MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

VOLOKH CONSPIRACY

Mostly law professors, blogging on whatever we please since 2002 · Hosted by The Washington Post, 2014-2017 · Hosted by Reason 2017 · Sometimes contrarian · Often libertarian · Always independent

Political Ignorance and George H.W. Bush's Defeat in the 1992 Election

Bush lost because voters punished him for the recession of the early 1990s - an event he did not cause. This is just one example of a broader phenomenon of voters rewarding and punishing politicians for things they do not control.

President George H.W. Bush.President George H.W. Bush.

President George H.W. Bush, whose funeral is today, is now a much-admired figure on both sides of the political spectrum. But it wasn't always so. Although he achieved high approval ratings early in his administration, his popularity plummeted, and he suffered a painful defeat in his 1992 reelection bid.

Why did that happen? Pollsters and other experts overwhelmingly agree, as the Bill Clinton campaign famously put it, that by far the biggest factor was "the economy, stupid." Voters punished Bush for the recession of the early 1990s, which came at exactly the right time to doom Bush's reelection prospects. Had it come a year earlier or a few years later, Bush would likely have won.

Dumping Bush because of the recession might have made sense if he and his policies had caused it. But few if any economists believe that to be the case. Rather, experts generally conclude that the cause was some combination of business cycle effects and trends in financial markets. Ultimately, Bush lost primarily because economically ignorant voters blamed him for an event he did not cause.

The 1992 election was not an isolated historical curiosity. Studies find that voters in both the United States and around the world routinely reward and punish incumbent politicians for events they have little or no control over, while often ignoring more subtle policy effects that the incumbents really are responsible for. Short-term trends in the economy are the most ubiquitous example. But they are far from the only one. Voters also reward and punish incumbents for such events as droughts, shark attacks, and even local sports team victories.

The point here is not that the voters were necessarily wrong to reject Bush (or any other particular politician). In 1992, there were perfectly plausible reasons to believe that Bill Clinton, sex scandals notwithstanding, would be a better president than Bush. The real cause for concern is that in this case - and many others - voters were deciding based on flawed criteria. That greatly increases the risk of error. Using such criteria might still lead to a good outcome. Sometimes, people can make the right decision for the wrong reasons. But when that happens, it is largely a matter of luck.

The problem is not just that ignorance might cause the electorate to choose the "wrong" candidate out of those who get nominated by the major parties. It is also that it reduces the quality of the choices available to us in the first place. Knowing that they face a largely ignorant electorate, candidates and parties adopt platforms and campaign strategies that cater to that ignorance. In that respect, public ignorance helps ensure that we are all losers long before election day.

Rewarding and punishing politicians for short-term economic trends is an example of "retrospective voting" - making electoral decisions based on simple metrics of whether things seem to be going well or badly under the rule of the incumbent. Most voters know little about government and public policy, in large part because it is rational for them to devote little or no time to learning such information. As a result, they tend to rely on crude "information shortcuts" to make decisions, of which retrospective voting is one of the most commonly used. Unfortunately, such shortcuts are often unreliable, in part because their effective use can require knowledge that generally ignorant voters do not possess (in this case, knowledge of what outcomes incumbents really are responsible for).

There is no easy solution to the kind of public ignorance that doomed Bush in 1992 and impacts many other elections, as well. But we should at least be more aware of the problem, and recognize that it is a systemic flaw, not one limited to a particular election, or to voters on one side of the partisan divide.

In my own work on political ignorance, I argue that the most promising approach is limiting and decentralizing government power, thereby increasing opportunities for people to "vote with their feet," in which framework they have much stronger incentives to become well-informed than when making choices at the ballot box. But there are also other options worth considering, such as voter education initiatives, "sortition," and directly incentivizing citizens to increase their knowledge. As we remember George H.W. Bush and consider his legacy, we should also keep in mind the problem highlighted by his defeat in 1992, and begin to take it more seriously.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Bush Sr lost because Ross Perot was better than him on a multitude of issues and Bush's accomplishments are limited to nominating Clarence Thomas, letting Jim Baker unite Muslim nations to fight with the USA against Saddam Hussein, and letting the US military utterly defeat the Iraqi Army.

  • James Pollock||

    " letting the US military utterly defeat the Iraqi Army."

    Of course, it was Bush (Sr.)'s ambassador to Iraq that made that necessary.

    Saddam Hussein asked the ambassador if the U.S. would oppose his annexation of Kuwait, and the response was roughly "the U.S. would have no opinion on the matter" when the CORRECT answer was "No, don't do that".

  • TwelveInchPianist||

    "Saddam Hussein asked the ambassador if the U.S. would oppose his annexation of Kuwait, and the response was roughly "the U.S. would have no opinion on the matter"

    So that's what the April Gillespie bullshit has evolved into nowadays? Color me shocked.

  • James Pollock||

    The original was slightly more verbose, but I think I've paraphrased in correctly. Of course, the English version is probably not what was actually transmitted to Baghdad. The state department has interpreters.

  • TwelveInchPianist||

    "I think I've paraphrased in correctly."

    I'm sure you do.

  • James Pollock||

    And so do you, or you would have offered up something different.

  • TwelveInchPianist||

    I'm not your google. There's plenty of accurate info out there. Just not in your comment.

  • James Pollock||

    I didn't ask you to support my claim. I asked you to support yours.

    To which you replied "I got nothin' but I'm not saying THAT!"

  • TwelveInchPianist||

    I made an observation, that the bullshit about Glaspie from 1990 has evolved into a claim that she greenlit the invasion. And that is apparently correct.

