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A Very Big (And Surprisingly Deadly) Lie

Memo Pad Politics

A Very Big (And Surprisingly Deadly) Lie


If the rate of lethal violence rises under Republican presidents and falls just as consistently under Democrats — as Dr. James Gilligan shows in Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others — what factor might explain that curious correlation? According to Gilligan, criminologists and public health experts have long been aware of another striking set of data that reliably parallels increases in murder and suicide when traced over the past hundred years: the rate of unemployment.

The level of economic inequality likewise tracks homicide and suicide rates as they move up in tandem, and so does the general condition of the economy, which can be seen sinking as those figures rise. When inequality grows, violence follows; when the economy stagnates, violence predictably festers. Of course the traditional GOP message is that Republican presidents are “good for the economy.” But Gilligan writes that when he pulled together the numbers, he was surprised to discover just how false that claim is — and its brutal impact on American society.

Noting the apparent congruence between unemployment, economic inequality and recession across one dimension, and lethal violence across another, Gilligan put together his own statistical picture of economic conditions under American presidents since 1900, using data compiled by both the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Bureau of Economic Research. He saw what other academics and journalists have remarked upon from time to time (including me, in a 2003 book titled Big Lies) — namely that unemployment rates have gone up during every Republican administration and gone down during every Democratic administration, without exception. Every time a Republican president left the White House, unemployment was higher than when he came in, while the opposite was true whenever a Democratic president completed his term. Rates of unemployment stayed higher for longer periods under Republicans too.

Then he did some simple addition: “If we count up the net sum of all the increases that occurred during Republican administrations from 1900 through 2008, we find that the Republicans brought about a cumulative increase of 27.8 percent in the unemployment rate, and the Democrats an almost exactly equal decrease of 26.5 percent.” The net cumulative difference in the partisan effects was a staggering 53.8 percent. He also calculated the cumulative difference in duration of unemployment among the jobless during Republican and Democratic administrations, and again the numbers are enormous. From 1948 to 2003, Republicans oversaw a net cumulative increase of 24.6 weeks of unemployment, while Democrats oversaw a net decrease of 13.6 weeks — a difference of 38.2 weeks, or almost ten months.

Why is the unemployment record of the Republicans so awful? When Gilligan looked up the tabulations of expansion and recession tabulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research — an organization that was headed for many years, as he notes, by the conservative economist Martin Feldstein — he found a simple answer. The NBER numbers show that “from 1900 through October 2010, the country suffered approximately three times as many months of recession during the times Republicans were governing the country as during the times Democrats were: 246 months (more than 20 years) compared with 86 — a discrepancy that could not have happened by chance more than one time out of 10,000.” Moreover, recessions began 17 times during Republican presidencies and only six times during Democratic presidencies, and always lasted several months longer under Republicans as well.

Telling as all those statistics undoubtedly are, they cannot reveal the real suffering caused by economic failure. In case after case that Gilligan has seen in his clinical practice, people who lose their jobs and then lose hope of finding work, experience desperation, humiliation and a sense of personal worthlessness that all too often leads to deadly violence, usually inflicted on family members or oneself or both. That is the human story behind the numbers, repeated hundreds of thousands of times over from one political era to the next.

Yet Republicans habitually promote themselves and their party as the harbingers of economic growth, public safety and social order, even proclaiming that their latest draconian budget plan (which would drive the country into recession or worse) offers “the path to prosperity.” What remains difficult to understand is why their true record has so persistently remained “hidden in plain sight” as Gilligan puts it — and why so many American voters still believe their very big lies.

Joe Conason

A highly experienced journalist, author and editor, Joe Conason is the editor-in-chief of The National Memo, founded in July 2011. He was formerly the executive editor of the New York Observer, where he wrote a popular political column for many years. His columns are distributed by Creators Syndicate and his reporting and writing have appeared in many publications around the world, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, and Harpers.

