Fact-checking Bill Clinton on the economy

September 6, 2012

Bill Clinton at the 2012 Democratic National Convention / Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post

This section of this post on military spending has been updated.

As Ezra noted, Bill Clinton's speech Wednesday night was full of policy substance. But does that substance check out? Sarah already covered the Medicare portions, but I took a look at the rest (with a special Sarah Kliff guest appearance on health spending).

TRUE WITH A BUT -- Well, since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats 24. In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66 million private- sector jobs. So what’s the job score? Republicans: twenty-four million. Democrats: forty-two.

If you look at total private-sector employment, this checks out. But nonfarm payrolls are the preferred measure. There, the Democratic record is actually more impressive, with 43.8 million nonfarm payrolls added. But Republicans added 35.3 million. More generally, these numbers would benefit from being compared to population growth. As it turns out, very rarely do any presidents manage growth that outpaces the growth in the size of the civilian population older than 16:

The blue areas are Democratic presidencies, the red areas Republican ones. As you can see, only four times did growth in nonfarm payrolls outpace population growth: under LBJ, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton. All of which supports Clinton's contention that Democrats do better on job growth.

But note that these kinds of estimates rely heavily on when you start the clock. If you take into account policy lags -- so, you start the clock a year into a president's first term, and stop it a year after their final term -- the picture can change dramatically. James Campbell, for instance, has found that "When economic conditions leading into a year are taken into account, there are no presidential party differences with respect to growth, unemployment, or income inequality."

TRUE WITH A  BUT -- We know that investments in education and infrastructure and scientific and technological research increase growth. They increase good jobs, and they create new wealth for all the rest of us.

Measuring the effects of individual-level policies like education on growth is tricky, but we know incontrovertibly that investments in good education, especially early on, greatly increase student incomes. Smaller class sizes at kindergarten have been shown in a randomized study to increase lifetime earnings for students, as has high-quality preschool for 3-year-olds.

Same story for infrastructure. A notable study by economists David Canning and Peter Pedroni found (pdf) that "in the vast majority of cases infrastructure does induce long run growth effects."

What about R&D? Well, a literature review (pdf) by the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Leo Sveikauskas found that the returns to society of private R&D spending are as high as 65 percent — truly remarkable. But the returns of government R&D spending are much lower, often nearing zero. What's going on? Well one theory, floated by Obama's former chief economist Austan Goolsbee, is that since most federal research spending goes to scientist salaries, the returns mostly go to those scientists' wages, not to the actual conduct of research. That implies that better designed R&D spending — such as creating prizes for certain accomplishments, as NASA has done, or funding private companies, as the stimulus has done for green energy — will work better.

TRUE -- When I was a governor, I worked with President Reagan in his White House on the first round of welfare reform and with President George H.W. Bush on national education goals.

Reagan thanked Clinton by name when signing the Family Support Act of 1988, the first federal welfare reform effort. And private accounts credit Clinton as "instrumental" in setting up the National Education Goals Panel under Bush. Here he is at the summit that launched that process:


Source: University of North Texas

TRUE --  I’m actually very grateful to -- if you saw from the film what I do today, I have to be grateful -- and you should be, too -- that President George W. Bush supported PEPFAR. It saved the lives of millions of people in poor countries. 

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that between 2004 and 2008, PEPFAR saved 740,000 adult lives alone, whereas a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine put the total number, including children, above 1 million.

TRUE WITH A BUT -- Chicago is getting an infrastructure bank because Republicans and Democrats are working together to get it.

Chicago is getting an infrastructure bank but this gives Republicans in the area too much credit for their involvement. The Chicago Republican Party has condemned the initiative. And the City Council is 100 percent Democratic, so Republican support was not needed to pass the bank.

TRUE -- Just in the last couple of elections, they defeated two distinguished Republican senators because they dared to cooperate with Democrats on issues important to the future of the country, even national security.

Clinton is likely referring to Dick Lugar and Bob Bennett, who lost to primary challengers in 2012 and 2010 respectively. Richard Mourdock, who defeated Lugar in a primary this year, attacked him as "Obama's Favorite Republican," and Bennett's defeat is often attributed to his sponsorship of a universal health-care bill with an individual mandate, along with Democrat Ron Wyden.

