Fact-checking the President's speech

    Curious about the President’s many statistical claims in his speech at Northwestern? We were too, so let us take you claim by claim through some of the biggest points in his economic policy speech. We’ll check facts, offer additional context and point you to the sources of President Obama’s claims. If there’s any other claims from the speech you think NBN should look at, let us know at editor@northbynorthwestern.com.

    When I took office, businesses were laying off 800,000 Americans a month. Today, our businesses are hiring 200,000 Americans a month.

    True. For the last five months, the private sector has been adding over 200,000 jobs each month, and September’s numbers are expected to be just as good.

    The unemployment rate has come down from a high of 10 percent in 2009, to 6.1 percent today.

    True. During the “Great Recession," the unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent in October of 2009. The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is from August 2014, where the unemployment rate was in fact 6.1 percent. However, unemployment rates are not always the best indicator of an improving economy because the statistic does not take in account “discouraged workers,” or those that have stopped looking for work.

    Over the past four and a half years, our businesses have created 10 million new jobs — the longest uninterrupted stretch of private sector job creation in our history.

    True, but with a caveat. If you look back to March/April 2010, the economy has indeed added about 10 million jobs (you can check the numbers yourself here). The catch, though, is that the start of 2010 is the absolute low point of employment under Obama. If you go back to the start of his administration, it’s closer to 4.5 million jobs.

    Right now, there are more job openings than at any time since 2001.

    True. The Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains data on this too, though the most recent information is only from July. At 4.673 million job openings, July 2014 beats every month since Jan. 2001 in terms of job openings, except for June 2014 (we’re being generous and assuming Obama meant to encompass that in “right now”). March 2007 was pretty good too, though.

    All told, the United States has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan, and every other advanced economy combined.

    This is a tough claim to examine, but it’s probably true, if only trivially. We can draw on statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, or OECD, an international organization that consists of what U.S. audiences probably think of as “advanced” economies: North America and the European Union, plus Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Turkey and Israel. Civilian employment in the U.S., according to OECD figures, rose roughly 4.5 million between 2010 and 2014. In the OECD total minus the U.S., civilian employment rose about 0.7 million in that same period.

    This isn’t necessarily a meaningful figure, though. U.S. job losses between 2008 and 2009 comprised roughly 60 percent of OECD job losses overall. The U.S. also makes up about 25 percent of the OECD population in total. It isn’t surprising, given the size of our economy and the relative severity of the recession here, that we would put more people back to work than the rest of the OECD.

    We’ve got a recovering housing market and a revitalized manufacturing sector.

    The housing claim is debatable. Yes, housing prices are rising, so if that’s how you want to define a “recovering” housing market, then the U.S. has one. It’s a very uneven recovery, though, with significant divergence between thriving and struggling housing markets, and sales to young first-time buyers are low. This claim is technically true, but there’s a reason it’s “recovering” and not “recovered.”

    As for the claim about manufacturing, Obama’s claim is both true and false, depending on what you mean by manufacturing sector. The total value of the output of American manufacturing is as high as ever, as you can see in this graph from the St. Louis Fed. At the same time, though, employment in manufacturing fell drastically in the recession and has yet to recover to pre-2009 levels.

    We’ve also begun to see some modest wage growth in recent months.

    True. “Modest” is the right word, though. Real (that is, adjusted for inflation) average hourly earnings increased 0.4 percent from July to August. It’s good news, but not exactly a sign of a new paradigm of rising wages.

    The typical family isn’t bringing home any more than it did in 1997.

    True, but with a catch. Real median household income was in fact slightly higher in 1997 than it is now, but Obama reaches back that far for a reason: Real median household income spiked in 1999 and 2007, but sank following the recession.

    The number one oil and gas producer in the world is no longer Russia or Saudi Arabia, it’s America.

    True. Oil prices are still high, though, because increasing supply in the United States has coincided with turmoil in the Middle East.

    For the first time in nearly two decades, we now produce more oil than we buy from other countries.

    True, U.S. production of crude oil now outstrips its import of crude oil. The U.S. still imports significant amounts of crude oil products, though.

    Two years ago, I set a goal to cut our oil imports in half by 2020 – and we will meet that goal this year.

