in the inflation right but then again, the problem is that people need to realize that the definitions of the measures have changed and narrowed so it is important to look at more than just one rate. This does explain, however, why people whose budgets are being impacted by food and gas prices aren’t seeing the pain in the new inflation rates. We’ve talked about this before also.
So, what does this mean? I think it’s significant that the Misery Index is basically at similar levels to the last time the country was expressing discontent with the economy because it gives us a historical perspective. Ronald Reagan probably would not have won a second term if the Federal Reserve didn’t start significantly loosing monetary policy during that same time which brought down the inflation included in the Misery Index.The first Reagan term was the last time the economy was this bad. Changes in monetary policy were the real reason for the worst of the Carter Recession and much of the eventual Reagan Recovery although some of the Reagan Recovery was due to the incredible increase in government purchases which are typical Keynesian economic aggregate demand stimulation policies. Paul Volcker and the Fed brought on a recession by increasing interest rates in an attempt to reign in inflation and inflation expectations. They did so. It happened with some extreme economic pain and that was what the Misery Index was supposed to reflect at the time. The drivers for the misery right now are different. We have record loose monetary policy. The incredible shock to the economy of the financial crisis is the root of our issues now.