  • Sarcastr0||

    In a meeting with Mr. Hussein in Baghdad on July 25, eight days before the invasion, Ms. Glaspie urged the Iraqi leader to settle his differences with Kuwait peacefully but added, ''We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait,'' according to an Iraqi document described as a transcript of their conversation.

  • notFrye||

    Yes,
    "Under polite questioning from the senators, Glaspie explained that she told Hussein the U.S. had ''no opinion'' on his border dispute with Kuwait because it is U.S. policy to take no position on Arab border disputes other than that they be settled peacefully"
    https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ ct-xpm-1991-03-21-9101250826-story.html

  • notFrye||

    Testimony said that there had been frequent temporary incursions https://www.c-span.org/video/ ?17199-1/us-policy-iraq
    ""Second, there was a mindset in the area -- now, here I don't mean to cast aspersions -- I don't think we held it, but I think the Arabs held it, that if he did anything further to bully and intimidate, perhaps as a background to the negotiations that they hoped he was going to begin, it would be yet another in a long series of incursions that Iraq had made since 1963 or even 1961, since Kuwaiti independence. And there have been a number of them, some very flagrant ones. In '73, a well known one, for instance, and I think as I mentioned yesterday, a less well known one about a year before August the 2nd. So it was true that Arabs talked about this as a possibility, but after the 25th, King Fahd and President Mubarak felt that they had a commitment that would not be broken." 02:00:31

  • TwelveInchPianist||

    "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait,"

    And this was correct. We had no opinion on Iraq's disagreement with Kuwait, like the other 30-odd minor Arab-Arab border conflicts. I'm not sure what kind of partisanship it takes to see this as green-lighting the invasion and annexation of Kuwait.

  • James Pollock||

    " I'm not sure what kind of partisanship it takes"

    Saddam was Ba'ath party, and he saw this as green-lighting the invasion and annexation of Kuwait. So now you know.

  • James Pollock||

    "We had no opinion on Iraq's disagreement with Kuwait"

    Which is why we went to war over it. Gotcha.

  • TwelveInchPianist||

    I get it. You don't understand the difference between the minor dispute Glaspie was referring to, and the invasion and annexation of the entire country that occurred days later. You can read up on it if you want, but I suspect you won't.

  • James Pollock||

    "I get it. You don't understand the difference between the minor dispute Glaspie was referring to, and the invasion and annexation of the entire country that occurred days later."

    I get it. "Glaspie green-lit the war" is a better thing for you to argue with than "She just wasn't very good at her job", so you're going to stick with arguing the one instead of acknowledging the other.

  • Naaman Brown||

    "We had no opinion on Iraq's disagreement with Kuwait, other than it be settled peacefully."

    Which is why we (USA in coalition with allied nations across the Middle East) went to war over it. Gotcha. With omissions.

  • AmosArch||

    Brainy rational leftists think affirmative consent is a must every 5 seconds of a man kissing a girl but not necessary when it comes to a (non US) nation invading another country and slaughtering people.

  • Intelligent Mr Toad||

    Ross Perot took almost exactly the same number of votes from Clinton as from Bush. Net effect equals zero.

    And Bush Sr. nominated someone a damm sight better than Clarence Thomas Long Dong Silver. Someone who actually supported non-intrusive government. David Souter.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Your citation fell off.

  • damikesc||

    You mean the guy who voted FOR New London, CT in the Kelo decision? That anti-gov't intrusion dude?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Pollack is some troll y'all have over here at Volokh.

  • James Pollock||

    Ah, how cute. The troll (almost) knows my name...

  • mad_kalak||

    Really, I took it as a deliberate, deserved misspelling.

  • James Pollock||

    Ah, another troll pops up. This one with at least a trace of irony. Wonderful.

  • mad_kalak||

    And you respond exactly as the (possibly) deliberate misspelling indicates you would. Bravo!

  • James Pollock||

    You think I comment like a fish? OK, I guess...

  • mad_kalak||

    It was the "lack" part...what are you often lacking, ask yourself. I'm pretty sure it was a typo, but it fits.

  • James Pollock||

    "what are you often lacking, ask yourself."

    Patience for fools? Yeah, I've got a pretty low level of that.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    In politics outcomes are usually under-determined or over-determined. I'd call this one over-determined; Bush had ran promising to be Reagan's third term. (IIRC, he used those precise words.) Instead, as soon as he was President, he started reversing a number of things Reagan had done that were popular with the Republican base.

    If he hadn't alienated so many of the activists who'd voted for him, he *might* have been able to ride out the economy. But I doubt it, he pissed off a lot of people with those gratuitous policy reversals. "Read my lips." was only one of a long list.

  • ||

    Not to mention signing the ADA (ceremoniously) that further expanded the federal government's control over purely local matters. The below article describes the result.

  • ||

  • Purple Martin||

    Many complex events such as Donald Trump's 2016 election victory (or Hilary Clinton's loss) result from a string of 'necessary but not sufficient' factors. Among a few potentially-applicable factors were:

    – Russian election interference
    – Comey's October Letter
    – General voter population misogyny
    – Clinton's misapplication of campaign resources
    – Trump's unique ability to generate campaign coverage

    Perhaps the in the absence of a single one of these factors (but certainly in the absence of all of them), Trump would have lost the Electoral College and not just the popular vote.

    George H. W. Bush's 1992 election loss (or Bill Clinton's victory) presents another such example. Certainly, most knowledgeable analyses of that election agree the recession was the singlest largest factor in the Bush loss. A large 3rd-party vote was another. Loss of far-right support (summarized under the "read my lips" reversal) was a third (Brett Bellmore argues, more by intuition than objective support, that this was sufficient in itself).

