My Facebook feed has recently been inundated by relatives arguing about the February jobs report. The good news is that the American economy continues to look strong. The bad news is that these numbers have led to incredibly irritating debates over Trump’s role in creating them. What is obvious to me is that none of my relatives understand how causality works. Just because the economy grew while Trump was in the Oval Office does not mean that he created the job growth. Conversely, just because the economy is still being influenced by Obama-era policies does not mean that Trump has not contributed to the recent job growth.
As anyone who studies economics will tell you, presidents usually affect economic growth only marginally. Over the long term, their policies and investments can significantly impact the economic foundation of the country. But no president has the ability to meaningfully impact monthly hiring rates. Thus, the claim that Trump is the reason that February was such a successful month is ludicrous. This is further supported by the fact that much of the growth in hiring and investment began long before Trump took office. As this NBC fact check reveals, almost every company Trump is touting began their hiring and investment expansions many months before Trump took office. That being said, it is certainly plausible that Trump’s general policy preferences have boosted hiring on the margins. Furthermore, Trump does seem to have significantly contributed to rising stock prices. While I’m skeptical that the stock market will be able to maintain this level of growth, it seems pretty clear that the perception that Trump will deregulate finance and boost economic growth has significantly contributed to the current stock market boom. In other words, the picture is far more complex than either Trump supporters or detractors care to admit.
This transparently biased and selective analysis is deeply frustrating. For Trump supporters, every good bit of news is entirely to Trump’s credit, and every delay or fumble is solely the fault of Obama. The same biased framing is used by my friends on the Left: Trump’s successes are the result of Obama-era policies while Trump’s failures are his alone. This is completely absurd, and the fact that people can hold these positions without realizing how ridiculous they sound reveals the degree to which hypocrisy defines us all. It is also clear that people just don’t know how to draw causal inferences. Simply asserting that some variable leads to some outcome is insufficient. As the age-old saying goes, correlation does not equal causation. And if one were to submit a paper to a peer-reviewed journal with the kind of analysis my Facebook friends have been using, I can guarantee that it would be rejected 100 out of 100 times. Unfortunately, people seem to favor overly simplistic narratives to describe their world; that is why Americans are obsessed with WWII but know almost nothing about WWI. The world is generally far more complex than these simplistic narratives suggest, however, and thus overly broad characterizations are almost never useful.
Ultimately, I think this incident speaks to broader problems within the American electorate. Namely, American voters are hyper-partisan but lack the ability to recognize their biases or even defend their assertions without resorting to pseudo-scientific statistics. Social scientific research is very hard precisely because it is extremely difficult to come up with ways to precisely measure the degree to which certain variables impact a situation. And, even if one is able to identify salient variables, there are a number of other important considerations, such as potential endogeneity problems and omitted variables, that need to be taken into account. In short, a monthly jobs report one month into a president’s tenure reveals very little. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop hyper-partisans on both sides from weighing in with their faulty analysis.