No Economic Miracle

05.29.12

Michael Tomasky on Mitt Romney’s Economic Failure in Massachusetts

Mitt Romney loves to attack Barack Obama’s record of job creation as president. Too bad Mitt’s record as Massachusetts governor pales in comparison.

Bain? Dude, that’s so last week. Let’s talk Massachusetts. President Obama dropped little hints toward the end of last week that Romney’s job-creation record as the Bay State’s governor would also be on the table. So let’s get the facts. They do not support, frankly, an argument from Obama that he is the better job-creator as chief executive than Romney. But they do support an argument that Romney—when working in the public sector, not the private, as he obviously would be as president—had a downright embarrassing jobs record, especially for a state with higher-than-average education levels. And they do support an argument that, if you subtract the difficulties that were sitting there to smack each man in the face when he took the oath of office, Obama has had the better of it. And though he might have a hard time making that case, the case against the opposition is plain and direct.

Romney avoids talking about his health-care policies because they're too liberal, but he also doesn’t want to talk about jobs because his record here is so lame from any ideological perspective.

Here you will see the official Bureau of Labor Statistics month-by-month lists of total nonfarm payroll employment in Massachusetts for every month from January 2002 to April 2012. The relevant dates here are January 2003 through December 2006, Romney’s tenure. This chart lists totals, not gains or losses, so I had to do a little math. Romney took office January 3, 2003 (not January 20, so we can lay the whole month on him, assuming few to zero jobs were lost during the Rose Bowl). In January 2003, the state’s payrolls had 3.224 million workers. Within a month, 15,000 jobs were shed. The year ended with 3.179 million on the payrolls, for a first-year net loss of 44,700 jobs.

In 2004, the state gained back 20,500 jobs. The next year it gained back 24,400. So after three years in office, Romney was up a grand total of 200 jobs. Finally, in his fourth year, another 40,500 jobs were added, so he wound up with a net gain of 40,700 jobs. This, as has been often noted, put Massachusetts at 47th in the nation, only ahead of of Michigan, Ohio, and Katrina-ravaged Louisiana.

Why? The general explanation is that the high-tech economy benefited Massachusetts more when it was booming and it hurt it more when it collapsed. So the 2001 recession figures in here, which Romney and his defenders have mentioned in the past. But there is also such a thing as policy. When Romney saw his numbers sinking in the state about midway through his term, he decided not to seek reelection and to run for president, and at that point came the inevitable ascent, if we can call it that, into the Palinosphere. In a state where biotech is vital (Harvard, MIT, etc.), he blocked a stem-cell research bill that could have created jobs, quit spending much money on infrastructure repairs, and took Massachusetts out of a regional greenhouse-gas initiative that has benefited other states.

Okay, now, Obama’s record. Here is the exact same BLS chart for the whole United States from January 2002 to April 2012 (except that this shows jobs gained and lost, not total numbers). It starts out ugly. If you give him one third of the 818,000 jobs lost in January 2009 (he was sworn in on January 20, of course), a total of 4.59 million jobs were lost through February 2010. March 2010 brought the first net positive jobs report of the Obama term (189,000). There were losses that summer, but the numbers have all been positive since October 2010. So measuring since that March, 3.745 million jobs were gained. That’s a net loss of 845,000 jobs, and Romney has a right to say that, because it is technically true.

But ... what reasonable person would say that Obama caused those first several months of crushing losses? It may be fair game, such as these things are defined, for 30-second ads, but it isn’t real life. Real-life Obama-blaming starts sometime later. In his seminal book Unequal Democracy, political scientist Larry Bartels measured the effect of each president’s policies on the economy since Harry Truman by giving them all one year for their policies to start to kick in. Hey, it’s not the only thing Julius Caesar came up with that we still abide by.

If we use the Bartelian calendar, Obama is relieved of almost all of “his” job loss—4.48 million, or all but 110,000 lost jobs. Now, even though this is a respected social-science technique, if Obama tried to say something like that, it obviously would not pass a general laugh test. But it is worth pointing it out, for the sake of the historical record, and it is still true—still!—that more Americans blame Bush than Obama for the economy (56 to 29 percent, found CNN not long ago). And what president doing exactly what could have stopped 2009’s hideous immiseration? And please, don’t say “John McCain” and “cutting taxes and regulation.”

So by Bartels’s rules, Obama has created a net 3.635 million jobs. Applying the same rules to Romney’s numbers through the same time period—that is, through April of his fourth year in office, 2006—we credit Romney with 64,500 jobs. So he grew jobs by 1.9 percent. Obama’s job-growth rate is 2.35 percent.

It’s worth going into these numbers because it’s worth knowing what’s true and what kinds of arguments might strike a chord. It is pretty hilarious that Romney hardly talks about Massachusetts. As my colleague Paul Begala noted in March, you usually can’t get governors running for president to shut up about their infernal records. Romney is trying to avoid talking about his health-care policies because they're too liberal, but he also doesn’t want to talk about jobs because his record here is so lame from any ideological perspective.

Obama obviously doesn’t have a lot to boast about on the jobs front. But Romney clearly can make no claim whatsoever that he has access to some magic tonic that grows jobs. Combining his record as governor with the plans he insists he’ll inflict on us as president—gargantuan tax cuts for the rich, a gaping deficit, severe cuts to all manner of government investment in research and innovation and environmental protection so we can make sure that Lebron James gets another half million or whatever returned to him—adds up to a lurid scenario of a society becoming both more unequal and more stagnant, and a picture of a man who seemingly cannot under any circumstance utter an unfalse word about himself.