    Had only one of those three factors been present (e.g., recession but not read-my-lips or 3rd party), Bush might have won anyway. Ilya is relying on long standing, well supported traditional election theory that the recession by itself, best explains Bush's loss.

    He then goes on to to use that issue to explore a different topic, which frankly is far more interesting than one more rehash of an election from the last century.

  • BigT||

    Perot did it. The rest is just dressing.

  • Purple Martin||

    Could be!

  • BigT||

    What are you doing here anyway? It's not purple martin time.

  • Purple Martin||

    Gee, I did notice it seems a little cold out there (actually, Purple is for both my Colorado Rockies, and my politics).

  • James Pollock||

    People who didn't like Bush (Sr.) didn't really dislike him, and people who liked him didn't really like him.
    So Perot got some of each.

  • captcrisis||

    Perot took more votes from Clinton than he did from Bush.

    We know this because, during the months that Perot was out of the race, Clinton's lead was a lot bigger.

  • Calidissident||

    There's really not much evidence to support the notion that Perot voters preferred Bush to Clinton (or not voting) enough for Bush to win, or even that they preferred him to Clinton by any significant margin.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    There is, however, the matter of him getting on the ballot in many states by means of having ballot access laws waived by elections officials who really did think he'd serve as a spoiler.

    We were pretty pissed about that in the LP, having had to get our ballot access the difficult, expensive way, complying with those laws.

  • Intelligent Mr Toad||

    Nope.

  • DjDiverDan||

    How about you add to that list the following:

    - The fact that Hillary Clinton was pathologically dishonest and irredeemably corrupt;
    - The fact that Hillary Clinto had absolutely zero notable accomplishments as a Senator;
    - The fact that Hillary Clinton was demonstrably incompetent as Secretary of State, as evidenced by her backing of the Libya adventure resulting in a complete vacuum of power in Libya which was promptly filled by terrorists, by her gross mishandling of Benghazi, and by her private email server kerfuffle (and by her continued use of unsecured cell phones, despite repeated warnings by State Department security personnel); and
    - The fact that Hillary's entire history, from her time in D.C. on the staff of the House Judiciary Comittee, to her time in Arkansas with the Rose Law Firm while married the Arkansas AG and later Governor, to her timein the White House, demonstrated her utter lack of fitness to be President.

    Sure, you can attribute the election of Trump to political ignorance. Or you can behonest and admit that, as bad as Donald Trump was (and he was terrible), he was only the SECOND worst candidate for President put up by the two major parties.

  • apedad||

    Agree with everything DDD says about HC (except maybe the Libya adventure thing which was a multi-agency thing).

    She rode Bill's coattails and sucked up to the NY money people (Friends-of-Bill), and never really earned anything.

    And I still would vote for her every single time over Trump.

  • mad_kalak||

    I love the honesty. Funny that, partisanship is an odd drug, innit? I held my nose and voted for Trump, but when the GOP candidate is dreck, I usually just not vote in that particular race unless the Dem candidate is tolerable (which sometimes happens in local races).

  • James Pollock||

    "partisanship is an odd drug, innit?"

    Just say no.

  • mad_kalak||

    I tried to vote Democrat as looking out for the little guy when I was younger, but they often just wouldn't let me by taking to many other intolerable positions.

  • James Pollock||

    Just say no.

  • Purple Martin||

    DDD, I listed several "Among a few potentially-applicable factors" so yes, your suggested additions could be summarized into a single additional potentially-applicable factor:

    – The dividends to the far-right, of a 30 year investment in a targeted program demonizing the Clintons

    The rest of your contribution is just standard obsessive parroting of simplistic insult, paranoiac accusations, and rote repetition of fantasies parroted from fringe websites, anonymous emails, and talk radio. Frankly, it's irrelevant to any actual argument.

    Clinton was a bad candidate (among other reasons, because I dislike celebrity or dynastic candidates) but she (like Mike Pence) is bad within the bounds of normal. She stood a far better chance of being a competent President than Trump. Like GHWB, she probably would have won a second term assuming a good economy, or lost if a business cycle recession occurred during the term's last 18 months.

  • SIV||

    Bush issued an executive order banning the importation of "assault weapons".He was a disaster as a "conservative" incumbent candidate. I, along with 2 million other GOP primary voters, voted for Pat Buchanan.

    Then I voted for Ross Perot in the general election knowing he couldn't win. The recession had nothing to do with it.I knew Clinton was bad news since before he formally announced his candidacy. I hated Bush and thought he was downright evil.GHWB was a goddamn progressive. Breaking a pledge to raise taxes, starting a foreign war not in the interest of the US and then stopping it before achieving total victory...

  • ||

    There's a very easy solution. Limit the franchise to men with IQs above 100 who are net taxpayers, own property, have never been convicted of a felony, and have never sired an illegitimate child.

  • James Pollock||

    Surprising to see you so willing to surrender your franchise.
    You still can, you know. Just stay home on election days.

  • ||

    I satisfy all of those requirements (with respect to the last, to the best of my knowledge).

  • James Pollock||

    The first two are the ones in question.

  • James Pollock||

    The last one is absolutely not in question. Gay men have very few illegitimate children, overall.

  • ||

    Why is it that you supposedly tolerant liberals are always the first ones to accuse people of being gay as an insult?

  • James Pollock||

    I'm not a liberal, and I don't recall claiming to be tolerant. You find the last one to be an insult? Why is that. It's an accurate description for people who are obsessed with anal sex with other men, as you've documented yourself to be.

  • Armchair Lawyer||

    James,

    You are using it ("'gay") as an insult.

