Here’s something curious about this year’s political rhetoric: The Republican candidates claim that President Obama has made things worse, while he claims he’s made things better.
You might not think that’s a hard thing to explain. If so, I conclude that you are not Robert Frank, who keeps reminding us via his New York Times column (this one for example) that in many circumstances people care less about their absolute economic well-being than about their place in the pecking order. According to Frank, we buy big homes and fast cars not because we like big homes and fast cars, but because we like our homes and cars to be bigger and faster than our neighbors’. This in turn calls for a tax increase to tamp down that wasteful arms race.
But here’s the thing: Each of us has pretty good information on how we ourselves are doing. When politicians say the economy is doing poorly, they’re mostly informing us that other people are doing poorly. If Frank is right, we’ll consider that good news and (if we believe the news to be accurate) reward the incumbent who brought everyone else down. In other words, is Frank is right, then President Obama’s best strategy is to take credit for a disastrous economy, while his Republican opponents should argue that in fact we’re in the midst of a strong recovery.
I haven’t done any careful statistical analysis of this year’s political rhetoric, but as a casual observer I feel fairly confident that for the most part, Republicans have been saying that Obama’s performed poorly and Democrats are saying he’s performed well. It would appear, then, that politicians generally reject Frankian economics out of hand. And that’s a judgment worth respecting. After all, if politicians are experts in anything, it’s in figuring out what people want to hear.