TRUE -- They beat a Republican congressman with almost 100 percent voting record on every conservative score because he said he realized he did not have to hate the president to disagree with him.

Clinton is talking about Rep. Bob Inglis, who had a 93 percent American Conservative Union rating but voted to censure fellow South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson for shouting "you lie!" at the State of the Union. Inglis then lost renomination in 2010, 71 percent to 29 percent.

TRUE -- As the Senate Republican leader said, in a remarkable moment of candor, two full years before the election, their number-one priority was not to put America back to work. It was to put the president out of work.

Here's the video of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) saying that:

TRUE -- They want to cut taxes for high-income Americans even more than President Bush did. 

The 2001-08 tax cuts reduced taxes on the top 1 percent by an average of 7.3 percent of their income, in 2010. The latest House Republican budget, crafted by VP nominee Paul Ryan, cuts taxes on the top 1 percent by 11.7 percent of their income.

TRUE -- They want to get rid of those pesky financial regulations designed to prevent another crash and prohibit federal bailouts.

House Republicans voted to end all of Dodd-Frank last year as part of Ryan's budget plan, and just this year pushed for repeal of the "resolution authority" provisions meant to wind down failing banks without bailouts.

UPDATED: TRUE -- They want to actually increase defense spending over a decade $2 trillion more than the Pentagon has requested, without saying what they’ll spend it on.

The 2013 Republican budget (pdf) funds defense at $6.2 trillion over the next decade, whereas the Pentagon request (pdf) funds it at $5.6 trillion over a decade. That's $600 billion, not $2 trillion.

But Mitt Romney's defense plan does increase spending by $2.1 trillion over the Pentagon baseline. So Clinton's statement checks out there.

TRUE -- And they want to make enormous cuts in the rest of budget, especially programs that help the middle class and poor children

Over 62 percent of the cuts in the House Republican budget hit low-income people, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

TRUE -- When President Barack Obama took office, the economy was in freefall. It had just shrunk 9 full percent of GDP. We were losing 750,000 jobs a month. 

In quarter four of 2008, GDP shrunk by 8.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nonfarm payrolls fell by 818,000 in December 2008 — even more than Clinton's figure.

TRUE -- In 2010, as the president’s recovery program kicked in, the job losses stopped, and things began to turn around. The Recovery Act saved or created millions of jobs…

As I've explained, most studies suggest the stimulus created millions of jobs.

TRUE - … and cut taxes -- let me say this again -- cut taxes for 95 percent of the American people.

The "Make Work Pay" tax credit in the stimulus helped 94.3 percent of Americans.

TRUE -- And in the last 29 months, our economy has produced about 4.5 million private-sector jobs.

Dead-on: Private sector employment went up by 4.544 million over the past 29 months, according to BLS.

TRUE WITH A BUT -- More than 500,000 manufacturing jobs have been created under President Obama. That’s the first time manufacturing jobs have increased since the 1990s.

Measuring from manufacturing's trough in January 2010, jobs have increased by 532,000. But many manufacturing jobs were lost between January 2009 and January 2010 -- which means they were also lost under Obama. Whether you want to blame Obama for that first year is up to you.

That said, the last time there was a month of positive 12-month net change in manufacturing jobs was July 2000 -- but the last time there were gains anywhere near the scale of those under Obama's tenure were during the 1990s.

TRUE -- It saved more than a million jobs, and not just at GM, Chrysler, and their dealerships, but in auto parts manufacturing all over the country

The Center for Automotive Research estimates the auto bailout saved 1.5 million jobs.

TRUE -- So what’s happened? There are now 250,000 more people working in the auto industry than on the day the companies were restructured.

The companies were formally restructured in July 2009, with GM, for example, being reorganized on July 10. Since then, auto industry employment is up by 233,800 workers, according to BLS.

TRUE --  Now, the agreement the administration made with the management, labor, and environmental groups to double car mileage, that was a good deal, too. It will cut your gas prices in half, your gas bill…according to several analyses, over the next 20 years, it will bring us another 500,000 good, new jobs into the American economy.