  • Purple Martin||

    Why would you think that? Seems more an Occam's Razor explanation than anything else.

    There is, of course, no insult in noting someone is gay (except possibly to arwp and who cares—in this as in nearly all his comments, his assertions are completely irrelevant).

  • James Pollock||

    "You are using it ("'gay") as an insult."

    Are you unfamiliar with insults? How can you be on the Internet and not know how insults work?

  • bevis the lumberjack||

    What? You would let Onanists be President?

    And you call yourself a God-fearing patriot......

  • ||

    I expect Presidents to have the sense to wear condoms.

  • James Pollock||

    And yet you aren't sure on your own history?

  • ||

    I am very sure, but only a fool would say that with absolute certainty.

  • James Pollock||

    "I am very sure, but only a fool would say that with absolute certainty."

    Really? Because all you have to do is remember who you've had sex with, and when, and when/if they delivered children.

  • ||

    Are you still in contact with every person you've ever had sex with? Were you always in contact for 9 months after?

  • James Pollock||

    "Are you still in contact with every person you've ever had sex with? Were you always in contact for 9 months after?"

    Was I still in contact with every person I've ever had sex with at least 10 months after? Uh, yeah.

    Do you not know who they were, or did you drive them away right after?

  • TwelveInchPianist||

    "I expect Presidents to have the sense to wear condoms."

    During onanism? Boy are you strict.

  • James Pollock||

    Faster cleanup. More deniability.

  • Alpheus W Drinkwater||

    I'm trying to picture how this fits into a post about George HW Bush, and the resulting mental image is unnerving, to say the least.

  • James Pollock||

    The guy was a naval aviator. Ever hear of "Tailhook"?

  • Calidissident||

    And how exactly do you propose to enact this policy?

  • Sarcastr0||

    I, for one, approve of the final transformation of this guy from an edge-lord bigot into a clown for the amusement of all the commenters here from across the political spectrum.

  • mad_kalak||

    His heart is still in the right place methinks.

  • James Pollock||

    Just off-center in the chest?

  • mad_kalak||

    That sense of humor again....you should have it checked.

  • James Pollock||

    That brain tumor of yours. Maybe it will go away by itself.

  • Sarcastr0||

    He wants to nuke San Francisco and has in the past actively wished for my (and my fellow liberals) death. Wherever place his heart was, it's been supplanted by pure spleen.

  • mad_kalak||

    Who would you trust to give the test? I've yet to hear an answer on this one, last time the issue came up.

  • James Pollock||

    I'd suggest that anyone who wants to take the franchise away from someone else should lose their own, but... you know... irony.

  • mad_kalak||

    Qualifications for the franchise to ensure skin in the game is as old as the concept of voting itself, he's just echoing the OP to be fair. But either way, I don't trust anyone and any institution as judge of such things.

  • James Pollock||

    "Dumping Bush because of the recession might have made sense if he and his policies had caused it"

    No, no, no.

    Dumping Bush (Sr.) because he didn't seem to have any ability to deal with the recession, going forwards, was what happened.

    Just like you dump your fire brigade captain if they don't know how to put out a fire, regardless of how the fire started.

  • DjDiverDan||

    "Dumping Bush (Sr.) because he didn't seem to have any ability to deal with the recession, going forwards, was what happened."

    Then why wasn't Obama dumped after one term for his utter failure to effecively deal with the recession of 2008-09?

  • James Pollock||

    I guess because reality doesn't agree with your recollection?

  • DjDiverDan||

    You really ought to consult a dictionary on the meaning of the word "reality." It doesn't mean what you think it means.

  • James Pollock||

    I guess reality doesn't agree with your present perception any better than your recollection.

  • DjDiverDan||

    Keep guessing. The laws of probability suggest that you might someday get it right.

  • James Pollock||

    I wasn't saying the obvious... you're just stupid... to be polite.

    But you forced my hand.

  • DjDiverDan||

    Yes. That's just what Mensa and Triple Nine Society said before they admitted me to membership.

  • James Pollock||

    Was anyone muttering "diversity" under their breath when this supposedly happened?

  • mad_kalak||

    You were egotistical enough to apply for membership?

  • Purple Martin||

    We do all understand that was a textbook example of a standard cyclical recession, it was over before the election, and Presidential action has very little impact on the business cycle, right?

  • James Pollock||

    Well, I guess Mr. C just convinced more people that he had a better idea of how to proceed. Or maybe we all believed Mr. Gore, that an "information superhighway" was going to be a thing we'd want, and it could drive economic activity.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    As I recall, it was an early venture in the media throwing an election: They just didn't report that the economy had recovered, and as a consequence, the recovery didn't help Bush.

  • James Pollock||

    Ah, yes. The old reliable "blame the media".

    A.M. talk radio was well established in 1992. And you say they tanked the election for Clinton? Was this before or after they were accusing him of murdering Vince Foster?

  • Per Son||

    Blame the media, eh? When it comes to the economy, do voters review the markets and assess the GDP? Methinks no. They look at their own personal and community status.

  • BigT||

    "Then why wasn't Obama dumped after one term for his utter failure to effecively deal with the recession of 2008-09?"

    Possibly because one block of voters turned out in record numbers and voted for him in 90+%?

  • James Pollock||

    You're referring to Democrats, of course. I'm pretty sure he got close to 100% of their votes.

  • ||

    No, I'm referring to a mostly parasitic, disproportionately criminal group that carries major racial grievances against whites, and America, and seeks to undermine it.

  • Calidissident||

    "No, I'm referring to a mostly parasitic, disproportionately criminal group that carries major racial grievances against whites"

    Talk about throwing stones in a glass house.

