What years should we compare? It would be dishonest to include the 2001 recession in this duel, because Clinton's first term began two years after a recession had ended. Yet the Clinton Camp does just that by boasting that "under Clinton, the economy created 3.5 times more jobs after 74 months than it did over the same period of time under Bush."
The umpire calls a foul. A recession that began in March 2001 had nothing to do with Bush taking office the previous month, but it had a lot to do with job growth in 2001 and 2002. President Clinton took office two years after the previous recession ended in February 1991. The economy grew 3.2 percent in 1992.
The Bush Camp boasts that "since the first quarter of 2001, productivity growth has averaged 2.8 percent." Starting with early 2001 is still unfair, regardless of which camp does it. Cyclical weakness in employment growth from 2001 through mid-2003 resulted in more output relative to the few hours worked, otherwise known as increased productivity.
Were it not for the political spin, it would be more reasonable to compare the first year of recovery in 2002 with the first year of recovery in 1992. Fratto thus compared "this point in the Clinton expansion" to a period that began 60 months ago -- in early 2002. But such a comparable starting point in the Clinton expansion would actually have begun in late 1991, when Clinton was not in office.
In terms of equivalent starting points, it makes sense to compare 1993-1996 with 2003-2006 -- two cyclically similar periods of equal duration.
Growth of real gross domestic product (GDP) in those periods was identical, at 3.23 percent a year. That's a tie. Nearly all other measures favor the past four years over Clinton's first term. Unemployment was 5.3 percent from 2003 to 2006, but 6 percent from 1993 to 1996. Sperling mentioned business investment to avoid mentioning housing investment. Yet business fixed investment was 10.9 percent of GDP from 2003 to 2006, compared with 9.2 percent of GDP from 1993 to 1996.
When it comes to inflation, Bush faced a huge increase in worldwide oil prices, but Clinton did not. In the consumer price index that excludes energy prices, inflation averaged 2.1 percent in the past four years, down from 2.9 percent in 1993-96.
When calculating real incomes, however, nominal increases in wage and benefits are reduced by total inflation, including higher energy prices. This would seem to put the past four years at a big disadvantage, given the spike in energy prices. Yet it turns out that "wage growth" in the first Clinton term was nothing to brag about.
Even after including benefits, real compensation per hour fell by 0.5 percent in 1993, by 0.4 percent in 1994 and by another 0.3 percent in 1995. Real hourly wages and benefits increased by 1.2 percent a year from 2003 to 2006, but fell by 0.1 percent a year from 1993 to 1996.
The Clinton Camp should be as reluctant to mention poverty rates as it was foolish to mention wage growth. Yet its dueling data point dares to say, "During the Bush years, the number of Americans below the poverty line has increased by 5.37 million, while under Clinton the number fell by 7.68 million." That blames Bush for the 2001 recession, compares eight years with six and measures poverty in terms of change rather than levels. Despite such tricks, it still doesn't work.
The percentage of families below the poverty line was reduced from 12.3 percent in 1993 to 11 percent in 1996, which was progress of sorts. Yet fewer than 10 percent of families were poor from 2002 to 2005 (the latest available). Unless more poverty is better than less, this was another masochistic debating point.
The economy during the Clinton years became much stronger after 1997, when Al Gore or Netscape invented the Internet and the president signed a cut in the capital gains tax. Trying to use Clinton's first four years to denigrate the past four years is a foolhardy game. People who live in glass houses should be more careful when tossing around big, bad economics statistics.
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