It's true -- the new mileage standards will double fuel efficiency which, in principle, should halve fuel costs. A study by the Blue Green Alliance, a joint labor-environmental group, estimates the standards will create 570,000 new jobs. That's hardly an independent source, but it shows Clinton's not pulling the number out of thin air.

TRUE WITH A BUT -- The boom in oil and gas production, combined with greater energy efficiency, has driven oil imports to a near 20-year low and natural gas production to an all-time high. And renewable energy production has doubled.

Oil imports are at a 20-year low, and domestic natural gas production has never been higher. And the share of energy production going to renewables has doubled. But the actual production of renewables hasn't doubled -- it's gone from 7,205 trillion BTUs in 2008 to 8,064 trillion in 2010.

FALSE --  There are already more than 3 million jobs open and unfilled in America, mostly because the people who apply for them don’t yet have the required skills to do them

There is no evidence that unemployment in the United States is due to a skills mismatch. Studies from Federal Reserve economists and former Bush administration chief economist Edward Lazear (pdf) confirm that unemployment is high due to low demand, not because workers lack the necessary skills.

TRUE -- So the president’s student loan reform is more important than ever. Here’s what it does. Here’s what it does. Here’s what it does. You need to tell every voter where you live about this. It lowers the cost of federal student loans. And even more important, it gives students the right to repay those loans as a clear, fixed, low percentage of their income for up to 20 years. 

It's true -- Obama has lowered interest rates on student loans, and the reforms passed as part of the health-care reconciliation package allow you to pay back as a percentage of income, rather than based on the principal. Then again, the latter policy was already in place, but Obama lowered the cap from 15 percent of income to 10 percent. He also saved money by having the Department of Education loan directly rather than using private companies, and used the proceeds to increase Pell Grant funding.

TRUE --  When some Republican governors asked if they could have waivers to try new ways to put people on welfare back to work, the Obama administration listened.

Republican governors did request waivers for welfare on the same lines as those the Obama administration is implementing.

TRUE WITH A BUT -- For the last two years — after going up at three times the rate of inflation for a decade, for the last two years health-care costs have been under 4 percent in both years for the first time in 50 years. 

Clinton delivered this line as part of his defense of the Affordable Care Act and the good that the law has done so far. The facts here are true: the National Health Expenditures report showed, in 2010 and 2011, health-care costs grew at 3.8 and 3.9 percent, respectively, much lower than the years prior.

It's unclear, however, whether we can attribute that to health reform. For one, the health-care law's big provisions -- extending health insurance to most Americans and the requirement to purchase coverage -- don't even start until 2014. Academic research, meanwhile, has shown this health spending slowdown to stretch back as far as five years.

Some do argue though, that certain provisions in the health care law -- especially those that reimburse doctors for quality, rather than quantity -- are a contributing factor to the lower growth in spending.

TRUE -- And the administration agreed to give waivers to those governors and others only if they had a credible plan to increase employment by 20 percent, and they could keep the waivers only if they did increase employment.

HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius has been very clear on this point: "Governors must commit that their proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work compared to the state's past performance. States must also demonstrate clear progress toward that goal no later than one year after their programs take effect. If they fail, their waiver will be rescinded. And if a Governor proposes a plan that undercuts the work requirements established in welfare reform, that plan will be rejected." Ron Haskins, the Republican architect of welfare reform, agrees that the waivers will encourage, not discourage, work.

TRUE WITH A BUT --  We moved millions of people off welfare. It was one of the reasons that, in the eight years I was president, we had 100 times as many people move out of poverty into the middle class than happened under the previous 12 years, 100 times as many.

Since reform, the rolls have shrunk from 12.6 million to 4.6 million. Poverty fell by 6.4 million people under Clinton, whereas the number of people in poverty increased by 7.4 million between 1981 and 1993 (and the rate went from 14 percent to 15.1 percent). If anything, Clinton is too generous to Reagan and Bush I on this count. But it's worth noting that welfare reform led to a huge spike in extreme poverty, as defined as the number of households making under $2 a day.

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