  • James Pollock||

    "I'm referring to a mostly parasitic, disproportionately criminal group"

    REPUBLICANS threw the election to Clinton? Wow. I guess they WERE made about the "no new taxes" thing...

  • Calidissident||

    Romney still wouldn't have come particularly close even with typical black turnout and margin (the latter of which was not that much larger for Obama than the Democratic norm) in 2012.

    I don't find the comparison between Obama and Bush here to be apt. The economy was not doing very good in 2012, but it was definitely better than when Obama was elected in 2008. I'm not arguing that was all due to his policies by any means, but I think we've established that the perception and correlation is more important than the actual cause and effect. In contrast, the economy was doing a lot worse in 1992 than it was in 1988. A better comparison is probably FDR in 1936 - the economy was still in the middle of the Great Depression, but because it was better than in 1932 FDR won in a landslide.

  • JoeGoins||

    By what measure did Obama "utterly fail[] to effecively [sic] deal with the recession of 2008-09?" A lot of the following is a result of the policies by the Obama administration:

    From his inauguration on 1/20/2009 to the election on 11/6/2012:
    the Dow grew from 8,279.63 to 13,245.68 (a 59% increase)
    the NASDAQ grew from 1,520.76 to 3,011.93 (a 98% increase),
    the S&P 500 went from 849.64 to 1,428.39 (a 68% increase),

    From February 2009 (Obama's first full month in office) to October 2012 (the last full month before the election), unemployment decreased from 8.3% to 7.8%.

    From Q4 2008 (Obama's first full quarter) to Q4 2012 (the last full quarter before the election), the average retail home price went from $273,400 to $297,700 (an 8% increase).

    All of that is extraordinary. By comparison, Obama oversaw the highest growth than that of any president in American history for his first for years. (As of right now, Obama's growth is higher than Trump's growth.)

  • Sarcastr0||

    Dunno about your causality. Presidents don't have that much control over the economy other than cheerleading and I guess not appointing a screwup to the Fed.

    It wasn't Bush's economy, it wasn't Obama's economy, and it isn't Trump's economy.

  • Absaroka||

    +1

    Moreover, when the president/congress do something that causes economic problems - runaway spending leading to inflation, tax policy with bad side effects or whatever - the effect tends to lag quite a bit, so the politicians that get the blame (or credit, when good things happen) frequently aren't the culprits anyway.

  • James Pollock||

    " the effect tends to lag quite a bit, so the politicians that get the blame (or credit, when good things happen) frequently aren't the culprits anyway."

    Yeah. The biggest single factor in the economic oopsie-daisie in 2008 was the repeat of the Glass-Steagall Act ten years previous, signed into law by one W. Clinton.

  • bernard11||

    The biggest single factor in the economic oopsie-daisie in 2008 was the repeat of the Glass-Steagall Act

    Doubtful. Why do you think so?

  • James Pollock||

    Glass-Steagall acted to keep the banks separate from the securities business. Bankers were careful, because their own institutions carried the risk on the loans they green-lit. Gramm-Leach-Bliley allowed banks to become players in the securities business. One of the results of that was that banks could package up their loans, sell them as securities, and then turn around and make new loans. This, in turn, meant that the banks could pass along the risk of BAD loans, while keeping the profits. So there was a whole group of people who were paid more if they wrote more loans, but who faced no consequences for writing BAD loans. If you get paid more for writing more loans, and you get no consequences if the loans you wrote were bad, what kind of loans should you expect to see more and more of? The banks could hide it for a while, by securitizing the loans, but eventually, they couldn't find anybody to buy the securities any more, and BOOM.

  • Purple Martin||

    And THAT, is as accurate and succinct a summary of "The Big Short" as I've ever read.

  • James Pollock||

    Pretty good, huh? Imagine how great it would be if I knew what you were talking about.

  • JoeGoins||

    Obviously, presidents can't change the economy; however, they can create good policies and work with Congress to pass effective laws. That being said, Obama did good, not great. (An example of "not great" being that his policies saddled the country with extreme debt that it is unlikely to recover from.)

  • bevis the lumberjack||

    The market and economic washout from the Great Almost Depression happened right at the end of 2008. The market bottom was in March of 2009. Obama was fortunate to come along at exactly the point in time at which the market and economy had nowhere to go but up.

    Additionally, Obama benefitted enormously from an unprecedented Fed policy in which they kept the Fed Funds Rate at 0% for nearly a decade. For the entirety of his presidency he had the most accommodative Fed in history. So the "Obama Economy" had the advantage of hurricane-force tailwinds in the form of easy money.

    As a counter example, both Bush 41 and Carter were screwed by oil price spikes caused by events beyond their influence that compelled the fed to tighten and tank the economy, which didn't help their re-election chances.

    Presidents sometimes (usually? always?) get credit or blame for things that they really had nothing to do with. Just part of the job...…...

  • James Pollock||

    "Presidents sometimes (usually? always?) get credit or blame for things that they really had nothing to do with."

    General concurrence. But how they present themselves and their policies affects the PERCEPTION that they are (or aren't) doing helpful things.

  • DjDiverDan||

    There are so many examples of economic ignorance in that post that I don't have enough time to list them all. Let me hit just the highlights.

    First, attributing movements in stock market indexes to the President is just foolish. Stock prices are an evaluation of net present value of anticipated future cash flows. The two most important factors are: (1) How the market views future earnings capacity; and (2) the discount rate used to reach net present value. When interest rates fall to near zero (as they did under Obama) because the Fed pumps huge sums into the economy, the discount rate falls. That results in higher stock valuations regardless of how one values future earnings potential. In other words, crediting Obama for increases in the Dow, the S&P 500, and the NADAQ is just stupid.

