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Romney’s ‘Rhetorical’ Misery Index

The "Obama misery index" that Mitt Romney says is at a record doesn't really exist, except as political talk.

That's what we discovered, to our surprise, when we contacted his spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, to ask exactly how Romney calculates his index, and to find out what number Romney currently assigns to it. "It is a rhetorical reference," Fehrnstrom told us, and not an actual economic index.

It's rhetoric that the former Massachusetts governor has been using since at least March 8, when he wrote an opinion piece in the Boston Herald claiming that "the Obama Misery Index" is "at a record high" and "makes even the malaise of the Carter years look like a boom." And Romney was at it again June 2, when he officially launched his 2012 presidential campaign, saying that "President Obama's own misery index" has "never been higher."

The original "misery index" has been much higher. It was invented by economist Arthur Okun in the 1970s, and simply adds together the unemployment rate and the annual rate of inflation. So the original misery index currently stands at 12.26, after the announcement on June 3 that the unemployment rate for May went up to 9.1 percent.

We know of nobody who claims that the original misery index currently stands at a good number, but it's not even close to being a record. The index hit monthly highs of 13.63 under President Truman in January 1948; 17.01 in President Nixon's last full month in office, July 1974; 19.9 under President Ford in January 1975; and 21.98 under President Carter in June 1980. That's the real record, and that's when Ronald Reagan used the "misery index" as a political club against Carter, ultimately winning the election that year. It was still 19.33 when Reagan took office in January 1981, and it didn't decline to below its present level until late 1983.

So to claim that economic misery is now worse than ever before, Romney invented a different index, which he described in his March 8 opinion piece:

Romney, March 8: Today, we have a different set of ailments. Instead of unemployment coupled with inflation, we have a toxic blend of unemployment, debt, home foreclosures, and bankruptcies. Their sum total is what we can call the Obama Misery Index. It is at a record high; indeed, it makes even the malaise of the Carter years look like a boom.

But is that true? We figured a candidate who advertises his credentials as a graduate of Harvard Business School would have little trouble coming up with numbers to support his claim of a "record." But, we wondered, how would Romney construct his index, exactly? Unemployment is easy enough: 9.1 percent currently but short of a record. (It hit 10.8 percent for a while under Reagan and is now a full percentage point lower than it was nine months after Obama took office.) Debt is surely at a record, and rising every day, but how would Romney combine the $9.7 trillion that the U.S. government owes to the public with a 9.1 percent unemployment rate? Would $1 trillion in debt be equivalent to 1 percentage point of unemployment or what? Or would Romney choose the higher "total debt outstanding" figure, adding in Social Security's trust funds and such? That's also a record — $14.3 trillion. And how would he weigh in bankruptcies and foreclosures?

We have little doubt that Romney could combine all these statistical apples and oranges to come up with a "record" number, depending on how much weight he assigns to each factor he's mentioned. But he didn't bother. Spokesman Fehrnstrom told us in an e-mail exchange:

Eric Fehrnstrom, June 3: It [the "Obama misery index"] is a rhetorical reference that encompasses real unemployment, foreclosures, bankruptcies, national debt and whatever other indicator that Governor Romney wants to use to illustrate the mess the country finds itself in.

So there you have it. The "index" is just rhetoric — impossible to verify, and subject to change if Romney spots some "other indicator" not yet mentioned.