    False. Obama announced that plan in his DNC speech in 2012, at which point net crude oil imports were 8.31 million barrels per day, while the Energy Information Administration projects that those same imports should fall to 6.19 million barrels per day in Dec. 2014. It may well be that Obama is drawing on a different statistic from us, but that isn’t clear from his wording.

    We’ve tripled the electricity we harness from the wind, and increased tenfold what we generate from the sun.

    True. Obama doesn’t put a timeframe on this claim, but it’s safe to assume that by “we” he means “my administration.” Electricity generation by wind varies pretty heavily from month to month, but in the most recent 12 months available from the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. generated about 177 million megawatt-hours of electricity through wind power. When Obama took office, the rolling 12-month total was about 53 million megawatt-hours of electricity.

    In July 2014, solar electricity generation (both photovoltaic and thermal) totaled 1.874 million megawatt-hours. The month Obama was inaugurated, America generated five thousand megawatt-hours in solar energy. Admittedly, that figure is from winter, so the comparison isn’t quite right. Still, solar generation in summer 2007 averaged about .117 million megawatt-hours per month, so Obama’s figure holds up.

    We have brought enough clean energy online to power every home and business in Illinois and Wisconsin 24/7.

    True, probably. The United States as a whole consumed 8.093 quadrillion BTU of renewable energy in 2012, while Illinois consumed 3.864 quadrillion BTU and Wisconsin 1.734 quadrillion BTU (5.598 quadrillion in total) over that same period. The sticking point is whether or not clean energy is meant to match up with renewable energy or some other definition.

    The high school graduation rate – the high school graduation rate is up. It’s now above 80 percent for the first time in history.

    True, but like the President’s point on the housing market, looking at national numbers doesn’t give the whole story here. This report from the Washington Post goes into better detail, but the short version is that while national rates are at historic highs, massive disparities still exist between states, ethnic groups and income levels.

    If we hadn’t taken this on, and premiums had kept growing at the rate they did in the last decade, the average premium for family coverage today would be $1,800 higher than they are. Now, most people don't notice it, but that’s $1,800 you don’t have to pay out of your pocket or see vanish from your paycheck. That’s like a $1,800 tax cut.

    Incorrect but in Obama’s favor, as far as we can tell. With claims like this, which rely on might-have-beens and counterfactual scenarios, it can be difficult to fact-check the President’s claims without knowing what statistics he was working from. This, unfortunately, will take some math on our end. Based on these figures from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-partisan research group that focuses on education, healthcare premiums rose about 9.6 percent per year between 1999 and 2009. Based on that figure and an average family coverage premium of $13,770, we would expect the average family coverage premium to be about $19,869 in 2014. Instead, according to Kaiser, the average family coverage premium is about $16,834. That makes a difference of $3,000 in Obama’s favor, overshooting his claim.

    When I took office, the deficit was nearly 10 percent of our economy. Today, it’s approaching 3 percent.

    True, though we can expand on the President’s rounding a bit. Using some figures the New York Times pulled from the Congressional Budget Office, we can see that the budget deficit was 9.8 percent of GDP in 2009, and is projected to be 3.3 percent this year.

    Over a decade ago, America led the international effort to sequence the human genome. One study found that every dollar we invested returned $140 to our economy. Now, I don’t have an MBA, but that’s sounds like a good return on investment.

    Debatable. Yes, one study by Battelle Memorial Institute in 2011 did quantify the Human Genome Project’s value at $141 to the economy for every $1 invested. In fact, an updated version of that report published in 2013 put the return on investment even higher, at $178:$1. Whether or not that report is actually accurate is the subject of some controversy. Outside analysts criticized the Battelle report for questionable methodology and odd coding of economic activity, among other concerns. A National Bureau of Economic Research report put the average ROI of research at $2.50 to $3. One fact is indisputable, though. 140:1 would indeed be a good return on investment, if true.

    A survey just last week showed that nearly two-thirds of employers thought the minimum wage should go up in their state.

    The survey is one from the website CareerBuilder, which commissioned a poll on the subject by the Harris Poll.

    Julia Clark-Riddell contributed research to this story.


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