    Second, looking at raw unemployment numbers without understanding what the statistics include is idiotic. The Labor Participation Rate consistently fell during Obama's first term, meaning that unemployment was falling while job growth was anemic - slower than population growth.

    Third, I have no idea what "growth" you are referring to, but it sure isn't growth in GDP. Obama was the first President since FDR not to see a single year when growth in GDP did not exceed 3.0%. Trump will beat that handily in 2018. In terms of growth in total civilian non-government employment, Obama couldn't even keep up with population growth.

  • Alpheus W Drinkwater||

    Your name for that recession would seem to indicate that it ended in 2009. Does that undermine your argument?

  • bernard11||

    There is nothing wrong with "retrospective voting" per se. Evaluating a candidate for re-election based on previous performance in office is highly sensible. The problem comes in when the evaluation is not based on any real understanding of the issues and policies involved, but that's also true of evaluations based on policies for the future proposed by the candidate.

  • James Pollock||

    As the financial management firms put it when they run advertisements, past history is not a guarantee of future results.

  • bernard11||

    These are not comparable.

    In many areas of endeavor past performance, while no guarantee, is strongly correlated with future results.

    "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet."

  • Eric VonSalzen||

    Suppose Bush had won in 1992 -- No Pres. Bill Clinton. No Monica and her Presidential knee pads. No Hillary Clinton. Dole-Powell in '96. Pres. Dole (a combat-wounded veteran) would have been the one to decide on the US response to 9/11; would that have differed from Bush 43's response?

  • James Pollock||

    There's a pretty big jump from Bush (Sr.) winning in 92 to Dole winning in 96. I don't think Dole could have won once, let alone twice.

    As a nation, we seem to have turned away from requiring (or even valuing) military service in our politicians. Starting in 92, we rejected several military veterans who ran for President... Bush (Sr) lost reelection, Dole lost, and Kerry lost. McCain might have won, if A) he didn't have to follow Bush Jr, and B) he wasn't saddled with Tina Fey.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    I don't think Dole was even trying to win. He'd just regarded the nomination as a retirement prize, like a gold watch. Once he had it, he went around settling scores, and never mind what it did to his prospects in the general election.

  • James Pollock||

    Dole had the bad luck to have shown up when the Republicans were going through a "more pure than thou" phase of conservativity (?), wherein any perceived deviation from orthodoxy meant you were 100% one of THEM rather than one of US. This put off a lot of people who might otherwise have sided with them on many, but not all, issues.

  • bevis the lumberjack||

    I think Bush and Dole both suffered from the hardline conservatives belief that they weren't as pure in their conservatism as Reagan. RINOs.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    No, he was pretty active about attacking key Republican constituencies; It was like he had a check list, and was going down it checking groups off. This week alienate pro-lifers, next week piss off gun owners; (Not that we ever had cause to like him.) I'm not sure he missed any identifiable group Republicans rely on the votes of.

  • Calidissident||

    Has any political party ever won 6 straight presidential elections? Maybe the GOP in the late 1800s? I think going from Bush winning in 92 to Dole winning in 96 and 2000 is a stretch.

  • James Pollock||

    Has any political party ever won 6 straight presidential elections?

    Porfirio Diaz won that many. The Porfiriato led to la revolucion, and the PRI has won every Presidential election for almost a century.

  • Calidissident||

    Obviously I was talking about US history here.

  • James Pollock||

    So you don't want to hear about the amazing success of the Communists in Russia from 1917 to 1980, or in China from 1949 to present?

  • Bob from Ohio||

    "Maybe the GOP in the late 1800s?"

    Yes. Lincoln to Garfield.

    Even FDR and Truman was only 5 elections.

    You can also say Jefferson to Van Buren but the last half there was only one party after 1815 [until the Whigs arose] with different factions. JQ Adams and Jackson were nominally in the same party but ran against each other and represented very different ideologies.

  • JoeGoins||

    "In my own work on political ignorance, I argue that the most promising approach is limiting and decentralizing government power, thereby increasing opportunities for people to "vote with their feet," in which framework they have much stronger incentives to become well-informed than when making choices at the ballot box. But there are also other options worth considering, such as voter education initiatives, "sortition," and directly incentivizing citizens to increase their knowledge."


    While noble, your "most promising approach" doesn't help the politically ignorant. Essentially, you are giving them motivation to be informed. The problem, however, isn't a lack of desire to be informed but rather an inability to analyze the information received. Most people are not specialists in economics, foreign policy, criminal justice, or any other major field. As a result, they have to rely on the research of others. Academics—such as yourself—do not write for laypeople (and in many ways, talk down to them). The most prevalent solution is to read popular articles or watch commentary, often from biased sources.

  • James Pollock||

    "While noble, your 'most promising approach' doesn't help the politically ignorant."

    What do you want to do, take away their A.M. radios and cable TV news/entertainment channels?

  • BigT||

    Get them off Facebook and Reddit, and shut down NBCBSNPR, aka the voice of Russia.

  • James Pollock||

    Shut down their twitter accounts?

  • JoeGoins||

    Where did I suggest censoring the information they receive?

  • James Pollock||

    Well, you closed by complaining that they get their commentary from biased sources, so the assumption was that you wanted them to NOT get their commentary from biased sources.

  • vaadu||

    It is impossible to write an accurate story of that event and what lead up to it without mentioning H Ross Perot.

  • James Pollock||

    "without mentioning H Ross Perot."

    Because of the strong and lasting impact he had on informercial sales?