Since November 2006, he has served as editor of The Investigative Fund, a nonprofit journalism center, where he has assigned and edited dozens of award-winning articles and broadcasts. He is also the author of two New York Times bestselling books, The Hunting of the President (St. Martins Press, 2000) and Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (St. Martins Press, 2003).

Currently he is working on a new book about former President Bill Clinton's life and work since leaving the White House in 2001. He is a frequent guest on radio and television, including MSNBC's Morning Joe, and lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

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  1. KONNIE REA August 25, 2011



  2. RichardBernierFuller August 25, 2011

    Thank you Joe Conason for a great article and Konnie Rea for putting your words in my mouth.

  3. Abul Azam August 25, 2011

    Another aspect often neglected is the level of income inequality that republican policies have created. A cursory look at the wealth and income distribution reveals that we have become a nation of haves and have-nots paralleling the third word paradigm.

    What disturbs me is the naivete of the American people, and failure of the media to educate people about these issues. After all media is noting but hand maiden of the corporations. Our so called free press is free not to divulge the truth.

  4. Abul Azam August 25, 2011

    Another aspect often neglected is the level of income inequality that republican policies have created. A cursory look at the wealth and income distribution reveals that we have become a nation of haves and have-nots paralleling the third word paradigm.

    What disturbs me is the naivete of the American people, and failure of the media to educate people about these issues. After all media is nothing but hand maiden of the corporations. Our so called free press is free not to divulge the truth.

  5. John N. August 25, 2011

    I appreciate the story, illuminating what has become apparent to me since Reagan was President. Other trends I see with the Republican Party here in the West; shifting funding from schools to prisons and tax breaks for the rich. The tax breaks for the rich contribute to our National Debt and create a two class nation. The rich now earn more than 50 per cent of all wage dollars earned in this country. That has never happened in this nations history. Clearly this is not in the best interest of our country. Sadly for us, Republicans are more loyal to their party and than their country.

  6. economan August 25, 2011

    This article is misleading in itself. The problems of one presidency is normally caused by the previous administration. The money printing from 1995 – 2000 was under Clinton but produced the recession under Bush. Now for the record I hate Bush and think he and Cheney and a few others in that administration should be in prison.We had a good time under Clinton but it was produced artifically and is primarily the reason for our economic trouble now. The previous presidents spent to much also and Bush didnt help he just ran things into the ground so he could be re-elected wich is what they all tend to do. Both parties are liars and we need a 3rd party because I cant stand either one but I also cant stand articles like this that tell a false story. Our people need to study Austrian economics. Keyens, Friedman both did us a diservice.

  7. kurt.lorentzen August 25, 2011

    I agree mostly with economan, except that the Clinton years produced a balanced budget (actually a surplus budget) and reduction in welfare. Clinton’s welfare reduction plan was similar in philosophy to Obama’s upcoming training-for-unemployment-benefits concept. Both Bush’s are “new world order” subscribers, meaning “the rich and powerful shall rule the world”. Bush Jr. was by far the worse of the two working against democracy with henchmen like Cheney and Paulsen. In that context, the “old guard” Republicans are a menace to the world. But I find it a stretch that having a President of a particular persuasion in office has any direct bearing on murders/suicides. I’ve done enough data processing to know that one can always find data that supports their position. There’s likely just as much evidence to the contrary (sorry, I don’t have the time, resources or taxpayer funding to conduct a study to find out).

  8. Newfriend August 25, 2011

    Am I allowed to forward the above info?
    Sorry, I am new to computers and at 71 yrs trying to learn>
    Just don’t want any Republican SWAT team at my door 🙁

  9. fedupwithcons September 3, 2011

    I have believed for some times that, despite their rhetoric about “job-killing” government regulations, the Republicans prefer high unemployment rates! Why? Because high unemployment forces workers to accept lower pay in order to get a job AND no raise in order to keep their job. That is why they have done so little to tackle the unemployment rate since the 2010 election, preferring instead to focus on blocking Obama and rolling back regulations they and their business supporters dislike.

  10. Soused Bergin June 30, 2015

    If you look simply at the rate of suicides across income levels this becomes very clear.


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