Misery loves Kerry

Posted: Apr 15, 2004 12:00 AM

 According to Sen. John F. Kerry's new middle-class misery index, Americans are certifiably miserable after three years under President Bush. The best part is: Kerry's advisers had to cook up a new index in order to make Americans miserable.

 What's wrong with the old "misery index," made famous when Jimmy Carter used it so effectively to oust President Gerald Ford? That statistic added inflation to the unemployment rate, so it is too positive to use against Bush. The index was 13.5 in 1976. Exit Ford. Now, according to The Wall Street Journal, it is a very low 7.7. Exit Kerry.

 Tom Campbell, dean of University of California-Berkeley's Haas School of Business, noted that 7.7 looks darn good when you consider that in 1996 "President Clinton was re-elected with a misery index of 8.4." Americans may have become inured to low unemployment, so that today's 5.7 percent rate doesn't impress voters as it used to. When Ronald Reagan ran for re-election, Campbell observed, "It was morning in America, and in 1984, unemployment was 7.5 percent."

 Kerry's index includes seven items: median family income, public college tuition, health costs, gasoline prices, bankruptcies, home-ownership rate and private-sector job growth. Economist Robert Reich, now a visiting professor at UC Berkeley, didn't write Kerry's version of "Les Miserables" but is said to be the author of Kerry's compelling health-care plan. Reich defended the new index, noting that "economists have been tinkering with the idea for many years."

 According to Reich, a true jobs recovery is still far away. The low unemployment rate doesn't gauge the quality of jobs. The growing federal deficit is problematic. Health-care costs are up and going higher. College tuition has risen dramatically. And: "Most Americans don't need the misery index to know how much worse off they are than they were four years ago."

 OK, but if voters don't need a number to know they're miserable, why make one up? I'll add: Not long ago, the Clinton administration was crowing, with reason, about low unemployment, and it wasn't handwringing over the quality of jobs. Reich is correct that the federal deficit is problematic, but it's not included in the Kerry "miz" index. Health-care costs are up, true, but that's because people are getting better care.

 If you have any doubt that the Kerry index is a political gimmick, note how Camp Kerry gave each of the seven categories equal weight. And it left out private colleges, where tuition didn't balloon. Worse, tuition gets the same weight as family income, even though it is only an issue for families with children of a certain age.

 Kerry's inclusion of gasoline prices is choice, considering his pledge to renegotiate the Kyoto global warming treaty, which calls for U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions to fall 7 percent below 1990 levels. Since emissions are 11.5 percent higher than in 1990 now, a compromise could be a match to 1990 levels. How Kerry would meet such a goal, I don't know, but I can guarantee that the changes would have to be drastic and they can't be done with cheap gas at the pump.

 Martin Anderson, a former Reagan economic adviser now with the Hoover Institution, is shocked that Kerry's team produced this amateur-hour index.

 "This is not something professional politicians do," Anderson said. "It's too easy to say what's wrong with it."

 Add to the pseudo-economics Kerry's classic Chicken Little hyperbole. Everything Bush does, in Kerry-speak, is the "worst" whatever in American history. So Kerry said Monday, "This president has presided over the worst jobs economy in the history of our nation." Despite his Yale degree and Swiss boarding school, Kerry apparently never learned about the Great Depression. Unemployment hit 25 percent.

 Now that's misery.

 Segue to recent history. As Bush was about to take office, Team Clinton was outraged when George W. Bush talked of a "possible slowdown" in the economy. On CNBC, Gene Sperling -- then a Clinton aide, now proud author of Kerry's misery index -- accused the Bushies of "talking up a recession" to the detriment of the nation's well-being. "You have to understand that what you say does actually have an impact on confidence," said Sperling.

 Kerry too said in March 2001, "I think the administration has been guilty of talking down the economy." I always figured -- and still do -- that an economy is too strong an animal to falter just because of politicians' sticks and stones. But Sperling apparently believes otherwise, and he's ready to rewrite the misery standards, despite the likely "impact on confidence."

 Some politicians will say anything to get elected.