  • bevis the lumberjack||

    Because he took 19% of the vote.

  • James Pollock||

    There's a word for people who take 19% of the vote.

  • bevis the lumberjack||

    If you're one of the major party candidates the word is "abomination".

    If you're a third party candidate the word is "spoiler".

  • James Pollock||

    Either way, "loser" fits.

  • David Bremer||

    Shot: "Voters also reward and punish incumbents for such events as droughts, shark attacks, and even local sports team victories."

    Chaser.

  • David Bremer||

    Dammit. We need an edit function.

    Chaser: http://jaws.wikia.com/wiki/Larry_Vaughn

  • James Pollock||

    "'Voters also reward and punish incumbents for such events as droughts [...]'"

    It's well known in some parts of this country that God punishes us for voting incorrectly by sending natural disasters our way.

    This hurricane is for gay weddings, and that one is for not supporting the military, and that one is for...

  • David Bremer||

    Honestly, not to get RWP all excited, but about ten years ago, the Lutheran church (one of the synods anyway) was having their big annual meeting here in Minneapolis. The big news was a vote on whether to permit gay pastors, recognize same-sex marriage, or something along those lines.

    It was a really cool rainy day in the middle of the summer (maybe in the 50s or 60s). Anyway, on the day of the vote, this random tornado/gustnado kicked up and damaged the area immediately around the church where the meeting was (and possibly the church itself). It immediately went back up into the clouds.

    Dead serious about this. I remember because the cloud hit my building, and I heard debris hit the building outside my window. You can even see video of the very brief tornado here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8RcDBLtFWc

  • Drewski||

    Just before every natural disaster in history, someone was pooping. This is an unmistakable divine message. I bet someone was pooping just before your mini-tornado, too.

  • Hasdrubal||

    Was the tornado when they were voting on gay pastors? I thought that was a different year: I lived down the street from the central church and was playing WoW when the tornado hit. I remember mentioning over chat that it sounded like a tornado just went by, and didn't find out until the next day that it had actually touched down a block or so away.

    But, my uncle was up here for the vote on gay pastors, and I remember going out for dinner and discussing the deliberations. (The conference was at the convention center across the street, though the delegates did go to services at the church on Sunday.) I don't remember anything about a tornado over that weekend, those are two completely separate events in my mind.

    Funny how memory works.

  • David Bremer||

    Drewski - I'm not claiming it was divine intervention. I just recall at the time that it was one helluva coincidence, and I was surprised more people didn't make that claim.

    Hasdrubal - I looked up the dates, and yep, same day - Aug. 19, 2009. Your story is funny because I recall hearing about a tornado near downtown, running to windows in our office to look for it, and not seeing it. Then I saw a picture that showed the tornado cloud enveloping our building. That's when I realized why something had hit the window outside my office a few minutes earlier.

  • LiborCon||

    That's why Democrats won the House, voters punished Trump for the rise in Liberal Lunacy by electing more Lunatics?

  • Krayt||

    Business cycles are a subset of general supply and demand. Like predator-prey, stability is a lie and up and down is the norm as supply and demand chase each other with finite response times.

    When using differential equations to simulate predator-prey, the ratios quickly destabilize and initiate up and down sinusoid waves. Predators multiply until they eat down the prey population, then starve, allowing the prey to explode back up.

    The key point is that there is no stable level where pops don't fluctuate. Anyone promising this in business is lying from ignorance.

    This also needs to be kept in mind in environmental anysis since any snapshot of populations is just a point on this wave.

  • James Pollock||

    Economic policy doesn't remove highs and lows, but it can smooth them out... the highs aren't as high, and the lows aren't as low. Or, you know, it can go the other way.

  • jdgalt1||

    I don't buy this. A majority of voters voted conservative in 1992; the only reason Bill Clinton won with his 46% plurality was that Ross Perot took 12%, approximately all of whom would have voted for Bush if Perot had not been in the race. Bush lost to the "spoiler effect."

    The system that creates this effect seriously screws all minor parties and their supporters out of having any chance in elections. The solution is to enact the Australian Ballot, sometimes called Ranked Choice Voting and Instant Runoff Voting.

    If that had been in use, Perot would be eliminated in the first round, and his voters' second choices would then count in round two, giving Bush the win.

  • James Pollock||

    "approximately all of whom would have voted for Bush if Perot had not been in the race."

    I don't think this is accurate.

    Perot drew people who were sick and tired of partisan B.S., which included people who would have voted for Clinton, and people who wouldn't have voted at all.

  • Mike W.||

    I blamed the media for Bush's loss. They kept playing up the recession long after it was clear from the numbers that the recession had ended. This was throughout '92.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    That's my memory of the matter, too. They just wouldn't admit the recession was over, until after the election.

  • James Pollock||

    "I blamed the media for Bush's loss."

    Conservatives blame the media for everything.

    In 92, A.M. talk radio was well established as the voice of conservatism. They tanked Bush? I mean, I know they weren't happy about the "read my lips" thing, but mad enough to elect a Democrat? When they were just ONE justice away from overturning Roe v. Wade?

  • Mike W.||

    For what it's worth, I'm not really a conservative, and I have never listened to talk radio.

  • Mike W.||

    Also for what it's worth, I didn't vote for either Bush or Clinton in 1992. I didn't vote for Perot, either, as it became clear that he was a bit of a crackpot. I really liked him bringing prominence to budget responsibility for a while, though.

  • James Pollock||

    "I blamed the media for Bush's loss."
    "I have never listened to talk radio."

    So, you know they were at fault, despite never listening?

  • Mike W.||

    I followed newspapers and magazines. Those are mainly the media I refer to, though I'm pretty sure it was true of television as well.

  • Black Richard||

    Strange -- no reference to "Read my lips..."?

  • susancol||

    Or worse, the contemptuous comment, "Read my hips". Never a good tactic to say, "Hey, you guys were chumps to believe my promises."

  • AmosArch||

    "President George H.W. Bush, whose funeral is today, is now a much-admired figure on both sides "

    I'm not sure if they have any poll data on this but I get the feeling up until a week ago and especially before Trump both sides had a fairly non committal view of Bush I. Certainly wouldn't have classified him at the time as a particularly beloved president.

    The main reason he's being paraded around the media today is to use his corpse as a blunt club against the current WH occupant.

  • James Pollock||

    "I'm not sure if they have any poll data on this but I get the feeling up until a week ago and especially before Trump both sides had a fairly non committal view of Bush I"

    Former Presidents tend to get hindsight halos. Carter got one, too. Now that they no longer have any real power, you can look back, and examine them again and see what their good qualities are/were. Carter didn't really understand how to run the country, but as an ex-President he was involved in a number of worthwhile, dare I say, admirable, projects. The same for Bush (Sr.) His handling of the Persian Gulf looked bad at the time, but then we got to see how bad it could get if the guy running things REALLY screwed things up, so Sr. looks better in hindsight.

    He's a reminder of a time when Republicans nominated adults to be president.

  • M.L.||

    RUSH LIMBAUGH: Well, it's phony. They never treated him this way when he was president. They were vicious to him, like they are vicious and partisan to every Republican. I think it's just a vehicle for them, Shannon, to be able to contrast what they think Trump is versus the way they are telling us Bush was.

    The thing is that they never treated George W. Bush this way and George H.W. Bush, either one of them, this way. They had just as much animus for Bush 41 and Bush 43 as they do Trump, for different reasons.

    But since the current objective is to get rid of Donald Trump, however they can do it, driving down public opinion or Mueller's report, and impeachment, anything they can do to contrast Trump with what they say was the greatness and the way it ought to be, every good Republican in the media's idea loses.

    That's why they celebrate Trump, rather Bush, because what'd he do? He raised taxes. He was bipartisan. He went against the interest of his own party. That's what made him a good guy.

    And it's just — it's just phony. It's nothing more than a vehicle for them to continually contrast this made up image that they have of George H.W. Bush. Which, by the way, what they're saying about him now is true, all of the class and all the dignity, all of the sophistication. But they never reported on him this way when he was president.

  • RoyMo||

    Twelve years is a really long time for a party to keep the Presidency, 1860-1884, 1896-1912, 1932-52 are basically it for hitting that 16 year mark and there was nothing at play in 1992 like any of that.

  • Liberty Lover||

    It is a "what have you done for me lately " world, and that is not going to change.

  • Jerry B.||

    And Prof. Somin once again pushes the political literacy test (which he'd design, of course) for access to the polls.

  • John Rohan||

    There were at least two other reasons Bush lost in 92. Ross Perot siphoned slightly more votes from Republicans than from Democrats, and also the country just had 12 years of Republican presidents. After awhile, voters tend to think its time for the other side to have their turn.

  • Vandalia||

    In the military I was taught the one fundamental rule for a commander: "If you are in charge, you are responsible." Now, there are certainly many cases where this rule has not been applied, but there are also many where a commander has been relieved despite doing everything possible to prevent a problem/accident/disaster.

    The rule for a President should be similar: If you are in charge, you are responsible. The fact that "it" may not be your fault is not really relevant.

  • DWB||

    Eh ... raising taxes helped slow the economy delaying recovery and the breaking of the promise put the loss over the edge.

  • Hasdrubal||

    "Rewarding and punishing politicians for short-term economic trends is an example of "retrospective voting" - making electoral decisions based on simple metrics of whether things seem to be going well or badly under the rule of the incumbent."

    Is this really a bad way of voting, though? It sounds kind of like how evolution works. Could it be that voting on how well things are going captures unobserved features that actually do have some impact? Has anyone modeled this to try and predict what kind of candidate wins?

    If politicians don't have much control over the economy, for example, wouldn't this lead to successful candidates _not trying_ to mess with the economy and focusing on fringe issues that really don't affect many people by much? Like, say, abortion and gay marriage where they can actually Do Something without directly impacting many actual voters, and ignoring things like budgets and just pass continuing resolutions when the government starts running out of money?

  • Sebastian Cremmington||

    Hillary lost because of an oil induced mini recession that everyone knew would end up being economically positive.

  • damikesc||

    Bush lost because he didn't have a burning desire to win. He ran out of a sense of obligation.

  • Mesoman||

    A free and competitive press used to be on way to ameliorate voter ignorance. When media outlets competed on, among other things, political outlook, all sides of a story could be told. Today, the mainstream media is almost uniform in its opinions and reporting, and the reporting (which too often now is heavily biased) are always tilted in the same direction.

    At the time of the founding, journalists were overtly partisan, but at least there were many choices. Today, the journalists all hide behind lies of "objectivity" while presenting just two sides, and any one outlet almost always presenting the same side.

    A reaction to the uniformity and increasing bias by the many who have perceived the title in the mainstream media is to gravitate to the few outlets on the other side, ranging from Fox News's news shows (relatively even handed) to Fox News' opinion commentators (solidly on the right) or to always politically focused outlets such as Breitbart or Reason.

    The net result is that we have a poorly informed citizenry, where each side feels well informed because the sources they use tend to agree with what they heard previously or from other sources that are part of the same echo chamber.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online